As I go to a lot of movies here in the UK’s capital, I thought I’d do an occasional series on its cinemas. After all, to love the cinema is to love not just the films but where they’re shown.
A lot of modern cinemas, to be fair, have little if anything to say about them, being units in modern shopping centres or large transient-looking structures in far-flung commercial and retail parks at the edges of towns. Once inside, there’s often little in the way of atmosphere, aside from the smell of popcorn in the foyer, and the at times weirdly disconcerting lighting and carpets as you make your way to the featureless black cubes that are the auditoriums. A few cinemas, though, do have history, and the Odeon Leicester Square is one.
It is billed as the flagship cinema for the Odeon chain, for which purpose it was built in 1937, with an opening capacity of over 2000 seats; even now it has 1683 seats, making it the largest remaining cinema in the capital. As such, it is the favoured site for red-carpet premieres, and gets its share of star-struck hordes craning to see their heroes (just a few days ago was the premiere of, ahem, One Direction: This Is Us, directed by modern day auteur Morgan Spurlock). On occasion, I’ve had to divert a planned walk through the area via Chinatown because of these obstructions, though really any Londoner should know to avoid Leicester Square even at the best of times.
This connection of Leicester Square to popular entertainment is one that has been built up over the centuries largely by the Odeon cinema and its predecessors on the same site. Before the cinema, this was the site of the Alhambra music hall, built in 1854 as the Royal Panopticon of Science and Art, a curious blend of pseudo-science refashioned as entertainment for the masses. That blend never proved very popular, and it became the Alhambra a few years after opening, taking time to find its feet as it put on circuses, ballet and opera, though it found its greatest success with music hall, that populist blend of circus, theatre and music that gave such cinematic comedians as Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel their start.
Yet Leicester Square in the modern era is a largely underwhelming experience, with its small garden in the centre surrounded by chain restaurants, clubs, large bland corporate cinema chains, and that nadir of themed entertainment as consumerist brand-awareness exercise, an M&M’s World. So for those of you who do visit London, I can only suggest you avoid Leicester Square, and if you’re looking for touristy things to do, go for a walk along the South Bank and visit the Tate Modern or Shakespeare’s Globe, or go look at the Houses of Parliament, or something more productive [note to self: possible future series on London’s cinematic landmarks].
Still, if there’s one remaining point of historical interest for cinemagoers on Leicester Square, it’s this structure. Sadly, aside from its polished black granite façade (which I find somewhat oppressive, though certainly striking), a lot of the interesting interior design features have been eroded over the generations since the cinema was built. Cinema design in the 1930s emphasised the palatial — rather more like we might expect opera houses or grand theatres to look — and there are few cinemas (certainly in London) that still retain these kinds of affectation. In London, many of the exemplars have gone out of cinema use and those still standing are largely used by Pentecostal churches (the Astoria in Finsbury Park, for example) or as music venues (gig goers to the Brixton Academy may have perceived through the dim light some of the still rather ornate decoration around its stage).
The Odeon Leicester Square may now have a more basic interior (with a particularly bland foyer area), but there remain small atmospheric touches in the auditorium. For example, there are the mock leopard-skin seat covers, the ‘Flying Ladies’ sculptures mounted on either side of the screen (facsimiles of the originals, destroyed many decades ago but restored in 1998), and the Compton organ with its illuminated console rising from the depths of the orchestra pit and still used for occasional performances (you can see it in my review of Safety Last!, being played by Donald MacKenzie, who is still employed by the cinema as their official organist). It also retains all the traditional equipment for projection of all types of films in the best possible quality.
For these reasons, it is one of the few cinemas which may still be fairly described as a ‘picture palace’, however degraded this term may have become in the modern era of motion picture exhibition.