Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Covered market could be the answer for former Colchester cinema

The old Odeon cinema building in Crouch Street, Colchester

The old Odeon cinema building in Crouch Street, Colchester

What’s on at the flicks, then?” as we hipsters used to say. I received an e-mail from the Save the Old Cinema in Crouch Street Colchester campaign. Snappy name? I thought so, too. No mucking about there. Says exactly what they want.

I admit that I sympathise somewhat with their cause. Cinemas, during my childhood (1955-2010) were a huge part of all of our lives. Exotic-looking buildings, their architecture often borrowed flagrantly from Spanish, Italian or Art Deco styles. The names were similarly grand: The Rialto, The Ritz, The Embassy, The Plaza and, my personal favourite, The Essoldo. Everything about their exteriors implied such inner luxury that even the simple act of walking in, might be somehow heroic or romantic.

Cathode ray television came a very poor second to the cinema. Offering only two monochrome channels, 1960s TV always seemed to close down early – especially on weekdays, every night, all day and most of the weekends. The picture quality too, was often – quite literally – up and down. And then, in summer we suffered something which my mum called “interference from the Continent.” Funny that, because although we hardly encounter it on television these days it seems to have entered many other area of our lives. Still, let’s move on.

As as a youngster, I often attended Saturday morning pictures, a fine institution which the Odeon chain ran during most the 1960s. Entry was about a shilling, as I recall. For that, you got two cartoons, a fifteen minute featurette, a b-film and a main feature. You also had to sing a stupid song. It was a jaunty march, whose lyrics ran: “As members of the Odeon club we all intend to be, good citizens when we grow up and champions of the free.” They must have been up all night in Tin Pan Alley putting that one together.

Saturday morning ‘flicks’, however, was an absolute boon for parents,who, having given you your bus fare, picture money and a bit for snackage, then didn’t wish to see you again until early afternoon. Just goes to show how things have changed during intervening decades. In those days your parents actually wanted you to go missing. Nowadays there’d be police helicopters out, if you were away from your Playstation for longer than 30 minutes.

Colchester, when I first arrived in the town as a teenager, had three cinemas: the Odeon in Crouch Street, along with the ABC and the Cameo, both of them in St John’s Street. The Cameo, also known as the ‘fleapit’ showed art films for the Gabardine massive. Okay, clear the pavement please. Nothing to see here.

Colchester’s old Odeon building, as our campaigners point out, is currently in a very poor state. They would like to see it restored. They suggest that it might make a good arts venue to attract, say, visiting luminaries. Here, I have to part company with them, since Colchester already has several perfectly good arts venues. There are theatres, pubs, various Slackspaces, Colchester Arts Centre itself and of course the Firstsite gallery – every one of them pedalling frantically to fill tiers with rears. Now I know a little about the arts, so pay attention.

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Putting them on is one thing. Cattle-prodding enough customers through their doors in order to pay for a venue’s upkeep is, as we surrealists might say, an entirely different wardrobe of tapirs. If you really want to make money, book Sir Elton John or Barry Manilow and put them on in a football stadium. If you want to stage something more “cutting edge” forget it.

So I e-mailed back to the Save the Cinema campaigners. “Might it not make a good cinema?” I ventured. “Ah, but there’s a clause” they told me Apparently, the building is not allowed to be used as a cinema again. Another gin-trap in Narnia, I reflected.

The latest proposal is for the old Odeon’s facade to be restored to its original grandeur and used as the entrance to a courtyard for luxury flats. This, say the campaigners, is preferable to previous proposals for the building, one of which included knocking it down. It’s still not ideal, they say.

You know what I reckon? Two words: Covered Market. Chelmsford has one: selling pet food, vegetables, toys, baby clothes etc. You could restore the Odeon’s facade, strip out and make safe the interior and fill it with stalls. You’d then have cheap indoor pitches for those traders who can’t quite run to full shop rates. An art deco frontage on a covered market? In Clacton they’d have done it like a shot. It would be very good for Crouch Street, too. Vibrant during the day and yet, quiet at night.

Meanwhile, the campaign rolls on. I think that the former Odeon cinema’s facade, at the very least, should be saved. In that, I’m joined by Sir Bob Russell MP, Andrew Phillips the historian and my learned colleague, John Cooper Clarke. I remain unconvinced about its potential viability as an arts venue.

Believe me, the arts really aren’t that popular. If they were, you’d now be reading The Joy of Lake Lausanne and I’d be seated in an Alpine restaurant with my svelte p.a. Miss Peaches Latouche (37) thrashing out some kind of an amicable settlement with the second Lady Newell and her team of lawyers.

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