Odeon Covent Garden

135 Shaftesbury Avenue,
London, WC2H 8AH

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ABC 1 Shaftesbury Ave

Opened as the Saville Theatre on 8th October 1931. The opening production was “For the Love of Mike” – a play with tunes which ran until June 1932. The theatre was designed in an Art Deco style by the architectural firm T.P. Bennett & Son, with Bertie Crewe as consulting architect. Seating was provided for 1,185; 597 in the orchestra stalls (which were below street level) and a single balcony (the front of which was at street level). The front of the balcony known as the dress circle seated 261 and the rear section known as the upper circle seated 319. There was a box on each side of the proscenium, each one seating four persons. The proscenium was 31 feet wide, the stage 30 feet deep and there were 16 single dressing rooms and one chorus room which accommodated 50 artistes, plus an orchestra room which could hold 30 people. The Saville Theatre was the last of the ‘live’ theatres to be built on Shaftesbury Avenue (London’s ‘West End’ theatre street).

The exterior of the building is in textured brick and has as its main point of interest, a bas-relief freize by sculptor Gilbert Bayes. Measuring 129 feet in length, it depicts ‘Drama Through the Ages’ with representations of ‘St. Joan’, ‘Imperial Roman Triumphal Proscession’, ‘Harlequinade’ and ‘War Plays’ etc. Sections of this frieze were displayed at the Royal Academy in 1930-1931, prior to their installation on the building. Along the top of the facade are a series of plaques, again sculptored by Gilbert Bayes, which represent ‘Art Through the Ages’.

Inside the theatre there were lavishly appointed bar areas; the stalls bar had a 18 feet by 54 feet painted mural by artist R.A. Thompson, and in the circle bar a similar painted mural by the same artist measuring 42 feet by 40 feet.

The Saville Theatre was well suited to staging small musicals, revues and dramatic plays. It had some successes with artistes such as Cecily Courtneidge, Fred Emney, Richard Hearne, Bobby Howes, Evelyn Laye and Laurence Olivier starring in various productions.

In 1965 the theatre was leased by Brian Epstein, the manager of The Beatles, and productions of plays continued weekdays. Sunday concerts were introduced which featured concerts by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Jr. Walker All Stars, Pink Floyd, The Who, The Move, Procol Harem, Nirvana, Fairport Convention, Cream, The Incredible String Band, The Bee Gees, The Rolling Stones & Yoko Ono. One of the last major shows in the theatre was drag artiste Danny La Rue in “Queen Pasionella” and the last production to be staged at the Saville Theatre was Dennis Waterman, Tony Selby & Neil Stacy in the war/gay relationship drama “Enemy”, which played a short run at the Saville Theatre from December 1969 into 1970.

Associated British Cinemas(ABC) were seeking a West End showcase house for their films being produced by parent company EMI. They purchased the Saville Theatre and totally gutted the interior, the architectural firm responsible for the new twin-screen cinemas built within the shell of the building were William Ryder & Associates. They created two auditoriums which were curtained wall-to-wall and had luxurious seating for 616 and 581. Opened as the ABC 1 & 2 Shaftesbury Avenue on 22nd December 1970 with Peter Sellers in “There’s A Girl in My Soup” and Dinah Sheridan in “The Railway Children”. On 21st November 1974, the ABC 1 & 2 held the Royal World Charity Premiere of “Murder on the Orient Express” starring Albert Finney, attended by Her Majesty The Queen, HRH The Duke of Edinburgh and HRH The Princess Anne.

Despite its luxury and 70mm equipped auditoriums, the ABC 1 & 2 was never a great success, being ‘just off the beaten track’ of the major cinema area in Leicester Square. It was later taken over by the Cannon Group and re-named Cannon, later becoming an MGM cinema, before the ABC management buy-out which brought back the ABC name again around May 1996. Although by then looking a little down at heels, the ABC got appreciative audiences in its two auditoriums to experience mainly art house and independent films on its huge screens.

Taken over by Odeon Theatres in 2000, it was re-named Odeon Shaftesbury Avenue and after a short time it became the Odeon Covent Garden (although it is only ‘near’ to Covent Garden and not located ‘in’ it). In 2001 it was sub-divided into a four-screen cinema and now plays off-beat independent films rather than the big blockbusters. Current seating capacities in the screens are; 148, 269, 167 and 156.

Plans were announced in early-2019 that the building would be gutted and converted into a hotel. These plans were not approved.

The original historic facade of the building remains intact and is designated a Grade II listed building by English Heritage.

Contributed by Ian Grundy, Ross Melnick, Ken Roe

Recent comments (view all 35 comments)

Lionel
Lionel on December 7, 2019 at 7:18 am

I never had the opportunity to see a film there, but my father went twice in the eighties, to see Altered States in 70mm and A Handful of Dust in 35mm. He said the sound was excellent. Though the quality was partially due to good Dolby Stereo recordings, he seemed to say that the auditorium sound system and acoustics were extremely good. Do some of you remember what equipment was in use, and in which of the two auditoria these films played?

CF100
CF100 on January 3, 2020 at 3:55 am

Lionel: I do not know what was installed back in the day; in the flickr photoset that you linked to, DP75 projectors can be seen in a booth.

In the 1980s, cinema sound systems had not changed for decades, still using the old Altecs or Vitavox designs dating back to the mid 20th century.

After Dolby Stereo was introduced, cinemas simply upgraded the (so-called) “A-chain” with a Dolby Stereo decoder.

The THX programme in particular motivated changes to the “B-chain” side, with the JBL 4675 as the canonical example of the new screen speaker design (eliminating the bass horn and using a modern so-called “constant directivity” horn for the midrange/high frequencies) as specified by Tom Holman et al at Lucasfilm.

(N.B. The new speaker types were installed industry-wide, not THX-certified auditoria only.)

My suspicion is that an upgrade of the screen speaker system would not have occurred at the time that your Father visited. Still, the old screen speakers, whilst not state-of-the-art at that time, were very capable and indeed the old Altec “Voice of the Theater” speakers are now sought after by collectors (see eBay prices!) As an aside, with the immense technological progress in the 70 years or so, it is ironic that speakers were available then that still eat today’s average consumer “Bluetooth” speakers for dinner!

So even if still using the old speaker types, as long as the system was properly serviced, which seems more likely here than the local “flea-pit,” it may well have provided better than average sound.


Looking at photos of two of the current auditoria, the rear array speakers look like JBL 8330s (OK, but now obsolete and the design pre-dated the “new” digital formats, e.g. Dolby Digital. I’m also not sure if there are a sufficient number for adequate coverage?) The sidewalls are covered in (dirty looking!) stretched fabric or “Soundfold” pleated fabric, presumably hiding acoustic absorption behind. Of very limited interest with the spectacular Odeon Leicester Square’s Dolby Atmos installation available close by…

CF100
CF100 on January 3, 2020 at 4:04 am

Addendum: In case anyone reading this is interested in a more detailed account of the changes to cinema speaker systems as mentioned in the previous post, a 1990 interview with Tom Holman from “Speaker Builder” magazine is available.

SethLewis
SethLewis on January 3, 2020 at 7:47 am

2 sold out previews of Uncut Gems at the Prince Charles last night (was at the 21:00)…London and the West End need more of this than another ‘Luxe’ multiplex playing the same as everyone else…Retwin it and run more repertory programming!

CF100
CF100 on January 5, 2020 at 3:56 am

Addendum: On reflection, my previous post suggests that Tom Holman/Lucasfilm/THX were the fountainhead of the new speaker designs whereas key developments occurred elsewhere.

Very briefly: The JBL 4675 incorporated key developments such as their patented “Bi-Radial” “constant directivity” horn design and were the first THX certified screen speakers. A THX installation required a baffle wall and use of the THX time-aligned active crossover unit.

In 2001, JBL engineers were honoured with an Academy Award for Scientific and Technical Achievement for “The Concept, Design and Engineering of the Modern Constant-Directivity, Direct-Radiator Style Motion Picture Loudspeaker Systems.”

Not to sideline the achievements at Lucasfilm; and the THX programme played a key role in promulgating the use of new sound systems, as well heavily acoustically-treated and isolated auditorium designs.

A “TL;DR” historical overview of the new speakers can be read on p55 and p57 (PDF page numbers) in “The History and Legacy of JBL.” Elsewhere in the document, information on earlier cinema speakers (Western Electric/Altec Lansing) is available.

(Just realised that I know little about the Vitavox screen speakers that were common in the UK, so that might just be something to add to the never-ending research to-do list!)

CF100
CF100 on January 5, 2020 at 4:09 am

SethLewis: I like your idea and indeed the proposed scheme (if the developer is to be believed) was intended to have delivered something closer to your suggestions than another West End cinema playing the same first-run mainstream fare.

From the Planning Statement document of the refused application:*

“A new four-screen cinema providing a total of 260 seats would be provided at basement level. The cinema would be operated by the Applicant and would be based on the second viewing cinema principles successfully operated by Light Cinemas.”

(*Relinked since the link in a previous post does not work.)


Regarding the above discussion on “less than substantial harm,” reading through the “Refusal Report,” this (confusingly!) appears to be correctly worded—there would be harm to the building’s heritage, but not as severe as “substantial harm.”

Essentially, in this case, the proposals need some alterations/refinements to be acceptable in heritage and other aspects, e.g. the form and massing of the additional floors above existing roof level. A revised scheme was submitted; however, further changes are/were sought.

(Full details beginning at the bottom of p21 of the “Refusal Report,” under the heading “Design Review Panel.”)


In gaining permission from Camden Council, the primary stumbling block for the developer would seem to be the provision of sufficient evidence to demonstrate that full scale use of the building as a cinema, theatre, or other “cultural/leisure” activities would be unviable. For this planning application, they did not carry out an acceptable marketing exercise in relation to finding potential operator of such, which the “Refusal Report” states:

“…should be undertaken over a period of not less than 12 months and be based on a realistic price/rent which is supported by the Council.”

According to Camden Council’s planning database, at this time, the refused application has not been appealed.

Lionel
Lionel on January 26, 2020 at 11:51 pm

On his comprehensive site https://www.in70mm.com, Thomas Hauerslev published an article about the ABC Shaftesbury Avenue with informations and pictures dating from the nineties: https://www.in70mm.com/newsletter/1998/55/shaftsbury/index.htm

I asked Thomas about the speaker system in use back then, but he had no recollection.

This is the introductory page to his articles about his visit to West End cinemas in the early nineties: https://www.in70mm.com/news/2015/london/index.htm

And here is the link to his picture gallery with two more pictures of the ABC at the bottom: https://www.in70mm.com/news/2015/london/gallery/index.htm

I used graphic software to strongly enhance the light of the picture and see the surround speakers but wasn’t able to identify the model. Well, never mind, I must get rid of these obsessive-compulsive habits ;–) .

CF100
CF100 on February 2, 2020 at 5:05 pm

Lionel: Great photos, thanks for the links. Looks like some have only been added a year or so ago.

Wonder if Thomas Hauerslev has higher resolution versions available?

I’m afraid that I, too, cannot make out the rear speakers, despite adjusting the image in photo editing software. I can make out two “blobs” on each of the sidewalls. Is it just possible that they were JBL 8330’s, or maybe that’s being too optimistic? ;–)

Well, never mind, I must get rid of these obsessive-compulsive habits ;–) .

Never! :–) You might like to look at the photos that I’ve uploaded of the Superscreen at the Cineworld Leicester Square for some more “obsessive-compulsiveness.” ;–)

Lionel
Lionel on February 3, 2020 at 10:46 am

I believe these surround speakers aren’t 8330 because their enclosure is rather rectangular. I lost interest in the Empire since they turned it into an Imax theatre but looked at your Superscreen pictures out of solidarity for your own obsessive-compulsiveness. :–) My case however is improving a little bit over time, as I no longer count the seats of the theatre I’m into. I remember having counted those of the Empire in 1993, because different sources mentioned different figures.

CF100
CF100 on February 3, 2020 at 7:57 pm

Lionel: Yes, I could not make out whether the surrounds had the characteristic angled baffles (fronts) of the 8330’s. I’m really not sure what speakers were standard in the “early” days of Dolby Stereo? “Local” cinemas had surround speakers that looked like they had been taken from a 1970’s “stereo centre” domestic “hi-fi” system!

I lost interest in the Empire since they turned it into an Imax theatre but looked at your Superscreen pictures out of solidarity for your own obsessive-compulsiveness. :–)

That’s very nice of you. :–)

There is nothing that can replace the magical, majestical, and unique masterpiece that was the old Empire 1, and it is probably fair to say that there never will be. At least some of its design, form and spirit lives on in the IMAX.

Cineworld’s refurbishment of the rest of venue is impressive but absolutely disrespectful of the heritage; it really is their cinema now. With the changeover to their own management, the continuity with the past (i.e. MGM->CIC->UCI->Empire Cinemas) has been further eroded, too. I wonder what happened to those old uniforms that you photographed in the manager’s office?

However… I hoped that the Superscreen info/photos might encourage you to keep some interest in cinemas as they are today. :–)

It may well be relatively “generic” in decor and lacking in the old theatrical embellishments. But… the screen is almost 70ft. wide, and the sound system is top-of-the-line and very powerful. The auditorium also has a lot of height at the screen end, which helps it to feel spacious, too. Once the main feature started, it honestly reminded me of past times in the greatest West End cinemas. :–)

My case however is improving a little bit over time, as I no longer count the seats of the theatre I’m into. I remember having counted those of the Empire in 1993, because different sources mentioned different figures.

I, too, used to do that, although I don’t think I would have attempted it in the old Empire 1. Hmm, although I may have done. :–(

I would usually try to multiply the rows by seats per row, then (where the sidewalls “splay” inwards, i.e. not a “box” shaped auditorium) compensate for the reduction in seats per row towards the screen by working out how many seats to deduct from the basic calculation.

Fortunately, with plans usually readily available (in the UK) these days thanks to the Internet, there is no need to count seats. :–) Or at least, it can be done at home, if you do not trust the seat counts given on the plans… ;–)

P.S. Counted the seats on the old Empire 1 plans, cross-checked against photos, it was definitely 1330. (688 stalls, 642 circle.)

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