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. 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 in the drama “Enemy”, which played at the Saville Theatre in 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 architects 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.

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 19 comments)

Ken Roe
Ken Roe on February 13, 2010 at 4:31 pm

A set of vintage photographs of the ABC Shaftesbury Avenues here:
View link

Jasonmullen on January 20, 2018 at 9:56 am

Plans currently submitted to covert it into a Hotel. Four tiny Cinemas in basement with a two story roof addition. See camden council planning website for details.

SethLewis on January 20, 2018 at 1:26 pm

Just what we don’t need is 4 tiny cinemas that don’t really add to the programming although if the Curzon goes I may eat my words… Give us more genuine arthouse / repertory screens that keep people interested in movies not screens that just add capacity!

Zappomatic on January 25, 2018 at 9:31 am

The condition report is an interesting read – love the photo of the abandoned bar area looking very 1960s/70s!

philgyford on January 31, 2018 at 6:38 am

Just because I was trying to find the date of “the ABC management buy-out which brought back the ABC name again”, it was around May 1996.

Ian on February 4, 2018 at 4:51 am

Night shot of the Odeon Covent Garden facade – January 2018 – here:–


philgyford on February 9, 2018 at 5:48 am

I think there was a brief period after Odeon took it over in 2000 when it was known as “Odeon Shaftesbury Avenue”, before it became “Odeon Covent Garden”: I have a ticket for ‘Hamlet’ from 29/12/2000 with “Odeon Shaftesbury” printed as the name.

CF100 on February 14, 2018 at 8:32 am

Jasonmullen: Thank you for the heads up—the main planning application.

There is a separate listed building application, in which a Historic England response advises that the additional roof levels could harm the “cubist” aspect of the building’s original external design, but the benefits of the scheme could outweigh this loss. They have authorised Camden Council to “decide as [they] see fit” with the application.

Some excerpts from the “Construction Method Statement and Basement Impact Statement”:

-Original building: “Steel frame with a masonry façade.”

–“Two storey basement formed with large reinforced concrete retaining walls.”

-1970s: Conversion to two screen cinema and partial conversion to offices, with “a completely remodelled auditorium.”

-2000s: “Extensive remodelling” to form four screens.

–“The new cinema layout constructed in the 1970s is predominately a steel frame, and […] has almost entirely replaced any of the original structure inside the retained façade.”

–“[Proposals are to remove] all of the internal structure of the existing building, leaving the façade and retaining wall to the existing two storey basement.”

–“The [proposed] superstructure [is] a traditional RC frame…”

–“The existing façade in the front atrium will be supported by new steel columns in the assumed location of the existing steel frame.”

Just in case anyone reading this (if anyone is still reading this post!) wondered how the proposed works are to proceed without walls tumbling over, details and drawings are provided on pp276-280 (!) of the PDF.

Onto a summary of some aspects of the proposed cinema.

The two largest auditoria are on the North West side of the building, with the screens positioned adjacent to Shaftesbury Avenue and New Compton Street. Alas, this means that the auditoria are not quite symmetrical. Both auditoria are about 100sq.m. in size, and the largest screen is, as marked on the drawings, according to my estimates, almost 40ft. wide, with the other a little smaller.

The first row in the largest auditoria is only ~0.25 screen widths away—too close!—but the screens are generously sized.

The two smaller auditoria are about 50sq.m. in size, and the screens I estimate to be about 20ft. wide.

Seating looks to be generously sized with ample legroom.

FWIW, “The Need for Renewal” document says “it would cost approximately £26 million to refurbish the building to a modern standard where it could continue to be let to a cinema operator.” It is certainly in a state of disrepair!

There is therefore plenty of potential for high quality modern auditoria, but that might be of little comfort given that this is essentially a façade retention scheme, and ~40ft. wide “immersive” screens are, perhaps, not suggestive of “art house” programming.

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