There’s a huge elephant in the room, looming over the new Â£25million mirror pool and fountains that now sit in Centenary Square, in the centre of Bradford.
Right in the heart of the world’s first UNESCO City of Film sits a huge art deco supercinema; the last remaining ’30s supercinema; the largest outside London when she was built, entirely from local materials and with an all-local workforce. Visible for miles around, she is arguably the most distinctive landmark in the city, making Bradford’s skyline unmistakable.
Today she is shrouded in white plastic sheeting so as not to detract attention from a Council event this Saturday to launch aforementioned mirror pool. Still, her domes can be seen poking from the the sheeting and scaffolding, mirroring those of her neighbour, the Alhambra Theatre next door, seeming to peek curiously at her posh new watery view. If anything, her covering has made her more conspicuous.
Now referred to as the Odeon, she was previously the Gaumont, and the New Victoria. She hosted – among other things – the first ever concert of the first ever Beatles tour, and became their regular tour opening venue.
But she was also a cinema, bingo hall, dance hall, restaurant, and, vitally, so consistently loved that she is still – after 12 years of closure – the subject of fierce debate that has seen her explored, photographed, filmed, scaled, chalked on, hugged, sung to, sung about, decorated for Christmas, and scrubbed clean by the people of Bradford, when red tape has failed them. Acts of pride, responsibility, creativity and enthusiasm from people with no financial motivation and often running at a considerable loss.
And all the while, in nearby Leeds and Manchester there are examples of buildings not too dissimilar which have been recognised as part of the character of their home city, as assets, and repurposed.
The story of how she came to be hidden away like a bad ghost is riddled with almost unbelievable twists that make it sound like a particularly small-fry conspiracy film, but even sectors of the Council and local election candidates are now demanding a full and transparent retrospective of what has gone on, such is the level of corruption and secrecy.
From closure in 2000 to the present day, the building has most notably been in the hands of Yorkshire Forward, and, latterly, the Homes and Communities Agency.
Yorkshire Forward, a government QUANGO, pushed for demolition from the time they bought her in 2003, just hours before she was due to go to auction. She was bought with public money, and stands on public land, in a conservation area. From the moment demolition was suggested, public support began to gather behind the former Bradford Odeon Rescue Group.
Despite this, there then began a long process of trying to secure her demolition.ÃÂ Yorkshire Forward launched a design competition in 2005 to find a replacement building, opening the final entries to a public vote.
18 designs were submitted and the public overwhelmingly voted for the design which kept the most of the current building. This was not declared as the winning design. Instead, one involving a complete demolition – submitted by developer Langtree Artisan – was declared the winner. It would contain offices, apartments, and a hotel.
Work would be due to begin on this replacement, New Victoria Place, once tenants’ contracts had been signed. This is called the Section 106 Agreement and is to make sure that there is no repeat of the Westfield disaster, where a huge section of the city was demolished in 2004 to make way for a Westfield shopping centre. Bradford Centre Regeneration failed to add a clause about completion dates, and the Westfield hole is still there to this day, part of it turned into an Urban Garden after spectacular protest efforts.
With New Victoria Place, no Section 106 Agreement has yet been signed. It has been awaiting the signatures of all parties involved for years. In the meantime, despite being legally obliged to keep the Odeon in the state she was in when they bought her, Yorkshire Forward have at best turned a blind eye to damage done to her during their ownership, and at worst been responsible for it. One well documented example is that of the pipes inside which had been cut during their ownership, and were letting in water. Yorkshire Forward were notified by many campaigners, and nothing was done.
The building, superficially at least, appeared to deteriorate as weeds grew from her brickwork, untended by Yorkshire Forward for long periods of time. Her protective awning – ‘a danger’ – was removed. It took specialist contractors several days with large powerful machines to cut through this flimsy hazard. Without it, she looked suitably more derelict and her front became suitably wetter in the rain. Latest surveys reveal that her main problem is, unsurprisingly, water damage.
At Yorkshire Forward’s right hand side were the now defunct Bradford Centre Regeneration, charged with overseeing the development of the city centre. BCR were a strange beast: a part council-part private; with all the power of the local council but none of the accountability, who appeared to treat the city as their personal Lego set. Part of BCR was the then Conservative council leader Kris Hopkins, who openly and angrily aired an intense personal dislike of the building (“That red brick building is not some startling piece of architectureÂ¦ it doesn’t matter”). BCR supported Yorkshire Forward and pushed for demolition hard, and by any means necessary.
BCR’s Chief Executive Maud Marshall said of the building publicly that “virtually nothing of it, except the decaying outer shell, remains”Â. Urban explorers gained entry soon after to post scores of photos of a Marie Celeste style cinema virtually unchanged since the day it was closed – indisputable evidence that this was either ignorance or an outright lie.
Yorkshire Forward declared at one point, in a public meeting, of which there are audio recordings, that they would happily sell the building to any investor who could be found. The former Bradford Odeon Rescue Group found an investor with a Â£3million cheque, and presented beautiful architect’s drawings of their proposal. Yorkshire Forward said that their remark had been taken ‘out of context’.
Feasibility studies have been conducted on the building without surveys, and surveys of one tower have been presented to potential buyers as surveys of the whole building. When the Rescue Group requested to go into the building, they were quoted a cost of thousands for training and equipment; having agreed to pay the money they were never contacted again.
Only by doggedly chasing Freedom of Information requests have the Rescue Group unearthed vital information that has exposed the untruths and half truths used to justify demolition.Â At one point, all of the Rescue Groups objection letters were ‘lost’ by the Council and BCR, something that was only spotted by the group themselves.Â
The paper that should have been the provider of balance and transparency through all this – the Telegraph and Argus – has been implicated as part of the corruption. Documents obtained by campaigners show that the editor was one of five people from a faceless steering group pushing for an alternative concert hall project across town, which involved the purchase of the Telegraph and Argus offices, meaning that the paper stood to gain financially if the Odeon were demolished and competition for this project removed.
The paper has since reported one-sided and at times factually inaccurate and misleading tales of a hopeless cause.
Most recently they have referred to a new contractual agreement that does not exist, printed pictures of a hole made during routine maintenance as evidence of dereliction and damage, and a picture of a wall that is not even part of the building to demonstrate its ‘crumbling brickwork’.
They have referred to the building as ‘a danger to the public’ despite the Homes and Communities Agency’s insistence that it poses no danger at all to anyone unless they were to go inside right now. They have also made as much as possible of asbestos found in the building, out of all proportion with what the presence of this material found routinely in all old buildings actually means for its future (it means nothing).
This is only in the last week. Their twisted reporting goes back years.
Campaigns to save her have been loud, heartfelt, consistent, logistically sound, and spanned the entire breadth of diversity of people in the city, from little old ladies who met their husbands there in the 50s to teenagers who don’t remember it even being open. People born here and people who have moved here. Religious, non-religious, all political parties and levels of education.
Across every social divide she has support. I have seen the kind of co-operation and spirit surrounding the saving of this building that Bradford Council should be trying to bottle, not to squash.
And if The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and John Peel felt that Bradford was a creative scene worthy of their attention, what right do the Council are regional development agencies have to disagree?
Among those outside the city who have been vocal in support are the art historian Dan Cruickshank, actresses Imelda Staunton and Jenny Agutter, directors Terry Jones and Michael Winner, the Theatres Trust, the Cinema Theatre Association, the Twentieth Century Society, SAVE Britain’s Heritage, the Civic Society and the British Film Institute.
The fact that Bradford became the first UNESCO City of Film whilst this situation has been going on has not been lost on us.
The fight is up and down, on and on. With every cloud is a silver lining, and vice versa of course.
At a packed meeting of the Council’s Regulatory and Appeals Committee in 2009 – to which 2,000 written objections to the demolition had been submitted – seven councillors were given final say on whether the building should be saved by the Council u-turning on their involvement. They indicated – after a tour of the building and many moving speeches – that they would be voting 4-3 for saving the building.
The meeting was interrupted as they were then taken into a private room where they were told of the potential financial implications if new owners Yorkshire Forward were to seek compensation for this decision. When they came out and cast their votes for real, they voted 5-2 for demolition.
It sounds far-fetched, but one of the councillors told a regional paper exactly what had happened in that room. Sickeningly, Yorkshire Forward then put out a story to say they would never have penalised the Council. One of the five councillors who voted for demolition lost his seat in his local constituency after rivals leafleted information about his involvement in the decision.
Another glimmer of hope came when Yorkshire Forward were dissolved and she fell into the ownership of the Homes and Communities Agency instead, in December last year. Still – legally – tied into a contract with developers Langtree Artisan, this at least gave campaigners someone new to talk to.
Then, joy of joys, the architects behind New Victoria Place AND one of the two development companiesÂ were both reported insolvent this week. The Telegraph and Argus reported that this would make no difference, as a separate contract had been signed that would mean demolition must still go ahead. This was not, in fact, true.
So where are we now? Well, when Yorkshire Forward bought the building she was in sufficiently good condition to be granted an entertainments license. Urban explorers who entered in December 2011 and then again more recently have reported that the building was still absolutely fine in December but for some water damaged areas in the lobby. By the time it was inherited by the HCA it appeared to have been vandalised deliberately.
One urban explorer told me about his very recent visit (in response to a recent mention in the Telegraph & Argus that needles and signs of drugs use had been found in the building on last inspection): “I saw nothing before that visit, then last time I went in I saw ONE needle, and a spoon, and some cooking-up stuff. It was just on a ledge in the middle of the room. It just looked staged, like it was meant to be found. The only way in was through the roof. What junkie is going to climb up onto the roof of the Odeon to go inside and take drugs and then climb back down again?”
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The HCA – thanks to the neglect of Yorkshire Forward and Bradford Council – need now only to maintain her in the state she was in when they got her. She’s more damaged than she legally should be, but she’s not beyond saving. The HCA have neutrally informed campaigners that she is not beyond repair and could theoretically be saved but for their increasingly shaky-looking legal contract.
George Galloway is standing as a candidate in that area of Bradford in the next by-election, has spoken of his fury at the sequence of events that have led to this civic vandalism and that he would like to be the one to save her. Other candidates have joined this cry that they, too, would like to see her saved. The Council are pointing at each other to apportion blame. The HCA are scratching their heads in confusion at the level of feeling their new acquisition has generated. The Telegraph and Argus stories have risen to a veritable scream of ‘Tear It Down NOW’. Fellow writer Keith Wildman has proposed ‘Shatner House’ as a replacement for the Odeon, complete with Microsoft Paint designs, and has been harassing the HCA on Twitter to work with him, which – along with the hashtag #TandAHeadlines – has at least been a laugh.
Real new ideas about what she could be are flooding in: a performing arts centre, a new home for our crumbling library, a souk, a film studio, a multi-faith centre, the Bradford Museum, a new home for the Peace Museum (the Peace Museum themselves suggested that one) – the ideas are all over Twitter and Facebook, but the most common theme is ‘I don’t mind what it becomes, as long as they save it’. This is not an agenda-serving issue. .
There is word that interested developers are being shown the site by campaigners, the only obstacle being the legalities of freeing her up to be saved, not her safety. There are fears that even if the replacement scheme is unable to go ahead due to insolvency, she will still be marked for demolition rather than offered to new developers to be saved. Why? The real answer to that, for now, is not forthcoming. Our Council leader Ian Greenwood, Labour, is a well-known hater of the building. Can this be all?
When the Rescue Group once listed, as an experiment, a building with her very specifications for sale, they had no shortage of enquiries about it. Famously, the Alhambra was only saved after much protest at the 11th in 1986 whilst in a terrible state, underwent an Â£8.2million refurbishment, and has gone on to be a jewel in our crown. And with Â£25million of public money to spend on some fountains mere metres away (plus whatever extra, we still don’t know the final cost) the money needs to be found without question. Reportedly simply covering her up has cost Â£1million, and the fact that she will cost more to save now than she would have some years ago due to her neglect is not the public’s fault, they have been campaigning for years to stop that neglect.
What’s more, whoever decided that the fountains would bring Â£80million into Bradford per year needs to wrap their fertile imagination around the possibilities of a repurposed art deco cinema in the centre of the City of Film, if they can handle those numbers. The two features together could be – and are, even in the Odeon’s current state – beautiful.
And detractors calling themselves realists would be wise to take note that a refurbishment could well be cheaper than a rebuild, would certainly be better for the environment, and that none of the alternatives suggested are any less feasible than the proposed offices, hotels and apartments in a city centre with so many available offices, hotels and apartments that tenants could not be signed up to fulfil the Section 106 Agreement in the first place.
There was a plaque on the building, which was removed ‘for safe keeping’ by Yorkshire Forward (and subsequently lost), which reminded passers-by that she is part of ‘Bradford City Heritage’.
It doesn’t matter. Nobody has forgotten. Decision-makers have made a huge, patronising mistake in dismissing strong feeling as mere nostalgia. And this Saturday not everybody will be distracted by the launch of a mirror for City Hall whilst our much-loved heritage is over the road behind a sheet.