The much missed Odeon Cinema opened in 1937 and closed in June 2007. A regular visitor in my youth, its closure has left a hole in the heart of the city which reflects the sad trend of declining city centres, and the growth of soulless out of town shopping centres. After a long period of stagnation the Odeon building is at last returning to life as part of the new cultural centre scheduled to open at the end of the year. (Update: now opening May 2017)
Professional photographer Bob Hadfield worked at the Odeon during its final years…
“I took the job as a student, I started in 1998. I can remember about a year into it. the first Matrix came out, it was one of the biggest films at the time. I was also there for Notting Hill.” Bob says that he worked at the cinema for almost 6 years, continuing after he had completed his studies and during his Masters. Originally from Saddleworth, his studies brought him to Chester: “I loved the small campus feel, it wasn’t a university then, it was a university college. I loved it. I had to work at the Odeon because I was a big film fan..
“Back then, there was a lot of the old school Odeon there. It got rebranded in 2001 to the new Odeon brand… Staff were still wearing the old blue Odeon jackets. Audience wise, it was like a gradual decline. Fred, one of the main projectionists there, he had worked there for years.. before the days of people going to the gym, and before the days of home entertainment, the cinema was it. There was a lot more cinemas in Chester, but the Odeon was the big one. He could remember queues going all the way to the Northgate, it was just one big screen. in the 70s it became 3 screens. Screen 1 was still huge, but the areas underneath became screens 2 and 3 (later known as 4 and 5) . In the late 90s screen 1 diversified, the upper bits became screens 2 and 3. Screen 1 became 430 seats, screen 2 and 3 120 ish, 4 and 5 were about 90. It was five screens when I started.
“I did a lot of marketing, put on student nights which were quite popular. The big films were still a draw, I was there when the first Harry Potter came out, it was mental. Of course, after I started working there the VUE cinema opened on Cheshire Oaks. We were competing Ok with UGC/Virgin. It was the nail in the coffin, it was a brand new modern cinema. The Odeon was always tired but it gave it a lot of character. It had that old school city centre cinema feeling to it, you could feel the history when you walked into it.
“The atmosphere was great, I really enjoyed working there. You dont realise it at the time, looking back they were great days. Customers go there to be entertained, it was a leisure industry, it was rare to have angry people. It was still fairly busy, but I think there was an aspect of the Odeon that never really took off. The Haagen Daaz cafe. We always felt like we drew a short straw if we had to work in there. It used to be a shop, but when I started it was a closed part of the building until the upgrade. It was never that busy. You could be in there for a long time and not get many people.”
Bob says that staff knew that the Odeon’s time was running out and the credits were about to roll. “A lot of the old Odeons were closing. In the final days I was there Odeon Manchester closed, that was a city centre, and Odeon Trafford centre opened. I think Odeon York was on its last legs as well. Cinemas were dropping like flys…
During his days working on Odeon marketing he would frequently travel down to London for advanced premieres at Leicester square. “That was a great part of the job ” he says. Bob has many anecdotes about working at the cinema. Bob recalls that during the “high brow” wedding of the Duke of Westminster’s daughter at the Cathedral, attended by the Queen , an incident took place on the roof of the cinema. One of the projectionists had timed his break so he could be at the top of the building, to watch the guests entering Town hall square. “But of course some armed police thought that he was a sniper, so they stormed the Odeon saying “take us to the roof!” … A Staff member led the police up the top stairwell, where they were joined by the manager. On the roof, the projectionist faced with 2 machine guns pointed at him, turned to manager and asked “do you know this man?” The manager replied “no” before admitting he was joking after a few seconds.”
Bob also recalls the tragic death of a man on the road outside the cinema. The victim who was mugged by teenager Sarah Campbell in 2003 died from a heart attack and the story made national news at the time. “I was going out of the Odeon to chuck some rubbish out and I saw a body in the roadside. He was still alive then, a couple of us were trying to resuscitate him. In turns out the girl that mugged him took his credit card and it was flagged and she was arrested. While she was in custody she killed herself.” Bob says he was disappointed by the media uproar after the event because not once was the man who died mentioned. “Who was the real victim here?” he asks in reflection.
After a showing of Dinosaur (2000) Bob told me that a young girl fell off the balcony in Odeon One and cracked her rib. “Her brother pushed her, they were messing around. I had to deal with that . It was quite a height, she was very lucky. It turned out that the minimum height of the wall fell short, it was an old listed building. But that event triggered a rail to be put in.”
Bob supplied this photo of a blind date competition that was run as a promotion for the film Notting Hill. The prize was a date with the actress Sarah Vanderbergh, who had been in Neighbours and was acting in Hollyoaks at the time- when it was still filmed in the city. He says the winner, Raymond was a well known local character and that a representative from the Odeon attended the date as chaperone !
“There was a time, when a lady member of staff found something when she was cleaning a screen. Turns out a male member of the audience had got a bit excited and left a little present behind! ” says Bob. “This girl was freaking out. The manager came over and thought it was milkshake before she poked her finger in it!”
“There were times when we had to kick people out. I think it was during Austin Powers, the spy who shagged me. An old bloke had come in, he looked to be homeless. I was checking tickets and realised he didn’t have one. At the end of the day I had to chuck him out. He replied “what time do you finish I’ll come back here and stab you!” But of course he didn’t. ..There was another group who were being unruly and they refused to leave so I called the police. I said to them, the police are outside the door, you can either come quietly or I’ll bring them in.. They didn’t believe me, they were right outside the door.!”
Another incident recalled by Bob is that of a drunk girl causing a commotion in Haagen Daaz cafe. The police were called and she was placed in a police car outside. “Unfortunately the police officer involved didn’t take the keys out of the ignition . The car started moving away , the police officer ran over and had to break the glass door to stop it!
Bob left the Odeon in 2004. He took a managerial role at Odeon Wrexham but “it wasn’t the same as Chester, the staff were different and there was less of a student vibe. Chester had more young blood and was a nicer team. ” He still kept in touch with his friends in Chester however and regularly visited. During one of these catch up visits he had first meeting with his wife to be Emma. “It was a regular calling point. I’d pop in and say hello to people on my way into town” I got on really well with the management and I was with him while he was cashing up Emma’s till. Apparently I ruined the concentration of Emma and she kept laughing. She had to start again, and that was the first time we ever met!”
In 2007 the Odeon closed down despite much local campaigning by then MP Christine Russell. It was a sad day for Chester. Staff applied a nostalgic quote from Titanic to the panel that once listed films on show. It remained in place for some time while the future of the cinema building was in the balance, with a nightclub being considered at one point.
“That was another job, putting up the metal letters! After the rebrand it was easier, they were metal strips that stuck on. Before that, they were were metallic letters that slotted in, they were really awkward. A lot of students would pinch them because they were really good ash trays! Before my time when James and the Giant Peach was on, someone changed the letters to Jame’s Giant penis!”
“We could not compete with Vue , it was inevitable . It wasn’t a surprise but it was a sad day. Also extremely sad that for so long the building hasn’t been used. Its prime real estate. I may have reservations about what they’re doing with it, but the simple fact that theyre doing something over rides in my head those reservations. I’m looking forward to the day it opens. Its going to be strange because I knew that building so well. I used to explore it I found some rubbish under screen 4 and 5 , there was some James Bond merchandise that had been there for decades. At the very top there is a metal ladder, its attached to a two floor storage room. I found a banner from the 70s talking about “having triplet”s with the Odeon going into three screens.”
Bob has many happy memories, particularly of regular customers. ” We always got regulars coming in saying “have you got any posters?!” We had loads to spare. We used to call a regular that came in Poster Dave!”
“Because I loved film I was honest with them about what the film was about, what I thought of it. I’m not that fussy about films but I hate musicals. I like a film that’s well written, anything with a good script. I can watch dialogue all day, anything by Tarantino , I love it..”
I asked Bob about the future of cinema in Chester. “In the new building its going to be a very small screen indeed. How it can justify being a cinema remains to be seen. There is a market for a city centre cinema… There was a lot of incidental footfall of people coming into town to see a film. That’s not enough to sustain a five screen cinema, but something well thought out could be viable… Chester’s quite a cultural city, there is always going to be a market for art films, world cinema. We had a series of Tuesday specials, showing fringe films , and also Senior screen for the elderly was a massive hit. It would consistently sell out, there is a market for it…”
With the most recent form of the long delayed Northgate development including plans for a multi screen cinema roughly where the current bus station is, Bob, with his love for film is keeping an open mind.
“I have fond memories of the Odeon, the people I worked with made the job. But there were people that had been there for decades, and their stories were so interesting . Its a piece of our history”
With thanks to Bob Hadfield for use of archive photos.