Wednesday 24 January 2018

Balham's former Odeon...only it's in Clapham!

The former Balham Odeon cinema is a two minutes walk from Clapham South Underground Station. For many people the cinema was misnamed as it is closer to Clapham than to the centre of Balham. Designed by George Coles, it opened in April 1938 as part of Oscar Deutsch's Odeon chain. The height of modernity, the cinema boasted the latest developments in projection, sound  and air conditioning. Visitors were able to meet their friends in a large foyer before ascending the central staircase leading to a first floor cafe flooded with natural light. On their way up patrons would pass pink mirrors designed to soften and flatter their features! The first screening was Blondes For Danger, a thriller starring Gordon Harker as Alf Huggins, a London taxi driver caught up in a political assassination.

The Odeon was the largest cinema in this part of London and could seat 1,822 patrons, 1,216 in the stalls and 606 on the balcony. Its location on Balham Hill meant that the illuminated sign was visible from some distance and no doubt helped attract visitors from a wide area. Its popularity would have been aided by it's being the main cinema for some distance, the nearest large competitor being Tooting's Granada. The Odeon survived damage from a German bomb in 1941 and reopened after a few weeks following completion of temporary repairs. However it was not able to survive a downturn in attendances during the 1970's and closed on 9th September 1972 when Shaft's Big Score and No Blade of Grass were the final screenings.

Renamed the Liberty Cinema, the doors reopened at the end of 1974, to show Asian films. However, this also was not to last and  the second and final closure came in 1980. The building then stood empty and vandalised before the auditorium was demolished in 1985 and the Majestic Wine Warehouse took over the foyer with flats added at a later date.  Today only the original facade remains and still has an imposing presence. Symmetrical and curved at the front corners, the two halves are joined by a central tower which once bore the illuminated sign carrying the Odeon name. The whole facade is clad in beige faience which to me at least always adds an air of modernity. Whilst it is good that at least the facade remains, it is sad that the former Balham Odeon is one of many art deco cinemas lost to London.

You might also like Woolwich Odeon art deco survivor in south-east London and A Postcard from India 4 - Calcutta's Art Deco Metro Cinema 

Tuesday 16 January 2018

Picture Post 63, Kingsley Court North London

Kingsley Court is a magnificent modernist building just five minutes walk from Willesden Green tube station. It is surrounded by those large, slightly forbidding Victorian era houses found across North London, its red bricks and white rendering between floors making it stand out from its neighbours. The building was designed by Peter Caspari, commissioned by Davis Estates with construction commencing in 1933 and completed the following year.  It consists of 54 flats over six storeys, built to a z-shaped plan. The site is very narrow at the junction of two roads and beside the tracks of the Jubilee Line. 

Caspari used the restrictions of the site to create a number of interesting features including the undulating and recessed elements facing Park Avenue, metal window frames, the tower on the curved corner and the flatter, but white banded facade in Chapter Road. The Chapter Road entrance is set in a curved protruding lobby, topped with fenestration and leading to a recessed central stairwell. The glazing is divided by four white bands reflecting the thicker rendering on the main facade. The building was listed with Grade II status in 2000. It appears to be well maintained from the exterior but a number of comments received in response to a planning application in 2013 make reference to poor maintenance as well as the leaseholders making efforts to restore the original look of the building.

The architect was a German Jewish refugee. An active member of an anti-Nazi organisation he fled Germany in 1933 after being tipped off by the family chauffeur that he was about to be arrested. He first went to Switzerland before coming to London with his wife, medical student Erica Lichtenberg. He quickly learned English in order to secure work and Kingsley Court was one of his first commissions. It is often described as the first expressionist building in the UK. This should come as no surprise as Caspari had worked as assistant to Erich Mendelsohn and also had contact with Bauhaus luminaries Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. He would go on to design the more austere Kimber Court in Putney in 1939 before emigrating to Canada after the War where he was responsible for several buildings in Toronto and Calgary.

Monday 15 January 2018

The Illustrated Weekly of India - 15th March 1936

I first came across the Illustrated Weekly of India when researching the work of the wonderful photographer, Homai Vyarawalla. Several of her iconic black and white pictures were published in the Mumbai based journal during the 1940's although in the early days they were included under her husband's name. The Weekly as it was known by its devoted readers was first published in 1880 and for more than a century was one of the most popular English language publications in India. 

Published in large format, it included high quality photography, travel and sports reportage, fiction, gossip, cartoons and several pages of advertising. Its many readers included students who used it to improve their command of English and to extend their vocabulary. Amongst others, the magazine was edited by award winning author Khushwant Singh whose novel Train To Pakistan is acknowledged as one of the best works about Partition. Sadly, the magazine closed in 1993 when due to intense competition from other titles, the parent company decided to end publication, preferring to concentrate on revitalising its newspapers.

After some searching on a variety of websites I managed to get hold of the 15th March 1936 edition of The Weekly. It is a fascinating record of life of the better off in the lead up to the Second World War and before independence and partition. As well as coverage of Indian news, there are articles on a rebellion in the Japanese army which included the murder of several government ministers, a travel piece on Mongolia and treasure hunting in the Seychelles. A piece on investment notes worrying developments in Europe, making reference to German re-occupation of the Rhineland. Coverage of sport is also prominent with a full page piece on The Art of Table Tennis, photographs of some very serious Indian cricketers about to tour England, a piece on hooliganism at a Calcutta cricket game and  an illustrated Round the Sports World article. The latter item includes a reference to the Calcutta Inter-School sports for girls which included a balancing race requiring competitors to carry earthen pots on their heads. Exercise and deportment in one go.

As already mentioned this edition was published some years before independence and partition. This is reflected in the extensive coverage of all things British including an article on a royal visit to Canada and a news roundup under the heading Britain Week by Week. There is also an item on a hailstorm in the city of Lahore, later to become part of Pakistan, which reports "...for ten minutes hailstones the size of Indian hens' eggs made a carpet of ice in the city, killing hundreds of birds in flight..trees were denuded of their leaves and the Mall and other thoroughfares were turned into small rivers".  

I especially like the advertising pages which are spread throughout the magazine rather than being gathered in a single place. Many of them are related to health, offering medicine, pills and advice on a range of ailments including headaches, kidney trouble, stomach and bowel troubles, painful piles (with a cream dispensed from a tube with a terrifyingly long sharp point), blood pressure and asthma which it seems could be cured in a mere ten minutes by taking something called Ephazone. There are also advertisements for various skin creams, hair dye, hair restorer, hair remover and other beauty products, different types of film for your camera and various household goods. I am especially interested in the advert for Yaffi's Hair Restorer which claims  to ...cures tone and style to the most awkward head of hair...removes dandruff, prevents falling hair and gives an energising effect to the brain. Not only that It does not soil hat or pillow. Next time I am in Mumbai I will go in search of Mr. Yaffi's shop! A number of well known British brands advertised in The Weekly including Cow and Gate, Bisto, Brooke Bond, Pears and Lea and Perrins.

It was photography that led me to the Illustrated Weekly of India and it was also a draw for the readers. As well as being able to enjoy high quality photographs each week, they were encouraged to submit their own pictures. Prizes were awarded for the best and this week's winner was a Mrs. Z. D. Basrai of Bombay for her picture entitled "Festival in Bali" featuring a Balinese dancer. And like all good magazines, The Weekly contained what would today be known as a gossip page, reporting on the activities of film stars, royalty and politicians. This week's edition included the news that actress Margaret Lockwood had been cast in a new film, The Beloved Vagabond which was to star Maurice Chevalier. This famous and popular British actress, born in Karachi was to go on and make many more films including the Alfred Hitchcock directed The Lady Vanishes.

The India Illustrated Weekly is a wonderful archive of a world that has largely disappeared. If any former readers of the magazine find their way to this post, they would be very welcome to share their memories of it in the comments below.

Friday 12 January 2018

Queen's Court, 1930's elegance in Bristol

Queen's Court in Bristol's Clifton neighbourhood was the first large scale luxury block of flats to be built in the city. Designed by architect Alec F. French, it was built in 1937 at a time when the area boasted cafes restaurants and department stores frequented by the wealthy and the fashionable. Queen's Court was intended to attract residents from amongst these people as well as artists, writers and media types working in the BBC's Broadcasting House in the city centre.

The building stands eight storeys tall and has 74 one, two and three bedroom flats and a penthouse. The block's shape reflects the art deco ocean liner motif so popular in the 1930's. The relatively simple exterior is enhanced  by the beautiful red bricks, Crittall windows and balconies that rise above each of the entrances and on the "arrow head" tower. 

During this period many apartment blocks offered special services to residents and Queen's Court was no exception. The flats had access to liveried porters who were available to collect shopping and carry out a range of tasks at the whim of the residents who also benefited from a restaurant and underground parking space for 26 cars. The restaurant was also open to non-residents offering luncheons, teas and grills until 10 p.m. as well as the option of a separate room for small parties. Modern conveniences in the flats included fitted kitchens, refrigerators, electric lifts and refuse chutes whilst Wells Coates of Lawn Road Flats fame designed a range of furniture for the new homes. This was reflected in the original rental charge of £150-200 per annum and £350 for the penthouse.

The ground floor was given over to retail. This is still the case and the units currently include a hairdressers, a fast food restaurant and a seemingly abandoned costume hire shop. The hairdressers occupies the former Brunner's cake shop which I understand once sold legendary chocolate cream buns.  Brunner's closed many years ago which is a shame as I am partial to a nice cake. During the Second World War the roof was used as an air raid lookout post and a basement shelter was installed for the protection of the residents. Although Bristol was heavily bombed and much damage was done in the vicinity, Queen's Court survived unscathed.

During the 1960's and 70's the building began to attract students as well as actors and artists. The film Some People was made here in 1962. A musical set in Bristol about juvenile delinquent bikers, it starred Kenneth More as a social worker trying to keep them out of trouble. Harry H. Corbett of Steptoe and Son fame played the father of one of the youngsters. Actress Beryl Reed and musician Russ Conway were visitors to Queen's Court during the 60's but the biggest names by far to be connected with the building were the Beatles who owned it for a short time as part of their Apple Company portfolio. It is not known if they ever visited.

During the 1980's the building deteriorated and began to attract criminal activity including drug dealing. In more recent years the flats have undergone some refurbishment in an effort to attract young professionals. I visited on a grey January day but despite the bleakness of an English winter, Queen's Court's retains a certain elegance and is no doubt a desirable address. Evidence of this includes a three bedroom flat offered for rent at £975 per month back in 2013. A snip.

Thursday 4 January 2018

Woolwich Odeon - Art Deco survivor in south-east London

Woolwich in south-east London is home to one of the city's most striking art deco buildings. The former Odeon cinema was designed by George Coles for  Oscar Deutsch and opened on October 25th 1937. Deutsch established a total of 285 Odeon cinemas with a flagship in Leicester Square and a presence in most major cities and many smaller towns. Several remain and continue to attract film fans but many have either been lost to demolition or are now used for other purposes. The former Woolwich Odeon now operates as the evangelical New Wine Church. 

A wonderful example of the more streamline style, the cinema's lengthy facade is clad in beige faience and has a central tower over the main entrance, narrow vertical glazing on the stairwell and a raised platform with a vertical light tower. The long sweep of the facade includes a stylish curve where the main body of the building recesses from the entrance with further recessing at the upper level. The original design included neon tubing around the frame which must have been quite a spectacle at night. No doubt the light show attracted customers, 1,178 of whom could be accommodated in the stalls with a further 650 in the balcony. The interior included a backlit floral frieze made from moulded plaster as well as troughs of concealed lighting. Architect Coles designed about 90 cinemas in total including London icons the streamline Muswell Hill Odeon and the more flamboyant former Gaumont State in Kilburn which could seat an amazing 4,004 patrons. Both buildings are Grade II listed and the Muswell Hill Odeon is still a working cinema. 

The first screening at the Woolwich Odeon was of The Gang Show starring Ralph Reader and Gina Malo. In later years ownership passed to the Rank organisation which undertook internally remodelling in 1964, stripping away much of the original decoration. Following a well known pattern, audiences declined in the 1970's and the cinema closed on 17th October 1981. The final screenings were of The Janitor (also known as Eyewitness) starring William Hurt and Rust Never Sleeps, a documentary about musician Neil Young. The building was then unused until 1983 when Panton films, an independent film exhibitor took it on and re-opened as the Coronet with a screening of Return of the Jedi. Further remodelling took place in 1990, to establish a second screen, resulting in an overall reduction in seats.

Sadly, the Coronet years also came to an end in 1999 with a further closure. The building was acquired by the church in 2001 and was renamed as Gateway House. The exterior is in good condition and it appears that the current owners have taken the 1973 Grade II listing seriously.