Video: Griff Rhys Jones on the battle to save Bradford’s Odeon

Creative thinkers are pooling ideas to bring Bradford’s landmark Odeon building back to life. Nick Ahad reports.

THE community hall – the centre of village life, where the local amateur dramatics group puts on a sell-out annual panto and the WI runs regular fund-raising events.

One of the exceptions to this traditional concept is in a corner of London, where the hall in question is the Hackney Empire – the community hall with the best entertainment line-up in Britain.

That’s according to Griff Rhys Jones, the actor, comedian and television presenter, who was in Yorkshire yesterday to offer rousing encouragement to the people of Bradford and urge them to get behind the development of the city’s much-loved Odeon building, which has for too long been dark.

The former cinema reminded him, he said, of the Hackney Empire and the task facing the community group that took over the running of the venue in 1992 . It had to raise millions to bring the venue back to its former glory.

“It was in the early days of the Lottery, and we thought there was all sorts of funding we could get our hands on. We assumed there would be match-funding available if we could raise enough ourselves,” says Rhys Jones.

“All sorts of figures started being bandied about and very quickly we started being wildly optimistic. I would warn the people involved in the Odeon that we faced a huge task, as they do, but with the help and support of people in the city I hope they can do great things.”

Rhys Jones was in Bradford in his role as president of Civic Voice, a national charity that promotes civic pride in England. He was speaking at the launch of Bradford One, a new organisation of individuals from around the city working together for the future of the Odeon building, which has sat empty for the best part of a decade.

The city centre building has had an uncertain future ever since the owner, the Homes and Communities Agency, took over the building, hoping to turn it into a hotel and offices. The plans never came to fruition, and in September this year it was announced that the HCA had pulled the plug on its plans, which would have involved partial demolition. The people from around the city who had campaigned long and hard to save the building celebrated.

But they put the Champagne back on ice because a realistic proposal for the future of the building still had to be found.

Bradford One, founded by campaigners Kate Wellham, Jim Matcham and chairman Gideon Seymour (director of Bradford arts charity Fabric), launched at Impressions Gallery, which looks out on to the Odeon.

Seymour says the future of the building is by no means straightforward, but it is exciting.

“The council now has a window of opportunity and we have about four or five months to come up with a proposition that is realistic and exciting for the Odeon,” says Seymour.

“The last thing the council – or any of us – want is for the building to go to an organisation that comes up with plans which then go horribly wrong and the city ends up with another white elephant.

“It’s going to be a significant challenge, but if we come up with something viable it will also be hugely rewarding for the city.”

Bradford One is in the process of registering as an Industrial and Provident Society for the Benefit of the Community – essentially a co-operative – which will see the building pass into community ownership.

If the status is granted, the organisation will be able to apply for national funding to carry out feasibility studies and commission reports on what the future of the building may look like. Seymour announced that surveys had suggested people want to see a music venue at the heart of the building, with other cultural offers in and around the venue. Griff Rhys Jones urged something similar in a passionate speech.

As president of Civic Voice, he is taking part in a four-day tour of Yorkshire, and had seen the recently refurbished Milton Rooms in Malton – also a community project – the day before arriving in Bradford.

“It is vital we take care of our towns and cities,” says Rhys Jones. “They are not simply places where people come and spend money. I have absolutely nothing against business – I am a businessman myself – but our cities have to reflect the character of the people who are a part of them. They are about retail, but they are about our spiritual and cultural lives as well. We simply must look after our city centres because they are like the front window of our towns.

“The reason people support their towns and cities has nothing to do with anything rational, and this is where we come back to the fact that they are not there just for commerce. If our cities also offer us the cultural and spiritual refreshment we need, then they are alive and thriving and come to mean something to us, become important.

“I spent ten years working with the community to raise the funds to get the Hackney Empire re-opened. In the end I was able to ring Sir Alan Sugar and ask him for money to support the theatre, but what lies ahead for Bradford One is a Sisyphean task. If people care about this building and care about the city then they must support this organisation.”

Kate Wellham, a long-time campaigner for the Odeon, is optimistic about the building, and about gaining support from the city for Bradford One’s plans.

“We have seen that people 
really care about the building, simply from the numbers that have come out to support the campaign over the past few years,” she says. “It has been amazing how little we have had to go out and find people to join Bradford One – people have come to us to support us because they are excited by the proposition and excited to see what can happen with this building.”

Seymour warns after a long fight to save the Odeon that, actually, the hard work is about to begin.
“Part of the challenge is that, for such a long time, the campaign has been purely focussed on being against the demolition of the building. Having won that battle, we had to look at what we as campaigners are for.

“The thing that kept coming up whenever we spoke to people about the building was that it should be a mid-scale music venue with other cultural provision.

“What that looks like is impossible to say right now – that’s what the work over the next five to six months will tell us – but it could well include gallery spaces, studio spaces, restaurants, bars. There is a lot that’s up for grabs, but the main thing is that it has to work.” Iain Bloomfield, the artistic director of Bradford’s Theatre in the Mill, also attended the launch and was one of the active supporters of the campaign to save the building. Despite running a theatre venue just around the corner from the Odeon, he also threw his weight behind the idea of a multi-purpose venue, with culture at its heart.

“No-one is under any illusions. All the campaigners and 
members of Bradford One know that this is a long path they are setting out on, but the most important pre-condition for that to succeed is enthusiasm,” he says. “There is no doubting the enthusiasm of any of the people involved, now that needs to be turned into something substantial, and it really feels like it can be and will be.”

The fact is, though, that the campaigners were united in fighting against a common 
cause – the dismantling of an important piece of the city’s architecture. Now that they have saved the Odeon, will the impetus remain to take the building into the future?

Seymour says: “There was plenty of scepticism about City Park before that opened (the water fountain and pool in the middle of Centenary Square in the heart of the city) but that has proved to have a hugely positive cultural impact on the city.

“If the plans come to fruition and the Odeon becomes an arts venue then, alongside the Alhambra Theatre, the gallery in Centenary Square and the National Media Museum you create an experience of Bradford that is rooted in culture.”