The terminal physical decline of Bradford’s former Odeon cinema has been temporarily halted but the building will need a miracle cure to save it for the long term. Telegraph & Argus reporter Chris Tate and photographer Mike Simmonds were given an exclusive tour inside.
Vital work to stop rust and dry rot destroying the 1930s building and its iconic roofline has been carried out to make it safe and waterproof.
The £1 million clean-up by the Homes and Communities Agency also involved lorry-loads of asbestos-contaminated waste and sackloads of used drug needles being removed.
But, nevertheless, the decrepit state of the interior, its sheer size and difficult design mean giving it a useful, relevant function remains a colossal task.
The HCA estimates its efforts have bought the Odeon three more years of life while the future of the site is decided after an agreement for development company Langtree’s New Victoria Place scheme was torn up last month.
Project manager Michael Birdsall, of HCA, has overseen the costly specialist work which was needed simply to retard the Odeon’s decline.
And guiding us along safe passageways which wind among banks of debris, he explained the scale – and dangers – of that job.
“It was originally a single-screen cinema with 3,500 seats, but it was split into three cinemas with a bingo hall below and many of the dividing walls were sprayed with asbestos as a fire precaution,” Mr Birdsall said.
“When that deteriorated, it meant there were asbestos fibres everywhere, and we had to get specialist teams in wearing breathing apparatus and protective suits to remove it, which took about five months.”
That involved stripping out every scrap of fabric from the largest cinema, although rows of seats and even the screen curtains remain in Cinema 2.
Mr Birdsall said other health risks included mounds of pigeon and rat droppings – plus sack-loads of hypodermic needles discarded by drug users who had used the building’s ground-floor bingo hall as a dark hideaway.
“The building is now secure against anyone trying to get in – in the past they have been so determined they have climbed up to the second floor to sneak in through openings,” Mr Birdsall said. He said that the main threat to the Odeon had been rainwater – knee deep in parts of the basement where giant heating boilers still stand rusted and immovable.
Giant fungus patches on exposed timbers show how badly the building has been attacked by dry rot since it closed in 2000.
“We’ve drained out the water and repaired the roof with felt and restored slates so no water can get into the building – although the damage has already been done with some steelwork in the roof so corroded it has had to be strengthened with extra joists,” Mr Birdsall said.
Boarded safety corridors have been built to allow workers to wind through the Odeon’s cavernous spaces, and outside all the masonry has been secured to prevent accidents to passers-by.
“Even when the scaffolding has gone from the outside, it will still be safe. We have removed all loose stonework,” Mr Birdsall said, chatting beside the repaired roof, high above City Park.
The twin domes now have monitors attached so surveyors can see if they move even by a millimetre, said Stuart Hailey, project manager of DTZ, consultants employed to advise HCA and construction firm Artez on the vital repair work.
“As well as making the place safe, the asbestos and other types of waste meant this was one of the most challenging jobs imaginable, but we employed the best experts to do it and that’s now been achieved,” Mr Hailey said.
Now the HCA, which owns the building, is in talks with Bradford Council over how the Odeon project can be resolved – with one proposal being transfer of ownership to the local authority itself.
“We hope that by the end of the financial year we should be in a position to have a clear direction,” said Mr Birdsall, who admitted his own special attachment to the Odeon.
“I came here to see that Three Musketeers film that had Roy Kinnear in it, when I was courting my wife,” he said, standing in the trashed foyer of a cinema surrounded by mounds of stinking rubbish.