Thursday, April 23, 2020

Balham Hill, London

Light exercise

Sometimes I deliberately get off at the wrong tube station. But it’s not what you think. I’m neither covering up my geographical incompetence with the cloak of deliberation, nor am I on a ruthless quest for exercise. I get off and walk because you never know what you might see on the way. So one fine day, en route to visit friends who live near Balham underground station, I get off at Clapham South instead, and schlep my bag southwards, along Balham Hill.

I’ve not gone far before this hoves into view. ‘Of course,’ I think. ‘I’ve seen this in books. Books about cinema architecture.’ It’s the former Balham Odeon,* was designed by the Odeon’s house architect, George Coles, and opened in 1938 with the film Blondes for Danger. If the title of that film is very much of its time, so is the architecture of the cinema: large and tiled, with curved corners and a rather chunky tower. It’s Art Deco, but not the highly ornate Deco of some examples, certainly not with any hint of the historicising decoration of cinemas like the one in Essex Road or the extraordinary interior of the Granada, Tooting, which was the nearest big cinema to this one. The Balham Odeon is just huge, 1930s-modern, and rather lumpish.§

But to think of it simply as a lump is to miss its point. It was designed to be seen at its best at night, when film-goers would turn up to be greeted by bands of neon stretching horizontally along the facade and vertically up the tower. The name ODEON was lit up in neon too and the lights make the building look much less lumpen than it seems by day. Its hilly location and illuminated tower meant that it could be seen for miles too – an effective if brazen advertisement for the cinematic joys within.† There are, I know, people who will think that its night-time illumination is insufficient excuse for the daytime appearance of this building. I have a certain sympathy for this opinion, but I offer the after-dark view as a reminder that things are not always, 24/7, what they seem. And that there is more than one way to look at a building.

Balham Odeon at night. Photograph © English Heritage

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* The name of Oscar Deutsch’s company, Odeon, derives from an ancient Greek word for theatre. It was only after the company had adopted it that a clever member of the firm’s publicity department realised that its letters could provide the initials of a catchy slogan: Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation.

§ And encumbered with telecommunications equipment. Only connect.

† There are no longer neon lights and the building’s front of house, in normal times, is given over to the useful business of selling wine; there are apartments to the rear.


bazza said...

Art Deco left a wonderful imprint on London. Former Odeon cinemas and a few dozen tube stations are an ever-present reminder.
BTW, are you familiar with a 1958 monologue by Peter Sellers called Balham, Gateway to the South? It's here:
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s truculently tenacious Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Philip Wilkinson said...

Yes. There's quite a lot of Art Deco remaining in London once you get your eye in – add a few hotels and factories, plus quite a number of apartment blocks to the list too.

Thank you for reminding me of the Sellers piece, which I remember from long ago!

Hels said...

I thought as I got into my dotage that Deco would start to look too dated and lumpen. But no. If taller trees were added on the verandas and along the side boundary, and if the stains were painted over, the Odeon would still look very handsome. Oscar Deutsch was a clever chap!