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The Romance of Cinema: Remembering the Barking Odeon

I don’t know why, but yesterday I became suddenly nostalgic about cinema, and in particular about the first cinema I can remember - the old Odeon in Barking.

I have always loved going to the cinema. I love the foyer; rich with the buzz of anticipation and the smell of popcorn. I love the auditoriums; dimly lit and exuding such tantalising promise of adventures. I love the drama of screen curtains swishing back (sometimes, if you are lucky, the projection starts just a little too soon and you get that lovely effect of the image rippling on the curtain as it draws back). I even love the adverts and trailers, which build the excitement and make the appearance of the BBFC certificate like waking up on Christmas morning.

Yesterday I realised perhaps for the first time, that I owe this love to my first cinema-going experiences as a child, and to the glorious Barking Odeon, which sat so majestically opposite Barking station.

The Barking Odeon was originally called the Rio Cinema when it opened in 1935 - a name which contrasted absurdly with this dingy suburb of East London, as did its architectural opulence.

Originally it hosted variety shows and live performances, and although it became a more exclusively cinematic venue with its takeover by Odeon in 1943, many of its features reflected its theatrical origins. There was an upper balcony featuring a fully licensed bar (which I was too young to frequent, so I do not remember this very distinctly), exuberantly ornate window decorations, and an elegant curving iron fence which separated the audience from the pit which had once been the home of an orchestra, and later in its life an organ.

Just in front of this gate was where the usher would stand with the characteristic tray of over-priced ice creams during the interval - or at least, priced out of the range of a small boy whose budget was blown just getting through the door.

The foyer had a theatrical flavour to it as well. There was an old-fashioned ticket booth, with a curving class window behind which an attendant could look down at you while working some hidden machinery beneath the desk. This hidden activity would result in a satisfyingly mechanical clunk, and the emergence of a cardboard ticket from a slit in the metal worktop above (I always had the feeling that those tickets were thick enough to contain secret messages or something, so would peel the cardboard apart just a little bit to see if there was a Wonka-like gleam of gold).

Some of the ornate décor of the foyer was rather obscured by some rather tacky modern additions behind which popcorn and ice cream could be sold. Being a rather close foyer, the smell of popcorn was overwhelming. Walking in the door was like walking into air made of sugar. You could taste the popcorn by just breathing in and out, and it seemed to me that when the film was over you carried that smell home in the threads of your clothing - like cigarette smoke.

This was fine though, because hours after a cinema trip all I would want to do is sit there and re-live every moment, and the pervasive popcorn smell added vibrancy to my daydreams. I can remember lying awake in bed with my eyes closed, while against the projection screen of my eyelids a pair of imaginary curtains would swish open and the film would be replayed in my mind as fully as my memory would allow (although unlike the real thing I was usually asleep after ten minutes).

These are the memories which stir up little pools of cognitive dust in the attic of my mind every time I go to the cinema now. The smell of popcorn is not quite so intense, but it is just enough. The ornate décor has been replaced by impersonal boxes of austere regularity, but the dim lighting, spotlights and amusing full-size cut-outs of characters from up-coming releases mean that there is still a sense of theatricality. My own adult mind has had layers of politicised cynicism applied to it, which makes me more critical of the films I see - but in some way every time I walk into the cinema I become again the small boy imbibing tooth decay vicariously through the popcorn-fuelled air of Barking Odeon.

Barking Odeon was boxified into a multiplex in 1990, then closed eight years later. In 2001 it became a block of flats with a Nando’s underneath it. That’s progress, I suppose.

UPDATE: Louis Barfe kindly scanned some more photos of this lovely old place - you can see them here.  Cheers Louis!

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