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Lights go up to save last picture show

AS CHESTER'S only remaining city centre cinema prepares to change its appearance, David Norbury reports on the planning debate that led to the go-ahead for the revamp.

CHESTER'S city centre Odeon is to have a new blue hue. Planner have agreed the change as part of a package including replacement signs and improvements inside the listed cinema.

But the familiar red Odeon sign above the building is to go. In its place will be a new blue "Odeon" with blue floodlighting up the tower facing Market Square. The canopy in Hunter Street is also to have a new look and a replacement "Odeon" sign.

Odeon say they are "fanatical about film" but last year, city planners were not fanatical about the film giant's proposed re-branding of the cinema. Initial plans for new signs on the famous city centre Art Deco landmark, one of only five in the country, were rejected.

Councillors and conservationists were adamant the companies plans to replace the familiar red "Odeon" sign with stainless steel letters and blue halo effect lighting were not acceptable.

The refusal followed a letter from Odeon boss Richards Segal to city council chief executive Paul Durham asking for his personal intervention in the application. Mr Segal made it clear that unless the rebranding went ahead, the cinema could close.

English Heritage says it now accepts the familiar red sign is unlikely to be the original.

And Chester Civic Trust also approves of the Art Deco theme of the lighting although they suggested the new canopy sign should be changed to be more "subtle" in daylight.

Last autumn's refusal led to action by Tory group leader Cllr Brian Bailey (Con. Christleton).

He has revealed he had visited London to discuss the whole situation with Mr Segal.

"It is fair to say that Mr Segal and I had a robust discussion" says Cllr Bailey, "But the outcome was modified proposals which were then able to be agreed between the city council and Odeon and which now received approval."

Cllr Bailey says he investigated Odeon cinemas in other parts of the country to satisfy himself on the integrity and appearance of the new signing system.

"I am delighted at this decision which will enhance both the Odeon Cinema and Chester city centre as a whole," said Cllr Bailey.

Senior planning officer David Edwards told councillors in a report: " this scheme is a welcome improvement and will revitalise the building in a sympathetic manner"

An assurance that the "implications of the architectural lighting scheme will be monitored" was sought by Cllr John Boughton (Con. Christleton.)

City centre Cllr Gwyneth Cooper (Lab. City and St, Anne's) said she was "happier" with the new scheme.

She believed the planning board had acted properly "in sticking our for something which is better", as did planning chairman Cllr Richard Hale (Lib Dem, Newton St Michael's).

Inside the cinema, Odeon will provide a new foyer kiosk sales area and carry out redecoration and refurbishment.

Mr Segal told the city council last year the decision to rebrand the cinema and carry out interior improvements as par of a multi million pound investment throughout the country, was "marginal".

"Without investment and given the density of out of town multiplex competition, the admissions decline at the city centre Odeon Chester will almost certainly continue on a downward curve, until it becomes more commercially viable to sell the cinema for an alternative use" said Mr Segal.

Odeon told the council the rebranding and modernisation is designed to enable the chain, which has almost 600 screens in over 100 cinemas - 90% of which are in city centres - to retain and improve their market position in competition with out of town locations.

Planning officers accepted that rebranding and marketing were "important commercial interests" but said they had to consider the desirability of preserving the building or its setting or any features o special architectural or historic interest.

They pointed out the Odeon makes "an important contribution" to the character and appearance of the Town Hall Square and the signs are visible from elsewhere in the city centre.

Conservation officer Howard Dickenson believed that stainless steel lettering and blue lighting would be out of keeping.

He was backed by Chester Civic Trust which said the overall change "would seriously damage the architectural and historic interest" of the cinema although the trust did not object to the new colour scheme or lettering proposed for the top of the tower above the entrance.

The city centre's conservation area advisory committee described the existing red sign as an essential part of the building's character and argued the replacement would be "quite inappropriate".

The committee described the Odeon as "an outstanding example".

But Mr Segal pointed out that other local authorities "have been very supportive of our plans to update cinemas because they have seen how important it is to their own urban regeneration plans".

He said refusal would be "a bitter disappointment to Odeon" and that although they did not wish to close the cinema, they had had no alternative in other towns where the rebranding had not been possible.


David Holmes
Chief News Reporter
David Norbury
Mike Fuller
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