Fanatical about history…

South Woodford resident Debbie Pearson is a tour guide for the City of London and the City of Westminster. During lockdown, she took the opportunity to learn more about the local area, including South Woodford’s cinema history

We are fortunate in South Woodford to have our own cinema – the Odeon at 60–64 High Road. With its five large windows, clean lines and symmetrical aspect, it looks every inch the 1930s building.

After a long period of closure, cinemas are open again for business. The Odeon has been a feature of the South Woodford neighbourhood since 1934, but it has not always been known by this name, and it was not the first cinema in town.

The cinema on the High Road was designed by the architect SB Pritlove in the Art Deco style. It was opened in 1934 by Winston Churchill, the local Member of Parliament, and was called the Majestic. It had a capacity of 1,724 seats, included a ballroom and restaurant, and featured a theatre organ.

In 1935, ABC took it over, and in 1972, it was converted to three screens. In 1986, it was renamed Cannon. The ballroom was repurposed, creating the space for more screens. Nowadays, known as the Odeon, it has seven screens and a capacity of over 1,000.

The first cinema in the area was the South Woodford Cinema. It opened in 1913 at 170 George Lane – now the site of Boots. Following a refurbishment in the Art Deco style, it opened as the Plaza, also in 1934. This cinema was later renamed the Empire. It suffered a fire and closed in 1977.

Odeon Cinemas is the largest cinema chain in the UK. It was founded in 1928 by Oscar Deutsch. The name Odeon comes from the Greek for ‘place for singing’, but it is sometimes claimed that it stands for ‘Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation’. Their flagship cinema is the Odeon Leicester Square, a prestigious venue for many red carpet film premieres.

As well as screening films, some cinemas, including the Odeon South Woodford, also show live events from major venues across the UK and overseas. These include theatre, opera, music, dance, sport and even the Glastonbury Festival. In 2020, as part of their festive programme, some Odeon cinemas showed the pantomime Cinderella, featuring live action combined with interactive projections.

Odeon Cinemas has asked its customers to list their favourite Christmas films. The top two places were taken by Elf and Home Alone. Rather surprisingly, the third favourite was Die Hard. The Muppet Christmas Carol and Love Actually were fourth and fifth, with the black and white tearjerker It’s a Wonderful Life reaching number seven.

Nowadays, cinemas face a lot of competition – from films on television, streaming services, social media and live events. But nothing quite matches the shared experience of watching a film on the big screen in a comfortable cinema. Popcorn optional.

For more information, follow Debbie on Twitter @debbieguide. With thanks to Ken Roe of cinematreasures.org for historical information.