By Charles S.P. Jenkins.
I was born in the former Borough of Bethnal Green. Although we had a number of cinemas available to us, it was the Odeon Theatre in Hackney Road that was both the most attractive and most classy of all them. I have it on good authority that Oscar Deutsch, the founder of the Odeon Circuit, liked his cinemas to be referred to as Theatres.
I recall there being a commissionaire on duty at the front of the building at all times who was dressed in a chocolate and gold uniform complete with hat who readily held doors open for clientele to enter. I also remember potted palms in the box office area and attractive usherettes dressed in chocolate and gold coloured double-breasted coats and white blouses with a bow-tie who stood at the entrances to the auditorium with torches at-the-ready to show patrons the way to empty seats. One always felt special going to the Odeon Hackney Road!
The Odeon Hackney Road was the furthest cinema from where I lived and so we did not go there that often. However, each visit was memorable to me! I remember seeing great spectacles on the wide-CinemaScope-screen and also seeing my first film in French (!) here back in the mid-1950s!
The Odeon Hackney Road was the 124th Odeon Cinema opened by Oscar Deutsch. It was designed by the architect, Andrew Mather, who went on to design eleven Odeons in total. The exterior of the building was flat and quite simple with little decoration except for cream-yellow faïence tiles and a vertical sign displaying the name, Odeon.
Although by other cinema standards, the interior was plain with only ribs across the ceiling, I always remember it as being tasteful and above ‘classy’, but then all Odeons Theatres had that in common. Seating, which was in good condition unlike the other poorer cinemas in Bethnal Green, was arranged in stalls and circle. I managed to get into the circle on one occasion after creeping up there when I thought no one was looking, but was spotted by a beady-eyed manager who had me removed and sent back to the front of the stalls! Still any seat in the Odeon was fine and made one feel grand and special.
In 1956, we moved out of London and my visits to Bethnal Green and Hackney became less frequent as time passed. I remember vividly one day in 1961 sitting on the upper deck of a number 555 Trolleybus travelling from Liverpool Street Station to Hackney. There were only four other passengers on the upper deck with me. These were four youths dressed in stripped suits with three buttons down the front, which used to be called ‘Italian Suits’, and were very fashionable at the time. Each of the youths had ‘Perry Como’ haircuts that pre-dated the style popularised by The Beatles that was soon to follow. The boys were in jolly mood and each whistled the tune, ‘Tea for Two Cha Cha’, which was very popular at the time.
The bus rattled and swerved its way along Hackney Road, and then when it came out of a bend in the road, I saw the Odeon coming into view. The bus rushed on and shrieked to a halt in front of the building. It was only then that I noticed that it was no longer a cinema! It had become what was soon to become ubiquitous throughout Britain, a ‘Top Rank Bingo Club’!
With dwindling cinema attendances and the rise of television together with the recent passing of the ‘Gaming Act of 1960’, cinema buildings were at risk of closure and possible demolition. The Cinema Circuits looked for some other use of their buildings and Bingo was like a prayer being answered. Gradually, the Rank Organisation began to adapt its Odeon Theatres and Gaumont Cinemas for Bingo as ‘Top Rank Social Clubs’.
Apparently the Gaumont Peckham and the Odeon Hackney Road, which were both had large auditoriums, had been chosen by The Rank Organisation to be the first of their theatres/cinemas to be converted into ‘Top Rank Bingo Clubs’. This happened in May 1961 with the Gaumont Peckham being re-opened in its new incarnation on the 15th with gaming on four nights each week and on the 21st at the erstwhile Odeon Hackney Road where it was ‘eyes down’ every night from the ‘get-go’!
The Top Rank Bingo Club on Hackney Road proved to be a success. During the early 1990s, the Rank Organisation took over the Mecca Leisure Group PLC, which included a number of bingo clubs. As a result, Rank became the leading operator of bingo clubs in the UK. At some time, all ‘Top Rank Bingo Clubs’ were renamed as ‘Mecca Social Clubs’. And so, the erstwhile Odeon that had become a ‘Top Rank Bingo Club’ became ‘The Mecca Social Club’ on Hackney Road’ and continued to do well.
The Rank Organisation/Mecca made a number of changes to the auditorium, which included the removal of the stage, screen and Proscenium Arch. In their place, a raised area was build to accommodate additional Bingo Tables and seating for patrons. Along the barrier was placed a notice board that displayed the state of play. Beneath the raised area, an assortment of counters was installed that served a
variety of purposes including the sale of refreshments. Staircases were built from the stalls up to the raised area and also to the circle area.
The cinema seats of the front circle were also removed and additional tables installed while seating of the rear stalls was left in place. The rake of the stalls was removed and additional places where refreshments could be purchased were installed.
The Mecca Bingo Club was much more colourful than the erstwhile Odeon. However, the basic architectural designs of the ceiling and walls were largely intact. However, the arch ribbing that stretched across the ceiling of the auditorium were now painted in a colour according to the taste of the owners.
Sadly, nothing seems to last forever, as was proven on that trolleybus back in 1961 and changes took place to society. In 2004, Bingo entered ‘The Digital Age’ with the advent of ‘Bingo on-line’. Here, gamers do not have to leave their homes on cold winter evenings and travel to Clubs to play their favourite game. On-Line Bingo cut into the revenues of establishments like the ‘Mecca on Hackney Road’. Seemingly in 2004, there were 20 on-line Bingo sites while today it is thought that this number has grown to about 350.
A second and perhaps more deadly blow hit the Bingo Clubs in 2007. Smoking became outlawed in buildings. This hit public houses and the Bingo Clubs hard.
There are, of course, additional reasons that have contributed to the decline of Bingo Clubs: taxes on winnings from gambling have increased over the years, as has the cost of playing the game.
As a result, the daily attendance at the Mecca Bingo on Hackney Road began to fall and has continued to do so. Once the Club started making ‘minimal profit’, one could only wonder how long it would be before closure was ‘on the books’. I have read that approximately two hundred Bingo Clubs have closed their doors in the UK since 2005.
And so when Mecca Bingo received a ‘competitive offer from the landlord to terminate the lease’, apparently it made ‘good commercial sense for the business’ and a date was set for the closure of the club. Naturally when the closure of the Club was announced, older patrons who perhaps do not have access to a computer, and those that came to the Club to socialise rather than play were ‘devastated’. But I am told that ‘business is business’ and that ‘time and fashions change’ and so we all expected to move on and ‘lump it’! This may be true, but we don’t have to like it!
So what is to become of the building? One hears that the site is to be ‘redeveloped’.
The Odeon Hackney Road was opened as a cinema for the 27th July, 1938 and operated as such until the 20th May, 1961, which makes 23 years in this capacity. However, as a Top Rank Social Club and Mecca Bingo Club, the building operated from May 1961 until the 16th June, 2015, which is 54 years!
If I look back today at my reaction to finding the Odeon closed and reopened as a Bingo Club, I have to smile. It amuses me to know that the very thing that had disturbed me so much at that time, is the very thing that kept the building functioning for over half a century.
I would like to thank Mr. Andrew Wooyatt for permission to reproduce his photographs here. To view his complete set of photographs of the Mecca Bingo Hackney Road, please go to his Flickr Photostream at https://www.flickr.com/photos/woody1969/; I would also like to thank Cinema Treasures; Mr. Joe Veitch at www.rathergood.com; and Mr. Paul Bland for his help in the preparation of this piece.