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History of former Odeon and Mecca Bingo hall in Ashford as theatre debate continues


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A rough diamond that holds the key to the regeneration of a town centre or a blot on the landscape that needs knocking down?

Whatever your view, the long-running debate over the future of Ashford's abandoned Odeon cinema-turned-Mecca Bingo hall shows no signs of stopping.

A 1972 photo of the Ashford Odeon, which was open from 1936 to 1976 before becoming a Top Rank bingo hall. Picture: Steve Salter
A 1972 photo of the Ashford Odeon, which was open from 1936 to 1976 before becoming a Top Rank bingo hall. Picture: Steve Salter

Built in 1936, the prime site was snapped up by Ashford Borough Council (ABC) for £1.8m in 2018 – a move that has helped fill the readers' letters pages of our sister title the Kentish Express ever since.

Because soon after buying the building, the authority revealed plans to demolish the rear of the structure, retaining just the ornate frontage.

Although these proposals have gone rather quiet in recent months, bosses hope to turn the Vicarage Lane car park at the rear of the site into 230 homes, adding a new public square featuring "an uninterrupted view" of St Mary's Church.

But this has angered those who feel the art deco landmark facing the Lower High Street would make a perfectly good theatre that would put the town on the map.

In 2019, campaigners from the Cinema Theatre Association (CTA) even wrote to Historic England calling for the structure to be given Grade II-listed status.

Inside the former bingo hall in 2019; ABC appointed surveyors and architects to carry out a review of the site in 2018, including an analysis of asbestos believed to be present
Inside the former bingo hall in 2019; ABC appointed surveyors and architects to carry out a review of the site in 2018, including an analysis of asbestos believed to be present
Crowds gather outside the Odeon cinema in 1954. Picture: Countrywide Photographic
Crowds gather outside the Odeon cinema in 1954. Picture: Countrywide Photographic
How the site looks from the Vicarage Lane car park
How the site looks from the Vicarage Lane car park
An undated photo of the Lower High Street outside the Odeon. Picture: Brian Sales
An undated photo of the Lower High Street outside the Odeon. Picture: Brian Sales
How the planned residential development could look on the Vicarage Lane car park. If the car park does get built on, ABC is looking to offset the lost spaces by constructing a huge multi-storey car park in Station Road behind Hollywood Bowl
How the planned residential development could look on the Vicarage Lane car park. If the car park does get built on, ABC is looking to offset the lost spaces by constructing a huge multi-storey car park in Station Road behind Hollywood Bowl

The effort almost worked, with inspectors calling the hall "a rare survival of an interwar cinema which has undergone comparatively little change since its completion".

But they stated "while level of survival is a key factor in the assessment for listing, it does not override the importance of architectural quality in determining special interest".

The site was said to be "neither representative of the typically modern Odeon style, nor of the best work by architect Andrew Mather", and that "typical of Odeon cinemas the interior is not lavish, in this case relying heavily on economic applied decoration for effect".

But buoyed by the success of a petition set up by Aldington's Peter Morris-Kelso in 2018, many letter writers are still keen to share their views on the topic.

The Travis Perkins employee called on ABC to convert the site into a theatre and his campaign drew support from across the town.

Aldington's Peter Morris-Kelso, pictured in July 2018, started a petition calling for the site to be turned into a theatre
Aldington's Peter Morris-Kelso, pictured in July 2018, started a petition calling for the site to be turned into a theatre
Inside the Odeon in 1936 during its first year
Inside the Odeon in 1936 during its first year
Bingo caller Elaine Henshaw-Smith with Mecca Bingo staff in December 2005. Picture: Danny Rhodes
Bingo caller Elaine Henshaw-Smith with Mecca Bingo staff in December 2005. Picture: Danny Rhodes
The high street was a bleak place during this blizzard but queues still formed for the latest show at the Odeon. Picture: Countrywide Photographic
The high street was a bleak place during this blizzard but queues still formed for the latest show at the Odeon. Picture: Countrywide Photographic
Ashford MP Damian Green inside Mecca Bingo in 2008
Ashford MP Damian Green inside Mecca Bingo in 2008

"We have the bones for a theatre, it just needs some money spent on it," supporter Freddie Clements, from Singleton, said.

"The council wants to spend thousands half-demolishing an historic building just to get a better view of a church that has been there for years.

"The money it will cost to knock it down should be used to do the theatre up; lots of people want it.

"We are surrounded by theatres: Folkestone, Leas Cliff Hall; Canterbury, Marlowe; Maidstone, Hazlitt. Imagine being a tourist coming to Kent and wondering why Ashford is the only town without a theatre."

The opening night of the Odeon cinema in 1936. Picture: Steve Salter
The opening night of the Odeon cinema in 1936. Picture: Steve Salter
Mary-Ann Lewington, Carole Rayfield and Jodie Bourne at Mecca Bingo in 2016
Mary-Ann Lewington, Carole Rayfield and Jodie Bourne at Mecca Bingo in 2016
Ted Dempsey and his band playing in the Odeon ballroom in 1959. Picture: Jean Dempsey
Ted Dempsey and his band playing in the Odeon ballroom in 1959. Picture: Jean Dempsey
ABC bosses say bulldozing this part of the landmark site will open up views of St Mary's Church. Picture: Steve Salter
ABC bosses say bulldozing this part of the landmark site will open up views of St Mary's Church. Picture: Steve Salter
An artist's impression of Ashford Borough Council's plans for the site; the authority wants to knock down the rear of the bingo hall to open up views of St Mary's church. A public consultation was due to be held last summer but is yet to take place
An artist's impression of Ashford Borough Council's plans for the site; the authority wants to knock down the rear of the bingo hall to open up views of St Mary's church. A public consultation was due to be held last summer but is yet to take place
Competition winner Rod Dale and friend John Reeve arrive at the bingo hall in a limo in 2005
Competition winner Rod Dale and friend John Reeve arrive at the bingo hall in a limo in 2005

After attracting more than 3,000 signatures, Mr Morris Kelso's campaign led to a debate at a full council meeting in December 2018.

Prior to the discussion, a report published by the authority said the decision to purchase the building was based on the 'marriage value' of linking it with the Vicarage Lane car park.

It also detailed how a condition survey carried out prior to purchase of the site concluded that a change of use and costs of refurbishments would be too high.

The Odeon in its early years
The Odeon in its early years
Joan Sage - pictured here in March 2006 - worked at the bingo hall for 30 years
Joan Sage - pictured here in March 2006 - worked at the bingo hall for 30 years
This drawing, released in early 2019, showed ABC's early plans for the Mecca Bingo site and Vicarage Lane car park, featuring an outdoor cinema screen
This drawing, released in early 2019, showed ABC's early plans for the Mecca Bingo site and Vicarage Lane car park, featuring an outdoor cinema screen
The Odeon function room was the scene of the annual police children's party at Christmas time in 1954. Picture: Countrywide Photographic
The Odeon function room was the scene of the annual police children's party at Christmas time in 1954. Picture: Countrywide Photographic
ABC bought the site in 2018
ABC bought the site in 2018
Crowds at Mecca Bingo in July 2018 before the site closed for good. Picture: Steve Salter
Crowds at Mecca Bingo in July 2018 before the site closed for good. Picture: Steve Salter

During the meeting, ABC leader Cllr Gerry Clarkson (Con) said: "We will have a theatre in Ashford – it won’t come tomorrow but it might come in the next four or five years.

"The bingo hall is not an option because I’m in favour of a new, modern one.

"A study [by the Fourth Street consultancy firm] said Ashford could sustain a 250-seat theatre, but we are looking at a much larger theatre with more than 750 seats.

"I would like to see a significantly larger one and I want us to have something we can be proud of."

The rear of the bingo hall pictured in September 1991; the former Vicarage Lane car park toilets are in the foreground
The rear of the bingo hall pictured in September 1991; the former Vicarage Lane car park toilets are in the foreground
Janet Jackson enjoys an evening at Mecca Bingo in 2005 with husband Tony and her dad Ted Webb
Janet Jackson enjoys an evening at Mecca Bingo in 2005 with husband Tony and her dad Ted Webb
The former ballroom/cafe area on the first floor
The former ballroom/cafe area on the first floor
Staff dressed up in 1960s gear for the venue's 50th birthday party in 2011
Staff dressed up in 1960s gear for the venue's 50th birthday party in 2011
A snowy Lower High Street in December 1959 showing the Odeon on the right
A snowy Lower High Street in December 1959 showing the Odeon on the right

More than three years since that meeting, no progress has been made on the plans for a theatre in the town, but ABC says it hopes to turn the surviving Mecca Bingo frontage into a "multi-use indoor cultural space" while demolishing the rest of the building.

When Historic England was considering whether to list the site, which became a Top Rank bingo hall in 1976, it mentioned how ABC had offered misleading information.

Bingo caller Elaine Henshaw-Smith in 2005. Picture: Danny Rhodes
Bingo caller Elaine Henshaw-Smith in 2005. Picture: Danny Rhodes
The interior of the Odeon in 1936. Picture: Steve Salter
The interior of the Odeon in 1936. Picture: Steve Salter
The seats were still in place in 2019
The seats were still in place in 2019
Staff and customers at a Mad Hatter's tea party in aid of Marie Curie in 2010
Staff and customers at a Mad Hatter's tea party in aid of Marie Curie in 2010
Inside Mecca Bingo not long before it closed in 2018. Picture: Steve Salter
Inside Mecca Bingo not long before it closed in 2018. Picture: Steve Salter
Before becoming a bingo hall, this undated photo shows the landmark Odeon building
Before becoming a bingo hall, this undated photo shows the landmark Odeon building

In a consultation report prepared on ABC’s behalf by consultancy practice Heritage Collective, the council suggested to the inspectors that the interior had been altered and the exterior “highly altered”.

But Historic England said in response: “We do not agree that the building has undergone a high degree of alteration. Some of the alterations listed in the consultation response are unclear or unsubstantiated.”

Crowds at Mecca Bingo's final day in Ashford in 2018. Picture: Steve Salter
Crowds at Mecca Bingo's final day in Ashford in 2018. Picture: Steve Salter
How the frontage could look if Ashford Borough Council's current plans come off. ABC has put 'specialist developer' Milligan in charge of the project
How the frontage could look if Ashford Borough Council's current plans come off. ABC has put 'specialist developer' Milligan in charge of the project
The narrow St John's Lane runs alongside the former bingo hall, linking the Vicarage Lane car park with the Lower High Street
The narrow St John's Lane runs alongside the former bingo hall, linking the Vicarage Lane car park with the Lower High Street
An Odeon Club outing to Ashford Railway works in 1945. Picture: Jon Burtenshaw
An Odeon Club outing to Ashford Railway works in 1945. Picture: Jon Burtenshaw
Inside Mecca Bingo in December 2005
Inside Mecca Bingo in December 2005
A hidden ceiling detail in the foyer
A hidden ceiling detail in the foyer
Ashford MP Damian Green promoting the free energy-saving lightbulbs used at Mecca Bingo in 2008. He's pictured with acting manager Paul Farrelly
Ashford MP Damian Green promoting the free energy-saving lightbulbs used at Mecca Bingo in 2008. He's pictured with acting manager Paul Farrelly

ABC also claimed that “dropped ceilings and modern doors and finishes” had been installed across “the entire first floor area between the former ballroom and the auditorium”.

The inspectors responded, saying: “This is misleading. The area that was originally occupied by the cafe has dropped ceilings and modern doors and finishes, as well as being subdivided, as noted in our report and elsewhere in the consultation response.

“The circulation space between the former cafe and the auditorium does not have dropped ceilings and retains its original doors.

“We accept most of the alterations or losses listed in the consultation response but do not agree that this amounts to substantial alteration.”

The former cinema seating was still in place when Mecca Bingo closed in 2018. Picture: Steve Salter
The former cinema seating was still in place when Mecca Bingo closed in 2018. Picture: Steve Salter
An undated aerial view of the hall. Picture: Steve Salter
An undated aerial view of the hall. Picture: Steve Salter
The Ashford hall raised cash for the Marie Curie charity in 2011
The Ashford hall raised cash for the Marie Curie charity in 2011

Technicalities aside, Kennington's Noelle Hall, writing in 2018, explained why she believes ABC is right to dismiss the calls to convert the whole site.

"It is a massive eyesore from all perspectives and those who park in the car park beside it have to walk through a long, narrow and, particularly at night, unpleasant passageway," she said.

"Ashford will never be the market town it once was but every opportunity to make the high street attractive and safe should be welcomed.

"Many small and successful theatres are created from smaller buildings such as chapels and halls: Whitstable and Herne Bay are good examples."

It is claimed the sound of children’s voices have been heard in the hall decades after they were killed in a wartime bomb in Ashford. Clanking sounds are also said to be heard from the ghosts of workmen. Picture: Steve Salter
It is claimed the sound of children’s voices have been heard in the hall decades after they were killed in a wartime bomb in Ashford. Clanking sounds are also said to be heard from the ghosts of workmen. Picture: Steve Salter
How the prime Lower High Street site currently looks
How the prime Lower High Street site currently looks

But Pluckley resident Laura Robinson disagrees, saying plans for a public square haven't been thought through.

She wrote in November last year: "There is nothing principally wrong, is there, with the former Mecca building?

"It is still, I'm afraid, beyond me why the council wishes to tear down such a useful and iconic building and replace it with some trendy outdoor area and even more homes.

"We need indoor space. It rains most of the year and pantomime season is January is it not?!

"Please think about this again, properly..."

Would you like to see the former Mecca Bingo turned into a theatre? Comment below or email kentishexpress@thekmgroup.co.uk

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