In lamenting the loss of Newcastle’s historic art-deco Paramount Cinema (also known as the Old Odeon), it is difficult to escape a comparison with the work of T. Dan Smith – that name which still draws anger and exasperation from residents of the city – the engineer of destruction of much of Tyneside’s architectural heritage.* While one could say that T. Dan Smith, as forward-thinking progressive (at least until charges of embezzlement and accepting bribes emerge) arguably wanted the best for the city, in the form of his now notorious ‘Brasilia of the North’ developmental fantasy, it is clear that the Reuben Brothers’ decision to allow the Paramount to rot lacks all the high-minded rhetoric of that former leader of the city council.
Recalling the fate of Old Eldon Square, plans for the demolition of the Paramount and Commercial Union House – its unsightly neighbour and home to many of the artists and bohemians of the city – could revolve around the vision of the East Pilgrim St. Project, a proposal which would join Newcastle’s principal shopping areas – Northumberland St., the redeveloped intu Eldon Square and the area surrounding Grey’s Monument – more or less together. Harvey Nichols and Selfridges were once proposed as possible tenants for the future site, department stores which may one day overlook a rejuvenated, pedestrianised Pilgrim St.
Yet, all the evidence for such a scheme derive from articles written in the Chronicle in 2010, with few revisions in subsequent years. And as information from local news journalism and other sites dedicated to the crumbling building is limited to say the least, all that can surely be said is that the Reuben Brothers’ intentions for the space remain opaque and vague. What we do know, however, is that the Paramount will be demolished in a matter of years, if not months.
When I was doing research for this piece, I found that everyone had a different story about the building in its current form. Some suggested that the walls were lined with asbestos, and that this prohibited redevelopment, while others pointed towards the damp visible on the facade of the building – and the sheer mass of water surely sitting in the auditorium – and the hundreds of pigeons who have made the cinema their home. Proposals for its redevelopment were also numerous. Some argued that the cinema could have become an IMAX, a museum, a photographic gallery or a theatre. But in the end, most accepted that nothing could be done about the building now, and that its demolition was inevitable.
As I was too young to visit the cinema in its pre-2002 heyday, all my knowledge of the building is indebted to secondary sources (if any readers have any memories of the cinema they wish to share please leave them as a comment). I have read many descriptions of this huge and luxurious movie palace – which once accommodated 2602 people in its grand auditorium – listened to the recollections of former regulars and studied photographs of the building in its former glory. Yet, all of this archaeological work, ultimately cannot replace direct experience. And this will be the unfortunate fate of the building after demolition. The Paramount will soon be forever consigned to memory, alive only in photographs, history books and the stories of Geordies who once sat in the cinema’s grandiose auditorium, with memories of its existence falling apart just as the building appears to be today.
The Paramount was opened in 1931, built in the early days of cinema as an art and entertainment, where films could attract audiences of incredible sizes and crowds were captivated by the power of the stars and stories of Hollywood cinema and not just the warmth of the auditorium. Like the Tyneside Cinema – originally the Newcastle News Theatre and later the Tyneside Film Theatre – the Paramount was designed as an art-deco palace, as a cinema which offered elegance, opulence and the exotic to its audience hungry for the glamorous and unfamiliar worlds outside the reaches of industrial Tyneside. For many years, the Paramount (and as of 1939, the Odeon), overlooked the news theatre opposite, with the latter forever resting in its shadow. Today, however, the tables have turned, the Tyneside and its Bar Cafe are thriving, while the Paramount, sits ruined and ravaged across the street.
The building was Grade II listed for merely ten months (from 5th October 2000 to 7th August 2001), its brief status as a work of considerable architectural heritage cut short at the request of its then owners the London-based private equity firm Cinven (the multi-billionaire Reuben Brothers acquired the cinema and its neighbours in 2007). When the Paramount is long gone, and the space is replaced by yet another drab shopping centre, we will ask why, as we do of Old Eldon Square and John Dobson’s Royal Arcade, why this was allowed to happen.
* A subsequent blog post entitled ‘Four Visions of T. Dan Smith’ (available here) probes whether we can actually justify this anger and exasperation.