Built in 1930 in the days, when a Picture Palace was exactly that, the New Victoria, known to most as the Odeon on Clerk Street, has been part the lives of Edinburghers for almost 80 years. For many, including myself, it was where their love of cinema began, when the stars in the ceiling went out we were transported to other lands, other planets and other times full of adventure, action, thrills and romance. As a live venue it provided fantastic concerts from some of the best bands, however, apart from some occasional uses during the fringe, it has remained unused and apparently unloved since 2003.
Now a new group has sprung up with vibrant plans for the building and its future. Within it they plan to create a state of the art facility for Edinburgh capable of providing an artistic and commercial focal point for the Southside and a creative space that the whole city can enjoy. I spoke with Artistic Director of the project Helen Raw about the building and its potential bright new future.
Can you tell me a little bit about the history of the New Victoria?
To be honest I think the history of the building is different to different people. I’m a Fifer and I remember coming over for the Rob Roy première years ago but many of the volunteers we are working with were students here and they’d go to the Odeon quite a lot, but since the project started we’ve had stories from people joining the campaign or on Facebook or Twitter who are in their seventies and eighties who remember going to it when it was the New Victoria and people who remember seeing bands at the venue including a friend of mine who had her first date there. We also spoke to the people at the Edinburgh Gig Archive and they have hundreds of old tickets from the concerts they put on.
It’s a stunning building and the plans that we have for it will be an amazing addition but for me it’s the stories that I hear from other people that I find fascinating.
We will offer an all year round fringe theatre space for Edinburgh, which at the moment doesn’t really exist
What’s the history and background to the trust?
Well there’s myself as Artistic Director, I’ve got a background in theatre and film and I’m also the secretary and vice chair of the East of Scotland branch of Equity and run my own actor training and production company. Vicky Simpson the Creative Director deals with all the architectural side and works closely with our volunteer architect technicians on the design of the spaces and Sarah Colquhoun the Operations Director is putting together the bulk of the business plan and figures for hospitality and staff. It was Sarah who started the project and as the three of us come from different backgrounds we all feed into each other well so our plans are very rounded.
The project was already up and running by the time I got involved. One of my goals is to start the Actor’s Centre Scotland and I’d thought that the Odeon building might be a perfect location for it so I got in touch with Sarah and asked what their plans were and with my theatre background I came up with some suggestions for the spaces which led to a further meeting about the types of performances that could happen there. They asked if I’d like to get involved on the artistic side and I jumped at the opportunity to be involved at the grass roots level. Of course it’s been stressful and due to other commitments most of our communication and work is done via email and phone but it’s working well and the project is moving along quickly.
I just have a feeling it’s going to work
So can you give us a little info on the trust’s plans for the venue?
A key part of the plans are that the three smaller cinema spaces can be used for conferences and breakout spaces as well as for cabaret and comedy shows, our plans at the moment are to try and make the space as flexible as possible without turning it into ‘just another dull gym hall type space’ which are so flexible they are often soulless. As for the main auditorium it currently seats around 639 but with new regulations and foot space requirements it will come down to around 500 permanent seats for red carpet premières, conferences, concerts and larger scale theatre shows. The plans include restoration of the main proscenium to take it back to its original depth – we can then have an idea of the size of shows we can accommodate in that auditorium.
I’m assuming the Fringe will feature significantly in your future plans?
Absolutely, we’ve already had a few enquires from people about partnering with us, I can’t divulge who at the moment, but we have ongoing talks with them. Our long-term plans are not to try and compete with existing venues but to work closely together with them and potentially take their overspill in partnership arrangements, as well as being an independent fringe space.
In addition to stunning conference, event and wedding facilities, we will offer an all year round fringe theatre space for Edinburgh, which at the moment doesn’t really exist.
With the right mix of people we know it can really work and be a stunning addition to the city for both business and the community.
So now the big question – £££ – what is the current situation?
The current owners are Duddingston House Properties owned by Tom Farmer and they’ve given us a deadline of January 5th for any offer so obviously we’ve had to work quickly on the plans and we’re glad to say we have already had a positive response to them from Historic Scotland. We’ve also spoken with Creative Scotland who gave us some very good advice and we are also looking into various funding and private investment options throughout the UK.
We already have interest from The Edinburgh Conference Bureau as currently they have to say no to a lot of conferences for Edinburgh due to a lack of appropriate space. They have lots of venues that are smaller and a few that are bigger but nothing the size of the New Victoria with the capacity to fit a main conference seating of 500 plus breakout rooms.
We’re also looking at various options for the roof space and the old flytower, we’ve already had some interest from investors and Vicki and her team of architect technicians are currently working up different plans for some proposed uses of these spaces.
For somebody like myself who is obsessed by cinema a key question about your plans is how much of them are cinema related?
Apart from retaining cinema in the main auditorium we also want to have a least one of the remaining spaces available for cinema. We also have various ideas, none concrete as yet, for cinematic themed evening and special events. One of our many ideas for our opening night would be to try and get the rights to show the first film ever screened at the New Victoria – Rookery Nook – as a way of coming full circle. Wouldn’t that be amazing?
We have to be realistic though and we have to look at the conferences and other events as the main revenue for the building and so it will be important to get the mix right between art and commerce. Without the theatre and film side its just another conference venue and without the commercial side, the building could struggle to keep going. With the right mix of people we know it can really work and be a stunning addition to the city for both business and the community.
So how optimistic are you about the project going ahead?
Well anyone who knows me knows that I’m a glass half-full person so I can see it going ahead, I can see us walking around the building and speaking to the staff on the opening night. How that’s going to happen? It will happen with lots of hard work, determination and perseverance – I just have a feeling it’s going to work. As for the business side of things, of course we need money and we need to pass certain criteria for the current owners but personally I think if you go into something without thinking positively it’s never going to happen, so we’re going full steam ahead because without a goal and a vision, you have nothing.
There’s no other venue in Edinburgh that can have 500 people at a cinema event in the main auditorium, a cabaret show, a private film showing, a singer performing and a wedding event going on all at the same time. The New Victoria has that potential.
One of the other benefits is that many of the production and event companies who are based in Glasgow who I’ve spoken to are very excited about the potential for a venue like this in Edinburgh which will allow them to bring over more productions.
Southside Community Centre – 4th December: Come along to learn about this spectacular project
Keep up with their activities on The New Victoria Project website