From the late 1960s to 2009 Barnes was awash with rock ‘n’ roll stars, who came to South West London to record at the Olympic Sound Studios. The studio’s roll of honour is mammoth – The Beatles, The Who, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and Jimi Hendrix all recorded there. U2, Queen, The Eagles, Pulp, Led Zeppelin and Oasis too.
The fact the main studio once housed a cinema also meant soundtracks, for films including The Italian Job and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, could be recorded there. The microphones might have been switched off for good four years ago, but that celluloid history has now been revived with the opening of a two-screen cinema, complete with restaurant and members’ bar, at the building.
The mammoth project to convert the defunct studios and shop units on the ground floor back into a cinema has been undertaken by Stephen Burdge, a Barnes resident and founder of film promotion company Empire Design. Offered the chance to buy the building from the previous owners, EMI, he decided to go for it, selling his house to help finance the deal.
‘EMI were in trouble and had to sell properties across the world. They needed to sell in a hurry so we had to buy quite quickly,’ he tells me during a walk around the Olympic Cinema, which at the time was very much in the construction stages.
‘My wife and I sold our house and that paid for some of it and we raised money with 250 founder members paying £5,000 each to cover a chunk of the renovation. Our business in town is madly busy and we’ve bought this as a long-term project, not to make money. We live in Barnes, our kids are at school here and I can’t see us moving any time soon. If the cinema goes well then it will be popular and earn some money, but we don’t have any big borrowings or investors to pay back.’
The Olympic building first opened in 1906 as Byfield Hall and was billed as an ‘entertainment centre’. It hosted a range of attractions including ‘bioscope’ screenings (an early form of cinema), before it became a fully-fledged cinema in 1910, undergoing a number of name changes over the years (Barnes Cinema, Byfield Hall Cinema and the Barnes Picture House).
It was used as a theatre in the 1920s but after the Second World War it became a cinema again until 1966 when the Olympic Sound Studios opened, bringing the Beatles and co to Barnes.
Creating an independent cinema in this corner of South West London is a brave move from Burdge. He turned down offers from a number of cinema companies to take over the renovation, and there’s strong competition from local multiplexes and art house chains. But he is dedicated to making the Olympic Cinema work for the people of Barnes, and those who live in the surrounding areas.
‘On the one side we want this to be a community cinema for Barnes but also want to appeal to people in Mortlake, Sheen, Kew, and Putney. We can’t necessarily be the biggest cinema, but we want to be in that list of the best cinemas in London with the likes of the Empire Leicester Square and the Electric. First and foremost, though, it has to work for Barnes.’
Stephen’s decision to build two screens at the Olympic is a sensible one as it means what he calls ‘quality mainstream films’ – franchises such as Batman and James Bond, for example – can be programmed in the large Screen One (the space where the main recording studio was housed), while films at the artier end of the spectrum can be given short runs in the second auditorium.
As far as catering is concerned, thankfully the Olympic Cinema is not one of those trendy boutique places where three-course dinners are served direct to the screening rooms. Instead there’s a large ground floor restaurant for visitors to make the most of. ‘We’ve got a great young Swedish chef – not a big, scary Gordon Ramsay character,’ explains Stephen. ‘He’s doing simple, family-friendly food, done really well; a good burger, a good steak and chips, and salads. You never get good hot dogs in cinema, but if you do have a good one it’s really nice, so that’s what we’ll have.’
A major consideration when re-opening the Olympic Cinema was how to represent the building’s music history in the renovated space. Again Stephen has made a wise decision in not to, in his words, ‘make it like the Hard Rock Café with guitars on the wall’. Instead there are some tasteful photographs of the greats who recorded in the studios and a music room where people can listen to a selection of the records they created.
Stephen has also decided to put a sizeable amount of money into ensuring that the cinema’s sound system is bespoke and pitch-perfect. As he puts it, ‘There’s no point having a world famous recording studio and then having sound that’s not that good, so it’s one of the things we’ve spent the most time and money on.’
As we finish our walk around the site, I ask Burdge how happy his kids are with their Dad’s new venture – even now if my old man told me he was opening a cinema I’d probably spontaneously combust with joy. It’s no surprise to hear that his little ones are extremely excited and he adds he hopes the people of Barnes are too. With one of the area’s grandest old buildings revived and a sparkling new cinema on their doorstep, I’d be shocked if they weren’t.
For more information, visit olympiccinema.co.uk