Welcome result in former Saville Theatre Public Inquiry

Theatres Trust is delighted with a decision issued by the Planning Inspectorate following a Public Inquiry to dismiss two appeals relating to the Grade II listed former Saville Theatre in London’s West End. 

The building is currently used as a cinema by the Odeon and is part of the world-famous ‘Theatreland’ cluster.  Planning permission had been sought to convert the building into a hotel with a small ‘replacement’ cinema in the basement and had been refused by London Borough of Camden in 2019.

The Saville is considered by Theatres Trust to be an architecturally and culturally important building. It was designed by by TP Bennett and Son with input from notable theatre architect Bertie Crewe. The large frieze across its entire frontage by Gilbert Bayes depicting ‘Drama Through the Ages’ is considered to be one of the most important works of public sculpture of its time. 

Opening in 1931, it enjoyed a particularly successful period in the 1960s under the ownership of Brian Epstein and through its association with bands including The Beatles. Following Epstein’s death, it was sold to ABC and converted into a cinema in 1970. There was much regret at its loss as a theatre and that helped galvanise the theatre protection movement that culminated in the formation of Theatres Trust six years later.  

Frieze by Gilbert Bayes depicting ‘Drama Through the Ages’ on frontage of former Saville Theatre

As a main party at the Inquiry, Theatres Trust’s National Planning Adviser Tom Clarke, supported by Stephanie Hall of King’s Chambers, provided evidence  that there was need and demand for additional large-scale theatre space within the West End for which the site provided the last realistic opportunity to deliver due to its size, internal volume, access and that it was in existing cultural use.  This was substantiated by submissions from a number of established theatre operators and producers. 

Reflecting London Borough of Camden’s main reasons for its original refusal of permission, Theatres Trust’s case also cited failure to justify loss of the building’s social and cultural function and that harm would be caused to the character and significance of the listed building with insufficient public benefits provided in mitigation. On a visit to the building prior to the Inquiry, Theatre Trust established that much of the fly grid and other original features remained, something which had been missed by the applicant.

Conclusions from the Inspector’s final report agreed with points raised by Theatres Trust.  He found that “re-provision and replacement of a cinema facility has not been justified” with “insufficient evidence to show a lack of demand in the existing facility”.  In terms of heritage, he found the harm from the scheme to be “considerable given the fundamental change from a single cinema/theatre use” along with “the loss of important surviving features”.

The high regard in which the building is held and its value as a facility for local people was clear at the Inquiry, with Covent Garden Community Association also being a main party and several residents speaking of their associations with the building and its history. 

While the decision will not return the building to live performance use now, it does ensure that it is protected for the future should the Odeon ever vacate.  The proposed development with its carving up of the building’s significant internal space and volume would have meant the complete loss of the interior, leaving just a façade and ended any possibility of a future theatre scheme.     

The Trust’s National Planning Adviser Tom Clarke said, “Theatres Trust is delighted with this outcome, following months of hard work preparing evidence to ensure we could robustly protect this important building.  There is every potential for live performance use to return to the Saville one day, and we believe the Inspector’s decision not only protects this building as a heritage asset and emphasises the need to fully justify loss of cultural provision but also recognises how cultural and performance use of the site contributes to wider strategic objectives such as maintaining the vitality of Theatreland and the West End.” 

Read more about the Saville Theatre in the Theatres Database.