The new Olympic Cinema is the latest incarnation of one of the most fascinating buildings in Barnes. Gilly Turney tells the story of a place that has hosted everyone from John Gielgud to The Who November 29

Brett Anderson of Suede recording at Olympic Studios

Brett Anderson of Suede recording at Olympic Studios 1995 image courtesy of Herbie Knott/Rex Features

When the luxury, two-screen Olympic Cinema opened in Barnes this month – complete with cafe, dining room and members club – it was curtain up at a site with a long and distinguished past. For in its heyday, during the 60s and 70s, the Church Road building was one of the most renowned recording studios in the world. The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, David Bowie, the Eagles, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Queen, Pink Floyd: all these and more once passed through the doors of the famous Studio One.

For the likes of Chris Kimsey, the celebrated music producer whose association with Olympic spans 46 years, the place is a spiritual home. Kimsey engineered many classic rock albums there, including seven of the most successful by the Stones. “It was amazing that I worked with The Rolling Stones for so long,” he reflects. “Normally a relationship with an artist lasts two or three albums. Then it all falls apart because they get bored, or they want to do something new.

“Olympic Studios was a wonderful place to be. Bands would come in to record in Studios One and Two before migrating to Studio Three – otherwise known as the Red Lion pub, down the road. “Recording then was very different from how it is today. You didn’t have any interference from the record labels. It was just you and the musicians, creating music….”

Chris started his career at Olympic as a tape op, working under legendary recording genius Keith Grant. It was Grant, in fact, who converted the existing TV studio into the Olympic Sound Studios in 1966, with enough room to house a 70- piece orchestra. These were the heady days. The Rolling Stones made six consecutive albums here between 1966 and 1972; The Beatles recorded the original track of All You Need is Love; The Who pitched up for their classic albums Who’s Next and Who Are You, while Led Zeppelin recorded their debut album here in 1968.

In rebuilding the studios, Keith Grant had created a temple of sound with innovative, high quality equipment. This, explains Chris, was one of the primary reasons for Olympic’s success. “Studio One was big – really big,” he recalls. “It had been built to feel like a large living room, as opposed to somewhere like Abbey Road, which is more like a mausoleum. It had a cosy feel to it.”

Sadly, the spell was not to last. Bought by Richard Branson’s Virgin in 1987, Olympic became part of EMI when the company acquired Virgin in 1992. But the former multinational – one of the four biggest record companies in the world until its break-up last year – abandoned it. In February 2009, Olympic fell silent, left alone with the echoes of a golden age.

Yet death and resurrection are nothing new to this enduring landmark. Indeed, they form a recurring pattern throughout its 107-year history. Built in 1906 as Byfeld Hall, an entertainment centre for the local community, it served for a time as a bioscope (early cinema), screening the funeral of King Edward VII in 1910. In the same year, it was renamed the Barnes Cinema on receipt of its first cinematograph licence. The opening week’s programmes, which included The Lady of the Lake, screened to full houses. It then became the new Byfeld Hall Cinema, with tea lounge and ‘high-class orchestra’, and in 1922 the Barnes Picture House.

In the mid-1920s, the building embarked upon another short, but incredibly successful chapter, this time as the Barnes Theatre. Some of Britain’s brightest young stage stars trod the Barnes boards, including Charles Laughton and a 22-year-old John Gielgud.

By 1930 it was a cinema again, The Ranelagh, until war forced closure in 1940. It reopened as the Plaza in 1943, and when a fire caused it to close yet again for a few months in 1951, it reemerged as The New Vandyke. Inevitably, the venture folded, and it was during the 50s that the place began operating as a studio for TV commercials.

In the mid-60s it was bought by Cliff Adams, founder of popular vocal ensemble the Cliff Adams Singers, and – with Keith Grant at the helm – was converted into a new home for Olympic Sound Studios, which had recently lost its lease in the West End.

So many changes. Yet the building has always re-emerged as an artistic centre. Now, thanks to the vision of Barnes couple Lisa and Steven Burdge who bought the premises in 2010, the credits are rolling again. Chris Kimsey is thrilled. “The place has never been in safer hands,” he declares.

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