Odeon Covent Garden Frieze | The Former Saville Theatre

Today known as the Odeon Covent Garden, at 135-149 Shaftesbury Avenue you need to look up to admire one of London’s more impressive sculptural friezes.

Odeon Covent Garden Frieze - Look Up London

Shaftesbury Avenue is known for its theatres. But one in particular, the former Saville Theatre, is worth a closer look.

The Saville Theatre

Designed by TP Bennett & Son and constructed by Gee, Walker and Slater, the Saville Theatre opened on 8 October 1931.

It had a seated capacity of 1,229, rising to 1,526 if you included standing room.

Image – Public Domain – Illustration from theatre programme of 1936 based on a photo of the Saville Theatre, featuring the play The Limping Man by Will Scott 

It was still working as a theatre until 1969 but in the ‘60s was bought by Brian Epstein who used it for concerts as well.

Acts including Elton John, The Bee Gees, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, Pink Floyd and The Who.

Image – Wikimedia Commons – A poster from September 1967 advertising Sundays at the Saville

Epstein died in 1967 and in 1969 Cameron Mackintosh produced ‘Anything Goes’, one of his first London productions which closed after only two weeks. Today Mackintosh is of course one of the most successful theatre producers in the West End.

The Saville Theatre was converted into a cinema in 1970 and bought by Odeon in 2001. Now it’s known as Odeon Covent Garden, despite not actually being in Covent Garden.

There are some nice interior pictures on the Arthur Lloyd website here.

Odeon Covent Garden Frieze - Look Up London

But we’re really here to talk about the wonderful frieze…

The Odeon Covent Garden Frieze

Designed by Gilbert Bayes for the Saville Theatre, the apt subject is ‘Drama through the Ages’.

Historic England calls it “one of the largest and most important works of public sculpture of its age”.

The frieze runs the length of the facade on Shaftesbury Avenue – about 40m! – as well as two small panels tucked around either side. It earned Bayes the silver medal from the Institute of Sculptors in 1931. Let’s have a closer look.

As if waiting in the wings, an angel ushers St Joan onto stage. The French Saint seems an odd theatrical choice, but re-enactments of her martyrdom in 1431 were performed almost immediately and continued over the centuries.

Odeon Covent Garden Frieze - Look Up London

It was probably on the mind too, as George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan had premiered in New York 1923 and London the following year, just 7 years before this frieze was unveiled.

Around the corner we see travelling minstrels, the inscription informs us they’re ‘Chester Players’, a man sings along to his lute, while a more pensive priest – complete with shaved head – contemplates his cross.

Odeon Covent Garden Frieze - Look Up London

Early plays up and down the country were largely religious, groups performing Bible stories in different towns and cities.

Between the horse’s legs stands a rather chunky dragon, held with only a thin string, he obediently follows a kneeling St George.

Odeon Covent Garden Frieze - Look Up London

Mirroring St George, another kneeling figure marks the starts of the Greek chorus, dressed in robes, they seem curious to see their own reflections as they drop their theatrical masks.

Standing to attention behind are the Roman Gladiators, huge circular shields at their feet. Their theatrical performances in Amphitheatres literally meant life or death.

Odeon Covent Garden Frieze - Look Up London

Behind them stand Imperial soldiers – one appears white, wearing an animal headress while the other seems to be African – both straining to hold back two lions.

Odeon Covent Garden Frieze - Look Up London

Next, bring on the dancing girls!

Odeon Covent Garden Frieze - Look Up London

Lithe women twist and turn ahead of a goat-legged man riding a donkey. These are followers of Bacchus (the Roman God of wine and fertility) who, let’s just say, loves a party.

Odeon Covent Garden Frieze - Look Up London

Unimpressed, and forcing the revellers along, the next troupe comes from commedia dell’arte.

Odeon Covent Garden Frieze - Look Up London

Originally from Italy and popular throughout Europe from 16th-18th centuries, they give us the Harlequin and Pierrot characters. The latter shown, hands on hips and head tilted back, with typically gigantic billowing trousers.

Odeon Covent Garden Frieze - Look Up London

We’re then presented with a select from Shakespeare; A sinister, Puck-like, small child plays with a pair of shadow puppets.

Odeon Covent Garden Frieze - Look Up London

While sat on the back of a cart a fairy – maybe Titania? – watches the petals of a flower float away on the breeze. Looking thoroughly impatient behind her, King Richard V leans on his Royal Coat of Arms as the hapless Bottom – with his donkey head – looks on.

Odeon Covent Garden Frieze - Look Up London

A better-dressed double date line up behind him, ladies in front fanning themselves while a pipe-smoking man with a hand puppet in his pocket watches curiously.

Odeon Covent Garden Frieze - Look Up London

To the right of his head we see more puppets, this time to unmistakeable hooked nose and curved hat of the eponymous villain of Punch and Judy.

Odeon Covent Garden Frieze - Look Up London

The next inscription just says ROMANTIC as we see a collection of historic outfits.

Odeon Covent Garden Frieze - Look Up London

Then we officially arrive at the TWENTIETH CENTURY with a cloaked figure points a gun at another man with his pipe and smoking robe who appears thoroughly unconcerned.

Next march a trio of Can-Can style dancers, while behind them a woman consoles her male partner who inexplicably holds a bunch of grapes.

Odeon Covent Garden Frieze - Look Up London

In Renaissance Art, grapes are often used as a symbol of sacrifice – namely Jesus on the Cross – and so perhaps his distracted gaze alludes to the final figure around the corner?

The Stage Manager Angel reappears. But this time it’s ambiguous as to whether she’s drawing back the curtain, or slowly concealing the solider.

Odeon Covent Garden Frieze - Look Up London

Although Historic England gives the description ‘a figure in Boer War uniform’ to me it seems much more likely to be an infantry soldier from the First World War. In either case the suggestion of a final curtain adds an extra poignance at the loss of so many young lives.

Roundels

Above the frieze there are also some attractive roundels.

Grouped in pairs, they represent art from Egypt and Assyria (Ancient Iraq), Rome and Greece, Italian Renaissance and Medieval, Elizabethan and Georgian, finall Pompadour (18th Century France) and the Victorian period.

Future of 135-149 Shaftesbury Avenue

The building is Grade II listed and in March 2021 Camden rejected a new plan to transform the building into a hotel.

One positive of the building being investigated for development was the discovery that more “significant elements of the existing theatre survive” than was previously thought, including an unknown amount of the original Art Deco decorative scheme.

If it is eventually redeveloped, perhaps as another arts venue, these features will hopefully be protected!

More Gilbert Bayes

You can spot more work from Gilbert Bayes around London, however the most famous work can be found on Selfridges; the Queen of Time.

Best London Clocks

Read more about London’s best historic clocks here.

Related Post Sculpture (2)

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5 Comments

  • Jonathan Destree

    Reply

    Always loved this frieze, thanks for the detailed post! If Odeon does close, let’s hope we get another fantastic cultural venue in its place.
    As for these 2 characters: “a cloaked figure points a gun at another man with his pipe and smoking robe”, I thought they were Professor Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes, or at least that’s what I told my dad when he last visited and I showed him the frieze 🙂

    April 28, 2021 at 1:11 pm
  • Ronald Harold David Lloyd

    Reply

    What a wonderful illustrated story of this old theatre frieze. It was so enjoyable. I always thought that the cloaked figure pointing a gun at another man with his pipe and smoking robe was Professor Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes. It certainly looks like them. I wonder whether there was a connection between the old theatre and the great Sherlock Holmes.
    Mny thanks from Ron Lloyd.

    May 12, 2021 at 4:34 pm
  • Chris Baker

    Reply

    It wasn’t Camden who rejected the plans in March 2021, they had already done that. The hearing in March was an appeal to the Planning Inspectorate – I attended. The developer employed London’s top planning barrister, a QC who is known by the name ‘Kitkat’. After a very long hearing at which Camden Council, Covent Garden Community Association and a large number of local residents put up a strong defence of the Savile Theatre, Kitcat was soundly defeated. There is now some hope that the building will have a new lease of life as a properly restored venue.

    May 15, 2021 at 11:51 am
  • Lisa

    Reply

    Now I know why the 2016 world premiere of Ron Howard’s Beatles film Eight Days A Week was held here and not somewhere else! Thank you for yet another fascinating blog post 🙂

    June 27, 2021 at 2:59 pm

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