A long running campaign to save a historic cinema near the east London birthplace of Alfred Hitchcock is now reaching its final stages. The EMD in Walthamstow is widely regarded as one of London's finest surviving cinemas with a heritage dating back to the earliest days of motion pictures. The stunning art deco venue closed in 2003 when it was purchased by the controversial Brazilian religious group the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG) who hoped to convert it to a place of worship. Initial attempts to gain planning permission for their scheme proved unsuccessful but church leaders have recently launched a new bid to persuade local politicians to rubber stamp their plans.
"The church originally applied for planning approval to convert the cinema for religious use before they even bought the venue," said Bill Hodgson of campaign group the McGuffin Film Society. "The local council unanimously voted to refuse permission but UCKG went ahead and purchased the building anyway, paying the previous owner more than twice the market value to gain control of the site. It was a very aggressive move and it succeeded in totally alienating local opinion".
McGuffin had begun as a community Film Society screening art house and foreign language films at the EMD two years earlier. The group found themselves leading the campaign to save the cinema after UCKG earmarked it as an ideal venue for their showbiz-style religious ceremonies.
"The outpouring of support for the cinema was overwhelming," said Bill Hodgson. "The EMD is probably the most loved building in the area and people were quick to rally to its defence. It is an architectural masterpiece and the last substantial entertainment venue left in this part of London. Its closure has clearly had a detrimental effect on the whole town centre and has left Waltham Forest as the only London borough without a cinema".
Following their purchase of the EMD, the church group launched an appeal with central government in an attempt to overturn the local authority's original decision to refuse planning permission. Thousands of residents signed petitions and took part in demonstrations supporting the cinema. A lengthy Public Inquiry was held in late 2003 and this concluded the EMD should remain as a cinema and UCKG's plans were dismissed.
The situation then became deadlocked as the church refused to sell the building or enter negotiations with either the local council or the string of cinema operators who were interested in acquiring the site. Waltham Forest Council announced it would issue a Compulsory Purchase Order to force UCKG to sell the venue but this pledge was quickly abandoned.
"Although the local council was initially very vocal in their support for saving the cinema it became apparent that the strength of their commitment was limited to words and not deeds," said Bill Hodgson. "With UCKG refusing to budge, councillors lost their nerve and distanced themselves from the issue. The cinema was effectively left in limbo which caused a lot of anger in the local community".
Several attempts to build a new multiplex in the area failed to bear fruit while public support for reviving the EMD stubbornly refused to dwindle.
The situation eventually reached boiling point earlier this year when campaigners obtained documents under the Freedom of Information Act which revealed details of secret negotiations between councillors and UCKG aimed at drawing up a 'compromise' deal. The proposed solution would permit UCKG to convert the venue into a church while a small portion of the building would be made available for community hire.
The news provoked outrage and six hundred people brought Walthamstow town centre to a standstill at a mass protest outside the cinema which catapulted the EMD back into the national media.
The campaign gained further momentum when a host of celebrities lined up to offer their support including Mick Jagger, Meera Syal, Tony Robinson, Alan Davies and Alain de Botton. Relatives of Cecil and Sidney Bernstein contacted the McGuffin Film Society to voice their family's opposition to the latest conversion plans. The Bernstein brothers had built the cinema in 1930 as part of the Granada chain and were close friends and collaborators of Alfred Hitchcock.
Several cinema operators also went on the record to confirm their interest in reviving the EMD including Lyn Goleby of the Picturehouse chain, James Hannaway of Berkhamsted's iconic Rex Cinema and Tyrone Walker-Hebborn who regenerated the Genesis Cinema in London's Mile End.
UCKG became embroiled in further controversy during August when the church's Brazilian leaders were accused of international money laundering by a court in Saint Paulo. The church denied any wrongdoing but within days had swiftly presented their new planning application to Waltham Forest Council, prompting further protests.
"The EMD has become a potent symbol of people's aspirations for the area and their frustration with the short-sightedness of local politicians," said Bill Hodgson.
"The cinema clearly has the potential to be revived as a unique cultural asset for the 21st century and a landmark entertainment venue for this part of the capital. It is a mystery worthy of Alfred Hitchcock why councillors have devoted so much effort to prevent this from happening".
A decision on the future of the EMD Cinema is expected before the end of the year.
The EMD Cinema stands on a site which has been a centre of entertainment and culture for more than a century.
The original Victoria Hall opened in May 1887 as a venue for dances, concerts, meetings and plays. The site's long association with the movies began when it played host to one of London's first ever film shows in 1896, the year of cinema's birth. The Victoria Hall became the area's first dedicated full time cinema in 1907 and is believed to have been a haunt of the young Alfred Hitchcock during this period. Patricia Hitchcock, daughter of the master of suspense, was one of the McGuffin Film Society's earliest supporters.
In 1930 the Victoria Hall was purchased by the famous Bernstein brothers for their Granada Theatres chain and they decided to reinvent the site as a modern 'Super Cinema'. The architect of the new Granada Cinema was Cecil Massey with flamboyant interior decorations by the world famous Russian stage designer Theodore Komisarjevsky.
The venue re-opened as a 'Cine-Variety' theatre, presenting a mixture of films and live entertainment. Equipped with first rate stage facilities, it would later play host to such entertainment legends as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Little Richard, the Who, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison and many others.
The vast venue was remodelled as a more modest triple screen cinema in 1973, reflecting the changing tastes of cinemagoers but still retaining all the architectural and decorative features for which it had become famous.
In 1989 the venue was acquired by the Cannon group of cinemas and by the late 1990s had been absorbed into the Odeon chain. After 116 years as the area's flagship site for arts and entertainment, the building closed its doors to the public in 2003 when it was purchased by UCKG.
The EMD Cinema has been scheduled by English Heritage as a Grade 2* Listed building in recognition of its outstanding architectural and cultural significance. The EMD is the only British venue which retains an original Christie theatre organ in situ and is an important landmark for students and aficionados of cinema history.