Hitchcock's old cinema seeks return to the glory days of film

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The Independent Culture

For seven decades it was the venue of choice for discerning cinephiles and music lovers, its battered red velour seats playing host to screaming Beatles fans and a wannabe film maker called Alfred Hitchcock.

The EMD cinema in Walthamstow, east London, will meet its toughest test yet tomorrow when an inquiry opens into whether a controversial evangelical group will be allowed to turn the grade II listed picture palace, opened in 1930, into a church.

A planning inspector will have to decide between the claims of the group ­ which says it wants to "benefit the Walthamstow community" ­ and a coalition of residents and Waltham Forest Borough Council, which wants to preserve the last cinema in the borough.

Bill Hodgson, the campaigner leading the fight to reopen the venue, said: "We believe it should retain its current use and should be upgraded and improved with due respect to its illustrious heritage. Waltham Forest is already home to 120 churches and, while in principle we have no objection to another, we are convinced that it should not be at the expense of a major community asset."

The wrangle is part of a growing trend of listed cinemas and music halls being sold to religious groups willing to pay for their preservation. But the sale of the EMD cinema to the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG) is particularly contentious.

The Brazil-based church, which arrived in Britain eight years ago and now has 16 churches, paid £2.8m for the Art Deco film and music venue last summer, closed it and submitted a proposal to turn it into an evangelical centre.

When the application was rejected by the local authority, the church launched an appeal, which has led to this week's planning inquiry.

But despite its advertised aim to work with "the homeless, the elderly and drug addicts", UCKG has hit the headlines for other reasons ­ its belief that illnesses are caused by "demons" that must be exorcised, its involvement in the case of Victoria Climbie and questions over its charitable giving abroad.

Victoria, the schoolgirl from the Ivory Coast who was murdered in 2000 by her great-aunt, Marie-Therese Kouao, 44, and the woman's 28-year-old boyfriend, Carl Manning, was taken to a branch of the church four times in the final eight days of her life.

During the public inquiry into Victoria's death, a church pastor said he thought she was possessed by the Devil and a "deliverance from witch-craft" service was held.

Not until her last visit did the pastor, Alvero Lima, suggest the child be taken to hospital, where she was found to have 128 separate injuries.

The Charity Commission said last year that it was investigating large donations by UCKG to its sister churches abroad, including £1.8m sent the UCKG in Portugal in 2001. The Portuguese UCKG in turn sent £2.02m to Britain.

But the UCKG said in a statement last night: "We have a large congregation in the area that has been pleading with us to open a suitable premises that can offer the fullness of our services." The statement accused opponents of the plans of showing "ignorance" of what the church was about. The church said it had not been blamed by the Charity Commission for anything that happened to Victoria.

Campaigners seeking to preserve the EMD cinema insist their objection is not based on religious intolerance but a desire to retain its history and boost the area'seconomy.

In its golden age, the cinema ­ then owned by Granada Theatres and called a "Super Cinema" ­ had a capacity of 2,697. The Moorish interior was designed by Theodore Komisarjevsky, a Russian stage designer and director.

Among those who performed there were Duke Ellington, James Brown, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Who, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison and Little Richard. The building is also home to an original Christie organ, the last example in the country.

Mr Hughes, who heads the McGuffin Film Society, which was running the venue as an independent cinema until it was sold last August, said: "The building is of interest to students of cinema history and arguably of national importance."

The group has received a letter of support from Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, as well as backing from Patricia Hitchcock, who appeared in a number of her father's films. Alfred Hitchcock was born in Waltham Forest and visited the cinema in his youth.

Waltham Forest council said last week that it would consider using its compulsory purchase powers to buy back the building if its decision to reject the UCKG was upheld.

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