Wembley Arena is sweltering and packed to its 12,500-seat capacity. Two monitors flank the stage. Speakers thunder with Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and Toni Braxton’s “Unbreak My Heart” – songs lined with subliminal messages to a mesmerised crowd. Dry ice rises. A whiff of oestrogen permeates the air.
Welcome to the Love School: Britain’s induction into romantic fulfilment, or relationship rescue. Tickets for the roadshow, up to £40, have been selling with such speed that there were no returns when The Independent dropped in yesterday. Each attendee gets a copy of Bullet Proof Marriage – Your Shield Against Divorce. The promises are that big.
But it’s not just spouses lining up for help. The event is “sponsored” by the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG), a Pentecostal group that has fought allegations of fraud and money laundering (later dropped) and been likened in the US to a cult.
In Britain the group is best known for being investigated (and later cleared) of involvement in the death of Victoria Climbie, the eight-year-old girl who was tortured and murdered by her guardians. She is said to have been taken to the church for exorcism by her great-aunt.
But when The Independent approaches Paul Hill, a spokesman for the UCKG, his perma-smile soon transforms into disdain. “Those allegations were deeply unfounded, unfair and unnecessary,” he says. “In fact I wish Victoria Climbie had been a member of the church earlier, because we would have been able to help her. By the time we were aware of her condition she was put in a taxi on the way to hospital.”
He insists that UCKG has been deeply scarred by the fallout of the Climbie incident, and has made big changes as a result. “I’d go so far to say the UCKG are now pioneers of child protection. All our pastors are CRB-checked and we maintain regular contact with social services.”
Of course, the attendees know little of all that. Michael Waters, a retired postman from North London, meets his 30-year-old daughter outside the event. “It’s just spiritual guidance isn’t it? I have nothing against religion as long as it used properly. As long as it’s not radical or extreme or used to brainwash, I think it’s OK really,” he says.
Billing itself as a “secular event”, the Love School has been heavily publicised in London on billboards, buses and by street teams. But word has also spread inside the churches, and the majority of its attendees are Christian church-goers.
Alan Hilditch, 50, a distribution centre worker from Sevenoaks, has been married for two years. “This has all come as a bit of a surprise. My wife said we were going to Wembley Arena. I thought, ‘Wow there must be something good on’. Now I’m hoping to find out what I can get out of it. It won’t be the Karma Sutra or a how-to-guide or anything. If things can be improved then, hey, why not?”
The photogenic hosts of the Love School are Renato and Cristiane Cardoso, both Brazilians and the epitome of marital optimism. They walk on hand-in-hand to thunderous applause and open the show with a terrifying statistic: of the 100 people who got married yesterday, 42 will be divorced within 10 years.
The lessons they reveal from their own 22-year marriage are to communicate intelligently, prepare to make sacrifices and put the other person first. All common sense, surely, but Mr Cardoso insists: “If you can’t admit your mistakes and put the other person first, your marriage has no hope of sustaining itself.”
After four hours of pre-match hype, including a performance from the church’s youth group, VYC, and then a two-hour masterclass from the Cardosos, it is early evening and attendees are leaving. Both the cynical and unlucky-in-love are filing out with renewed optimism.
Risikatu Olaribigbe, a youth worker from Brixton, says: “I came here to learn more about love. I’m single at the moment but who knows? My future partner is still out there. I have a dream of being married by this time next year.”