Behind the modest, boarded up exterior lies a truly beautiful Grade II* listed building, boasting remarkably extravagant Baroque and Moorish interiors by the renowned Russian designer and director Theodore Komisarjevsky. It is the last in a string of cinemas in Britain he designed that can still be used for its original purpose. The others have either been demolished or converted to other use.
The venue began its life as the Victoria Music Hall in 1887 with space for dances, concerts and plays. A film was first shown at the Victoria in 1896, the year of the birth of cinema, leading to the building being converted into the area’s first dedicated cinema in 1907. In 1930 it was rebuilt by Sidney Bernstein as the Granada – the building you see today – and one of the chain’s largest and most lavish ‘Super Cinemas’ with 2,700 seats.
This area of east London played a vital part in the early development of cinema in Britain with film studios located nearby, contributing to a rich local cultural heritage. Rumour has it the site was a popular haunt with a young Alfred Hitchcock who grew up nearby.
Initially the Granada operated as a ‘Cine-Variety’ theatre, presenting a mixture of live entertainment and films. It was equipped with excellent stage facilities and played host to entertainment legends including The Beatles, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Scott Walker, Cliff Richard, The Who, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, James Brown and Roy Orbison.
In 1968 the stalls area was closed for screenings, but patrons continued watching films from the huge balcony.
Live shows ended in 1973 as the rear stalls area beneath the balcony was subdivided to provide 2 screens. The majestic architecture could still be enjoyed from the balcony – with the main stage and screen now ‘cinema 1’.
In 1989 it was acquired by and renamed Cannon cinemas, later renamed Virgin and ABC before becoming part of the Odeon chain in 2000. That year Odeon management dispensed with many of its older cinemas and after placing a restrictive covenant preventing the screening of English language films, the venue was sold to Mohan Sharma and renamed EMD Cinemas. This restrictive sales clause caused outrage amongst local people and led to the formation of the McGuffin Film Society to help restore the venue as a community-wide resource. In April 2001, Odeon management relented and permitted the cinema to screen any film and in any language.
After 116 years as the area’s flagship site for arts and entertainment, the building was closed in January 2003 when it was sold to it’s current owners, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG). Their plans to turn it into a church were rejected by Waltham Forest Council in 2002 and by national government on Appeal in 2003.
A second planning application submitted by UCKG including limited wider ‘community use’ was rejected in 2011 and a third including small cinema screens rejected in September 2012. Following a public inquiry later in 2012, an Appeal was rejected by the government in May 2013.
As of Winter 2014, the building remains closed, depriving the borough’s 250,000 residents from enjoying a spectacular cinema that outlived all the others in Waltham Forest.
With Waltham Forest Council pledging ‘in principal’ to compulsory purchase the cinema should UCKG refuse to sell it to Waltham Forest Cinema Trust (see ‘Future’ page for details), we await the next chapter in the venues history.
The building is scheduled by English Heritage as a Grade II* Listed Building in recognition of its outstanding architectural and cultural significance and is the only British cinema which retains an original Christie theatre organ built specifically for the venue.