Staging a comeback

Granada Walthamstow balcony (credit Mike Fox)
The huge main auditorium inside the Granada has been left to rot since it ceased use as a cinema in 2003 (credit Mike Fox)

£17m restoration of Granada Cinema planned as council is set to buy iconic venue, writes James Cracknell

As Waltham Forest celebrates its year as the first-ever London Borough of Culture, some people have pointed to the irony of this accolade going to the only borough in the capital without a permanent theatre venue. Yet, it does – it’s just not open.

On Hoe Street in Walthamstow stands a building with an impressive history of having been not just a theatre and cinema but a music venue that once hosted The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Granada Cinema, also known as the EMD after its most recent use before closure in 2003, is now 90 years old and is Grade 2* listed by Historic England for its “fine Art Deco and Moorish style interiors”.

But the Granada is also in a state of decay and disrepair after being left to rot during its decade of ownership by a church group that was never able to obtain planning permission to convert it into a place of worship – after being blocked from doing so by both Waltham Forest Council and the government.

Signs of hope for Granada’s restoration appeared in 2014 when Antic London acquired the site, and later reopened the foyer as a gastro pub called Mirth, Marvel and Maud. Live music, comedy and pantomime has even been hosted there in recent years, but the main auditorium itself remains closed off and in need of a multi-million-pound refurbishment.

It was the prohibitive cost of the venue’s repair that prevented Antic from doing anything with the main auditorium for the past five years, despite attempts to find a partner organisation that would want to run it as a theatre. Enter stage right, Waltham Forest Council. Last month it was confirmed the local authority will buy the Granada for £2.8million from Antic – and will also fund its £17m restoration.

Claire Appleby, an architectural advisor at The Theatres Trust, has been working with the council to assess what needs to be done to bring the Granada back to its glory days. She told the Echo: “Once you stop using a building and maintaining it, it can deteriorate quite rapidly. There is a huge amount of work that needs to be done – there has been water coming up through the floor and other issues.

“When the church group owned it there was an awful lot of work done to show that we wanted the building kept for the community. There was a public inquiry and Soho Theatre showed there was a viable future for that venue. There is no point exploring it if there is no sustainable use for it.

“The issue with these buildings in this state of dilapidation is the amount it costs – we call it the ‘conservation deficit’ – to bring it back.

“Antic have kept it alive and kept up the awareness of the theatre, but they were not using the main body of space. They weren’t able to access the funding they needed to bring it into use. They would have needed to have a commercial development of the building.

“With the council now on board they can access the funding and look at the building as an asset and what it can do for the local economy. They think it can contribute between £34m and £52m over ten years – people spending more money in local shops and creating new jobs. The council has seen the potential of the Granada as a driver for the local area.”

Soho Theatre had at one stage been in talks with Antic to reopen the main auditorium, but was unable to come to an agreement. Now, it has done a deal with the council, and executive director Mark Godfrey has said the West End charity is aiming to “bring the best in comedy, theatre, screenings and special events back to the Granada”.

Claire continued: “Soho Theatre have looked at it and realised there is a gap in the market for a 1,000-seat comedy and live music venue. They want to hold educational workshops as well. They have a plan in place. The council now needs to look at how they will run this project and what will happen next. It has got such potential for Walthamstow – but it won’t happen overnight.

“People want to live in vibrant places – places to go and experience live performances – whether it’s comedy, music, or something else. Once you lose these venues it is incredibly difficult to get them back, so you have to take the opportunity.”