Today the doors of the Walthamstow Granada were opened to the public for the first time in 18 years. The cause for this event? The news that Waltham Forest Borough council – who have bought the Grade ll* Listed building for £2.6million – are embarking on a three-year restoration of the building to create a lasting legacy from its tenure this year as London’s first Borough of Culture. Local officials estimate that the venue’s renaissance will help to create many jobs and bring millions into the local economy.
The theatre will be operated for the Council by Soho Theatre Company, the group which run the very successful venue in Soho’s Dean Street, where their variety of performance spaces host mainly comedy but also music and theatre productions.
The building originally opened in 1930 as part of the Granada cinema chain, although owner/founder Sidney Bernstein preferred his cinemas to be known by the name of “theatres”, following the American tradition of which he was enamoured. The lavishly- decorated cinema seated over 2,000 and ran successfully for decades until changing hands several times and finally closing in 2003. Years of neglect followed as unsuitable purchasers did nothing to bring the building back into public use, creating several stalemates along the way. After consultation with Soho Theatre and much work being done on the viability of the venue’s future, the Council announced in March 2018 that it would buy the building. The plan is to restore the auditorium creating a capacity of around 1,000. Other spaces and studios may be created also, but this is still in a state of flux, according to sources on the day. There will be remodelling of the rear stalls areas to create a mezzanine level and more space created for seating, bars, food services, etc.
The venue will close its doors again for a complete restoration which is expected to last three years, to designs by Pilbrow and Partners (the founder of the business is Fred Pilbrow, son of the legendary lighting designer Richard Pilbrow who single-handedly created the language of stage lighting back in the late 50s).
Tours every half hour from 2pm to 8.30pm were jointly lead by council workers and Soho Theatre representatives. Groups of around 30 were guided through the space, with some prior information given before entering the venue. After a few moments to take in the auditorium, attendees were encouraged to don Virtual Reality headsets to see what the theatre would look like when refurbished, with images created looking from the Dress Circle and also from the side stalls. Both VR presentations were very effective in suggesting how the venue might look when restored to its best.
We were given generous opportunities to look around unaccompanied, and also to ascend a scaffolding tower which took us to the front of the Dress Circle level to see the space from other angles. The auditorium had been cannily lit to exaggerate a select number of features but also to disguise the fact that the peeling paint and damaged plasterwork was in a pretty sorry state after almost two decades of neglect, and would frankly need every penny of a large restoration budget (estimated at several million) to be spent on it.
The Open Day event was well managed by both Soho Theatre and Waltham Forest Council, with a pleasant reception / exhibition area with drinks and snacks laid on, excellent welcoming staff across the board and the whole event has certainly generated a lot of excitement and fostered a good deal of goodwill.
Congratulations to everyone who fought so hard to keep the building from the wrecker’s ball over the years, including my colleagues in the Cinema Theatre Association who have stood alongside all the many other interested groups for so long.
So, see you all back here in three years, then!
All photos copyright Unrestricted Theatre unless stated