Cinema deserves a shrine

Observations on the picture palace

As the great and the good of west London, including Stephen Frears, Joseph Fiennes and their contacts books, try to save Notting Hill's Coronet Cinema from closure, they could try looking further east for inspiration.

The Coronet seems about to go the way of hundreds of other picture palaces with their deep-pile crimson carpets and hissing ushers. In 1946, there were 4,036 cinemas. If all of England had rushed out on the same Saturday to see Beauty and the Beast, there would have been room for a tenth of the population. Manchester alone had 122 cinemas. Grays in Essex had four cinemas, which between them could seat 5,790 in a town of 18,000. There are now 2,070 screens, in 551 cinemas. Multiplexes account for 60 per cent of admissions.

Many of these picture palaces went to religion, the big auditoriums being per-fect for packing the pews. The Hispano-Mooresque cinema in Finsbury Park, north London, is now owned by a religious sect. The Avenue cinema in Ealing, also known as "Spanish City", is a church and the Rio Cinema in Hackney became a mosque. Richard Gray of the Cinema Theatre Association says: "Continuing cinema use invariably means them being chopped into smaller cinemas. Church use is one of the least intrusive ways of finding a continuous use for these vast buildings."

But the fate of one picture palace should give hope to the Coronet. Last year, the Grade II-listed art-deco EMD Cinema in Walthamstow - patronised by the young Alfred Hitchcock, famous for its African-sky ceiling propped up by palms - closed after 73 years. It was sold for £2.8m to the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God which, according to LA Weekly, is a "raw blend of Christianity and witchcraft" with an estimated annual turnover of more than £700m and eight million adherents in 85 countries. UCKG had already renovated and packed out the 1,800 seats in the former Finsbury Park picture palace. Now, it looked greedily to the 2,697 seats in Walthamstow.

But Waltham Forest Council refused planning permission. UCKG blames the Climbie child-abuse case: Victoria Clim-bie's aunt took her to the cinema in Finsbury Park, instead of hospital, when she thought her possessed by demons.

Rather than fearing mass sessions of exorcism, the council may just have done its arithmetic. Waltham Forest has 120 churches and no cinema. Cinemas started as democratic public buildings, in central positions on high streets and at junctions, that welcomed anybody who could pay the entry fee. A huge picture palace is the only evening attraction that can enter- tain all sections of the community, and they cannot be replaced by out-of-town multiplexes.

John Prescott's department has now upheld the council's decision. The government has begun to realise that allowing cinemas to serve bread and wine rather than popcorn will kill towns after nightfall. Film should not be the only cult to lack its shrine on the high street.