Interview: Louise Ferguson of the Crystal Palace Picture Palace Campaign

Film From the early to mid part of last century, every main street it seems, in city centres and suburbs, had a cinema, huge, beautiful edifaces, where people loved and lost off screen and on. Then television became the cheaper alternative with life's challenges played out in the living room instead.

By the sixties and seventies most picture houses closed and had either fallen derelict or been converted to clubs, bars or bingo halls, leaving many areas without a local cinema. Crystal Palace is such an area and The Rialto is just such a building.

After many years as a bingo hall could potentially become a cinema again. City Screen, the company that also owns Picturehouse at FACT, are interested but were recently outbid by the Kingsway International Christian Centre who want to transform it into a church.

The Picture Palace Campaign doesn't want that to happen. Crystal Palace is without a cinema, and this site offers the perfect opportunity for that to happen. I was contacted recently to ask if I'd offer my support, which I'm pleased to, and I thought the best way for you to hear about it was through the words of the campaigners.

Me: Tell us about the campaign.

Louise: This campaign has some history. It’s not just about providing a cinema now, or opposing a church.

A few years ago, a property developer attempted get a complex built on the local green space Crystal Palace Park; the proposal included a chain multiplex, and the plan was opposed by the local community, who clearly wanted a cinema, but not some antiseptic warehouse-style venue built on our local green lung. Who wants their lovely local park covered in concrete and car parks?

City Screen – which owns the PictureHouse cinemas – had in the meantime been trying to acquire the old Rialto cinema on the Crystal Palace Triangle for some five years, but each time the licence came up for renewal with the council, Gala Bingo said they were going to continue with their operation. And so things continued until summer 2009, when Gala suddenly decided to call it a day, owing to financial problems at the company, and put this and other cinemas up for sale. There were sealed bids, not all bidders had access to the building to assess its value, and suddenly the building belonged to a prosperity gospel church planning on bringing its televangelist-style ministry to our neighbourhood.

The former cinema – which opened in 1928 with Dolores Del Rio in Ramona and operated as a cinema until 1968, with Marlon Brando in Reflections in a Golden Eye and Patrick O’Neill in Assignment to Kill - maybe doesn’t have the architectural merit of some of those early picture palaces, but it is in reasonable condition, while cinema and the moving image do have a considerable history here in Crystal Palace. I was astonished to find out that there had been at various times been four cinemas in different parts of the Palace Triangle.

There’s a history of film-making here too: John Logie Baird had a long connection with the area, living nearby at Sydenham Hill while he set up and operated the world's first major broadcasting complex at Crystal Palace; and there was a local movie studio run by J Arthur Rank. And in the not so distant past, film director Ken Russell lived just a few doors down from the Rialto building on Church Road… and the Palace transmitter features in films such as The Italian Job. So you could say there has been a close and productive relationship between film and Crystal Palace for decades.

The campaign is really about restoring some of what we had. The Cinema Theatres Association agrees with us that there’s a lack of cinemas in this part of London: South London as a whole has a very low ratio of screens to people, and cinema provision in London Borough of Bromley is particularly low.

At the same time we want to see the area regenerated. The Triangle is awash with bars and restaurants, as well as many independently-owned shops and creative enterprises. A cinema would provide an economic and social anchor for the neighbourhood, encouraging people to visit and to hang around and absorb some of what’s happening around here.

What prompted you to take action?

Quite a few people in the area were flabbergasted to discover that the cinema had changed hands so quickly. It was sold from under the feet of the bingo hall employees in June, who had no idea what was going on as they ran bingo sessions. And we were then faced with the likely consequence that we would lose our only leisure building in the area, for good. The way that the chance of a decent venue was whisked away just as it was presented was a little too much to stomach. We had seen a very similar thing happen in nearby Catford, where the last cinema in the borough – the ABC – was turned into a ‘prosperity gospel’ church against the wishes of Lewisham Council and its mayor.

We already knew there were many churches in the immediate vicinity, but we didn’t realise just how many. We discovered there were 18. So there’s definitely no shortage of churches around here.

And yet despite years of discussion, and interest by independent cinema operators, we still had no cinema while the last remaining cinema building was destined to become yet another church. You could say there were a lot of upset people around.

We organised a meeting, launched a public campaign, put together a website

and a Facebook group, signed up with twitter and generally started getting people mobilised. We put together a technical committee to deal with the detailed work of opposing the planning application, tee-shirts were printed and sold to raise funds for printing, and we delivered tens of thousands of postcards door-to-door. A fair few celebrities supported the campaign, including Spike Jonze, Ken Russell, Mark Thomas and local residents Speech Debelle, Kathy Lette and Pixie Lott, which certainly helped with press coverage and volunteer morale. In October, we organised a public meeting at a local hotel that attracted around 1,000 people – there was standing-room only – and petition signatories soon rose over 10,000.

Bear in mind that local residents had mobilised in recent years over the future of Crystal Palace Park, another key community resource, so you could says that the community was already in third gear, ready and able to quickly launch another campaign.

By the time we needed to send in objections to the Council, there were thousands of people ready and willing to make their views known, and hundreds prepared to do research and leg-work and attend council meetings. Bromley said this was the biggest response they’d ever had to a planning case, ever.

We got the result that we wanted - the church’s plan was rejected just before Christmas – but the vote was close and we’re expecting the church to appeal. We are fully prepared to do everything it takes, such as carrying on to a public inquiry, finding a pro bono barrister or even QC...

We do think that a cinema in Crystal Palace is a viable proposition. Otherwise we wouldn’t be doing this. Cinemas did go through a difficult time in the 80s and 90s, but attendances are on the rise again, and many people are looking for a different kind of cinema experience, exemplified by the Ritzy in Brixton or the Rio in Dalston: a neighbourhood place to meet, with good food and a bar, and showing a wide range of films appealing to many different audiences.

Have there been any similar campaigns?

As soon as we started our own campaign, we found others. Perhaps the longest-running one is the EMD cinema campaign in Walthamstow. The EMD is a lovely Grade II* listed building, with an incredible history and fabulous interiors.

The EMD was the victim of the film distribution business itself, with the previous purchaser prevented from showing mainstream films as a condition of purchase. It’s amazing – or perhaps shocking – how often this kind of condition is attached to such property sales. But when the EMD was purchased in 2003 by the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG) it was still a functioning cinema, showing Asian films. The local pro-cinema campaign, run by the McGuffin Film Society, has fought hard for several years to re-open this gem of a picture palace, and is currently battling yet another planning application from the church for change of use. A hearing is due in February 2010.

In Hailsham in Sussex, we came across the heart-warming story of the former mayor June Bourne, who launched a cinema rescue fund with just £1,400. The Hailsham Pavilion cinema reopened fully restored some 15 years after it had shut its doors as a bingo hall.

In Hackney, there’s a campaign to keep the old Clapton Cinematograph as a cinema.

And just a few weeks ago I came across a new small campaign very nearby, in Hither Green (South East London), where local residents are hoping to preserve an old cinema as a cultural centre.

What has the success rate been like?

The Hailsham campaign can definitely be classed a success, with a grade II listed building rescued and reopened, and a community benefiting from this fantastic resource. A different kind of success I think was achieved in Henley, where the old cinema came down, but a new one was constructed, which is now operated by Picture Houses.

The Coliseum Cinema in Porthmadog is another success story.

But elsewhere there are plans to tear down old cinemas, such as the Odeon in Portsmouth.

Unless a building is listed it is very vulnerable, and the dice seem to be loaded in favour of larger developers and organisations and against local communities and their needs and wishes.

Is this simply about the fact that the cinema could be changing use or because it's changing use to become a church?

The West End is choc-a-bloc with excellent cinemas providing a wide choice of films to local residents, but in outer London the distribution of cinemas is patchy. There are now two London boroughs without any cinemas at all, Lewisham and Waltham Forest. In both cases, a church has removed the last remaining cinema from the borough – and in the case of Lewisham, this was against the express wishes of both the Council and the Mayor of Lewisham.

In several other boroughs there is only one cinema. A huge swath of London falls well below the national average for cinema provision. Even the Greater London Authority proposed addressing this cinema and screen shortage by bringing old cinema buildings back into use as cinemas. So the Crystal Palace campaign to reinstate the cinema is not exactly revolutionary on this score.

In Crystal Palace itself, local residents and City Screen (Picture Houses) have been trying to find a solution to the lack of a local cinema for at least five years, so long before this church came along. At the same time, there has been ongoing local concern about the viability of some shops in the same street as the cinema, owing to the lack of footfall, with some of them either shutting or moving on. So when Gala Bingo put this building up for sale, the local community was suddenly presented with an opportunity to return the cinema building to its original purpose, and to reinvigorate, regenerate this rather run-down part of the Triangle.

The church has landed, perhaps unwittingly, in a pre-existing battle for the cultural and economic future of the area. Had it or its advisors done their homework before buying this building, they would have quickly discovered they were about to enter a snake pit and might well have backed off.

But we are concerned that the church has failed to engage with the local community – it did send two representatives to the recent public meeting but they refused to speak – despite making repeated claims of being a ‘community organisation’. If the church were to emerge victorious, we’d have serious concerns about the church’s relationship with this area. Crystal Palace is a bohemian part of town with a large lesbian and gay community and a bit of an artsy-fartsy vibe, while the church’s leader Pastor Ashimolowo has gone on record as being against equal treatment of gays, even signing a petition to the Government against gay rights. It takes a fairly fundamentalist position.

The behaviour of Gala Bingo in this affair could be described as irresponsible, both towards its own staff and towards the local community. This really was not a good way to conduct a sale of an important community resource.

I’m also surprised that the Charity Commission can permit a registered charity to enter what is in effect a rather expensive lottery, subsidised by all of us through substantial Gift Aid cheques from the taxman. The church has taken a considerable punt on being able to gain planning permission after it has acquired property, and without this planning permission the church cannot use the building.

KICC, and other similar churches such as UCKG, have some ‘previous’ on such local planning issues. It was UCKG that removed the ABC cinema in Catford, and that ended the concert life of Rainbow Theatre, which I attended as a teenager. Some of us are becoming peeved at the number of such venues being taken away from communities by religious charities that claim to be ‘community organisations’ but which display clearly community-hostile behaviours. And it is pretty outrageous that the UCKG, a registered charity, can let a grade II* listed cinema decay drastically over a period of six years as it battles against the wishes of the local community. The building is now on the English Heritage at risk “A” list owing to the church’s failure to maintain it. KICC itself has engaged in a number of costly planning battles in the London area in recent years.

[Some of the concerns raised by local councils and residents have been about traffic and transport. This building – which is to be the KICC regional church for the SE of England – will be the largest capacity building the church has. A similar but smaller KICC operation in Walthamstow attracts 6,000 every Sunday, mostly arriving by car, and the people of Crystal Palace are concerned about their small bohemian centre of independent shops and eateries being swamped by a stadium-like influx of all-comers in their cars from across South of England; there’s no Tube in Crystal Palace, and fairly poor public transport on a Sunday.]

What do you like from a cinema?

I’ve always been a fan of the independents and small chains: The Duke of York’s in Brighton and the Ritzy in Brixton have both been my local cinemas at different times, and for a brief time I was a client of the Filmhouse in Edinburgh. I like to see a wide array of films on show, and for there to be activities going on around film itself. These cinemas also support new film-makers, showing shorts and so on.

Cinema needs to come back into our town centres and high streets, and cinemas need to be buildings that contribute to the local community. It’s a dispiriting thing when a visit to a cinema entails a drive to some out-of-town shopping development, where the cinema is a soulless shoebox showing nothing but Hollywood blockbusters.

Recently, I went to the opening night of AmenĂ¡bar’s new film Agora in Spain at just such a venue. The town of Las Arenas has lost its old and charming red-plush cinema in the town centre – which in my mum’s day changed programme three times a week – to a housing development, so now all they have is a warehouse box in the middle of nowhere, far even from a metro stop. The place is dominated by cars and car parks. It’s a cinema underpinned by the idea of a factory, a building that processes visitors in a single direction, with no interaction. These people really know how to destroy the magic of cinema. It’s just not a place I’d want to go.

What's the next step?

We’ve won round one, a refusal of the church’s application for planning permission. This is a great first step.

But KICC is highly likely to appeal. The church has a history of pursuing unlikely planning cases in the face of local opposition and the recommendations of planners. For instance, it recently spent £2.75m on planning consultants in an attempt to get permission to build an 8,000-seater mega-church in Havering, on the east side of London. KICC seems to be awash with money – some of it from us – to fritter away on such ventures.

Letters released to us – under the Freedom of Information Act – from the church’s agent to the Council make not-so-veiled threats about KICC leaving the building to rot if the church does not get its way. We’re going to be following up this not-very-charitable stance with the Charity Commission. After all, charity trustees do have legal - and charitable – obligations.

In the meantime there is a tremendous amount of energy in the area. Thousands are wearing their Crystal Palace campaign t-shirts with pride, and we are already informally planning the most appropriate first screenings – Passport to Pimlico perhaps, or movies featuring the Crystal Palace Transmitter. An international film festival is being planned for 2010.

Thank you Louise. Good luck!


  1. Stephen Tickner4:52 pm

    Hi. Read the article with interest. Every thought about using the bowl in Crystal Palace Park to show films? Weather permitting it would make a stunning venue. If successful, maybe it would go towards proving the want / need for a cinema? Just an idea. Any thoughts?

  2. Good suggestion, but perhaps an also-good-to-have (in the summer, in good weather) rather than alternative. The Triangle really needs an anchor leisure building/venue for regeneration.

    We currently have open-air screenings at nearby Dulwich Park (very popular), and there are films clubs in local/Triangle pubs, so occasional screenings are already available, but such venues tend to be very constrained in what they can show by the way the exhibition business operates.

  3. Great interview and very enlightening. I completely support the Picture Palace campaign and articles like this go a long way to creating more interest and getting even more support.

    To comment on Stephen's comment: Don't forget that we also now have Crystal Palace Pictures (full disclosure: I help run it -- well, I do the website anyway!). We're non-profit and show a film for a fiver every second Thursday at the Gipsy Hill Tavern, just down from the Triangle.

    We're also currently helping to organise the Crystal Palace Film Festival taking place this summer, and yes that includes the possibility of staging an outdoor screening in the Bowl.

    We're already providing a film alternative for locals and it's proving popular so far. We're all above board, paying for the licenses to show films. This years programme is now fixed, but we are open to suggestions for films for next year's programme: I wouldn't say we're very constrained in what we can show -- we can show pretty much any film assuming a licence is available to do so.

    There's clearly a great desire to see film on a big screen in the Palace, and at least for now we have the biggest one - 17 feet corner to corner! It would be great for people to come and support this new local venture while waiting for the future of a real Cinema.

    Sorry if this seems a bit of a sales pitch; just trying to raise awareness as it seems that a lot of locals still don't know about us.

  4. Anonymous1:12 pm

    I was at the Queen's Hotel meeting - and greatly impressed by numbers - and was pleased to hear there was a measure of success at Bromley. I am just an impoverished resident but am very interested in what happens next!

  5. Anonymous9:23 am

    the iissue of reproviding a cinema sounds great but i do feel that as a private building in private ownership local people (whatever goodwill they have) should not hold owners to ransom.

    On the face of it, it appears to me that the buuilding needs significant inverstment and the only oeople willing to put their hands in their piocket is the church. Te ceinma group may make overtures that they want it but how much were they willing to pay??

    The church are also looking to open it up for the commonutiy to rent out and show films so in my view everyone would be a winner ie the local peole get a cinema and the church provide services and other activities to the local people and help to attract people into the area which must be a good thing. So much better than say a private members club that could oeprate under its existing permission.

    I do feel that after a protracted campaign nit much will happen to the buildung aprt from it being used by the church for its own private uses within the existing permission and therfore, offering nothing to the community.

    I think the best option is top get the council to convert/use one of its own buildings to show films or to purchase (with help of local people) a =nother building elsewhere.

  6. Well, "Anonymous"

    Do you always sign as "anonymous"?

    "the iissue of reproviding a cinema sounds great but i do feel that as a private building in private ownership local people (whatever goodwill they have) should not hold owners to ransom."

    The owners now - the church - failed to apply for planning permission before they bought the building. That is what the Charity Commission recommends. The building does not have permission for the church's proposed use. It never has had. End of. Nobody is being held to ransom: but the church took a big bet, just as if it had gone to the dog track or the horse races or put some money on the football pools. And the bet has failed because the planner said NO.

    "On the face of it, it appears to me that the buuilding needs significant inverstment and the only oeople willing to put their hands in their piocket is the church. Te ceinma group may make overtures that they want it but how much were they willing to pay??"

    The church has been offered more money than it paid for the building. Much much more. The church turned down that offer - which would have given the church a very very fat profit. And the offer was turned down within 48 hours. I have the numbers if you're interested. There have been other offers too - I have the correspondence. All offers have been ignored or turned down.

    "The church are also looking to open it up for the commonutiy to rent out and show films so in my view everyone would be a winner ie the local peole get a cinema and the church provide services and other activities to the local people and help to attract people into the area which must be a good thing. So much better than say a private members club that could oeprate under its existing permission."

    The church has made no statement whatsover in its planning application about community film shows. What is the plan? Christian films? Or Life of Brian? I think we know what any proposal might be. We have seen other similar churches make similar claims recently (there are examples in both south and north London) with no actual films ever being shown. It's a tactic used by these kinds of churches to get planning permission, nothing more. The 'partitions' mentioned in the planning application are to get planning (reduction in numbers), *not* because there's any real prospect of community use. Would you like the application case numbers? There are many. We've seen it all before.

    There is absolutely no need to attract anybody into the area. We are already here! We have no wish to see an influx of thousands of plush cars from across the south of England into our residential streets - there is no space.

    And your information is wrong: a private members' club (nightclub) cannot operate under the existing permission. That is a separate use under the Use Class Order and requires individual permission.

    "I do feel that after a protracted campaign nit much will happen to the buildung aprt from it being used by the church for its own private uses within the existing permission and therfore, offering nothing to the community."

    Wait and see! I notice that the church is doing sweet FA with the building right now, and is letting the building fall into disrepair. Is that what the church is proposing? (The idea of letting the building fall down was proposed in the official planning documents, after all.)

  7. "I think the best option is top get the council to convert/use one of its own buildings to show films or to purchase (with help of local people) a =nother building elsewhere."

    There are no other local buildings. This is the cinema. That is the point. This council does not support church use. And neither do any of the other four surrounding councils. Look what happened when UCKG was chased away from the Academy in Brixton. That is how local people feel.

    The church are also looking to open it up for the commonutiy to rent out and show films so in my view everyone would be a winner ie the local peole get a cinema and the church provide services and other activities to the local people and help to attract people into the area which must be a good thing."

    The church is perfectly able to show films now, legally, and within planning law, and use the building for community use too.

    Is it doing so?



    The building has had nothing going on since the church bought it in June 2009. That's nine full months ago.

    Why is the church not using the building for these things? There is nothing stopping the church from doing so. And the building was fully operational until June 2009 when the sale happened. Nothing, absolutely nothing, stopping the church from any film or community use.

    So, why isn't this happening?

    My guess is because the church has no interest in running such activities. It just wants to use the promise of these activities in order to get planning permission from the council for what it wants to do - other stuff.

  8. Anonymous3:31 pm

    I can recall a showing of an Errol Flyn movie at the Crystal Palace Bowl that was very succesful apart from the fact that I was eaten alive by mozzies.
    However I would like to see and all weather venue and this one is perfect. I will be able to walk to it, I have been walking to the Palace since the age of six thats 53 years.
    I am sure some local restaraunts could arrange a post cinema dinner package, and the local boozers should see an increase in trade