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Secret Cinema defends plans for London event despite complaints

Lanre Bakare Arts and culture correspondent
·3-min read

Secret Cinema has defended proposals for an immersive Dirty Dancing event in east London, saying it will invest in local businesses after residents claimed it would be “hijacking” vital green space this summer.

The company, one of the biggest cinema experience brands in the world, was given a licence by Waltham Forest council to use Low Hall sports ground in Walthamstow for three months, despite more than 100 complaints.

Residents and campaigners say the event, which could run from mid-July to mid-September and is billed as a mix of “steamy dancing and dangerously catchy songs”, will bring noise pollution, a risk of Covid-19 transmissions and stop locals from using the playing fields for most of the summer.

At a meeting, residents said the event would make the sports ground unusable for local children, while others complained about the show leaving “no positive legacy” and described it as “hijacking and damaging public land”.

The Secret Cinema chief executive, Max Alexander, said the company always engaged with local communities, and planned to give 1,500 free tickets to residents and invite local schools to use the site in the daytime.

Alexander admitted that for residents who were uninterested in the event it would be “a bit of a pain”, but said the company would work “to mitigate that pain”.

“We put places on the map and then other businesses come in our wake,” he said. “We are itinerant but we leave a positive legacy with the people we engage with.”

In 2019, the company’s Stranger Things attracted 100,000 visitors during its six-week run, and residents fear that influx of people during the summer could expose locals to potential transmissions of Covid-19.

Sarah Eastwood, a healthcare worker and community member, said residents were scared about the prospect of thousands of visitors potentially spreading the virus before widespread vaccinations had reached some in the community.

“It’s our mental and physical health and we have not been given a choice,” she said. “If we get a handful of workshops and some people get insecure security work, that’s nothing compared to what we lose.”

The company made its name by mostly using brownfield sites as venues for immersive cinema experiences that have included interpretations of Star Wars, The Shawshank Redemption and Blade Runner.

But residents say the use of a playing field, which has been a vital resource during the pandemic, would have a huge effect on their physical and mental wellbeing.

John Mannion of Coppermill Swifts FC, a veterans’ football team that uses the field, said: “The amount of people who have used this area during lockdown has shot up, there are so many more people using that green space.”

Other residents raised concerns about the fact nature reserves are a few hundred metres from the event’s boundary, and that the cost of tickets – which start at £45 – would price out many locals.

Secret Cinema said they would use only half of the space and claimed it had created jobs for hundreds of local people in recent years.

The company said the skills people learn from working on site could help them start careers, and Alexander said there were plans to provide football coaching for locals as well as work experience placements, although these were only in the planning stage.

Waltham Forest council told the Guardian Secret Cinema still needed to get planning approval for the event and it would consider all responses to the application, with the event being subject to any Covid-19 restrictions and government guidance.