Friday morning rush hour, and 150 young, affluent professionals are piling into a bland office block near Euston station in central London. They appear to be part of that desperate daily attempt to hit the desk before the boss gets in, but this crowd - sprinkled with lawyers, artists, business and City types, as yet all strangers to each other - are all on a day's holiday. They are hurrying to make the start - 9am sharp - of an intensive three-day course called the Forum, run by the American corporation, Landmark Education.
Among the Forum crowd there is a real buzz - a mix of excitement and trepidation. And no wonder. Within this very ordinary building, Landmark promises something rather more special than the usual humdrum day at the office. The Forum course dangles the alluring prospect of complete life "transformation", in just three days.
As the crowd is about to discover, achieving transformation is no picnic. Once inside, the 150, who have paid £275 each for a long weekend's tuition, are directed by smiling course assistants to a large featureless room, lined with rows of hard-backed chairs. The course leader takes up position on a small raised platform at the front of the room.
And so begins the first of three grueling days that will each last an average of 13 hours, and may run over until midnight. That sounds exhausting enough, but participants also have "homework" to complete overnight. Individual Forum sessions last around three hours. There are only three breaks during the day - two for 30 minutes, and a 90-minute break for dinner.
Mid-session visits to the lavatory or, god forbid, to puff on a cigarette, are frowned upon. (All stimulants and drugs, including coffee, tea and aspirin, are discouraged). Course leaders warn participants that even a few minutes' absence from the room - where the group discuss their personal "rackets" (Forum-speak for the complaints human beings nurse that prevent them achieving joy) - carries the terrible risk of their missing their personal "breakthrough" (ie, a new vision of relationships and life that leads to happiness).
Apart from when they split into smaller workshops, people sit in one huge group listening to the course leader explaining the route to transformation. Participants are encouraged to come down to the microphone and share their most intimate problems.
These days, in professional metropolitan circles, everyone seems to know someone doing the Forum. The Forum leader, David Ure, says that the course, which arrived in the UK in 1991, has seen a spurt of growth in the past two years, and is now so popular that Landmark runs two or three 150-strong forums a month in London, as well as occasional course in other parts of the UK.
Doing the Forum allows you to buy into a whole Landmark world: there are special weekend courses for children as young as eight, with parental permission; courses for families; and a series of advanced courses for individuals that can cost double the price of a Forum weekend. From next year, Forum "graduates" will also be able to find a flatmate or an employee on the Landmark website. Landmark already offers a dating service. Mr Ure says 5,000 people a year are now doing the Forum.
It is unlikely, however, that many know anything about the Forum's roots. In fact, its basic ideas were borrowed from "est" (Erhard Seminars Training), a self-awareness movement that took California by storm in the 1970s, and once counted Diana Ross, John Denver and Yoko Ono among its devotees. Est, founded by Werner Erhard, a former car and encyclopedia salesman, was a controversial group which folded under the weight of a huge scandal.
What is surprising is the ease with which the young, generally liberal and intelligent London crowd seems to adopt Forum language and comply with Forum rules. Jane, a 40-year-old manager, says that she seemed to be the only participant on one weekend to find the "school" rules, didactic platform tone and Jerry-Springer-style public confessions, pretty unbearable. Like most participants, Jane was introduced to the Forum by a friend. Landmark encourages its "graduates" to persuade family and friends to attend a free introductory evening and claims that 90 per cent of Forum business is generated this way.
It might have been her lunchtime glass of wine, her unauthorised fag breaks, or being four minutes late back from a break, but less than a day into the course, Jane was asked to leave because of her "attitude". "I just thought it was funny to hear some other adult talk to me like I was a child," she recalls.
Course curtailed, Jane missed the "breakthroughs" that occur midway through the Forum, when participants are encouraged to phone husbands, siblings, parents and other loved ones with whom relations are poor. These emotional reconciliation calls often come late at night, during "homework" hours, and are in line with a central Forum message that participants should not let their past determine the shape of their future. The bleary-eyed recipients of Forum calls are usually assailed by declarations of love and forgiveness, and invited to Forum "graduation" - a couple of days after the course.
Jane still laughs at her lone rebellion. But she stresses that her fellow course-mates took the Forum extremely seriously. And there is an army of Forum graduates ready to swear that their lives have been utterly changed by the course.
When Landmark was asked to put up some satisfied customers for interview, there was a surprise. Esther Freud, author of Hideous Kinky and great-granddaughter of Sigmund, stepped forward. Freud started doing Forum courses last year. "I went along because a friend of mine was so transformed by it," says Freud. "She was so much happier and more energetic. One day, I was moaning about something and she said that the complaint was my 'racket'. She was right. I was at a great stage in my life, but I was stopping myself from enjoying it."
Freud says that she was suspicious about the Forum before she took a course, but did not do any pre-course research. "I wondered whether they did it for the money, or whether it was an attempt to brainwash us," she says. "And my partner was a little nervous since he had heard of someone doing it years ago and leaving her husband. I was unbelievably cynical the first time I went. When someone stood up and became emotional, I thought, 'where did they get him from?'.
"But I would say that the Forum has pretty much made all my relationships better. The Forum is about 'getting present' to how incredibly short your life is, how precious it is, and how precious people in it are. Lots of my friends have done it."
But not everyone is so impressed. Disaffected participants claim that they were "brainwashed" by Landmark, and relatives complain that loved ones have been so altered by Forum "transformation" that their personalities all but vanished. Ian Howarth, of the Cult Information Centre, says that he receives regular calls of concern about the Forum. The Forum's detractors include Laura, whose executive husband was taken along to the Forum by a business colleague.
"After just one day on the course, there was a complete change in him," she says. "Some women might like it if their husband suddenly started saying he loved them all the time, but I found it scary. It just wasn't David. It was as if everything that made David what he was had been taken away and replaced with this happy, smiley person. He was weirdly euphoric and animated. Then he became very depressed.
"I did some research and I persuaded him not to go back, but he suffered panic attacks for a long time afterwards. He had to see a psychiatrist a couple of times." Laura and David claim to have counselled scores of disaffected Forum participants.
They include Julie, a 28-year-old advertising executive, who was introduced to the Forum by a best friend three years ago. "She had been at me for ages to go along, and I've always been a bit of a New Age bunny so eventually I went." Julie completed the three-day course but was persuaded by her boyfriend, alarmed at the change in her, not to graduate.
"During the first day, we were asked to talk about our most painful experiences," says Julie. "One girl said she had been raped by her father. She was told to ask herself why her father had done that. The Forum tries to get you to put a different interpretation on things. I went home so sad and so drained.
"Next day, the leader asked us all to sit with our eyes closed and conjure up a painful memory. He then asked us to imagine that we were each on a packed London Tube and everyone was looking at us and was out to get us. I can remember feeling terrified. All around the room I could hear these terrible screaming sobs; I realised that I was crying too.
"Then the group leader said to us that it did not matter. He said that there was a funny side, and the funny side was that we were not alone. And he laughed and then people who had been crying laughed, too. I also laughed. It sounds mad now but I went home euphoric. I told everyone I met how great the course was. By then my boyfriend had all these printouts about the Forum from the internet, but I wouldn't listen to him. I felt that I had been to the deepest, darkest place and had come out feeling great. I wanted the feeling again; not going back felt disloyal to the group.
Julie says that she was called and texted by Forum organisers after failing to turn up for graduation. "They said my boyfriend was trying to control me," she says.
Esther and Julie - it is as if they are speaking about two entirely different organisations.
Mark Kamin, who handles Landmark's PR out of Texas, describes the Forum as "a philosophical inquiry into the way we look at life". He rejects absolutely that it is a cult, or that it employs any cult-like mind-control techniques. With 125,000 people in 54 cities across the globe currently "doing the Forum" each year, and annual earnings of $58m (£34m), Landmark is understandably sensitive to the allegations.
Kamin puts the adverse publicity down to a sensation-seeking media. He disagrees that Landmark's connection with the now defunct "est" - Landmark was founded by former est members who purchased Erhard's "technology" (in layman's terms, ideas and methods) - is partly to blame, but it is hard not to conclude that Landmark picked up some of the smell around est along with Erhard's ideas. Est was, after all, accused of using harsh control techniques. And est folded after scandal engulfed Werner Erhard. Erhard was accused of abuse by his daughters - at least one later recanted - and tax fraud. Mark Kamin points out that Erhard never faced criminal charges on either accusation and that he eventually successfully sued the US tax service for $200,000 for wrongful disclosure.
Kamin says that Erhard has nothing to do with the organisation now and that his "technology" has been developed and modified by Landmark staff. Kamin denies that Erhard receives any income from Landmark, but he confirms that Erhard's younger brother Harry is Landmark's CEO.
Landmark fights hard to counter cult allegations. Kamin cites the 1999 study by Professor Raymond Fowler, then executive vice-president of the American Psychological Association, who attended a Forum course and reviewed the methods that Landmark says it uses to screen for the emotionally unstable. Fowler said that he had seen nothing harmful. "The Forum is not a cult or anything like a cult," Fowler concluded.
Fowler pointed out that cults generally have charismatic leaders, and cult members tend to remove themselves from their families. He found neither of these features in the Forum. Esther Freud also insists that the Forum has no cult characteristics. She says that she is nicer to her partner, the actor David Morrissey, since starting Forum, and a better mother to her two children.
Dominic Richards, a property developer and presenter of Home Start on Channel Five, says that attending the Forum in 1995 helped him to build bridges with his parents. For a decade, they had found his homosexuality hard to accept. "Now, they go on holiday with me and my partner," he says.
That doesn't chime with the experiences of Alex, a London-based media worker, who says that his family was shattered when four relatives did a series of Forum courses a few years ago. "They were down-to-earth people. Then suddenly they were phoning their parents and siblings at 3am in distress, talking about how much they loved them and offering to pay for them to do the course, too.
"My relatives were hooked in for ages and spent a lot of money. They even tried to get their teenage kids involved. Everything was 'a racket'; you could not even suggest that they were being manipulated. They lost interest in the Forum in the end, and, in the long run, I don't think that it did them any mental damage. But it was a terrible worry for the rest of the family."
But Esther Freud remains convinced "that the people who run the Forum genuinely want peace in the world". Richards, who has done five Forum courses, sees the same good intent. "A room full of smiling people who all think life is great is always going to be odd," he says. He adds that the Forum fills a 21st-century gap. "There is so little community in modern city life. The Forum creates a sense of community with which it is good to touch base."
Julie sees it so very differently. She argues that the London crowd doing the Euston Forum have no idea of the danger they are in. "I think that the Forum can damage mental well-being. It's basically a pyramid selling scheme. The irony is that they aren't selling anything tangible. There is nothing real there."