The building which opened a week ago in the City of London in a sea of confetti could have been any new five-star hotel or corporate headquarters. On its first day open, men and women in matching uniforms and automatic smiles darted across marble floors, the smell of fresh paint in the air.
The grandiose premises now belonging to the Church of Scientology is a multimillion pound launchpad for the group's expansion in the UK. While Scientologists describe their "applied religion" as an exact science which guarantees self-improvement, critics say the organisation is a personality cult based on the obscure beliefs of a man who said humans are aliens implanted into volcanoes trillions of years ago.
Former members claim Scientology targets vulnerable individuals, persuading them into spending exorbitant sums of money on "auditing", a form of counselling. Posing as a student - Scientology's founder, the late science-fiction writer L Ron Hubbard, banned journalists from becoming members - the Guardian gained access to the church's newest centre of recruitment this week.
Proceedings began with free IQ personality tests, quickly followed by a 30-minute video in a dimly lit cinema. The personality questions included "Is your voice monotonous, rather than varied in pitch?", "Would you rather give orders than take them?", and "Could you agree to strict discipline?".
The film's presenter talked about Ron, who is dead but with us in spirit. "Man has never had a better friend," he said. The authorities once tried to thwart his incredible findings about the human brain because Ron's work endangered their secret mind control programmes, he added. Finally, staring at the camera, he said that anyone is free to turn their back on Scientology. But beware: "That would be stupid." The camera zoomed closer. "You can also walk off a bridge or blow your brains out."
I sat with staff member Anne, white roses between us, as she asked a series of questions about my life, probing deeper when I spoke about my father and ex-girlfriend. Smiling, she eyed the results of the personality test. "You're an up and down kind of person. You scored high on depression, nervousness, irresponsibility. But you're active. You have mood swings don't you? What do you want to change in your life?" I said nothing. "Can I tell you something?" She paused. "This is just my view, an objective view." She paused again. "You just don't look very happy."
Within 15 minutes, Anne had acquired my address, phone number, email address, bank details and £32.27 for a Personal Efficiency course plus two books by L Ron Hubbard.
The course took place on the second floor, behind heavy wooden doors. The classroom was composed of rows of tables lined with silver bowls containing wooden blocks and Plasticine. Dorothy, my course supervisor, a grey-haired Scottish woman who peered through glasses perched on the end of her nose, sat behind a desk at the end of the room.
She explained the house rules: work 10am till 6pm, be punctual, don't ask other students questions and refrain from alcohol or drugs during the course. "No food or drink includes chewing gum," she said. "Chewing gum is a form of food. So now you can go and put it in the bin." At the end of each exercise in the coursebook, I wrote down how I could apply what I had learned to my own life. In the mornings, Dorothy checked I had done what I promised.
After days of filling out sheets of A4 paper, I had learned that all "the data" can be found in Hubbard's writings and anything I came across with which I didn't agree - like, for example, the claim that "yellow and brown people" are less "progressive" than whites - should be skipped and revisited later. The course explained how the mind, body and spirit are separate, and life is a game. Within the game there is a scale of eight "impulses" that can be conquered by purging the mind of anxious thoughts. This is done through "auditing", a form of confessional counselling which relies on a machine attached by wires to two metal cylinders which, when held in a person's palms, measures their mental state. After each chapter in the coursebook, Dorothy asked me to demonstrate to other students what I had learned using wooden blocks and Plasticine. Once she asked me to explain the "communication cycle" to Sam, a nine-year-old boy who sat alone at the back of the classroom. Instead I showed Sam how to make a monster out of the playdough. Dorothy intervened. Scientology reportedly regards children to be "big Thetans in little bodies" - the immortal aliens called Thetans who, followers are said to believe, are our ancestors and who came to Earth 75m years ago.
Dorothy also asked me to practice auditing with a teddy bear, and watched as I asked the bear if it could recall an experience that made it happy.
The other students appeared to accept everything Dorothy was saying. After just one day, Laura, a shy teacher in her 40s, said Scientology had made her fundamentally review her belief system. "It's amazing". Peter, a Ghanaian in his 30s, demanded we all call him John the Baptist. Later, I saw him working from children's books. Close to the end of the course, and on the verge of my first auditing session, I asked Dorothy about the claims that Scientologists believe humans derive from aliens. She left the room. For several minutes, Dorothy and a shorter woman stood in the corridor, staring at me through a glass panel. Neither smiled. Eventually the shorter woman came back in and sat down opposite me. "I heard you had some questions for us," she said. "Do we look like aliens? Are you a journalist?"
Some names have been changed.
The Scientology movement was formed in the 1950s by the science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard. It claims 10 million members worldwide, including 123,000 in the UK, although these figures have been questioned by critics who insist the worldwide membership stands somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000.
It has proved popular in Hollywood with Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes (above) and John Travolta all signed up. Each member is asked to donate a minimum $450 (£240) a year, with some handing over millions more. Last year Scientology opened 1,300 new missions around the world. It has recently unveiled centres in New York, Madrid and now London.