Secret Cinema presents Back to the Future

I first heard about Secret Cinema a long time ago. Stories of a mysterious organisation that exhibited films amidst participating actors, themed set design and live music – naturally, in a secret location – reverberated around the internet and in word of mouth. There had been a Secret Cinema production of Blade Runner, which featured acrobatic displays on vertical walls, mirroring the vertiginous struggle of Harrison Ford at the end of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece. With a similar level of creative energy had come Bugsy Malone, set in a Prohibition-era nightclub concealed behind an outwardly harmless bookcase. The Red ShoesLawrence of ArabiaPrometheus and The Grand Budapest Hotel had been given this dramatic treatment, amongst many others. The mere idea of ‘experiencing’ the world of some of the greatest films ever made – and Prometheus – seemed  for a long time infinitely appealing to me.

I left it for a long time, but finally felt that Secret Cinema presents Back to the Future was the perfect way to experience Secret Cinema for the first time. I believe Back to the Future to be one of the greatest American films ever made, a tightly-scripted and magnificently entertaining piece with riffs on both the fifties and the eighties. The notion of wandering round a recreated Hill Valley, encountering small-town stereotypes and the characters from the film itself, did not seem kitsch by any stretch of the imagination; it was surely a necessity.

"Once this baby hits 88 miles an hour, you're gonna see some serious s-!"
“Once this baby hits 88 miles an hour, you’re gonna see some serious s-!”


When it finally came round to attending, there were a couple of worrying false starts; the first four events were cancelled due to “a number of issues that we have not experienced previously”. The backlash on social media was severe and, at times, somewhat overbearing; fans had come from as far as Cambodia, and a potential loss of trust in Secret Cinema wavered in the air.

It is thus all the more relieving and thrilling to announce that Secret Cinema presents Back to the Future is a stunning success. Theatre, cinema and music combine in a glorious celebration of the 1985 film, 1950s culture, and the sheer exultant joy of being alive.

Spot the actor... or is there one?
Spot the actor… or is there one?

At around 5.10pm on Friday, August 1, I exited the train at Hackney Wick station and waited for the rest of my family to arrive. We had been vigorously encouraged through email to dress in fifties clothing. This was easy enough for me – rolled-up jeans, converses and braces for the style, and the brownest shirt I could find for the rustic farmland feel of small-town America. Across the station platform spewed forth a wave of like-minded people; I glimpsed everything from Marlon Brando leather jackets to a profusion of great, voluminous, flowery dresses.

We soon began the long walk to the Back to the Future site. Though it would be unfair to ruin its exact location, I will say that it was somewhere within the 2012 Olympic village, and that several prominent landmarks – including the Orbit – were clearly visible. If you kept your head down, though, it was hard to believe that you were even in the twentieth century.

Secret Cinema have built in the heart of East London a bustling Hill Valley that is meticulous in its detail and filled to boiling point with gaiety. Buildings from 1950s America are painstakingly re-constructed. The one-room suburban houses are littered with comics, radios, pin-up posters and books from the period; the Hill Valley High school features iconic metal lockers and noticeboards; the movie theater is showing Cattle Queen of Montana, a 1954 American western featuring Ronald Reagan in one of his later roles. The site even features an old-style ferris wheel and a profusion of vintage cars, as well as a yellow school bus.

Just another day in Hill Valley...
Just another day in Hill Valley…

Yet it is really the eighty-five actors within Hill Valley who best bring the world of Back to the Future to life. I was approached by an impressive variety of people from car mechanics to television salesmen; all (well, most) spouting a chirpy Californian drawl, conversing to convince. But they do more than speak to you. They purposefully draw you into their fictional existence, whether that be by carrying tires, pushing a broken-down car or playing pool. It is evident Secret Cinema offers everything for those who prefer not to be mere sedentary spectators.

A full list of everything I did in the three-hours or so I spent wandering around the town would be exhaustive, but I’ve condensed my favourite parts, very unprofessionally, into bullet points:

  • Sat in on a talk outside a suburban house where two people dressed like Mormons taught us methods to protect ourselves against the “plague” of homosexuality affecting the town. Never was homophobia so hilariously conceived.
  • Joined in as a group to sing a song about a hair salon, led by an ominously bearded guitarist and his female companion, who I promptly fell hopelessly in love with (the companion, not the guitarist).
  • Took part in a “scientific” experiment led by Doc Brown himself – or at least a very convincing likeness – by rubbing shoulders in a circle to produce static electricity. Doc Brown then announced after the experiment: ‘I now have your combined discharge. No, it’s not funny.’
  • Before the event every attendee was given an alternative identity and workplace, and was encouraged to bring certain items for that workplace. I assumed the guise of Emanuel Mathews, Proof Reader for the Hill Valley Telegraph. I carried with me three copies of an article I had written for the obviously fictional newspaper, with the headline: “UNCOVERED – – THE REASON BEHIND THE DELAYS TO THE HILL VALLEY FAIR.” I handed in the article to Rita, the editor of the newspaper – who stood in front of old-fashioned printing presses – and was later pronounced “Mr. Telegraph” for the quality of my work. Rita spoke at great length on the importance of producing news by the people for the people, and also tried to convince me that Mayor “Red” Thomas was secretly a communist.
  • I also spotted Fabien Riggall, the Founder and Creative Director of Secret Cinema, and gave him one of my articles. He stayed completely in character despite this illusion to the insidious delays that had taken place the week before, and accepted my handshake graciously.
hill valley 5
“Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.’ – Samuel Johnson

Such listing is perhaps crude but it hopefully gives you a sense of my relentless enjoyment of what Hill Valley had to offer, and also a sense of the immersive kind of experience Secret Cinema strives for. If you really make an effort, you get so much out of it. You even get to a point when, wandering round, you cannot always make the distinction between actor and spectator; the lines between fiction and reality can blur irrevocably. I even found myself trying to ape an American accent, though my success on that matter is probably best left to the imagination.

For an event with so much hype, there are bound to be disappointments. It must be said that the exhibition of the film was something of a mixed affair. After two false starts owing to technical problems, Back to the Future finally began, observed by a vast lawn of ticket-holders. During some of the more exciting parts of the film we were greeted with live-action replications of what was happening on-screen. The fog-shrouded, mass-hysteria-inducing entrance of the Delorean was an evident highlight; another was the sight of an actor dressed at Marty Mcfly skateboarding whilst holding onto a car, whizzing round the town square. This sometimes took attention away from the film itself, particularly towards the end. But it was really a few isolated members of the audience who proved most disruptive; I happened to be sitting next to a drunk person who insisted on standing during parts of the film and yelling something akin to Yuuueueuueeeaaaaaaaahhh!’ Such unwarranted exhibitionism somewhat undermined the family atmosphere Secret Cinema were clearly aiming for, what with the minimum attendance age being only 5. It could perhaps be concluded, with a great deal of irony, that most of the problems that occurred on the evening were caused by the audience, not by the organisers themselves.

You can't quite see the drunk guy from here...
You can’t quite see the drunk guy from here…

Overall, however, it was a totally enchanting experience, a celebration of the best elements of 1950s culture and of Back to the Future. It is only when you experience it for yourself that you realise how much ambition Secret Cinema has, and how its events can very occasionally go wrong as it did the week before. I will undoubtedly be back for more, whatever the film. The possible challenge for Secret Cinema – as put by the BBC’s Newsnight – must surely be to preserve some of the mystery that it first started with, to continue to cherish the unexpected in the face of widespread media coverage and the incessant mobile phone culture that was so blissfully suspended for the one evening that I was there. If it can do that, its artistic future remains secure.


Footnote – here’s the article I wrote for the Hill Valley Telegraph:



California food

‘You’re not still going on about California, are you?’

Well, yes, I am. And that’s because I have neglected to tell you about one of the most delectable parts of my holiday, the food. The gargantuan serving sizes of burgers, pizzas, sandwiches and pancakes acted as a strong magnet in bringing me to the USA for the third time. And so for the lip-smacking benefit of all, here’s a post on the cream of the crop of the meals I ate whilst over in America.

The first morning we were there we ventured out in search of a true American breakfast. So we settled at Denny’s, self-styled ‘America’s Diner‘, where we chowed down on pancakes, grits, french toast, eggs, bacon and countless refills of coffee. Here’s what I had that morning:

I believe the operative word for this is a ‘French Toast Slam’

And here’s a picture of all of our breakfasts. This might not seem like much to our American cousins, but this could probably feed my family for a week.

Breakfast at Denny’s

The waiters and waitresses were very helpful and courteous, stopping several times to refill our coffee from jugs that looked like they were right out of a movie. I therefore nearly started a rant straight out of Reservoir Dogs about not believing in tipping but they were all so nice in there that there was no need, and we ended up visiting Denny’s three times in total.

Another restaurant that we saw all over the place in California was In’n’Out. Priding itself on its simplicity, there are just four uncomplicated burgers on the menu. However, there exists within the restaurant a Secret Menu, which isn’t too secret among Californians who love eating there! Items on the Secret Menu actually outnumber those on the regular menu, and you can style your burger into practically any way you want. They even show up on the receipt! On the recommendation of a friend, I chose the most popular item, an Animal style burger, which has a secret sauce, a mustard-cooked beef patty and lettuce and tomato. The fries were done the same way. It was absolutely delicious.

This one was located on Sunset Boulevard.
Animal Style Cheeseburger
Animal Style fries

I showed these pictures to my friend who lived in California for a number of years. He groaned in longing and berated me for whetting his appetite once more. In’n’Out really is one of the nicest places you’ll eat in California – just remember to have your burger done Animal Style.

Now, I’ve forgotten to mention this so far, but about a year ago I was diagnosed with eosinophilic oesophagitis – in other words, an allergy to cow’s milk and soya. Since this was diagnosed rather late, and since I wasn’t bothered about symptoms since they were so benign, I gleefully ‘forgot’ about this allergy throughout the course of the two weeks I was there, as you might have already gauged from above. Perhaps the most direct violation of this allergy requirement was in my consumption of one of the greatest of all American foods, Macaroni Cheese. After my second visit to the USA in 2010, I had developed a kind of romantic fascination with the delectable meal. No matter where I went or how I tried, though, nothing back home in the UK could really recreate that salivating flavour. So, as I ventured into Souplantation, a superb all-you-can-eat salad bar, I filled my cup several times and enjoyed the tangy, brilliant taste.

Mac ‘n’ Cheese

After I had gotten over that steaming pile of cheesy deliciousness, I went up to San Francisco where I just had to try the delicacy of Clam Chowder. A soupy mixture eaten in states all over America, it actually turned out to be rather nice, although I abstained from one of the large bread bowls that people were carrying around.

Clam Chowder

Another delicious thing that was sold at San Franciscan shops was Sourdough. The type of bread is made from naturally occurring yeast and lactobacillus. The latter gives a distinctive mildly sour taste. It was the main type of bread baked during the San Francisco gold rush in the mid-19th-century.

Employees at a Sourdough restaurant busy at work.

I had much more to eat, but a subject of interest was the size of the drinks over there. In many restaurants that I went to, people seemed to trust you to only fill up your drink once by giving you a cup and directing you to the soda fountains. Well, I assume that’s what they think, because they still have small, medium, large and XL cups for you to choose from. I chose a large cup one time and witnessed the loss of 50 cents as somebody went to fill it up for me again. The cup pictured below is a small, but back here I would definitely envision it as at least a medium. It’s like they WANT YOU TO DIE!

Approach with caution…

To round off all posts about my holiday (until further notice) here are a selection of iconic images that I took, including one of a dog that looks like a mop. Enjoy and thanks for stopping by.

Universal Studios Hollywood
Auxin Powers: International Plant Hormone of Mystery
This is the location of Mary-Jane and Spiderman’s kiss in the 2001 film; it is found on the Warner Brothers lot.
Here’s a spectacular waterfall in Yosemite National Park.
Oh yeah, we saw a bear, didn’t I tell you?
I wonder if this dog listens to Bob Marley…
The location of Frank Bullitt’s house in ‘Bullitt’, on Clay Street in San Francisco.
The San Francisco cable car – a great experience to ride on the outside.
The Golden Gate Bridge, when I could actually see it.
The otherworldly rock faces of Monument Valley.
The Grand Canyon

Universal Studios… and art

I was far too tired to write a blog post yesterday as I had been exhausted by the wonderful place that was Universal Studios Hollywood. The ‘entertainment capital of LA’ was much smaller than its Orlando counterpart and had less rides, but it had the distinction of actually being a working studio rather than just a theme park. The world-famous studio tour was undoubtedly the highlight of the day; not even the humour of The Simpsons Ride, the sheer thrills of Revenge of the Mummy or the pyrotechnics of Waterworld could contend. It wasn’t just a tour – it was a tour-de-force of façades, vehicles, special effects, hilarious videos starring Jimmy Fallon and an impressive 3D King Kong experience authorised by Peter Jackson himself. The ‘Have a Tram-tastic day’ song was firmly lodged in my head for the rest of the day.

Some examples of the many facades at the Universal lot.
The Bates Motel – my favourite set from the tour.

Today, after an awesome church service at Reality LA south of Sunset Boulevard, I headed up to the renowned Getty Center for just a short amount of time. While my interest in paintings and sculptures falls far behind that of film, the architecture of the galleries was very impressive, and the views even more spectacular.

The Getty.

I also went to the Santa Monica coast and observed the intimidating and near-impossible ‘Muscle Beach’, where the most buff of the California population go to climb ropes, rings and just generally show off.

I don’t have any pictures of that though.

Ah well.

Tomorrow I’m off to Six Flags Magic Mountain, the multiple-record-breaking theme park which houses some of the fastest and most furious rollercoasters around, another of my passions. I’m now two years post-back surgery so keep your fingers crossed that I don’t transform into a reluctant Nosferatu after going on a particularly strenuous ride. All 3 of you reading this.

Classic Movies – American Graffiti

This, dear readers, is the beginning of a new frontier in my blogging career. OK, “frontier” is a little over-dramatic, but there you go. I have considered for a while doing a series of blogs every week to celebrate the best that cinema has given us, what we may call “Classic Movies”. They can be of any country, of any year and any length – although what they all share is a compelling cinematic language. They may be culturally significant or otherwise, popular or little-known. Over the series I will question what it means to be a “Classic Movie”, and what is in store for the future. It will bring me to mainstream and cult-ish directors, a range of different styles and stories. The first film in this series is American Graffiti (1973).

Ah, the 1970s. A decade of exploitation and rock music. It was also the decade in which George Lucas actually directed some good films. There’s the obvious candidate, Star Wars (1977), which pretty much ensured his future, as well as inspiring a whole generation of lightsabre-wielding enthusiasts. Then there’s the lesser-known but distinctly Orwellian THX 1138 (1971) , another sci-fi film, which was (like Star Wars) restored lavishly but impassively in 2004.

Between these two came American Graffiti, a film which is entirely different to anything Lucas has directed. Set in 1962 California, it revolves around a group of high school graduates who go cruising in their cars in the city for one last night before they go off to college. Partly based on Lucas’ own “cruising” experiences, the film is a heavily nostalgic experience, featuring classic vehicles, old-style haircuts and a soundtrack of rock and roll hits. From the opening scene, the viewer is thrown back to the decade epitomised by youth culture and social revolution. The teenagers discuss the decline of rock music, relationships and leaving town, whilst racing each other in old Chevrolets, and the film’s potent tagline is: “Where were you in ’62?”

Just look at those cars!

Misunderstood by Universal prior to its release, Lucas reluctantly accepted removing certain scenes that the executives had suggested. Contrary to the studio’s expectations, American Graffiti ultimately went on to become a major success, and holds out to this day as one of the most brilliant portrayals of youth in cinema.

The studio still had their reservations before production had even begun. A group of unknown young actors would make up the cast and Lucas himself was still in the background as a director. After getting Francis Ford Coppola on board, however, the film was greenlit. The director’s keen eye for casting  is immediately noticeable;  despite his lack of words during their interviews, all of the film’s young leads are utterly convincing. Richard Dreyfuss searches aimlessly for the dream woman he glimpsed in a white Thunderbird, whilst philosophically contemplating whether or not he should leave town. Paul Le Mat cruises around and is angered at the entrance of a tenacious young girl into his car. Ron Howard attempts to sort out his relationship issues, while Charles Martin Smith tries in vain to avoid embarrassment in front of Candy Clark. As several stories are told simultaneously, the film is never dull and its technique is intriguing. Lucas chose to film every scene at night, and more in a documentary style. Much is improvised, including several key scenes. This gives the actors free reign over their characters and makes the whole thing incredibly fresh and believable, as well as extremely funny.

(L to R) Paul Le Mat; Cindy Williams; Ron Howard

Pre-released music is used throughout and is treated almost like a sound effect in itself. The filmmakers do an extremely good job in arranging the  songs when considering they were on a low budget (which somewhat explains the strange lack of Elvis from the soundtrack). In one of the best-executed scenes in the film, Dreyfuss enters a radio station and converses with the real-life gravelly-voiced and mysterious disc jockey Wolfman Jack. After reading a script of the scene whilst on the air, Jack immediately agreed to star in the film, saying it was one of the most emotional things he had ever read.

And emotion is what really ties American Graffiti together. These four teenage friends are burdened by the petrifying prospect of maturity and adulthood, and each goes through their own personal journey. The film can be related to by practically anyone on the planet – the new experience of leaving your home town, your surroundings and your friends, perhaps permanently, is an emotional ride and often a very difficult procedure. Lucas perfectly captures the joys and sorrows of youth in a 1960s Californian setting, and the film is a living tribute to that illustrious decade of new ideas and culture.

Paul Le Mat

It has and will continue to suffer inevitable comparisons to other high-school-film offerings such as Grease, which is a terrible shame. While Grease is glossed over with cheese, American Graffiti is far more sensitive, honest and homegrown. Its cast is well-chosen, its directorial execution impressive; a true achievement.

N.B. George Lucas’ American Graffiti was added in 1995 to the National Film Registry for “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films”.