Secret Cinema was a dirty couple of words a week ago. An eleventh hour cancellation of the company’s opening night of its Back to the Future (1985) extravaganza left thousands of fans short changed and pissed off. Many more joined their number when the Friday and Saturday shows were also scrubbed. To rub salt in the wound this week’s successful launch may just be Secret Cinema’s best event so far, and FilmsFilmsFilms were there to soak up the inaugural Saturday night of the immersive movie company’s most ambitious project to date.
Most of last week’s teeth gnashing was caused by lacklustre communication from Secret Cinema. Someone somewhere must have known the show wasn’t going ahead as planned, but they left it until ninety minutes before showtime Thursday to pull the plug, by which time thousands of BTTF fans had booked hotels, donned their fifties gear and dropped a pretty penny on travel to get to the designated meeting point, Hackney Wick station. That the cancellation was transmitted via Twitter and Facebook didn’t help much either, with the message from Secret Cinema, buried amongst the many emails sent to ticket holders over the last month, that you would have to hand over mobile phones before entering the site; most people decided to leave their phones at home.
Communication remained sketchy from Secret Cinema but messages filtered through that refunds or replacement dates would be offered to those that lost out. Other expenses, such as travel and accommodation, would be looked at on a case by case basis. When you factor in that some fans flew in from abroad, there may be some hefty payouts due, but only if you’ve kept your receipts (and as one exasperated fan commented, who keeps travel receipts these days?). As another fan shrewdly advised, with Secret Cinema, book your tickets towards the end of the run once all the organisational kinks have been ironed out; advice that came too late for many.
Add to this rumours of unfinished sets and poor financial status for the company itself, enthusiasm for our upcoming trip to “Hill Valley” had fallen through the floor come Saturday lunchtime. As we carefully stored our ticket receipts for High Speed One and made our way to Stratford International, we noted that at least the weather looked good and forecast storms had moved off elsewhere. Rather than tube it, we decided to take a stroll through the Westfield Centre and the Olympic Park to reach Hackney Wick. But we got no further than outside of John Lewis department store before we saw the towering sight of Hill Valley Town Hall. With a queue of fans already forming, we simply joined the back of the line around 5.00.
The gates opened sharpish at 5.15 and many a friendly face guided us through the check in procedure, cops in retro outfits, young ladies in fifties period costume, dashing chaps in Hill Valley Fair sashes. It was all very efficient and charming. All bags were checked, though this didn’t cause much of a hold up. We were then ushered through a barn on old Peabody’s farm where you were asked to check in your “communication devices”. Given the way communications were handled the previous week I was a bit nervous about handing mine over, so kept it tucked away in my bag wrapped in our picnic blanket. It got through the bag search and I had no intention of using it while in Hill Valley (we needed a phone to meet up with our fellow FilmsFilmsFilms colleagues at Stratford) so I said nothing and wandered through. For those that are taking phones the check in system did look very efficient and secure it must be said.
After a quick nose round Peabody’s Farm (ie. a cute petting zoo) we walked up to Hill Valley, encountering our first run in with the many Secret Cinema actors that populate Hill Valley; one of Biff Tannen’s gang of toughs shoved us and offered a fifties insult. Hearing that the queues for food had been quite extensive on opening night we headed straight for Lou’s Cafe for what we hoped would be a nostalgic food encounter. Our choice to go there first was wise as we were served within a couple of minutes of entering the large marquee that Secret Cinema had done such a fantastic job of turning into a fifties diner. There were aqua leather booths, chrome chairs and tables, posters of fifties starlets, and rock ‘n’ roll sounds in the air.
Ten “dollars” (pound sterling is referred to as dollars in Hill Valley) got you the “combo” which was burger and fries. I was anticipating a hastily cobbled together burger akin to those flavourless soggy lumps you get from high street burger vendors; imagine my delight then when I bit into a lovely brioche bun concealing traditional American cheese, gherkin, mustard and ketchup atop a chunky, hand crafted patty that was cooked to perfection. The fries were tasty and warm, with as much ketchup or mayo you could want. This was all washed down with a “Marvin Berry” cocktail (£4 for non-alcoholic one, £6 for the alcohol laced one) that was as refreshing a beverage you could ask for. We also had a traditional chocolate milk, made the old fashioned way with fresh full-fat cow juice and Hershey chocolate sauce. Our dinner was to be the first of many delightful surprises that evening.
It would be amiss at this point not to mention that around 90% of those in attendance had made the effort to attend in fifties fancy dress, as per Secret Cinema’s instructions. As part of the month build up ticket holders were given an alternative identity for Hill Valley (mine was Harold Lopez, a travel consultant from Ask Mr Foster Travel Service) and almost everyone had gone to an amazing amount of effort to embrace their new persona. There were high school guys in cardigans, varsity jackets, suspenders and bow-ties, high school sweet hearts in frilly ankle socks and rah-rah skirts, barbers, businessmen, teachers and more. With near enough everyone in fancy dress it was almost impossible to tell who was an official actor from Hill Valley and who was a member of the public. This was of course all part of Secret Cinema’s plan to immerse you in the world of fifties California and to their credit the general public did their part and then some. I looked a bit out of place in my BTTF t-shirt, the only one I spotted, even with a retro alarm clock on a chain around my neck. Those that came dressed as Marty Mcfly and Doc Brown also looked a bit out of place, but kudos for the effort.
After Lou’s Cafe we claimed our spot out in the middle of Hill Valley town square, picnic blanket down. With four of us in our group we took it in turns to go off exploring. When not wandering around Hill Valley it was lovely to lie in the sun on the “grass” (fake turf, ideal for those British summers when real grass can become mud in the blink of an eye) and listen to the nostalgic sounds of Hill Valley radio being piped into the Square. Hill Valley itself has been recreated to an insane degree of detail. If you’re a hardcore BTTF fan you will have died and gone to heaven. If you’re a casual fan you’re still in for a great night. There was so much to do the time between our 5.15 entrance and the 8.45 film start flew by. Highlights were numerous, and it almost felt like pot luck if you were in the right place at the right time to experience all the delights of Secret Cinema’s recreation.
On one side of the square was Gaynor’s Bar, the only 1985 location, which looked like the inside of an eighties bar from Sunset Boulevard, replete with black decor, free pool tables, and old school arcade machines you can play. Down one end was a stage with a band set up; I was lucky enough to be in there when they announced the start of the Battle of the Bands event, the first act being a solo guy with a guitar who came out and performed a sing-along version of Huey Lewis’ Power of Love that got the whole place rocking and singing at the top of their lungs. On the opposite side of the square was Hill Valley High and the Enchantment Under the Sea dance. Marked contrast to Gaynors, it had its own version of Marvin Berry and the Starlighters, a very accomplished cover band who performed all the fifties hits live, including Earth Angel if you fancied a slow dance with your lady. There was also a bar there (as a marker a can of Budweiser was £4) and a photographer to take your prom photo. You could spend a good hour or two in these two venues alone dancing to hits of the fifties or eighties. But there was so much more.
Outside an onsite radio station broadcast hits of the fifties. You could go into the Town Theatre to watch the entire Ronald Regan movie Cattle Queen Of Montana (1954) if you fancied. There was Bank of America with real cash machines (£2.75 to use them seemed a little steep) if you needed more “dollars”. There was a comic shop where you could buy real comics, a proper hairdressers where for £10 the ladies could have victory rolls added to their hair. There was even a barbers where chaps could get an actual fifties haircut (one unfortunate ticket holder on opening night assumed it was all part of the Hill Valley “act” and didn’t realise he was going to get a real haircut, so be warned). There was a real town fair with big wheel and traditional fair games to play, and food stalls where you could purchase all manner of delicious cuisine.
In amongst all this were the Secret Cinema actors performing skits and interacting with the crowd. This included a great Marty Mcfly lookalike who wandered around dazed and confused, a Doc Brown asking passers by for help with weird experiments, Biff and his gang cruising in their car and winding up the cops, and Principal Strickland keeping the “kids” in line. All of their outfits were spot on replicas of those from the film, and their accents and mannerisms were all perfect. The only down side occurred around 8.30 when the Hill Valley Parade started. Most people were gathered on the square by this point and in typical sheep like fashion everyone stood-up for a better look; great if you’re sat around the edges but those sat in the middle saw diddly squat.
Then around 8.45 Marvin Berry and the Starlighters, with the help of the Marty lookalike, kicked things off in loud fashion with a tune that “you folks won’t know yet, but your kids will love”. To give any details away about what Secret Cinema pulled off next during the film itself would spoil the surprise, but needless to say it might just be the finest cinematic viewing experience I’ve ever had. More live theatre at times than movie, I was amazed at the things that were achieved and the amazing attention to detail that was a running theme for the entire event.
It was tightly packed in the Square but there was none of that typically boozed-up British behaviour; everyone was friendly and in great spirits. Interactivity was rife throughout; first glimpses of Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd were cheered raucously, Biff and Principal Strickland were roundly booed, Lorraine Baines was wolf-whistled, Huey’s theme tune was sung loud. When Marty straped on his guitar for Johnny B Goode, the whole place jumped to its feet for an impromptu boogie, which, much like the film, came to an awkward close when Marty went full Van Halen.
After the dramatic climax (and boy is it dramatic in its Secret Cinema recreation form!) Marvin Berry and his boys returned to the steps of Hill Valley Town Hill to rock us all one last time bang on 11.00. A quick announcement that the bars were open until 11.30 and the party would continue in the High School and Gaynors received cheers. We left on a massive high, surmising that Robert Zemeckis' movie is a genuine twentieth century masterpiece; no mean feat considering that it was created as a populist popcorn movie. As for Secret Cinema’s event, its best surmised as part outside movie viewing, part live theatre, part rock concert, part interactive tribute to the most loveable film, of all time. It was like one of those great parties that only come along every few years, that you realise is awesome when you’re in the middle of it and wish you could repeat every weekend. If you’re one of the unlucky patrons who missed out last week, do all you can to plan a return visit; you will not be disappointed.
Some tips for those still to make their own journey to Hill Valley:
1. Its no secret where Hill Valley is anymore. You don’t need to go to Hackney Wick station if it’s easier to go to Stratford International Station or Stratford Underground instead; just head to one of the Stratford stations and wander through the heaving Westfield Shopping Centre; Hill Valley is opposite John Lewis on the south side of the Centre.
2. The mobile phone check-in facility looked very comprehensive. However, if you are taking a large bag you could probably sneak your phone in like I did. Not that I’m condoning breaking the rules; just don’t be a dick and get your phone to use it. Embrace fifties America and leave the phone alone. I found it to be a refreshing break from the real world.
3. One thing that mobiles would be useful for is getting photos. You’ve gone to great lengths to dress the part and the Hill Valley set is superb, you’re going to want to remember the night. For £6 you can buy a disposable camera from one of the bars (although I did see Principal Strickland confiscate one in the Hill Valley High School from a poor patron who got caught using it; not sure if they got it back!). It even felt very eighties to be using an "old school" point, click and wind camera again.
4. Take a picnic blanket or towel to get your spot on the Square green. If you’re in a group, tag team your walks around Hill Valley; you’ll have plenty of time and it’ll save your blanket blowing away in the wind.
5. Pick your blanket spot carefully. Top left corner of the square would be the best spot to enjoy the parade, the movie and everything else Secret Cinema has in store during the screening. We were in the middle of the square and didn’t have the best view of some scenes, apart from the ones that went up the central walkway.
6. Do the actors a favour and stick to the sidewalks in Hill Valley and don’t “jay walk”. There are a lot of traditional vehicles moving about and no one wants a nasty accident ruining their evening.
7. Souvenirs, free and otherwise are everywhere. There are free copies of the Hill Valley Telegraph newspaper around, souvenir paper cups from Lou’s Cafe and other titbits. You can purchase t-shirts for the Hill Valley Fair for the reasonable sum of £10, as well as other knick-knacks such as badges and flags.
8. There’s some great food and drink on offer. Set some cash aside and treat yourself to a hot dog, burger or chocolate milk, just like they did in fifties California. If you want to eat in Lou’s Cafe without having to queue for too long get there early and head there first.
9. Get into the mood of the evening. While the Olympic Park, Olympic Stadium, Westfield Centre, and Canary Wharf aren’t in keeping with the central California asthetic, it’s nonetheless an impressive location for Secret Cinema (and as a sign of how much detail had been put into the show, the set of Doc Brown’s house had blueprints for the red ArcelorMittal Orbit Tower with a question mark on whether it was a rocket ship!). Once the sun sets Hill Valley really comes alive and it’s easier to lose yourself in the setting. But even before that, embrace what Secret Cinema is trying to do. Smile, interact with the actors and your fellow ticket holders, watch the skits, ask Doc Brown if he needs any help, have a dance at the Hill Valley high school Enchantment Under The Sea Dance, boo, cheer, clap, get on your feet for those big songs. If you do, you’ll have the time of your life.