In an age when you can view every filmic masterpiece that’s ever been made on your mobile phone, let alone on your TV, it has to be something pretty spectacular to persuade people to spend a significant amount of money to go and see something they’re probably already word perfect on. Enter Fabien Riggall, who over the last few years has experimented with what can best be described as an immersive cinematic experience, giving audiences everything they love about a film and taking it to the next level. His Secret Cinema events have grown somewhat organically over the last few years in scale and reputation and, like all the best underground movements, largely through word of mouth rather than publicity. Film fans have heard with envy about The Shawshank Redemption being screened to an audience dressed as prisoners locked into cells, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest playing in a disused mental hospital, not to mention the Ghostbusters finale playing out to a full live outdoor show. It was only a matter of time before this concept would break into something more commercial and mainstream. So for their most ambitious venture to date, Secret Cinema picked the biggest film of most of its audiences’ childhoods and rewarded it with an epic treatment.
‘Yeah, well history…is gonna change.’ Marty McFly, Hill Valley High, October 24th, 1985.
There are many reasons why Back to the Future is the perfect film for one of these events. It’s an exemplary crowd-pleasing popular entertainment, there is built-in nostalgia value for anyone that was a child during or since its original release in 1985 and it gives occasion to celebrate both the now iconic era in which it was made and the 1950’s where it is predominantly set. When it was announced on the internet at the start of the summer that the entire town of Hill Valley (the film’s memorable setting) was to be completely and lovingly re-created for the occasion it created a flurry of interest, leading to a world record-breaking rate of ticket sales that crashed the system on the first day. The two week run sold out in minutes so in no time and un-surprisingly the organisers bowed to the overwhelming demand and added another 2 weeks to keep the endless time travel fans happy. The build up to the event has been inspired; once you have a ticket you are invited to follow the Facebook page, register your ticket, be given a character identity as a resident of Hill Valley and allocated a dress code to adhere to, along with a list of props to bring to the screening that will come into play when you get there. The online content is extremely impressive and well-designed too, with an incredible level of detail as you get to browse items from the town’s stores, listen in to the local 50’s radio station and even check in on or record your own answer machine messages for your friends.
‘Hello, is anybody home? Think McFly, think.’ Biff Tannen, McFly residence, Lyon Estates, October 24th, 1985.
The gauntlet had been laid down hard and suddenly the organisers were under enormous pressure to deliver on the promise of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. A concept that had once quietly crept up and surprised people was now making headlines, creating a frenzy of online buzz and setting expectations as high as the Doc dangling from the clock tower at (almost) 10:04pm. All seemed set for the glory of a cinematic occasion unrivalled in ambition and scope by any other. Then… a major curveball occurred. Due to unforeseen circumstances, the entire first week of the run was cancelled on short notice. In the words of the inimitable Emmett L. Brown ‘the consequences could be disastrous’, as the excitement turned to anger and speculation was rife with wild rumours ranging from the set not being ready to there being issues over the rights to the film not being obtained. In fact, being Britain the reality was far less rock ‘n’ roll as Hackney Council had simply declared that health and safety measures had not been fulfilled in time for the opening week. There was a public outcry that dominated the news and while there are plenty of worse things going on in the world to merit this level of media interest, it was pretty disheartening for the many thousands of folks that had travelled far and wide having to settle for a refund or the possibility of tickets for a later date. Ironically wishing they had the necessary 1.21 gigawatts to go back a week and start on time, the Secret Cinema team finally unveiled their grand opus to the public on the 31st of July.
‘Let’s do something that really…cooks.’ Marvin Berry, Hill Valley High School, November 12th, 1955.
Rhythm Circus went the very next day and in spite of all the hype and expectation we were still overwhelmed. Feeling like we had tickets to the biggest yet most exclusive event in town, on the way to the location we were approached by actors portraying 1950’s townsfolk and saw George McFly cycle past to get Biff’s homework to him on time. On the way in, Mayor Red Thomas acted as Master of Ceremonies, welcoming all and inviting them to re-elect him at the next election. Next we passed the local county fair populated with real livestock, onto a 1950’s housing estate bearing the family names Tannen, Baines and of course McFly while period cars drove by, and there was a chance to have your picture taken next to the ‘Lyon Estates‘ billboard. The most hotly anticipated aspect was always going to be how the town square, so famous from the film and its 2 sequels, was going to look. Could it deliver on the promise of re-creating the ‘Nice Place to Live’ we all spent our childhoods wishing we could hang out in? Well… petty much yes. It’s worth pointing out at this point that we’re not talking a full recreation of the set from the film here, but there is indeed a full scale clock tower courthouse façade onto which the film would ultimately be projected, and the square, surrounded by all the shops we remember from watching the films so many times; Lou’s Café, Roy’s Records and Ruth’s Frock Shop are all present and correct, and open for business. Our hosts have also hired a staggering 85-strong cast to portray the residents of the town and thrillingly the lines begin to blur between the hired hands and the guests.
‘Look, there’s a rhythmic, ceremonial ritual coming up!’ Doc Brown, Hill Valley High School, November 7th, 1955.
The most impressive live event taking place in the run up to the film itself is the re-enactment of the famous Enchantment Under the Sea Dance at the Hill Valley High School at the corner of the town square, where you could see a fine tribute to Marvin Berry & The Starlighters sing Earth Angel and, of course, Johnny B. Goode. Complete with the exact décor, costumes and even a model of guitar from the film, only the hardiest of guests would fail to get chills when seeing them take to the stage. For those with more of a penchant for the 80’s, then past the Texaco garage you could catch the mulletted try-outs for the Battle of the Bands, complete with 80‘s arcade games and red ‘life preservers’ for sale. Or why not head to the 50’s fairground where the girls can dangle their bobby socks on the ferris wheel and watch the film from a high vantage point. Then, when the light has dropped off, it’s time for the main attraction…
‘You’re gonna see some serious shit.’ Doc Brown, Twin Pines Mall, October 25th, 1985.
The sideshows would have been a perfectly sufficient build up to the film screening itself but had the film just been screened as normal it may have seemed like something of an anti-climax after all that has gone before. Fortunately, these guys are now pros at this and when the film starts that’s when the real fun begins. Throughout the adventure a live floor show takes place, mimicking the action in perfect sync with everything that’s unfolding on screen. The audience becomes completely immersed in the story and most are dumbstruck at the sight of the Delorean being chased around the square by Libyan terrorists wielding a rocket launcher, and jubilant at George smashing Biff on the nose in the high school car park. It’s no wonder Hackney wanted to ensure all health and safety measures were adhered to before this spectacle unfolded. The clock tower finale is as exciting as a trip to the flicks gets as it is, but having the Doc dangle precariously above the screen with an approaching time machine zooming by at your feet defines the word ‘showstopper’. The live cinematic event of the summer, nothing less, the only question is what will they do next? Congratulations Mr Riggall, you have proven that ‘if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything’.
Words> Roy Swansborough