Review : Secret Cinema : Back To The Future


Oh, I KNOW what you’re going to say – where was the update last Friday, you fool?  Well, I misplaced my flux capacitor and then me Delorean went on the blink and before I knew it Mr Strickland had put me in detention for five days and so I just didn’t get an opportunity to write about going to Secret Cinema BTTF.  Plus, I was a bit concerned on the old **SPOILERS** front.  I mean, certain critics have covered elements of the show in the mainstream press, thereby defeating the whole “Secret” element of said Michael J Fox extravaganza.  Exactly how much of it could I safely write about here, without Biff Tannen hunting me down with a pitchfork and threatening me, like the disrespecting space time continuum slapper I am?  Well, it is now 28th August, and I think that most of the performances are now over, so I can mention certain elements of the production without fear of reprisal from East London hipsters (they often come at you, beards a-hoy).  I have mentioned nothing here that hasn’t already been reported in the press.  However, if you are going to any one of the next four performances, I suggest you go away and read something else.

Stratford is a place that the spiritual element of London just forgot.  It’s hard to think of a location in London that is less likely to lend itself to the imaginative cinematic realm, so as a location for picking up your mind up and depositing it in an illusory, immersive cinematic state, it’s a massive challenge.  It’s an ugly, grey monolith of a shopping centre with a 2012 hangover and a John Lewis and Basuba Eathai looking over it.  The sky here is very large and not at all vivid.  It’s always grey in Stratford, where Secret Cinema had pitched up for six weeks to recreate the town of Hill Valley, CA, and invited Londoners to immerse themselves in the world of Back To The Future at £53 a pop.   But here, indeed, the Hill Valley Town Square was, surreally deposited on a dusty corner of the Olympic Park, its iconic town hall clock visible from the crest of the hill during the walk from Hackney Wick, its American-dressed cops standing sombrely along the route to increase your sense that you were no longer in E15.  For reasons that aren’t clear they didn’t tell anyone to go Stratford station, which would have been half a mile closer.  Instead, we eeked along the mainline branch of the East London line to Hackney Wick.  The looks started at Highbury & Islington.  Secretaries put their backpacks on the platform floor and changed into 1950s plimsolls with pastel coloured cardigans.  Chaps in their mid-30s sidled up to the electronic train destination board wearing trilbys and 1950s sports jackets.  Lawyers shyly put on red lipstick and placed plastic beads of pearls around 1950s bloused-necks.  Yes, I have found my people.

The more beady eyed among you will remember that back when this blog started in 2010 one of my first ever posts was about Back To The Future.  (See  So long has this film been a love of mine that it has coursed through my veins and merged into my DNA.  My BTTF friend and I (she was previously referred to on these pages as Jazz Buddy) have repeated the dialogue to one another on a weekly basis since 1989.  If I ever had to go on Mastermind I would chose this fine trilogy as my specialist subject.  I defend it passionately, adore it totally and would admit that anyone hoping to take me into Hill Valley convincingly has a very hard customer to please indeed.  The thing was, there were another 2,999 people at Stratford who also felt the same sense of insane devotion.  Off the train came people in Marty McFly body warmers (very silly), hundreds of hundreds of people in Vivien of Holloway skirts or similar and – eerily – one child of 6 in a white balding wig doing an uncanny Dr Brown.

Just to prove the space time continuum has shifted, they take your mobile phone away.  This is to fully enjoy the experience of keeping 1955 in its proper place, according to the blurb, but its mainly to keep Secret Cinema as secret as its possible to be in these days of media diarrhea.  Clearly, taking mobile phones in would actually have destroyed everything – the experience would not, of course, have been experienced and the glut of selfies around Lou’s Diner would have been depressing to say the least.  However, it was very easy to lie about whether or not you had a mobile phone and smuggle one in.  I am pleased that Secret Cinema took this step, it was a key move in encouraging all of us to be a certain way in a different space.  They then throw you into a farm filled with the stench of manure and the bleating of several billy goats and some cheery looking sheep.  This is Old Man Peabody’s farm, the first arrival point of Marty McFly in 1955, and therefore our first step into 1955 too.  From there we walked through a lane (still the over-riding monolith of the Stratford shopping multiplex to our direct left doing everything in its power to sap away the BTTF illusion) which featured small 1950s houses named for each of the families that feature in the trilogy (McFly / Tannen / Baines) and the most impressive of this was Doc Brown’s 1950s home at 1640 Riverside Drive – peppered with his eccentricities, handwritten scientific notes, a water bowl for his dog Copernicus, books, vintage chairs, and even possible hand-drawn plans to include modern architectural elements of the Olympic Park into his time machine invention program.   Charlie Parker records played with the record stand filled with old sleeves, and editions of The Hill Valley Telegraph stood on his desk.  In the smaller, family houses – and my only complaint was they were walked into as if it was a house, but immediately were seen to be the size of rabbit hutches – Hill Valley High School sports teams photographs from 1954 jostled with George McFly’s science fiction story magazines, 1950s bedspreads covered 1950s beds an the local radio played in the background.   It was all very enjoyable stuff, and much has been made of the “immersive” aspect of your first three hours in Hill Valley.

Yes, three hours.  Much of the pre-event email correspondence from Secret Cinema revolved around the necessity of printing out your ID card that had been ascribed to you as a citizen of 1950s Hill Valley.  You were given a name and a place of work.  You were told to bring photographs of your family, a 1950s clock.  No one as far as I can see took much notice of this.  My “Place of work”  in realty remained empty for two and a half hours.  Some people felt a bit bossed about by the headache of having to organise props and wear identity cards – which went down particularly badly amongst those ticket holders who had gone to such trouble to do these things, only to find the whole first week of the shows were cancelled, due to health and safety concerns being raised by the council.  The difficulty with the immersion aspect of the event was there were too many of us (punters) and not enough of them (actors).  3000 to 85 does not an immersive experience make.

Picture the Town Square, for example.   Now, this was beautifully done.  Shop fronts were working shops, all taken in diligent detail from the shop fronts in the film, there was a Hill Valley radio station playing 50s hits, a fully working Lou’s Dinner (burgers supplied by Byron), a florist, a hat shop, a fairground with a big wheel and other rides, vintage cars driving around the town square, and a Hill Valley High School complete with an Enchantment Under the Sea dance hall at the back.  When the light begins to fade and the fairground lights come on, the town square really takes on a magical feel.  Modern day Stratford fades into the background as it if never existed.  We lined up for fries and burgers in Lou’s Diner and watched the cadillacs go by, actors dressed as Biff and his gang loudly driving around, annoying the traffic cops, fooling with the punters.

The film screening starts at 9pm, and places are reserved early with rugs and mats on the green at the centre of the town square.  However this really wasn’t necessary – the film could be viewed and heard well from the back of the set in the event, and people enjoyed lounging around in the diner at the back watching it too.  Now, I am not going to give away any of the spoilers about the film screening.  Those of you familiar with Secret Cinema’s modus operandi will know they merge film and live theatre together with melodramatic results but let’s just say: The pre-show immersive idea is nothing compared with what they deliver during the film screening.  It was ridiculously brilliant.

The problem was that Secret Cinema ask you to be on site by 6pm.  This means that whoever has a job must leave it early to trek across London, and that you have far too much time to kill consuming food / drink and wandering the leafy lanes of Hill Valley.  Children were encouraged to attend, but even the most excited of them were asleep before the film started.  The hour-long lead up to the screening involved a Hill Valley Town Parade, live musical performances and occasional scenes from the film being played, all of which was brilliant, but the 1980s section, which arrived during a quiet moment in the middle of it and swiftly departed again, jarred, it’s only apparent objective to be to encourage everyone to get up and dance.  But the momentum was lost at the end of this section.  The punters got colder, the light was drawing in, and the last hour before the screening begin seemed to last for twice as long.   After the screening finished, there was an option to stay for the Enchantment Under the Sea dance with live music in the school hall, until 11.30pm (thank you, local licensing laws).  The problem was the film finished at 10.55pm.  Most people at this point left, leaving those wanting to dance a mere 34 minutes to dance what was left of the local-council-approved night away.  However, before the screening, the Enchantment Under The Sea dance hall was beautifully dressed, perfectly set up in a dreamy 1950s way – and totally empty.  This was a missed opportunity : the room should have been filled with dancing actors in vintage costume, with live music.  This would have been immersive.    This would have made us feel transported into a time travel nether world, rather than standing around on our own in a damp empty hall, with three other BTTF nuts wearing anoraks to ward off the English chill.

And this made me cross, because Secret Cinema got so close to getting the immersive aspect of the screening beautifully right.  Their dedication to building the set and ensuring each shop was invested with a sense of authenticity was something I had never seen before; at no stage did you have the sense you were in a theme park.   A few more actors with a firmer sense of direction at this stage would have totally been in the icing on the time travel cake.  The film was sensational (no spoilers), and the sense of comaraderie during it from audience members was enormous fun, with boo-ing and cheering at appropriate moments of the screening, which was presented in such a superb sound system that I doubted that anyone who stayed in the Holiday Inn over the road got a wink of sleep in August.

The screening of the film absolutely made it for me – there were many moments that took your breath away and it became increasingly clear why the council raised so many concerns about signing it off.  There was a distinctly celluloid magic to it, but the evening should have begun an hour and a half later.  The pre-screening experience would have benefitted from being tighter, more choreographed and more populated by actors.  And you ask – was the screening worth it?  The massive trek out (and back) East?  the £53 price tag?  The outside weather that meant I had my anorak up for most of the movie?  The hassle of dressing up?  Oh, you bet it was.  And if you didn’t think it was worth it, you’re a butthead.  But I’m sure Doc Brown would have smirked at the irony; that the one thing Secret Cinema got wrong about their beautiful homage to this time travel movie was the timing structure of the evening.


Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  The blog is updated every other Thursday so we look forward to seeing you on Thursday 11th September.  Thank you xx


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