In the Summer of 2014, the cult immersive theatre/events company Secret Cinema put on a series of screenings of Robert Zemeckis's classic 1985 time travel comedy film "Back to the Future" at a specially built temporary open air venue in Stratford, East London. The premise of the event: explore a working recreation of the film's primary setting (the town square and environs of Hill Valley, California in the year 1955) in the afternoon before watching the film in the early evening.

I had not previously been to a Secret Cinema event, but as Back to the Future is one of my favourite films, and further encouraged by their publicity claiming that it was to be the biggest and most ambitious production to date, I booked tickets for a Saturday in late August. My thinking was that as this was partway through the run, they would have worked out any kinks by this point. As it turned out, many of the early showings ended up being cancelled at short notice (amidst much bad PR and controversy).

While no official word on the reason for these cancellations was forthcoming, it's widely believed that Secret Cinema were unable to secure permits from the local council to go ahead with the performance due to fire safety concerns. The unintended result was that I ended up going on one of the first nights, and count myself very lucky that I didn't book for one of the cancelled shows.

The hype

"If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything."

In the weeks between tickets going on sale and the show opening, ticket holders were invited to take part in a casual ARG (alternate reality game) consisting of emails, a members-only website, a special 'in-universe' voicemail system (I wonder who keeps leaving these "Butthead!" messages?), and a cluster of pop-up shops where visitors could buy period-appropriate clothes and souvenirs. The 'live' portion of the show would be based around the Hill Valley Fair - a clever idea that simultaneously allows the event to take place in Summer (the 1955 segment of the film takes place in November) and explains why so many 'out of towners' are visiting.

Every ticket holder was assigned a randomly generated 'character' - consisting of a name and an occupation within the town - that could feasibly exist in the setting. (E.g., a student at Hill Valley High School, or an employee at one of the local businesses, such as the Real Estate Agents, Ray's Records, Hill Valley Radio, the Texaco garage, etc.) The assigned characters weren't referenced in any major way in the production itself - indeed the purpose of the whole pre-show preparation exercise was to drive home that the show was going to be based in the 1950s, and that yes, you were going to be expected to dress accordingly.

The materials for the pre-hype were impressively detailed and broad (the replica newspaper probably being the highlight), but there were some niggles. Whoever was writing the emails didn't seem to have an obsessively nerdy level of familiarity with the films, resulting in some embarrassingly basic errors. British English terminology sometimes slipped in (e.g., "Headmaster" instead of "Principal"), and reticence to stray too far from subject matter (contemporary films, songs, public figures, social issues, etc.) that appeared in the film occassionally made it feel claustrophobic. (Also, I'm pretty sure that Mr. Strickland wasn't supposed to be the Principal of Hill Valley High School in the films - in the second film he's shown as being "Head Disciplinarian" or something along those lines - although there appears to be some debate about this.)

Hill Valley

"Please excuse the crudity of this model. I didn't have time to build it to scale or paint it."

Arriving at Stratford Overground station on the afternoon of the show, attendees were led on foot about half a mile to a site adjacent to the Westfield Stratford shopping complex, where, from the long queue at the edge of the site, the familiar Hill Valley town hall building could be seen.

The site was divided up into roughly five main areas: the ante-rooms, the town square and businesses, the school hall, the dining hall, and the funfair.

Visitors entered the site through an ingestion area where tickets were checked and phones and cameras left for collection at the end of the night. This led into a small area with goats and sheep (courtesy of Peabody's Farm, natch), and then a small curved street lined with small 1950s suburban houses (including Grandma Tannen's, and the Baines') and parked 1950s vehicles. This area was very reminiscent of the opening area ('outskirts of town') in Punchdrunk's The Drowned Man. (Indeed, many elements of the set drew comparisons with Punchdrunk's approach.) At this point, pangs of doubt set in - this felt small, artificial, sterile... what if they'd just not managed to pull off the required level of immersion?

It was at this moment that I turned the corner and was presented with the town square, live, in its entirety, for the first time. Bunting, traffic, crowds of people in 1950s clothes, Mr. Sandman (not the recording used in the film, but let's not be pedantic here) playing over the public address system, people canvassing to get Red Thomas re-elected as mayor - holy crap. The initial 'reveal', in terms of the multi-sensory impact and crowd management (everyone effectively gets to do the agog stumble-walk across the square that Marty does in the film, should they so desire), is easily one of the highlights of the experience.

Venturing into the square, visitors quickly come into contact with cast members going about their business. Nearly all of the 1955 Hill Valley residents shown in the film have been represented in the cast (Doc, Marty, George, Lorraine, Lou, Goldie, Strickland and of course Biff and his goons) as well as many other logically obvious roles - cops, postal workers, students, teachers, and the staff of all the stores around the square.

It was this aspect of the show that helped me better understand the criticisms I'd heard leveled at Punchdrunk's shows (that there is no real interactivity with the performers) - here, the cast actively sought out visitors and invited them into pre-planned group activities (e.g., a box car race at the garage, or basketball tryouts) or semi-improvised riffs. Tittering schoolgirls would surreptitiously pass notes into people's hands, Biff would heckle passers-by from his car, Strickland would chew out slackers, Lorraine would sigh about that dreamboat Calvin Klein, George would seek approval, reporters would interview people, postmen would deliver postcards and dozens of other things would constantly be going on. The quality of the performances varied a bit, but Biff Tannen was particularly well realised - being played by a very tall actor who replicated Tom Wilson's mixture of obnoxiousness and stupidity with uncanny accuracy.

I have to admit that I found the Hill Valley set to be a little bit disappointing, considering how much it was emphasised as being the main attraction of the show in the promotional materials. Although the site is vast, that space is quickly eaten up when trying to include as many recognisable places from the film as possible. The town square stores were typically very small (only able to hold maybe half a dozen people at a time), and there was no chance of recreating big sets like Lou's Diner faithfully.

The school was relocated to a corner of the square, and consisted of a small front corridor directly connecting to the gymnasium/dance hall. (There was usually a live band playing in the hall, although they weren't playing 1950s music - finding such a 'niche' act available for the show dates and within the constraints of the budget probably being an impracticality.) The funfair and dining area connected to the town square were large, functional affairs that didn't make a great deal of effort to maintain immersion. This was probably a good decision for the convenience of visitors, but it meant that really only about half of the site was Hill Valley 'proper'.

The craftsmanship was a bit lacking as well - most of the signage was somewhat wonkily hand-painted, and the iconic Lyon's Estate billboard recreated in the opening area appeared to have been based on a blown up screencap from the film's DVD. (Well, maybe not, but it didn't look great.) Strangely, the town hall facade had been dressed as it appears in the 1985 parts of the film (dilapidated, with the "Dept. of Social Services" sign), although a possible rationale for this became apparent in the second half of the show. The general impression was that Secret Cinema had underestimated the time and budget that would be needed to undertake a project of this scale. One happy exception to this trend was Doc's lab and the drawing room of the Brown mansion, which were uncannily close to the film versions.

A final criticism - the prices of the various goods and services in the town were absurdly high. There were also surprisingly few souvenirs available (I would speculate that the licensing terms with the film distributor limited their options here), although the souvenir photographs (taken by the Hill Valley sign with the full panorama of the town in the background) were superb, and will be a great way to confuse the hell out of future generations.

The screening

"If my calculations are correct, when this baby hits 88 miles per hour... you're gonna see some serious shit."

After a few hours of taking in the sights and sounds of 1950s California, a parade was staged along the roads around the square, showing the extensive number of vehicles and costumed 'factions' that had been involved in the show. (Lots of visitors were roped into the parade as well. I'm still not sure if the crying child that I recall leading the Peabody's Farm procession was an actor.) We were then directed to take our seats on the green for the showing of the film. A brief breakdancing interlude (to Run DMC's It's Like That) signalled that the clock had been 'reset' and we were now back in good old 1985.

(If you've not seen the film, I guess there are spoilers in this section? I don't know if there are plans to stage the show again in other cities, so I guess this is also full of spoilers if you intend to go in future. You are warned.)

The front of the clock tower building was used as the cinema screen. Directly below the main screen, there was a raised stage (where the courthouse steps would be) with ramps at each end. The audience were sat on the green in the centre of the town square, with roads surrounding on all sides. There was also a central aisle bisecting the square from the rear to the courthouse steps.

Throughout the film, selected scenes were recreated live in sync with the on-screen action. All of key action scenes (Temporal Experiment #1, the night of the storm, as well as all the skateboard stuff, the Enchantment Under The Sea dance, and George cold-cocking Biff) were recreated in this way. (The only major omission was that they didn't tip a load of manure over an authentic 1950s convertible, sadly.)

It sounds kind of silly, but seeing the DeLorean business that we all know off by heart being performed by stunt drivers in cars fitted out with all the relevant accoutrements (including flaming tyre marks, dry ice, sparks etc.) metres away from the audience was generally thrilling. The climactic sequence (getting Marty back to 1985, which goes on for ages in the film) was all done live, including Doc Brown ziplining over the crowd from the top of the tower to connect the vital cable. While the 'live' DeLorean (presumably) doesn't get up to 88mph, seeing this sequence played out in real space gave me a new appreciation of how well it logically works. In the film, aside from the briefest of establishing shots, we never really get a clear view of the relative positions of the top of the clock tower, the street below, and Marty's line of approach.

The live performances for this part were pretty great, highlighting the degree to which the masterful physical comedy of the film's cast (particularly Christopher Lloyd) etched these characters on our collective consciousness. The actor playing Doc occasionally missed his cues and had to glance to the screen to find his place, but considering this seemed to be the most demanding role in the show (there seemed to only be one Doc, who needed to appear in character for the entire day as well as to perform the big stunt gag at the end) this was forgiveable. There seemed to be several Marties (to perform skateboard stunts and appear at different locations quickly). The pivotal moment where George knocks out Biff was replicated note perfectly and raised a huge cheer from the audience.

The 'enhanced screening' made me take a more sympathetic view on the slightly disappointing execution of the Hill Valley set. It's abundantly clear in retrospect that putting on the best possible screening of the film and the accompanying stunt work were intended to be the main attraction, but that to talk about them in the promotional materials would have spoiled the surprise. As a result they were driven to focus on the 1950s aspect, which of course made a lot of commercial sense considering the affluent young (and, conspicuously, not terribly ethnically diverse) subset of Londoners that have a fixation on 'vintage' fashion.

The presentation made me notice new things about the film as well. I've long held that a large part of the reason Back to the Future has such broad appeal (and a hallmark of the film-making philosophy that George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis were following at the time) was because the characters and story can be intuitively understood even if you can't understand the dialogue. But before now I hadn't realised exactly what an integral part music plays in the film.

Payoffs to the main plot beats are frequently accompanied by emphatic musical cues (Jennifer and Marty's kiss, George and Lorraine's kiss, Van Halen's brain melting capabilities, Johnny B. Goode, and of course the Back to the Future Overture during the suspense sequences) which are equally effective when drawn from 1950s or 1980s pop music or Robert Silvestri's score. (I just noticed while researching this writeup that the song that Marvin Berry and the Starlighters are playing while George McFly is being awkward at the dance is a real contemporary song called The Wallflower. Amazing.) It's extraordinary to think that the story was conceived and scripted without these (or any) specific pieces of music in mind.

...

In my considered opinion, Secret Cinema presents Back to the Future was a success. I definitely think that I got my money's worth (£55.60 per ticket plus an upsetting amount on burgers, American beer, sweets and souvenirs). Being able to see one of my favourite films in a beautiful setting among a crowd that clearly loved the film and was invested in the experience as me was extremely rewarding. (Bob Gale, one of the film's writers, was invited to the show one night and reportedly enjoyed it.)

That said, I would think twice before booking tickets for another Secret Cinema event. The extremely poor way in which the cancelled shows were handled, and the way in which customers and press were communicated with has introduced an uncomfortable level of risk.

These guys aren't Punchdrunk. They're not Disney's imagineers, and they're not virtuoso game or theatre production designers, nor are they film historians. They're trying their best but Back to the Future probably represents the absolute extreme of scale to which their current model can be extended without collapsing entirely. I also think that their approach only works for well-loved and celebrated films with rich fictional worlds. A proportion of their shows are commissioned by movie studios to promote new releases, where the lore that has grown around a film like Back to the Future or Blade Runner doesn't exist.

Here is a nice short film they made afterwards that gives a good impression of the event: http://www.secretcinema.org/hillvalleyfair.html

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