Secret Cinema creates immersive cinema experiences. For their tribute to Back to the Future they tried to re-create 1955 Hill Valley on a piece of waste ground near the Olympic Park in Stratford. Tickets were £54 each.
On Saturday 30th August we were able to finally attend the show for the penultimate night. Last show was Sunday 31st August. I should say that this review is written from the point of view of a Back to the Future enthusiast – someone who would appreciate movie accuracy. I’m also thinking about the ticket cost and number of attendees – I’d estimate 3000 people per night for 22 nights = £3.5 million and that doesn’t include revenue from visitor spending on the night. For anyone who has visited Universal Studios, you will know how well a realistic street can be created using building façades. I realise that Universal is a much bigger operation, but there is lot that can be done with £3.5 million.
Ticketholders were encouraged to dress in 50s costume and meet at Hackney Wick station, then parade on a 15 minute walk to the entrance. We just went straight to the entrance gate behind John Lewis in Stratford. There was a long queue to get in but it moved quite quickly. Once inside the queue continued within a mock-up of Old Man Peabody’s Farm. We were asked if we had a mobile phone and said no (actually a lie) – we were warned that if we were seen using a phone then we’d be asked to leave. We didn’t use our phones and I have no pictures to post.
We then proceeded past numerous miniature houses and enterprises, such as a telephone exchange and post office. It was possible to interact with actors within these – although none were actually anything to do with the movie, apart from claiming to be residents of Hill Valley. The Texaco Gas Station was pretty good, but with a pile of modern tyres and modern car door. There was a crude re-creation of Doc Brown’s garage, although in 1955 there would have been his mansion and garage. There was an attempt to populate the garage with artefacts. But these were mostly just a collection of jumble sale items from a mixture of time periods – the old Black and White Sony TV was particularly lazy, especially as there is a classic line In 1955, while fixing the time circuits, Doc sneers and remarks, “No wonder this circuit failed; it says ‘Made in Japan’.” There was a good attempt at making Doc Brown’s mind-reading hat.
The ‘Welcome to Hill Valley’ sign was a good reproduction. The grass was already covered with picnic blankets, staking claims for watching the movie. The clock tower was impressive, with the centre doubling as a cinema screen. I’m surprised that the columns weren’t projected onto the screen until it was time to show the movie. The projection booth was a tall white carbuncle sat within the grass area – no attempt to blend this into the surroundings.
There was a Hill Valley High School and Enchantment Under the Sea Dance within. But it didn’t feel very realistic – I was looking for Marvin Berry and the Starlighters and found some random rock band. There was some talk of ‘battle of the bands’ but that happened in 1985.
There was a carousel and Ferris wheel – their only purpose to collect £3 per ride.
Lou’s diner was a large burger place parallel to the screen. I couldn’t see the telephone box where Marty looks up Doc Brown’s address. We sat there to watch the movie and had good views of everything – there were no windows so we could hear the soundtrack. The prices were extortionate; £3 for a coke, £4 for a small can of Budweiser, £10 for a poor burger and fries. The best value was a £20 bottle of wine. At one point we were party to one of the several glimpses of brilliance during the evening: Lorraine Baines and her friends sat on the next table and George McFly approached and performed the ‘You are my density’ scene perfectly. There was an accurate ‘Goldie Wilson’ sweeping the floor. I would have loved to see more of these scene recreations.
The entire Hill Valley Town was busy – too many people and I wonder if Secret Cinema had oversold these nights to accommodate those who were from cancelled shows. From a Back to the Future perspective, there were too many shops that weren’t anything to do with the movie. I suppose that in 1955, Marty only visited Lou’s Diner, but it would have been good to see a re-creation of the facades of the other parts of the town – it didn’t really feel like Hill Valley. Another option would have been to create a mixture of buildings from all three movies; the Burger King, Biff’s Casino, the 80s Café, the Western Saloon, the bookshop that sold the Sports Almanac, Doc Brown’s blacksmith shop. I’m sure you’re thinking that this would have been messy and that Secret Cinema were trying to stay true to one time period and that would be fine if they had done that, except they didn’t…
The music played was mostly random 80s music and nothing to do with the movie – I understand that we couldn’t have three hours of ‘Mr. Sandman’ but there are plenty of other 50s tunes that could be played. Biff and his gang were driving around in a 1970 Cadillac DeVille – in the movie they drove a 1950s Ford. There was another car driving around which was a British 1963 Mk. 2 Ford Zodiac. There was also a Ford Popular which is a car made for the British market. The school bus was 1980s. Just laziness or even worse, penny pinching. In fact, I was half expecting to see a Volkswagen Scirocco with cardboard flux exhausts driving around instead of a DeLorean – luckily there were two good BTTF DeLoreans brought out during the movie.
Just before the start of the movie, a Marty McFly took to the clock tower stage and said “this is an oldie but your kids are going to love it” and then sang Power of Love. I think even those with a cursory memory of the movie know how inaccurate that scene was.
The movie started. The DeLorean reveal scene was done well, with a good BTTF DeLorean appearing on stage in sync with the movie. The road around the grassed area was used to good effect during the movie, with the Libyan Chase, skateboard chase and other scenes re-created. The final clock tower scene was excellent, with Doc Brown sliding down a wire from the clock tower. I think Secret Cinema did a pretty good job of re-creating these scenes – as I’ve said glimpses of brilliance.
My Sister went and had a great time. But she’s not a die-hard BTTF fan. For her it didn’t matter that there were so many lazy mistakes – she just enjoyed interacting with the Hill Valley characters and dancing in the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance. If you attended, had a great time and are thinking that I’m just a nerdy nit-picker, well you’re probably right. Maybe my expectations were too high. Nonetheless I did enjoy the evening – just not as much as I hoped.