With 2013 firmly underway, I thought I was due a blog post looking back on the year that has been. When I sift through my sleep-deprived 2012 memory for possible highlights, apart from fun times on two family holidays, socially we have pretty much battened down the hatches this past year, courtesy of our narcoleptically-challenged one year old daughter, Chips. So… there really is a clear winner to the title this year… it’s a grown-up activity and it’s a secret – ssshhh!
2012 was the year that I discovered Secret Cinema.
I had heard about it on the word-of-mouth grapevine over the past few years, and had seen their presence on Social Media (this is the only form of promotion they do, apart from articles written about them in the mainstream media) but I had never purchased a ticket myself.
So in June, Doug and I decided to go. The premise is simple, but risky – you buy tickets to a film (not cheap at £43.50 a pop + booking fees), but you don’t know what it is, and all they do is tell you where to meet, what to wear, what to bring and sometimes they give you a character to play. The only clues we received were an email a few days before stating that we needed to meet at the statue of ‘The Engineer’ (Robert Stephenson) at Euston Station at a designated time, had to dress in a boiler suit, and had to pick from a range of professions online (we were Data Scientists and had to bring with us a religious artifact) for our ‘journey mission’ with our employers ‘Brave New Ventures’.
We were led, along with our fellow boiler-suit-cladded adventurers, from Euston Station to an old disused petrol station forecourt, where our tickets were processed by BNV staff members, we exchanged our Earth money for fluorescent coloured UV chips which we were told we could buy things with where we were going, and we were then herded onto what was a huge spaceship created out of a 190,000 square foot abandoned warehouse.
There were probably about 40+ rooms that made up the ‘spaceship’ that you were free to explore, many with activities you could take part in, or things you could interact with. There was a mess hall where you could eat canteen-style food, about 4 or 5 bars dotted throughout (one with white lilies hanging from the ceiling whose scent I seemed to remember for days afterwards), and even a Secret Restaurant for those wanting a more ‘formal’ dining experience. You could visit the flight deck, go and get checked out by doctors and nurses at the infirmary, learn an exercise routine along with other travellers after your long journey time in Hypersleep, keep your green fingers happy in the hydroponics lab, and even have a game of PingTron in a pitch black room (where your table tennis bats and balls are fluorescent and you need to wear luminescent visors just so you can see your opponent). There were even aircraft-hangar-sized rooms full of space vehicles which I later learned were actual props from the film that had been borrowed by Secret Cinema.
The beauty of everyone being dressed the same is that, as you wander around exploring, you have no idea who are your fellow ‘audience’ members and who are Secret Cinema ‘actors’, so everyone talks to one another and everyone is keen to interact with the ‘actors’ once something exciting presents itself in the ‘script’.
We visited a room with scientific and anthropological specimens from Earth (like mobile phones, books, playing cards and cereal boxes) hanging from the ceiling in little plastic specimen bags and we were sent on a Secret Mission by one of our superiors to go off to the Reading Room, develop a boardgame called ‘Sixes’, and bring it back to the room to hang up, although we got sidetracked somehow and never made it to the Reading Room.
There was a vague ‘story’ which surrounded the experience that went something like this: once we had been through Hypersleep together and the ship had made it to the surface of the new planet, a team of fellow adventurers were chosen to go and explore the surface. When they came back, there was a security breach as one of them had come back infected. Dramatic scenes unfolded, complete with sirens blaring, runaway infected people, people flying overhead, and just general chaos, so the whole spaceship had be evacuated to the ship’s escape pods. These pods turned out to be the cinema where we were given 3D glasses, exchanged some more UV chips for popcorn, and sat down to watch the feature.
By now I had guessed that it was Prometheus, although I got the impression that a lot of people were still unsure until the special ‘Secret Cinema’ filmed introduction featuring Ridley Scott was played, and then a huge cheer went up and filled the escape pods.
The film itself was OK, but weirdly enough, I kind of felt that the actual film was not really the point – it could have been the worst film I’ve ever seen (the Bruce Willis film, The Color of Night, in case you’re asking) and I still would have loved every second of my experience. I loved it so much, in fact, that it made it to the list of my life highlights, along with my first Glastonbury in 1999, my wedding day, and the birth of my 2 children.
It wasn’t my first experience of that type of thing. I’d been a great fan of the ‘immersive’ theatre I’d come across by London company, Punchdrunk, at The Big Chill festival in 2004 and 2005. But I feel that a ‘cinematic’ experience works better than a ‘theatrical’ one, as a play is linear and Punchdrunk was always pretty difficult to follow – if you didn’t know the play and you happened to be exploring another area while some key dialogue was occurring somewhere else, then you were bloody confused. Secret Cinema don’t try to recreate the film; they just create an experience in a world loosely based on the film – and I think this works much better.
As pleased as I was to have finally discovered Secret Cinema, I was also gutted to have missed some of their previous showings, including Ghostbusters, Blade Runner, The Third Man (which many people quote as their best production to date), Lawrence of Arabia, La Haine and even Bugsy Malone (complete with a real life splurge gun fight at the end).
So when I heard that they were doing another production in November, I jumped at the chance to buy tickets to, not only Secret Cinema, but their new offering, Secret Hotel.
We shipped the kids off to the grandparents and, as directed, made our way to Bethnal Green Library in London’s East End, dressed in suits with long johns underneath and armed with new identities (and in my case, a new gender) – I was Craig Alvaro, a Telephone Operator from Elizabeth, Colorado, and Doug was Ike Flynn, a Cow Hand from De Berry, Texas.
When we arrived, we found the library had been transformed into the State of Oak Hampton Court of Justice and we were sent before the judge for our crimes (of which mine were car theft, arson, burglary and battery). I got sent down for 8 years (a rather lenient judge, I thought!) and we had a last minute chat with our lawyer (whom we purchased a ‘library card’ off) before me and my fellow prisoners were herded outside and driven in lovely 1940s buses with blacked-out windows to prison, where we were welcomed with open arms by groups of jeering inmates.
We then got lined up in the gymnasium and were made to change out of our courtroom suits and into our prison uniforms, before being taken to our cells.
One of our cellmates had a secret bar behind one of the window shutters and we were told to ask to borrow a book by ‘Mr Schmirnoff’ with our ‘library card’ and in return we were handed a miniature bottle of Vodka with a diet coke mixer. Next we visited the mess hall for our dinner of baked beans, but one of our fellow prisoners created a disturbance, getting rid of the prison guards, and we all bought contraband hot dogs and burgers, plus more contraband booze.
We were then free to wander round the prison, and went on secret tasks for the nurses in the infirmary to the laundry room and when they came back they gave us ‘medication’ (i.e. more booze). You could go up to the library, do needlework, make candles, write to other prisoners on death row, exercise in the yard, go to the prison chapel, or go before the parole board (the more work you did in the prison, the more stamps you got on your parole form).
There was a prison fight, a band playing Johnny Cash prison numbers and loads of other smaller rooms you could investigate. There was a prison revolt, with one prisoner taking control of the prison tannoy system and playing the Marriage of Figaro at full blast, and we were led to another big room where we could buy popcorn on our library cards and we watched the film which, by now, we’d worked out was The Shawshank Redemption (as we had got to meet some of the characters wandering around the prison). Half way through the film (in the bit where Andy offers to do the tax for the prison and asks for a bucket of cold beers for his fellow prisoners doing hard labour in the hot sun) the prison guards brought round bottles of beer for all the prisoners, and the room erupted in cheers.
After the film, a few of us met up in the prison chapel for our stay at the Secret Hotel, the reality of which wasn’t quite as romantic as we had all envisaged now that we knew exactly where we would be staying. I think most of us would have preferred to have been made to sit in a locked room and forceably watch Katie Price’s Eurovision preselection performance on repeat for the duration of the stay whilst being made to eat Moruga Scorpion Chillies dipped in anchovy juice. In fact, out of the group of about 10 or 15 group names that they called, only two other groups turned up, so I’m not sure it was quite the success that they had hoped it to be.
The reality of Secret Hotel was that it was pretty grim, but loads of fun. Well… I think it was… I can’t actually remember much past the start of the movie, as I was so pepped up on all the contraband Moonshine that was constantly being shoved down my throat. It was like going on a pub crawl, but without any of the crawling… Oh, or the pub come to think of it. Anyway, regardless, I was hammered. We carried on drinking in our bunk-bed-filled cell, after bribing one of the guards for another library card and, then a bottle of red which I’m pretty sure we were swigging out of the bottle (I think maybe I even vaguely remember a brown paper bag somewhere in the mix?)
I think I had about 2 swigs before promptly passing out on one of the bunk beds, only to be woken up several short hours later by Doug who had to go for a wee in the night and had to bang his tin cup on the cell bars in order to wake up the guards so they could come and unlock the cell.
The next morning we were woken up by the guards at 7am, walked down to the mess hall for a very simple breakfast on a prison tray and not offered a shower (I guess at least I didn’t have to worry about potentially dropping the soap). No Corby Trouser Press. And no free sewing kit to take away. Just a quick parole hearing, a rubber stamped ‘Approved’ marked on our prison papers and we were free to go. So all in all… a pretty authentic experience I would say.
I’m sure a few of you will be pleased to know that, now that all the ‘secret’ fun is over, and the name of the film has been confirmed, Future Cinema (Secret Cinema’s sister company), have decided to extend the run of the production by calling it ‘The Shawshank Redemption: A Live Cinema Experience’. Tickets for January 2013 have already sold out, but they’ve just released new dates throughout February 2013, so I would strongly urge anyone who hasn’t been before, to think about buying some here.
If you’d like to see for yourself just how much fun the event was, have a look at this video Secret Cinema have put up on YouTube. Funnily enough, the back of our heads feature in it, doing p*ssweak pressups in the prison yard (yes, I am totally on my knees cheating), at 1 minute 43 in:
So, now that I’ve found Secret Cinema, I’m going back again for another (already sold out) dose in April, where, as well as London, the event run will be extended to New York and Athens (the latter of these is apparently relevant to the film – hmmm?!).
So… when you can, get your hands on a ticket, get into the spirit of the event, and enjoy your weird and wacky experience. And then nominate Secret Cinema’s founder, Fabien Riggall, for a Knighthood for his services to new film watching genre creation.
Secret Cinema’s slogan has always been ‘Tell no-one’.
I wholeheartedly apologise to them for doing the exact opposite in this blog post. But it’s their own fault really. This secret experience is just too good to keep to yourself. Instead, spread the word (but just make sure you do it ever so quietly – ssshhh!).