It's 2014 – but I didn't spend all weekend there. On Sunday night, I was treated to a brief jaunt back to 1955 courtesy of the folk at Secret Cinema. The destination was the quaint town of Hill Valley, California to watch Robert Zemeckis' 1985 classic, Back to the Future.
Secret Cinema have had a bad couple of weeks. After two last-minute cancellations, then the postponement of its opening night until 31st July, it seemed unlikely that the event would even go ahead. The backlash on social media ranged from the justifiably bilious to the standard sarcastic jokes. I know, I know – they have a time machine, so surely they could've prevented the entire debacle from happening. “Tomorrow's show was great” etc...
But it didn't matter. They were committed to delivering a unique experience, no matter the cost. Services resumed, and I was ready to don my hat, tie and braces, and complete my birthday weekend with a voyage through time and space.
At 5:30pm, two intrepid pals and I crossed the threshold into the Hill Valley Fair. I was no longer Josh Franks, I was Roger Sieg, Tax and Treasury Manager working over in the Town Hall, while my friends were students at Hill Valley High School.
Immediately, we were greeted by locals who were out for a morning stroll, chatting to each other about shopping, televisions, and the weather. We had a chance to peek into the modest McFly and Tannen houses, but not before I was told to get off Mr Anderson's lawn. It struck me then just how dedicated these performers are, not only to their craft as actors, but to giving people as authentic an experience as possible. There was no escaping it – for these people, and now for everyone else, we were in Hill Valley, and it was 1955.
The town square was exactly like I remembered it in the film; the green, the town hall (on which they would later project the film), the clock, Lou's Diner, and many more shops typical of the era. Classic Chevies roamed the streets, lights and speakers adorned each stall; the scale and the size of the grounds made it abundantly clear why the team had to postpone the event: there was so much that could go wrong, and their cautiousness paid off tenfold.
We first spotted the Texaco garage that Marty McFly sees upon his arrival into 1955. The dutiful Texaco attendants were busy with polishing and shining – until they saw us:
Suddenly, I was in character, affecting the best (terrible) 1950s American accent I could muster:
"Certainly. A perfect day for the Fair!"
Of course, when they're not busy detailing cars, the four are a barbershop quartet known as the Texatones. And by this time, a small audience had assembled. Minus one member (I guess he was getting a chocolate milk over at Lou's), they launched into a pitch-perfect rendition of “Goodnight, Sweetheart”. Tone-deaf as I am, it took every fibre of my being not to join in. We gave them a swift round of applause and continued on.
Walking past a classroom, we were interrupted by Principal Strickland, and my friend – now known as Che Suarez – was herded into a seat just in time for poetry class. Che, surprised by the ordeal, wasn't paying too much attention, but we know Strickland doesn't take kindly to slackers.
"Are you listening to me, son?"
His hands slammed on Che's desk. Outside, I burst into a fit of uncontrollable laughter. This guy was the real deal. He began to read poetry, and eventually explained that he'd met his wife in this very class, decades ago. It was a sad story, but we were far too distracted by Che's reaction to being scolded by a teacher to listen to it.
Class dismissed, and now seemed as good a time as any to check out Hill Valley High School and their famous Enchantment Under the Sea dance. Students were wandering in and around the entrance, one of whom asked us to help her write a love poem for her crush, Andy. We were happy to oblige, but it had been a while since any of us had been in high school, let alone written poetry. I just hope Andy realised that love speaks louder than rhyming couplets.
Inside, we passed the graffitid lockers and into the dance hall. After a brief twist to some Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, Marvin Berry and The Starlighters took to the stage to perform "Earth Angel" and other hits, while many of the actors (some in different attire to before) arrived to shame us all with their expert swing dancing. Strickland could be seen chaperoning to make sure there was no touching, but to little avail.
After Marvin and his band finished their set, we walked outside, only to be approached by another student, this time clutching a very peculiar picture:
"Excuse me, sir. I found this picture in my locker. Do you know who these two men are? They look so familiar!"
I was presented with a choice: do I reveal the true identities of these men, giving into logic and losing all sense of fun? Or do I continue to lose myself in the experience and spin a crazy yarn about time travel?
"Okay. If you bear with me, I'm gonna tell you a story: imagine a place that exists – fifty years in the future. A place that doesn't exist right now, but it could if you want it to."
She was captivated.
"What if I told you that in this place – fifty years from now – these two men are alive and are in the movies, just like Rock Hudson or Cary Grant, and you could go there."
And off we went to Doc Brown's lab. We arrived in the middle of him and Marty acting out the scene where they first meet in 1955, surrounded by a crowd of people.
This was the first of many chances we would have to see Doc and Marty interact in person. And they were perfect. Not lookalikes of Christopher Lloyd or Michael J. Fox by any means, but they were two actors that fit their roles to the letter, each mannerism exactly like those from the film.
As Marty convinced Doc that he really had travelled through time in a DeLorean, the two improvised over the script to incorporate audience interaction and our raucous laughter, which, I suppose, is why we all paid to be there in the first place.
We decided not to follow the duo to Ruth's Frock Shop, where Marty would pick up his more conspicuous 50s threads, and instead entered the sole 1980s bar on the site.
We arrived to the sounds of Madonna singing "Holiday" and sat down. What happened next is something that'll stay with me for a while: the sight of an actress (or was it?), dressed in 50s attire, dancing innocuously and care-free to Human League's "Don't You Want Me". It was moments like this that I wish we'd been able to bring a camera, but then we were assured that people didn't have Canon DSLRs in 1955.
At 8pm, it was time to head back to the green and hear Mayor Red Thomas' speech, and then watch the Hill Valley Parade go by. Marvin Berry and The Starlighters showed up to play one more set, this time joined by Marty himself on guitar for a rendition of Huey Lewis and The News' "The Power of Love", only to be cut short by the main event: Back to the Future was about to start.
I'll hold my tongue on what happened next, for therein lies Secret Cinema's triumph. But if you manage to secure a ticket for the remaining shows, the accompaniment to the film is worth the price of admission alone.
When the film ended, we had to quickly abscond in order to make it back to North London (and the future), but the atmosphere of pure, unadulterated joy was palpable: friends, couples, families and their children had all come here to be treated to an unforgettable spectacle and immersive experience of being in 1955 while watching one of their favourite films. And, by all counts, in spite of the initial setbacks, Secret Cinema delivered in spades.
Incidentally, we bumped into Marty on the Central line afterwards, sans life preserver. I guess the dork realised he wasn't going to drown.