Secret Cinema: things to know before you go

On set of the Secret Cinema, Back to the Future event
On set of the Secret Cinema, Back to the Future event

Approaching Hackney Wick station on the Overground, we’d noticed a few people dressed up like us – felt fedora hats draped over men’s knees, and women with headbands and vintage circle skirts were the giveaways. We gave each other the eyes and a nod. Our stop arrived, and as we disembarked the train, that’s when we saw them – hundreds of others in 50s attire. It was like we’d been taken back in time, and that really was the essence of the evening to follow: we were about to enter a parallel land – a recreation of 1955, Hill Valley in California for the Back to the Future Secret Cinema.

We were met by American-accented Secret Cinema attendants who guided us down the road, to the next attendant – who then proceeded to give us directions to the next attendant. We walked from attendant to attendant for a good 15 minutes – they were making us work for this. Finally we reached the secret destination, and on the way we’d been mobbed by a couple of men in tight jeans and denim shirts, who made crude jokes and sniggered a lot, before running off. At first we didn’t quite get it – who were they? Were they also part of the audience, like us? It turned out that they were actors in character – a couple of baddies from Biff’s gang in Back to the Future, and it was a taster for the experience to come.

How to describe what Secret Cinema actually is? It is an outdoor interactive cinema experience, where you have about 3 or so hours to explore a recreation of the set of the film (it’s like a whole new world, and it isn’t small – it’s the size of about four football pitches), interact with actors who are portraying characters from the movie, take part in a parade or stunt, and buy food and drink. In the Back to the Future Secret Cinema, you can go into Marty McFly’s house and see what’s in his room, write a postcard at the Post Office, get cash from the cash machine at the Bank of America, have a boogie at the Under The Sea dance, or order food from Lou’s Diner.

The Hill Valley parade, with characters waving American flags
The Hill Valley parade, with characters waving American flags

There’s even a Ferris wheel, a petting zoo, rides to go on, and memorabilia to buy. Every minute detail has been thought of to take the audience back to another era, and give the feel that they’re in another country – right down to the accents of the actors, to everything being priced in dollars. It’s a creative masterpiece. To top it all off, the film is shown on a big screen – and the movie is brought to life with real on-stage stunts.

I don’t want to give away ‘secrets’ of Secret Cinema the film, but here are a few things to know before you go, and some dos and don’ts.

  • Do dress up – if there’s a theme, make an effort to dress the part. The majority of people who go are also in full character and it helps to make the experience even more authentic.
  • Do prepare for your mobile phone to be confiscated. When you enter the experience, your “calculators” or “communication devices” are confiscated – you hand them over upon arrival and get them back at the end. But it might take a while to get it back – especially if you leave at the time everybody else is leaving.
  • Don’t take a camera, you’re not allowed to take it in. The experience does however have disposable cameras on sale (£6) so you can buy one inside. It really takes you back – somehow you’ve got to go back to an age where you take pictures and can’t actually see what the picture looks like until you eventually get the film developed!
  • Do take something to sit on, and something to cover you if it gets chilly – you’ll be outdoors the whole evening. A blanket will do.
  • Don’t assume there will be a cloakroom to leave your bags. There isn’t.
  • Don’t take any food or drink – you’re not allowed to take anything in. You have to buy it once you’ve entered.
  • Do take cash. Card payments aren’t accepted at the bars or foodie stalls. There are a couple of cash machines inside, at the Bank of America, though. Price-wise, a hot dog is £6, a can of beer is £4, and a can of Pepsi is £3. The choice of food is great – there’s everything from burgers and chips to crepes, apple pie and sweets and popcorn. There are plenty of pieces of memorabilia to buy, too.
  • Don’t just enter the experience and then go and sit on the grass to bag a spot for the film – you have a good few hours before it begins and there’s plenty of exploring to do.
  • Do talk to the actors – one of the highlights of my evening was meeting Dr Emmett Brown (the mad scientist). We also enjoyed talking to an actor in the character of a journalist from the Hill Valley Telegraph. She asked me who my character was (they tell you who your character will be before the event) – and we got into a full-on conversation, both in character. It was mind-boggling but amusing.
  • Don’t jaywalk on set – the cops in character will scream at you or come and mob you! In fact, do it, just for the reaction…
  • Don’t be afraid to take children. It is a family friendly event.
  • Don’t wear uncomfortable footwear – you’ll spent most of the time on your feet, so avoid high heels or footwear which pains after a while.

Secret Cinema is an incredible immersive experience – I’ve never before seen anything like it. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! Better go and find a place that actually accepts old-school photography film to process…


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