My trip to 1955 Hill Valley with Secret Cinema

Let me take you back in time, to mid-July 2014 in fact, when I was due to attend the opening weekend of Secret Cinema’s production of Back To The Future. On Thursday afternoon that evening’s performance was cancelled, on Friday afternoon they cancelled the first WEEK. Along with a few thousand punters I was livid yet there was the silver lining that I could attend the full Tramlines weekend in Sheffield. Alas, I would not be one of the first to review the event but my chance eventually came on Friday and I was bowled over. Now that the month-long run has finished I can discuss the event in depth.

From the overground station in Highbury and Islington you could easily spot who was going, of which there were 3,500 each night with 70,000 tickets sold overall. Bright summer dresses for the girls and braces for the gentleman yet considering that Hoxton and Dalston were also nearby stops this could have been just another Friday night in these parts. Upon disembarking at Hackney Wick the commuters now looked out of place compared to the dinner jackets, bowties and polka dots.

Then there were the rich, Californian accents instructing patrons where to go for the ‘Hill Valley Town Fair’. As my group arrived we grabbed cans of lager from the nearest off-licence and set off for the 20 minute stroll past the Olympic Stadium and back into 1955. The entertainment began before we had even entered the site as a dressed up couple endured a ‘hands-on disagreement’ and only when the man in the lumberjack shirt exclaimed “But Lorraine, I know you want it” did you realise you were fooled. That Lorraine then joined our group only added to the fun.

I was then asked to help a lad retrieve his push bike off the bridge only to be brusquely told not to bother by a gang member in 3D glasses. After heeding that warning I could admire the lengths most had gone to look the part in 1950s garb. Those that did not stuck out, including 1985 Marty McFly in a red gillet with a skateboard and Doc Brown in a scientist outfit and grey afro. There was also one bearded hipster in front of us who turned out to be Iain from The Great British Bake-Off.

Outside Hill Valley were police troops kitted out in dark blue shirts and shades which disguised steely-eyed gazes. For a few minutes you were returned to 2014 and all the bureaucracy we have become used to. Bag checks, ticket checks and a final request to hand over mobile phones. I am usually apprehensive about handing over my phone yet on this occasion I was willing, I really wanted to enjoy the night without wanting to impress on Instagram.

Once inside you could note that the exhibits took their cue from the film, not simply in appearance but at what point you experience them as you stroll through. Farmer Peabody’s farm/sheep and goat petting zoo is the first you experience and the first that appears in 1955 Hill Valley in the film. Biff Tannen’s house lies on the outskirts of town, as it does in the film. You can have your photo taken outside the iconic Lyons Estates billboard (for £5) or be transported across town in a Cadillac or school bus but no photo to be had with the DeLorean.

Welcome to Hill Valley

Welcome to Hill Valley – “A Nice Place To Live”

Then we entered the square and from here you could fully embrace the immersive experience you had been promised, apart from the overbearing John Lewis’ shadowing the site. The clock tower was prominent with the clock itself stopped at 10.04, though in the film that only occurs after the lightning strike. With it being Friday night we headed straight for the bar. A house band was playing but was largely ignored and their keyboard made for an awkward juxtaposition. As drinks were retrieved one of the drama students (actresses) flirted uncontrollably with Brody, the Australian in the group. It was cute, kitsch and heart-warming. It made you feel part of the production, especially when she chatted with her drunken teacher who was dancing riotously behind us. A shop in the corner sold 3D glasses for $1 and disposable cameras for $6 when of course they meant pounds. Unfortunately, 1955 prices were not on show as cocktails in paper cups were still £6 and bottles of wine were £20, evidently this was still London.

On closer inspection the level of detail that went into the shops was remarkable.
. The red vinyl seats in Lou’s Diner,
. The local bank with cash machines hidden discreetly in the corners
. The plane seats for a ‘flying experience’ in the local travel agent.
. The Texaco garage where you could grab a Budweiser
. Roy’s Records and Comics
. The beauty parlour offering 50’s makeovers
. JD Armstrong realty office
. The Hill Valley Telegraph
All of it had a modicum of thought and consideration behind it. Despite all this I found the alter ego I was given of High School student, Jimmie Trapp, a bit useless. Not once did anyone check my ID or homework.

Dancing Away

Dancing Away at the ‘Enchantment Under The Sea’ Dance

My favourite part of Hill Valley was actually going back to school. Every locker looked authentic with scrawled graffiti, crushes identified on notes and photo-cards with one even featuring Marty McFly. In the school hall the ‘Enchantment Under The Sea’ dance was in full swing with more drama students (they’re the ones in the more realistic costumes) showing the punters how to do the Charleston. On the stage, Mr Strickland introduced Marvin Berry and The Starlighters as they ran through the hits including an exhilarating rendition of Johnny Be Goode (alas, without Marty McFly) and Earth Angel for all the lovers out there. A DJ took over and kept up the 50’s choons until something weird happened, an 80s flashmob complete with tracksuits leaving the ’50’s drama students’ to learn breakdancing.

The 80s Flashmob

The 80s Flashmob

By 8.45 all reconvened on the astroturf that was the town square, a parade of the town’s characters went around the square and we grabbed some food before the screening. As far as I’m concerned, Back To The Future is the perfect Friday night movie with so many moments that I have seen so many times I can replay them in my mind’s eye. What I was not prepared for was seeing those scenes on the big screen with actors acting them out in front of us. There was the unveiling of the DeLorean, which gave me goosebumps, Marty skateboarding around the town as he’s chased by Biff and his goons, George knocking out Biff at the prom and the final scene involving Doc hanging off the clock tower; all superbly acted which made it all feel a little surreal.

Hill Valley Town Square

Hill Valley Town Square

During the rest of the film I found myself cheering, laughing and booing, you simply could not stop feeling involved. What I will remember though is not the funfair, or the DeLorean whizzing around the square but the atmosphere that pervaded the whole event. At one point I chatted with another punter outside the toilets about how much fun I was having when usually I’d be checking my phone, oh what a time we live in.

Photos courtesy of Lee Mullin


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