Funny story: I was stood outside Wapping train station at 6:30 on a Friday evening, as anyone might well be, when I was suddenly thrust into a surging crowd of people chanting, protesting no less, about nothing in particular.
And for some reason the men were all dressed in suits and trilbies, or khaki, and the women in jazzy numbers with bobbed coiffures. Wapping is a strange place at the best of times, of course, but something was different.
I feign naivety of course. I was dressed in a suit too. This was in fact the entrance protocol for the latest ‘Secret Cinema’ event in London. After this ostensibly covert rendezvous we were marshalled into the now semi-abandoned Tobacco Dock, whose interior resembles Covent Garden so much that the organisers of the event had in fact converted the whole building into a wartime replica of it, replete with barking, moustachioed policemen, obsequious butlers and louche Bogart-lookalike barflies.
There were so many actors mingling with the ‘audience’, and both were equally dolled up in period attire, that it was unnervingly hard to tell who you could approach without fear of being whisked into a big band dancefloor. This I found out, to my immediate chagrin (but subsequent smugness at learning how to charleston with someone who resembled Marlene Dietrich).
My friends and I were also accosted by, amongst other people, an art dealer, who bade us show him our work and proffered us brushes and paint to do so (though I fear he was disappointed with our ultimately infantile efforts), and a sinister ballerina who led us through a dark flickering maze of torn up newspaper before screaming and running away. This all made very little sense to us at the time, which we dealt with in part by availing ourselves of the bar which, unfortunately, did not seem to care that the price of beer in 1940 was 1 shilling (that’s 5p)…
A highlight was the shopkeeper in the music store: ‘and this one vinyl can hold an entire symphony, it’s the latest thing…’
However, after an hour or so of bewitched exploration, we ended up being drawn into a cyclone of people in the central plaza of the mall, being encouraged to sing and dance by the now, frankly, slightly distressing actors, before being ushered into a theatre which started to roll the 1948 classic ‘The Red Shoes’. (I say ‘classic’, but I must confess that I’d never heard of it, and that I’d been secretly hoping for Casablanca.)
The film was unabashedly pretentious – like the whole event, in fact – which merely made it better. It follows the artistic imbroglio between a young rich ballet dancer, an eminent composer, and his gifted protégé, and accordingly was heavily laden with cheese: ‘Why do you want to dance?’/‘Why do you want to live?’/‘Well, I don’t know exactly why, but…I must.’/‘That’s my answer too.’ Even I – a literature student – scoffed and balked. Which is to say, I loved it.
Over the course of the film we recognised in it more and more of the characters that had been accosting us all evening, and everything started to fall into place…the ballet dancers, the dementedly evil magic shoemaker… though, if I must be honest, the first part of the evening had been so fun that the film did feel slightly like an afterthought.
All in all, though, it was an incredible evening. By the by, the name ‘Secret’ is merely another juicy layer of pretension, given that it runs for three weeks, tickets cost £25, and it is now partnered with those famously underground companies Microsoft and The Guardian Media Group.
However, although one can’t honestly believe it’s anything underground, one is undeniably immersed, transported, entertained and enthralled for several hours, and there’s not much around that can do that. So do it: it’s the closest you’ll ever get to time travel, or being on the silver screen.
…but, I mean, um, tell no one!