AFJ Reviews Secret Cinema Presents…. Back to the Future

Wednesday 12 August, 2015

Sometimes, there are good places to be in a wheelchair, and then there are bad places to be in a wheelchair.

Last year, for my birthday, me and my friend decided we’d do something Big. And so, we went to London for Secret Cinema’s Back to the Future event. When I first looked into access, I wasn’t actually all that convinced or thrilled. I had no official response from the official organisers for at least four days after my initial contact, and in the meantime my friend contacted them and was told that staff would double check, but by law they had to provide equal access to the event so they were 99.9% positive that they were fully accessible and would even have wheelchair accessible toilets available alongside normal ones (or a phrase to that affect).

I looked into reviews of Secret Cinema and got the feeling they were quite hit and miss on the access front, and disability awareness front, and catering for those affected with food allergies and intolerances front. One review said that the event itself was accessible, but interaction with staff led to disappointment overall and the event goers leaving early. I then got a reply by someone not-so official over facebook and was told that, whilst by law they were required to provide wheelchair access, due to the nature of the event they couldn’t ensure full wheelchair access, and some aspects of participation might not be as accessible, but the whole event took place on level (outside) ground and there would be disabled facilities on site.

Sceptical, but optimistic, I battled through two days of their ticket selling site DDOSing itself to buy the tickets. Then I booked the hotel, then the trains, and eventually bought the costume. It’s not that easy to buy 1950s costumewear when you’re my height, with my unequal proportions, and when you’re in a wheelchair with those things combined, so in the end I got a 1950s-style blouse and a vintage 1950s skirt, and red lipstick and nail varnish to complete the ensemble. Looking back, I think I’d have looked more the part in a zoot suite, but that’s looking back with 20/20 hindsight, and without my glasses everything is quite blurry. Anyway.

Two days After I bought the tickets, I received a message over facebook giving us more information than any other ticket purchasers had been told, so that I could plan accordingly regarding access. It was also repeated that, the grounds being used were open and flat, and that the majority of the event would be accessible, there just might be some issues with the participations. And there would be disabled toilets.

Over the course of the months, dribs and drabs of thematic information was given to people. The nature of Secret Cinema is that everything is secret up until you arrive at the location, unless it’s a Secret Cinema Presents event which is somehow slightly different and provides more information gearing up to the day. So we knew that it was Back to the Future based, we secretly knew where it was abouts, and both me and my friend were given themed identities (IDs!) and suggestions for costumes. One thing that was a hot topic for the event goers, though, was that we would not be allowed our phones on us during the event, nor would we be allowed to have cameras with us. They said that this was because they wanted the night to have as much authenticity to it as possible, but also they didn’t want spoilers reaching the outside world and anyone breaching copyright, or people spoiling other people’s night of fun, if they were taking pictures whilst other people were trying to watch the film or join in on the events.

I often find that when there’s more than one reason for something, there’s actually no real reason for it but don’t want to give anyone any room to argue with logic.

There was also some tensions on facebook that the only information given out to us actually was all “In-game”, so to speak, and it didn’t make much sense. At some point, though, it was suggested on Facebook by their spokespeople that there would be a minibus put on to run people with mobility problems from the meeting point to the doors of the event. I wasn’t too bothered, me and my electric wheelchair were good to go, but if it had the legally required wheelchair space with the legally required safety straps, and a lift was offered, I’d have taken it to save battery.

As time went on, organisers seemed more happier to share jokes and references to how secret this event was meant to be, than give any helpful information that the modern day journey planners actually needed. (Best hotel to stay at? How late does the tube run? Do we need to go in costume or can we change there? What if we need our phones on us incase of a family emergency?) And then, after some people still not being sure what to expect, the first day came… and the event was cancelled.

Due to some planning mishaps (Word around the net was that the organisers failed to get health and safety inspections done in time, which meant they didn’t have permission for all of us ticket holders to attend the event and there was no crowd control plans put into place; And then photographs emerged of organisers and volunteers spending that first night painting in zebra crossings, test driving the cars, and still putting the finishing touches on the scenery.) they announced at the 11th hour and 59th minute, by email to a bunch of people who were told to leave their phone at home, that the event had been cancelled. People arrived at the meeting point with no knowledge of any of this, to be told by organisers and volunteers waiting for them at the meeting point, that the event had been cancelled. People had spent a lot of money to attend this event, the tickets weren’t cheap and people had flown in by plane from far and wide to get there. They had booked hotel rooms. For two whole days, the organisers hadn’t even announced there would be refunds for the price of the ticket, they just suggested that people could re-book at no extra costs for days at the end of the month. As many people pointed out, time taken off from work and plane tickets didn’t work like that. I still don’t know if refunds were given or any compensation offered.

Following that, the first weeks of screenings were cancelled and it wasn’t given the go ahead until a week later on the 1st of August, 2014. That was the day me and my friend had tickets for. I was due to be part of one of my childhood favourite films: Back to the Future. I could hear the theme tune from the second I woke up that day!

Was I worried it would end in disaster for us like it had many other people? Yes! But I tried not to let it bother me as I travelled down to London.
I’ll skip through the boring parts and carry on from when we arrived at the meeting place.Once off the overhead railway, we were greeted by actors dressed in 1950s clothing, ushering and pointing us in the right direction. We were late, butwe hadn’t missed a damn thing. Because, despite scare mongering announcements that any latecomers might not be allowed in until an appropriate time, if at all, we were amongst many people who turned up “Late” and we were led into a long-arsed queue that tailed very far back that didn’t move for half an hour. Early goers were already in, but most people weren’t.

(OH! I’d like to take this moment to do a Special thank you to fellow event goers, one even from Liverpool, who lifted me and my wheelchair up onto the train when assistance failed to show up with a ramp, and another special thank you to the scottish men who assisted in lifting me back out again! You all made the night possible in my eyes.)

One part we were directed through involved a set of stairs by the Olympic Park (in the Olympic park? My sense of direction has never been the best, and a whole year has gone by since then). We’d bumped into some people waiting for the lift, one half of the couple was on crutchers, and whilst everyone else was just jollywell going up the steps and across to where we needed to go, we were just looking at them with confusion. Stairs? No alternate route set out? Between the four of us, we came to the conclusion that that might have been the point that the minibus was meant to meet those with mobility problems, but the half of the couple without crutches went up the steps and asked one of the direction agents (It’s a lot easier to say than ‘One of the people dressed up giving directions’) about it and he said he didn’t know about any mini bus. He also said that we needed to go around the long way.

Wonderful. The whole event takes place in a flat area, but there was no mention of either needing to take the stairs or having to walk the long way around. Whenever walking was mentioned, it was always with the vague “short walk” or “Five minute walk”, with no regard to the concept that disabled people or mobility impaired people might just walk a bit slower and might have walking limits. I’m just glad I was in an electric wheelchair and wasn’t still depending on crutchers, like the be-crutched friend we’d just met, her hands were sore by the time we got to the queue. I wouldn’t have been able to do all the walking we’d had to do so far, and then the standing in the queue on top, with all the walking around we would have had to do have done in the place. Once again, it’s proof that people really don’t think things through when they talk about disabled access and provisions.

Moving on to the event itself, once we were inside. A miracle of miracles!

    BttF5 (2)

The setting for the Hill Valley Square was amazing. It was like a dream come true. You know that music video by The Offspring, “Why Don’t You Get A Job”, where they parade across the Hill Valley Square? I, ridiculously, had the greatest urge to rally up some people to do that. I know, it doesn’t make sense when I could have acted out any scene in BttF instead!

I digress. Everyone there looked amazing. My friend looked absolutely gorgeous in her vintage style dress. She pulled out ALL of the stops. I don’t think I pulled off the 1950s well at all.

As for the event itself, I’d say “Mixed reviews”. Whilst I think they did rather well in nailing the design of the square, I really found many faults with the idea that this was an accessible event. There were huts dressed up to look like houses, and I couldn’t get in to see them, and I couldn’t see much from the doorway. There was an open house design that was meant to be The Doc’s garage, and whilst everyone was going in and having a look around, picking up and playing with props, I could barely lean over to get close to the things right at the front.

The IDs we were given were so we could have a go at role playing whilst we were there. I didn’t bother, mostly because it was a hassle to get the ID cards out and interact with a bunch of people who seemed to always group in a way that blocked paths and views, but also because the places were these ID games were based, were based in these pop up shops that also had no access. I mean, sure, I might have been able to flag down the actors inside the shops to have a go at playing the part of my ID, but… everyone else blocked the doorways and inside was crowded. I couldn’t compete with that.
Whilst walking around, we kept being offered, by the actors, to take part in the parade. Each ID card made you part of a group, and people of those groups could meet up with one of the leading actors and learn a part for the parade. There was a “High School Drama Teacher” who was going to put on an acting bit for the parade, the shop keeper my ID worked for was doing a part of the parade. There was the farmer and the mayor, etc. We could have gone along to any of these groups and become a part of the parade! But we didn’t bother for two reasons:- We didn’t want to risk missing anything going on around the school area and on the square, but also, I wasn’t in the mood to play Compromising Cripple. That is, pretending to be perfectly fine with only half joining in due to limitations being put on me (steps to get into these places, would there even be dance moves I could do, could I have even held one of the heavy props,would I have been given a line just out of pity?), and having half of the experience. I just wasn’t in the mood to be the odd one out.
I really want to assure everyone that I did have a very good night. I had a go at a goober brownie and I loved that! Although I did start feeling the cold by the end of the it and feeling a bit ill as a result, but the event in and of itself was fun! It was an experience. It could have been a better experience, but it was amazing to see. The way they spliced the actors acting in front of the film AS the film played on in the background was brilliant! The cars were brilliant. Seeing the Biff Vs Marty McFly chase across the square before the film even started was great! Dancing in the school hall was great!
There was just a few moments that weren’t great. And the next bit is one of them, and it’ll stay with me forever. I apologise in advance for the subject this surrounds.

Shortly after the film started, I needed to pee. Not to brag or anything, but I do have good “capacity”, but I also have a bit of nerve damage in my back. Sometimes certain factors will mean that first signs of needing to pee will be when I’m at “maximum capacity”, so to speak. I could have waited another twenty minutes to see which one it was, but I was worried that I’d miss better things later on, if nearer the end of the film was the point when I hit maximum capacity and could not wait any longer. So I headed off to find the toilets. It was an executive decision. I got lost at first, but got pointed in the right direction of the toilets.
There were rows and rows of normal portaloos. There was a men’s section, then there was a woman’s section. I couldn’t see a disabled section. I asked one guy, he pointed me back in the direction of the women’s toilets, and when I repeated that I was looking for the disabled toilets, he said “Oh, I don’t know then.” Thank you, oh helpful member of staff! Luckily one of the actors (A Libyan!) overheard me asking and he pointed me in the right direction. There were two disabled toilets. Two. And looking from the outside, I wasn’t convinced that anyone in a wheelchair was actually going to be able to use them. So I went to open the door, and it wouldn’t budge. The door said vacant, unlike the one next to it, nobody said “Oh someone’s in here, please wait a second” so I gave it another pull, and nothing. I went back to the actor, and I think I asked if they were the only accessible toilets around, and he said yes. So I went back and tried a third time. Still nothing. On the fourth time, I used my right hand to open the door, and used my left hand to wiggle a bit that was sticking out, and that’s what made it finally work.
And I opened the door… and the smell that hit me was awful. It smelt… oh, bad. If I could have put a name to it, it would have to be that stale smell of a pub mixed with sewer milk. And, for a disabled toilet, it was anything but accessible. The toilet was directly in front of the door, on the left. There was no turning room, there was no lever arm to pull down, although even if there had have been, it wouldn’t have been any use because my wheelchair was in the way. I twisted myself to see what the situation was in this very smelly room, and I couldn’t close and lock the door once I was in. I’d have taken a photo or a video, but hey, no phone! And then I looked down at the toilet. Big mistake. Very big mistake. There was just something in there and it was brown and liquidly, and all I could think of at the time was “I hope that’s beer spew”. The toilet roll was also just down by the side of the toilet, I couldn’t see where the hand towells were because they also weren’t in the designated dispenser, and it was also missing a hygiene bin for medical accessories. Not that I need it, but some people might have!

I gave up and I backed straight out of there. And nearly ran a young girl over for her troubles. She, although walking, required the disabled toilets. And I said to her, and her mum standing next to her “If there’s any way you can use the women’s, I’d recommend it. It is BAD in there. I didn’t even bother”. And the Mum said she thought I’d gone in and came back out again very quickly. They must have followed the actor’s directions at the same time I was following them.

Me and the mum got talking. She asked me how I was finding it, and I explained everything I’ve explained here. Over all, it’s pretty good and I’m impressed, but I am disappointed that the little things, all the extra touches, were made inaccessible to me. And she explained that she had a daughter with a severe disability and she would have liked to have taken her to an event like this, but the unpredictability of the concept made it unfeasible, and with the lack of actual facilities and provisions for disabled people, she was glad she didn’t even risk it. She also explained that the daughter who was braving the toilets had a bag that needed sorting out, and that’s what they use the disabled toilets for. The space, the facilities to assist with balancing, and the extra hygiene bins they put in there. I said there was just nothing like that in there, and I was actually quite angry at the organisers for selling the event as accessible when two thirds of the event hadn’t been. It’s alright saying they will provide “accessible toilets”, but when they’re not fit for purpose, they might not as well be there. I can say with an educated guess, that they just got the cheapest things on offer and didn’t care enough to put thought into it.
The young girl came out and agreed with me that it Was pretty disgusting. And it’s only just occurred to me now that during that whole conversation, and we must have been talking for 15 minutes, nobody came out of the other toilet. It’s also just occurred to me that maybe someone jimmied the door on the toilets so that nobody could use them, because they were in such dire conditions. It’s my belief, that due the poor and offensive inadequate space of the toilet and little numbers of disabled people there that night, the disabled toilets had been designated as the spewing receptacles. Because why throw up in one of the many other toilets when you can throw up in the disabled one?

After almost being ran over by The Libyans on my way back (My new claim to fame!) I carried on my night enjoying the film, but with the worry that my situation might hit 11 and I’d have to risk public indecency by sneaking a piddle behind the fake shrubberies. I didn’t! But cold did set in and I got pains down my right leg (left leg is too dead to know when it’s too cold).

Like I said, I did enjoy the night. It was amazing! And we did manage to get some pictures, because they were selling over-priced cheaply made disposable cameras on site! It’s a shame that many people’s broke, including my friend’s, meaning they wasted £8 on them for nothing, and maybe more if they still got it developed. And those that were developed were of very poor quality. But mine did work, and quite a few turned out as best as they could! I didn’t want to use it for the toilets, for understandable reasons, but I got the photo I’ve posted above and some other ones.

I would probably go again if they did Back to the Future 2. Because that is my favourite film of the trilogy. But I would contact them before hand and lay down exactly what it means to be accessible, and sue their backsides off if it was the same situation all over again.

I think, besides watching the film and watching the actor’s in front of the film act parts of it out, the highlight of the night was dancing. The first time I met my friend, 10 years before almost down to the month, we went on an “Induction To 6th Form” trip together, which was at a university and it had a disco at the end of the night, and we danced together in our little group from the second the dancing started, until the night ended. And it reminded me of that.

I think the worst bit of the night, besides all of the access issues, was when the Doc was meant to zipline down from the clock tower, the zipline failed. So we had one Doc visibly left stranded on the clock tower with the spot light still on him, whilst a second Doc emerged from the darkness and spoke the lines along with the film.

For anyone wondering what happened with the pee situation (and who knew 10 years ago that ten years into the future I’d be talking about peeing online for all the world to read?! My sixteen year old self is dying of embarrassment, which sounds to me like a plot for BttF4), It hit 11 when Biff was pulling George McFly out of the car, but I made it to the hotel (IBIS) with my dignity and bladder intact. Which is where, to my dismay and to add awkwardness to mild hypothermia, we discovered the supposed wheelchair accessible bathroom had a sliding door that didn’t shut properly. You’d shut it, it would slowly slide open again and reveal about 4 inches of the bathroom. So much for dignity…

It was also a poor attempt at being wheelchair accessible. Like the Portaloo, once I was in the bathroom, I struggled to close the door after myself. It took a lot of bodily twisting. With the lack of space in there, there would have been no way of being assisted if I’d have needed assisting, and no way of showering independently if I’d have wanted to take a shower. The shelf for the shower was far too high, I can’t remember where the controls for the shower were but I remember thinking there was a problem with them, the towel rack was outside of the shower, out of reach of where the stool would go, the shower stool was a collapsible one resting up against the wall, the toilet was about 5 steps away from the shower, the shower had a lip, and oh yeah, the shower was on the side of the bathroom that the open sliding door revealed.

Me and my friend are close, but we’re not married.

For the Secret Cinema Event, I’ll give it a 6.5. I really want to give it a seven, but that disabled portaloo has scarred me for life.