Secret Cinema: Lawrence Of Arabia

We got the instructions a few days before; Alexandra Palace station, 4pm. Dress in Bedouin attire, bring something to haggle with and some cushions to lie on. Having never been to Secret Cinema before I was excited, excited to the point of absolute paralysis. Rather than preparing properly for the upcoming event, I accidently spent a day and a half in bed looking at pictures of people haggling on the internet. Still, I thought, important research to be done, and anyway, how much time does it actually take to throw together a tribal costume? So, upon arrival on Saturday afternoon, whilst some of the crowd looked like this:

secret cinema

others like this:

Some even like this:

I looked like this:

Pretty snazzy, I think you’ll agree. Now, armed with a Jackie Collins bartering amulet, an enticing Bedou-grin and more puns along similar lines to Bedougrin, I set off to learn about the draw of Secret Cinema.

Set up to fuse cinema and theatre with monthly interactive screenings involving elaborate locations, hundreds of actors and an unknown cinematic climax, Secret Cinema has grown steadily more popular with time. Last month’s offering – Blade Runner – had crowds transported from Canary Wharf in blacked out buses, attended by air hostesses from “Utopian Airways”. So what were we – the tea-towelled army – travelling towards? As we were herded towards Alexandra Park, I did what I do in any social situation – look for a man with a rubber chicken and a fake beard.

“So, what do you think the draw of Secret Cinema is?” I gasped, when I’d finally caught up with them. “Are you just wearing a hoodie on your face?” said one of the women, not unreasonably. “I’m a journalist,” I explained firmly, “I don’t have time to find things like tea-towels. Now, about this Secret Cinema business…”

As we discussed the fact that people these days expect more and more interaction from both their theatrical and cinematic experiences (think companies like Punch-Drunk, Ontroerend Goed and Belt Up if you’re a theatre-goer,) we began to make our way through undergrowth of Alexandra Park. “It’s the buy in factor,” said my new and less headwear-critical friend Dominique, “you pay the money to be around people you know will completely believe in the experience.” And the cost doesn’t matter? They shrug. “Considering you can pay eleven quid to sit in a cinema, gritting your teeth whilst chavs throw popcorn at you, I don’t mind paying more for a fantastic experience.” And, surrounded by people just as excited as I was, it was hard to disagree with that.

My next searing question was rather rudely interrupted by a camel. Two camels, to be exact.

The prospect of appearing in a biting yet accessible Secret Cinema expose now a distant second to looking at a camel, my new friends left me. Understanding defeat when it humped my way, I decided to stop attacking punters, and instead enjoy the experience unfolding around me. As tribal leaders appeared on horse-back to shout encouragement to their followers, mysterious figures played mysterious instruments and banners snaked around the surrounding trees, it was impossible not to fall under the spell of Secret Cinema. We were no longer in London. We were almost certainly on the road to Damascus. Take a look (and click on pictures for exciting bigness):

As we trekked, a building only partially obscured by camels appeared,

It became clear that the gorgeous Alexandra Palace was to be our final resting place, and it couldn’t come a moment sooner. After solid walking for over 7 minutes, we were all ready to camp down. What we didn’t expect was to walk into a WW1 military camp. Wandering into the Palm Court, soliders surrounded us asking for registration with the British Army, talking among themselves about the missions to come and eyeing our (uncannily accurate) Bedouin attire with suspicion. With the first of surprisingly few “Windows Phone” sponsorship pushes looming (“want to have your picture taken for your registration cards? It’ll go online at”, etc) the performers never lost control, wielding fabulous plummy English accents and, for the most part, lovely moustaches.

With a sign informing us that “Food and drink are available in the Souk”, we began to make our way into the next room – Alexandra Palace’s West Hall. Except, of course, it wasn’t a hall at all. It was a bustling, many passaged Arabian marketplace; chock-a-block with food sellers, shisha, be-jewelled clothing, newspapers, music and spices. Here’s a taste of what we were actually plunged into –

Having exhausted the joys of the souk (free coconut water samples?! Can I get a HELL YEAH) we gradually drifted into the main hall, patted down our cushions and settled in for the main event. Though, to be honest, by that point you couldn’t help but feel you’d already got your money’s worth. There wasn’t much doubt left in our minds as to what the feature presentation would be, and as the opening credits of Lawrence Of Arabia rolled, an almighty cheer rose from our snuggly and robed ranks.

And so, the next three and a half hours were spent happily seeking out gaps between people’s heads whilst gently falling in love with Peter O’Toole. There’s no denying that the stint – which included an intermission – was too much for a lot of people, with many leaving at the half-way point. In fact, by the time the lights went up at around 11pm, only about a third of the initial crowd remained. Was choosing this lengthy epic too ambitious? Based on the fantastic build-up, the passion shown by everyone involved and their dedication to the film throughout, I’d say their decision was justified. Lawrence of Arabia is the film they wanted to show, it is – I can now say with confidence – absolutely fantastic, and though it wasn’t necessarily an easy watch, dammit, that shouldn’t always matter. Secret Cinema are doing something marvellous here; creating genuinely inspiring events for anyone and everyone who wants to lose themselves in a world outside their own, and I think it would be dangerous for them to be limited by what could be considered ‘popular’. I appplaud the risk they took, and only hope they continue to push both their creative team and their audiences. Long live Secret Cinema!

To celebrate, let’s all enjoy this close-up of Peter looking dreamy –

Oh Peter. Camel away with me in the night. To find out more about Secret Cinema, visit their official site here.

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