Drive-in cinemas hit south London, offering the perfect lockdown night out and a trip back in time

Joe Marshall
July 24 2020, 07.25

Drive-in cinemas have been a staple of Americana for decades.

Beginning life in the 1930s, they are as embedded in US culture as burgers and fries or the high school prom.

They only began to pop up in the UK in recent years and, as it turns out, are an ideal ‘going out’ activity during lockdown.

In July, @TheDriveIn put on a screening of Grease in Circus Field, Blackheath.

Part of one of the biggest open expanses in London, everywhere is flat for as far as the eye can see, which makes the sky look enormous.

The sun set supplied an ambiance that you couldn’t replicate indoors.

The film was shown on a big screen, and the sound could be picked up via a car radio, on a specially reserved frequency.

It was a seamless experience, and you soon forgot you weren’t in a conventional cinema.

Grease is a 1978 musical romantic comedy, set in 1958, when the concept of being a teenager was relatively new.

The situation was very meta, watching a film that itself harks back to the 1950s, featuring a scene set in a drive-in.

Most of the cast look to be about 40 and the dialogue is ropey to say the least, but the colours and choreography give it pure entertainment value, and the songs are infectious.

The pre-screen entertainment had mixed responses.

‘Suzuki says’, an on-brand version of Simon says, tried to get people to engage by flashing their lights and moving their windscreen wipers on command.

This was the drive-in equivalent of the pictionary that appears before the trailers at your local multiplex, and it felt like scraping the barrel.

It is unclear whether Caraoke, which does exactly what it says on the tin, was a success.

People were encouraged to sing along in their cars to big cinematic numbers like Dirty Dancing’s (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life, but it was impossible to hear how many actually did.

Then there was lucky license plates – a game of bingo using peoples’ car registrations.

It was made clear before the event that you weren’t allowed to toot your horn, but like social distancing on Bournemouth Beach, this was actively flouted.

During the stand up comedy section of the evening, tooting was deployed instead of applause.

Comedy at a drive-in is problematic, because it relies so heavily on the dynamic between crowd and comic.

Ivo Graham delivered his self deprecating routine, and Andrew Maxwell played up to the strangeness of the situation, having never before done a gig where he couldn’t hear if the audience found the material funny or not.

DJ Yoda’s audio-visual mix of film soundtracks and clips borrowed heavily from the internet, with watermarks from various websites popping up intermittently in the corner of the big screen.

It was a keys-in-the-ignition, steering wheel-tapping journey through the world of cinema, cleverly combining instantly recognisable themes with pop songs, as well as Yoda’s own scratching and beats.

Food orders could be made by scanning a QR code on your phone, and were delivered straight to your cars by staff in face masks.

There wasn’t a great deal of choice and only one vegan / vegetarian option.

All the staff were well protected and each car had an individual bay with room to get out and stretch your legs.

Overall the event was a bit brand heavy, with the master of ceremonies using the name ‘Suzuki’ in virtually every other sentence.

The preamble especially felt overly corporate, but it’s a decent enough activity for the unusual summer we are having, particularly if what annoys you about going to a normal cinema is not being insulated from other people.

@TheDriveIn will be presenting its programme of films in locations such as Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh, Liverpool and East London. 

Films on show include Toy Story, Back to the Future, Jaws and A Star Is Born.

Featured image credit: James North.

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