First off, apologies for the lack of decent photographs (not that my previous efforts were even approaching ‘decent’). The specificities of this event meant I couldn’t figure out a way of taking my camera – though no one seemed to mind people snapping away on mobiles so I managed to sneak two or three of those in during lapses of security (the phone I did have to secrete about my person though).
To begin at the beginning – I had a harder time guessing this title than previous Secret Cinema events I’d been to. The clues leading up to the event were more general and didn’t really connect with the way I see the film, or at least I was expecting something more heavyweight. References to truth and justice seemed to point to a crime and punishment theme but the more philosophical offerings seemed to place this on a grander scale, as if it were to be about the nature of such ideas possibly related to one person’s spiritual journey. The references to ‘hope’ and ‘storms’ should probably have been more of a clue but both were more literal when I’d been thinking metaphorical and I failed to connect them completely to Shawshank. I did consider the film a few times but each new clue seemed to rule it out. However, when the dress codes and identities came through – all male identities from different ethnicities, home towns and occupations – a prison theme presented itself and along with the folksy American tone one of the messages and time frame Shawshank was looking probable.
Donning the required long-johns and man’s suit, and with my valuables discretely about my person, I made my way to Bethnal Green Library. After waiting some time after the start time it transpired there’d been some kind of technical hitch – the doors to ‘the court’ were locked and we couldn’t get in. I’m not sure what exactly happened, I presume the people who’d been allocated the following time slot began to arrive and the queue got too long but at any rate those of us at the front of the queue were denied our due process and marched straight onto the prison bus without any kind of hearing at all. From other people’s reports I gather that we were meant to be sentenced by the judge and given our papers with the identities the online system had set up for us with our various crimes and sentences laid out. Therefore when we got to the prison we had no such papers.
Whilst on the ’50s style minibus we were briefed about our new lives – in short, that we were damned and condemned to hell and it was all our own fault for having committed such terrible crimes against the State of Oak Hampton. As the bus approached the prison we were heckled by inmates already lurking in wait for fresh bait. We then were made to run through them and up steps to a higher floor where we assembled in three groups according to height/shape. Being distinctly on the smaller side I was a few places back in the leftmost queue. The leading guard then barked at as that we had 15 seconds to grab a bag and get back in line or there’d be trouble. After we’d verified that the numbers on the clothes matched the bag and the suit was complete we were ordered to remove our shoes and socks. After this we inevitably had to strip down to the undergarments we’d been instructed to wear as part of our outfit. Some poor people had neglected this instruction and therefore had less to guard their modesty. More running again, with the suit, bag of old clothes and our shoes we had to run down through the yard again (yes, it was cold, the ground was wet under our bare feet and I almost slipped a few times) heckled by inmates and eventually passing through the showers and a man unconscious and bleeding on their floor.
Having handed in my old clothes I was ushered into a cell, alone, except for the crazed psychopath who already occupied it. He made various lewd remarks and assured me that everyone would treat me nicely once they knew I was his guy. Yes, he wanted to make me his bitch – I ignored him and pretended not to know what he meant. All those hours watching OZ finally paid off obviously*. Once I’d gotten into my new attire there seemed to be some commotion outside. Due to the position of my cell I couldn’t see anything but I could hear a guard shouting, someone screaming and the sound of something being hit very hard. The occupant of the opposite cell informed his charges that that’s what happens if you don’t shut up when they tell you.
Next was the canteen where we were treated to a delightful meal of a tiny portion of cold baked beans. Two inmates then came rushing in shouting about a terrible incident which caused our guard to go off and investigate while the two enterprising gentlemen took the opportunity to sell us all sorts of contraband like beer and whiskey. When the guard finally came back we were on laundry detail and had to haul up the fresh bags of outfits for the next batch unfortunates. After that we began to explore.
In the library we could listen to records and write letters to political prisoners (for real, this seemed to be part of the PEN scheme to write to foreign embassies on behalf of those incarcerated on political grounds). There was a choral group singing in the chapel and later Brooks’ letter was read out. I was roped in to do some embroidery at one point which was apparently going to be sold for charity. After that I ended up making Potpourri in a shed outside. Re-entering the main building I found myself up for parole where despite vowing never to commit my heinous crimes again and avowing my acceptance of Jesus Christ in my heart (but slightly embarrassingly having sworn to reading my bible every night I had to answer ‘no’ to the question can you quote me something from the bible – perhaps I should have had a go? Would he have known if I made it up?) my parole was shockingly rejected! Oh well. I then ended up in the nurses office, which was secretly a bar, where I had to have my picture taken (why?) and then an examination room where I was evidently used as some kind of test subject without my knowledge or consent! Honestly this prison malarky’s not all it’s cracked up to be!
A while later there seemed to be some commotion; I couldn’t get very close because some people were blocking the way but then someone ran past shouting ‘Tommy, they got Tommy’ and the whole place went into lockdown. ushered back up to the cells where I’d originally been we waited until an announcement was made that Tommy had been killed due his own poor behaviour. There was much rattling of the railings and for a minute it seemed like a riot might break out. However a man then stepped forward and began to sing a hymn which everyone then joined in. Things didn’t completely calm down however as sounds of a storm could be heard and a guard rushed up and pinned my erstwhile cellmate to the wall demanding to know where Andy was. The prisoners then began to exclaim ‘Andy got out?’ and we were ordered to proceed to the assembly point for counting with hands on our heads. Once sitting in the screening room we were told we were about to see footage of everything that had happened so far in order to jog our memories and aid the officers in their investigation of the escape! The film was, of course, Shawshank Redemption but our surprises weren’t over yet as we were each handed a free beer during the film’s rooftop scene!
After the film there was a bit of a queue to get our belongings back and the process seemed quite chaotic. After we’d re-dressed we had to get our parole documents before exiting, however, I now had no idea where I was! Fortunately there was a small map on the back of my parole book but it really was very small and difficult to read in the dark. I was in Hackney and the thing to do seemed to be to find the bus stop that would take me to Mile End tube – something which I failed spectacularly to do! Luckily I managed to spot a taxi and I was free at last!
Battle of Algiers is still my favourite Secret Cinema event for its sheer power and audacity and although I enjoyed Shawshank Redemption it didn’t quite live up to the other events I’ve attended. It might be partly that we skipped the opening procedures or that I part missed the beginning of the climactic events but I feel both as if I didn’t find as much to do but also that I missed too much! Perhaps I was just unlucky and in the wrong places at the wrong times but this one didn’t feel quite as exciting somehow. Still it was another stellar effort from SC and I can’t wait to start the guessing games all over again (no costume changes though please, and let me bring my bag!)
*oh how I loved OZ, best show HBO ever made. Except that last series though, it went downhill there, should have ended a series earlier.