Thursday, 13 January 2011

Tell no-one...

Ok, I can finally talk about this.  The ban of silence laid over this event a couple of months ago is now lifted.  From the moment I bought my ticket I was instructed to "tell no-one".  I could divulge no details about what I was to do, and where I was to do it.  And frankly I couldn't even if I wanted to - I had very little idea what it was I would really be doing one grey evening in November.

The email confirming the booking for myself and three others to attend "the New Wellbeing Foundation", besides giving us a time to meet at the not-so-clandestine Ladbroke Grove tube station, requested that all  attendees bring certain items with them.  We needed to pack a dressing gown (which we should put on as soon as we got to Ladbroke Grove), slippers, a stamp, a toothbrush, and a photo of something or someone we loved.  We were also instructed that "you will need to bring cash to pay for prescription medication and if you are not on a nil by mouth instruction you will be able to buy food from the foundation's canteen. Unless you have booked an overnight stay you will be discharged before midnight."  Curiouser and curiouser...

The event we were attending was one of a series of filmic experiences produced by the clever and shadowy Secret Cinema.  Subscribers to their programme receive emails inviting them to sign up for a screening of a classic and, at its time of release, ground-breaking film each month, but you never know when you buy your ticket what that film will be.  These screenings however are not exactly a trip to the Odeon.  They are elaborate and surreal events which place the watcher deep within the film itself, before a film projector even begins to whirr.  In anticipation we began a process of  filmic sleuthing and clue-deciphering, and I and my fellow attendees tried to identify potential films which featured people who wore dressing gowns, and wrote letters, and brushed their teeth.  We narrowed it down to a range of films set in hospitals and asylums, with "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" a strong contender. 

The night of our booking we turned up as directed, donned a dressing gown (amusing the commuters at the tube station) and followed a trail of actors throught the streets of West London.  The guidance of porters clad in white and nurses in sharp caps clutching clipboards directed us to an old, disused hospital.  Here, we were handed surgical gowns to don over our dressing gowns (which were actually being much appreciated in the November cold), and had plastic patient bracelets attached to our wrists.  We entered "The Oregon State Hospital", and began to explore.  The stage was, as we suspected, set for "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest".
Actors roamed the halls as the hospital's patients, ranting, screaming and interacting with the slightly scared-looking event attendees.  One old man desperately tried to wrestle my "painkiller" (a bottle of beer served in a paper bag with a prescription label attached) from my hands, claiming it was his medicine and I had stolen it.  He finally shuffled off, threatening to tell the nurse.  We explored the long dark hallways, poking our heads into doors everywhere when we felt brave enough.  Some rooms were empty apart from lone items of terrifying-looking medical equipment.  Some held patients, lobotomised and staring, or wild and raving.  Others held doctors waiting to psychoanalyse anyone who made the mistake of peering inside.  One room (not so far from an ice-house morgue we found, complete with dead bodies) held a violinist and 3 huge papier mache duck heads.  Bunny rabbits slept in wooden cages just outside an electric shock therapy suite, and a real cat strolled casually along the hatch of a "dispensary"; where one could purchase alcoholic drinks, purely for medicinal purposes obviously!

After a couple of hours exploring this eerie place, we took our seats in a room earlier used to host a yoga class and some art therapy, and the opening credits rolled.  We watched the story of new patient Randle McMurphy and his admission to a mental institute ruled by an ominous nurse unfold,  with occasional appearances from McMurphy himself (an actor not without a passing resemblance to Jack Nicholson). He even appeared brandishing a bucket of fish during the film scene in which the patients steal a boat and go for a day trip.  One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest marked a groundbreaking era in the portrayal of mental illness by the media industry, and watching it surrounded by tortured artwork and dangling ceiling tiles highlighted its eerie sadness perfectly.  One could all too easily imagine this gloomy place being a prison for the mentally ill and those whom society simply struggled to understand.

As we filed out of the screening rooms, the front door of the hospital was wide open.  The faint figure of "The Chief" could be glimpsed making his break for freedom down the road outside. We too made out own break for it, and wandered out into the night.  In the courtyard we were disrobed of our surgical gowns, and discharged for the night.  Unlike poor McMurphy, doomed to remain there indefinitely.  Or at least until Secret Cinema put on their next great show somewhere else... 


  1. What an awesome event! I wonder if there is anything like this in the States...

  2. Check out their website, Erin (, as I know they've done one recently in Berlin. I wouldn't be surprised if they had a global programme of events in development.
    Failing that drop them a line and tell how well it would go down in the States!

  3. I'm desperate to attend one of these things, as I've known about for a few years now, but I'm never in London long enough. I suppose I can hope that they make it up to Manchester one time.

  4. This is definitely something that wouldn't be so likely to happen in the north of England! Still, sounds really interesting.

  5. I feel a petition for a Northern Secret Cinema event or two coming on, Ian and NeonRaine...!

  6. Well I live in London now, it's nice to visit the normal north now and again, I wouldn't want it to get too cultural!

  7. My friend told me about something like this a couple years back, but it was one of those friends of a friends story. So i was a bit sceptical but it's good to see someone else talk about it. I would love to do something like this! Going to check out the website right now. Nice blog by the way.

  8. Oh it's definitely real, Kim! Although it does feel pretty surreal when you're immersed in a film-set. Thanks for following!


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