All images in this blog are taken by us except the three indicated. All mobile phones are sealed into pouches as you enter so any photos from the interior are taken by Secret Cinema themselves.
“Can you play poker?” the stern-faced man, who looks curiously familiar, is asking me.
My first thought is to be completely honest and say “yes, I know how to play and I’m OK at it actually”. I may even qualify my response, regaling him with the whole story of how I once taught an entire class of 24 A level students how to play poker (there was an educational reason, honest) in under 15 minutes.
But this would be a mistake, and not just because random strangers generally do not welcome being provided with masses of unnecessary detail in response to apparently simple and straightforward questions (I am still yet to learn this lesson). But the biggest mistake of all would be forgetting who I am. I don’t mean in an existential crisis sort of way. I mean forgetting who I am supposed to be posing as. My cover story. Because tonight I am not David Lowbridge-Ellis, high school English teacher and school leader. Instead, I am Judas Brinkworth, tech entrepreneur.
Judas Brinkworth made his millions by swallowing up the remains of Zorin Industries when it turned out its CEO and namesake, Max Zorin, was a megalomaniac supervillain hellbent on monopolising the microchip market by destroying Silicon Valley with a man-made earthquake. Zorin died plummeting off the Golden Gate Bridge – and his share price went with it. Brinkworth took Zorin’s defunct company by the reins and turned it into one of the most successful tech giants in the world, specialising in digital optics (a more successful version of Google Glass).
Bond fans will of course recognise most of the contents of the preceding paragraph as being ripped off from the 1985 Roger Moore Bond classic (don’t even try to dispute it) A View To A Kill.
As soon as Antony told me he had booked the Secret Cinema Casino Royale experience for my birthday, I knew I wanted to go as a villain. Since early childhood, I have harboured not-so-secret dreams of being James Bond but really, deep down, I know my forte is creating plans, communicating them by pontificating in front of a big screen and then making people carry them out, whether they want to or not. Being a Bond villain is not so dissimilar from teaching after all.
This being our first Secret Cinema experience, we had no idea, beyond the dressing up, what to expect.
They had emailed us several weeks before the event asking us to customise our aliases for the evening. We were both allocated to M’s division. You see, our aliases were cover stories for our true identities: we were working for MI6 all along. Ordered to infiltrate Casino Royale, we needed to look like we belonged at the high-stakes poker table. A triple identity then, and maybe grounds for a existential meltdown after all.
Both of us had been told to wear at least one gold item “so our agents can identify you”. This being us (always after an excuse to dress up) we took this very seriously. Antony went above and beyond, ordering his handmade outfit from India. He was determined to bring a touch of Octopussy glamour to his personification of ‘Jinx Brown’. The names were also chosen by Secret Cinema, although you could modify these if you didn’t like what you were given at random. There was a choice of six occupations. Antony went for the fashionista option and started crafting his identity as the leader of an international fashion ‘haus’. He met Judas Brinkworth (aka, me) at Paris fashion week and they married soon afterwards.
Being on the arm of a fashion guru meant I also had to up my game. What clothes (with one or more items coloured gold) would help bring Judas Brinkworth to life? To ensure there was not a chance of there being a case of mistaken identity, I eschewed the subtle approach (gold tie, pocket square, etc) and went for a gold-coloured polo (accustomed to going against the mainstream, a tech giant would not wear a typical Oxford shirt) and the most Bond villain jacket I would find (from Moss Bros of all places).
And then there were the business cards.
Secret Cinema told us to bring some for our aliases, without hinting what the cards’ purpose might be. Again, not doing anything by halves, we spent an inordinate of time designing cards to match our personae.
Now, from this point onwards I will have to adopt an intelligence operative-style vagueness because the whole point of Secret Cinema is that it stays, well, secret. Nevertheless, even with me self-censoring any details, I hope to convey our feelings about the experience itself.
Despite receiving a typed note from M in a sealed envelope (nicely official looking) and receiving vague directions from someone in character we didn’t have a clue what we should be doing. Being British, there was queue so we joined it. It turned out to be for photos. Knowing that our phones would be locked away as soon as we entered the ‘Casino’ building itself, we took the opportunity to have our photograph taken in our fashionista/tech entrepreneur finery. Someone who looked like a security guard (who turned out to be a security guard, the only person not ‘in character’ we encountered all evening) urged us to head into the main attraction so we could get the full experience.
We’re glad we did, because there was a lot to see. Whereas the exterior was fairly innocuous, with the necessary minimum of decoration, the interior was a sensory overload. Secret Cinema have crafted a masterpiece of production design which would make legendary Bond designer Ken Adam proud. I sincerely hope that Peter Lamont, the production designer behind Casino Royale, has paid a visit to see his designs repurposed. The quality of the materials is superb, as is the attention to detail. These ‘sets’ look just as good close up and they do from far away. No doubt they are more durable than the sets constructed merely to look good on camera and be instantly torn down. These versions have to last for the entire duration of the Secret Cinema event. I can’t help wondering what will happen to them afterwards. I am willing to make some space in our kitchen if there are any leftover unwanted chunks of Madagascar, Miami, Montenegro or Venice.
It’s not a spoiler to say that all of the major (and some minor) locations of the film are represented, although, as Secret Cinema newbies, we didn’t know quite how extensive it would be. We probably spent too much time in the locations from the early stages of the film, trying to involve ourselves in a story which, ultimately, we found to be too amorphous. We gamely spoke to many actors, pursuing the one lead we had been given on our way into the experience. In the process, we encountered several characters from the film. At one point, splitting up to make the most of our time, I headed to bar and returned with our mini Vesper Martinis (very good) to find Antony in conversation with one of the film’s main characters (clue: the drink was a very appropriate selection). Minutes later, I bumped into (quite literally) an MI6 agent who doesn’t appear in the film but one could easily imagine in a deleted scene. And that was just the beginning.
We had several leads by this point but no idea about which one to pursue. And, by my reckoning, we were still in the first forty minutes of the film. I had the same feeling I get in an escape room: a frustration that time is running out, I am just jumping through a hoop to get to the next puzzle, and I still don’t really know what the story is about.
There’s a part of me that thinks this is entirely appropriate for Bond. The film stories are, after all, what is needed to hang set pieces onto. When you explain the story of a Bond film to someone who hasn’t seen it this becomes readily apparent.
Compared with something ludicrously labyrinthine like the film of The Living Daylights, Casino Royale itself has one of the more focused plots:
It essentially comes down to a card game between Bond and Le Chiffre, a villain who needs to urgently address his cash flow crisis so he can pay back his employers after losing their money on some bad investments. In the film it is a Ugandan warlord whose money Le Chiffre has used to play the stock market and lost. In Fleming’s book Le Chiffre has ploughed money belonging to SMERSH (the assassination bureau of the Russian Secret Service) into a chain of brothels (as you do) and fallen foul of the French government who have made prostitution illegal. Cést la vie!
But wait – the film adds substantial bookends. It begins with 007’s ‘two kills’, securing his promotion, before he fails one of his first missions, shooting dead a bomb-maker he was meant to question and causing an international incident in the process. But wait – he finds a code which has been texted to the bomb-maker’s phone. After breaking into M’s house, he traces the text message to a ‘slimy bugger’ (great delivery Judi) in the Bahamas. The said ‘bugger’ has been charged by Le Chiffre to find a bomb expert (to replace the one Bond killed). Bond pursues him to Miami and, after stabbing him dead at the Bodyworlds exhibition, tracks his bag which has been taken by ANOTHER contact. This contact, it transpires, requires the code Bond found on the bomb-maker’s phone (remember that?) to access the staff area of Miami International Airport. Somehow realising this, Bond uses the same code and chases him down just in time to stop him blowing up a giant plane which, we are told by MI6 operatives tracking Bond’s movements (who then tell him) is crucial to its company’s stock price.
And that’s why Le Chiffre needs to blow up the plane. To lower the stock price. There’s a clever, then-topical link to the shorting of airline stock around 9/11 (the producers and writers are good at making these connections). Even so, when looking at it rationally, one can’t help feeling that this was either a long-winded way to solve a story problem (how to get Bond and Le Chiffre around the same poker table) OR a way for producers to front-load a film with some of the best action sequences in cinema history because they are worried their central ‘set piece’ (the card game) might not be exciting enough.
Of course, it’s the latter. I always think the choice of code – ELLIPSIS – is a telling nudge/wink from the writers who are well aware how elliptical their story is.
As it turns out, director Martin Campbell and editor Stuart Baird make the game itself just as compelling as the chases through an Madagascan building site and Miami International. It helps that it’s punctuated by assassination attempts (different from the book but performing the same narrative function), but it’s a thrilling battle of wits and ego.
At Secret Cinema’s version of the story, our problem was our pace, which was less-than-thrilling, despite everything going on around us. You might say we had the ego but not the wit, but for us it just wasn’t scripted enough. Everyone knew their parts (the performances were universally convincing) but there was not enough connecting thread. Usually in a strange place we prefer to find our own way rather than being steered through on a guided tour, but this time, I would happily have made an exception.
Knowing that sticking rigidly to the story would likely result in us losing out on many of the set pieces designed by Secret Cinema, we decided to take a less linear approach. In other words, we took our Martinis for a walk.
What we saw as we moved from country to country in (roughly) film order were tremendous evocations of not only the story, but also the mood of the film. And really, what is the main appeal of James Bond films but the mood? A veneer of sophistication barely concealing the brutality beneath. Secret Cinema achieved this in spades, even with the large numbers of people.
Most populous of all was the room where the main event of the film takes place.
Whereas I was largely content to just sample the atmosphere, Antony was inclined to get more hands on. So when, standing near the poker table, admiring someone’s uncanny resemblance to Mads Mikkelsen (were they an actor or a customer taking things even more seriously than us?), I was taken rather by surprise when I was asked “Can you play poker?” by a man I was 99% sure was an actor. For a start, he was the spitting image of Le Chiffre’s right hand man in the film.
Subduing my tendency to be 100% honest and over-explain everything, I replied not as demure David Lowbridge-Ellis but as egomaniac tech giant Judas Brinkworth.
“Of course I can play poker.”
I handed him my card. He scrutinised it. I wondered if he caught all the Bond Easter eggs I included in the text (in addition to my Zorin connection I had a reference to the villain from The Spy Who Loved Me and a quote from Licence To Kill). Maybe this level of geekery would do me no favours. They are probably told to be mindful of the uber geeks, to keep an eye out for them in case they become unhinged and spoil everyone’s fun by being overly critical of some minor detail they have overlooked.
“Come,” he said, in a theatrical Eastern European Bond villain accent, pointing to the vacant seat next to the man dressed in black with a scar and a worryingly runny eye (you know who I mean). “And you,” he pointed at Antony, “stand behind him and watch.”
Now, this being Secret Cinema, I can neither confirm nor deny whether I succeeded in my mission, but suffice it to say, however the game went, I would have been satisfied that I had lived out one of my bucket list fantasies. A substantial one. And for his part, Antony was in his element as a Bond girl. Although when he slipped me an extra Ace (not-so-surreptitiously hiding the move by leaning in to kiss me on the cheek) he almost got us thrown out (or worse) for cheating.
The film screening itself was the part of the evening I was privately dreading. I demand a reverential silence whenever I am in the cinema. For me, film demands (and deserves) laser-beam focus. If necessary, I will do the cinema’s job for them, having anyone who tries to talk thrown out of the screening. I also prefer to sit near the front, usually no further back than row 6 or 7. So when we took our seats on the very back row, a perk of the ticket type Antony had purchased, I knew I was in danger of looking a gift horse (named Antony) in the face. I needn’t have worried: the screen was vast and bright and the volume was reassuringly loud. Right from the opening scenes, dialogue was audible, even over people talking while they settled in. And David Arnold’s sublime music was mixed satisfyingly to the fore.
Audience reactions turned out to be a highlight, in particular the ‘whoops’ at any scene with Mr Craig baring a Bond girl’s quotient of flesh (yes, even THAT scene). Having actors perform in front of the screen at key moments broke my concentration initially, and I would recommend this experience for those who have seen the film before so they can focus on both the film and the live performance elements. It would be a shame to miss out on either, especially the moments near the end of the film influenced by Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 horror classic Don’t Look Now. Creative Director Angus Jackson, who worked with the RSC, complements these onscreen elements with something striking and which had, on me at least, a poignant effect.
Casino Royale is my favourite Bond film (against some stiff competition) and Secret Cinema do it justice with an experience that enriches your enjoyment. Knowing what I do now, I would take a less cerebral start from the very beginning. I approached it like a Bond villain: carefully planning, with meticulous attention to detail, getting irritated when things don’t work out the way I have planned. Instead, I would take inspiration from Bond himself: a blunt instrument who succeeds apparently serendipitously, or according to the whims of the script writer, sending him from set piece to set piece. Bond is confident, assured, sure he can save the world… but does it his own way. The sheer size and scope of Secret Cinema’s Casino Royale means it is impossible to experience everything in a single evening. To use a phrase oft associated with Bond, it’s not a case of doing everything or nothing – but doing what you feel like doing. There will be some who lap up the Escape Room-alike story. But if, like us, you don’t want to stick to the script, that’s fine. Personally, the world the Secret Cinema has created is a world we didn’t want to escape from. A world that is more than enough for you to make your own stories.
Judas Brinkworth Will Return.
Secret Cinema presents Casino Royale runs until 6th October 2019.
We had VIP tickets which included two drink vouchers, a meal voucher (high quality street food), a gift bag (themed to the film), premium seating, fast track entry and exclusive use of the Virgin Atlantic bars. The latter were helpful for helping us make the most of our time as we never had to queue. Although we entered at 6pm I would still have liked an additional hour before the film commenced.