Waiting under the arch at Limehouse Station, there are three girls wearing tea dresses, with marcel-waved hair, and bright red lipstick. One has a string of pearls round her neck, another wears stockings, the seam climbing neatly up her calves. All three are smiling. It’s certainly easier to travel to the Protectorate of Morocco now it’s served by the Docklands Light Railway.
My identification papers list me as Elizabeth Kulikova of the Czech Republic, and I’m wearing a floor length black dress. My invitation told me to sport a silk neckerchief, so I’m wearing a silk collar, designed to look like a badger. It’s the vegetarian equivalent of a fur stole. And I’m waiting for Artemia Lucchese (my friend Tamsin), who’s on the run from Hungary. When she arrives — red dress, lace-up shoes, fur jacket — we head up Commercial Rd to Rick’s Café Americain. There’s a queue to get inside: Nazi soldiers mingle with fez-sporting locals.
Immersive cinema is an increasingly popular phenomenon, and Future Cinema has spearheaded the trend in London. They’re showing The Shawshank Redemption in a disused school, converting audience members into prisoners. And for those who prefer their drama a little less claustrophobic, they’re also screening Casablanca in the Troxy, a gorgeous 1930s cinema (more recently a bingo hall).
Even the double doors into the auditorium are copies of the ones in the film: the geometric wooden panels are unmistakeable. And as you walk down the stairs, a woman hands you a crisp, green fifty to spend at the casino. As we head towards our table (via the cocktail bar — we’re not nuns), there’s a sharp burst of gunfire, and three Vichy officers pursue a shady-looking man across the floor. One sounds his whistle as they wrestle the miscreant to the ground, then frogmarch him away.
This is immersive cinema at its best: you go to watch a movie in a setting which makes you feel that you could be in the movie. It’s no longer just a film, but an experience. Whether this is always desirable — Jaws in a swimming pool might not be a day at the beach for everyone — is another question.
But for tens of thousands of people, it’s very desirable. As a trip to the local multiplex becomes less charming — expensive tickets and perpetually sticky floors — immersive cinema provides a corrective sense of occasion. And no wonder: the programme for Casablanca (a letter of transit with Victor Laszlo’s details inked in) lists seventy people — dancers, actors, costume-designers and technicians and more — who work on the show each night.
It’s the attention to detail that makes these events successful. Your ticket is issued by Captain Renault, the food is provided by a Moroccan restaurant chain. They do also have popcorn, for cinema traditionalists. It’s being sold in brown paper bags next to a huge queue of people waiting to have their photograph taken with a snake charmer and her blond python. On the other side of the popcorn stall are the Ladies loos. Even the adverts by the hand-dryers have been replaced with 40s-style ones, reminding you that when your chap returns from the war, you might need some nice silver-plated spoons.
The music industry has gradually accepted that it can’t stop piracy, so it needs to accrue at least some of its revenues elsewhere: through live shows and merchandising. And now the movie business has realised that it can do the same thing. People are prepared to pay a good whack for a night out (£25 for Casablanca is pretty much double the price of a regular London cinema ticket) if it offers more than just the film you could watch anytime on TV.
Watching a film in the cinema is a very different experience from watching it at home, even if your widescreen has state-of-the-art cinema-sound, just as seeing a band live is different from listening to an album. Cinema rarely provokes the kind of reverence you see (mostly) at the theatre: it lends itself to the informality of people chatting to friends, joining in with Dooley Wilson’s rendition of Knock On Wood, and cheering when Bogart says, ‘Here’s looking at you, kid.’
A film as quotable as Casablanca has always deserved to be watched in a packed house, applauded by slightly drunk people toasting each champagne cocktail mixed by Sascha (Rick’s Russian barman) with one of their own. And this is another aspect of immersive cinema’s appeal: it’s the first time I’ve seen Casablanca outside my living room.
As last summer’s re-releases of classics such as Jaws and ET proved, there is a market for old movies returning to the big screen. Sceptical cinema-managers should take note: the film doesn’t even have to be good to draw a crowd. The legendarily terrible film, The Room, sells out every month at the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square. Audiences treat it like The Rocky Horror Picture Show: dressing up, taking props, shouting especially terrible dialogue at key moments. It’s all part of the experience.