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The wheel-good factor: Will the drive-in cinema save our culture?

As the future of arts venues hangs in the balance, an unusual alternative aims to provide comedy, music and movies for the car-assisted masses. Alexi Duggins talks to the promoters and performers up for the challenge

Friday 26 June 2020 14:27 BST
Movie goers watch ‘Grease’ on the big screen in the Titanic Quarter in Belfast
Movie goers watch ‘Grease’ on the big screen in the Titanic Quarter in Belfast (Getty Images)

In-car entertainment has never been so good. In Denmark, people have spent weeks soaking up the sounds of singer-songwriters on airport tarmac. Entire German parking lots have appreciated superfast techno through the medium of car horn. And when the state of Tennessee wanted to make its key workers feel valued, it did so by letting them sit in the back of a pick-up-truck and watch Keith Urban vibe with a banjo. Which is hopefully more of a treat than it sounds.

Drive-in gigs, raves and cinemas have become a popular worldwide response to the difficulty in putting on socially distanced cultural events. And now Britain’s catching onto a trend that’s seen some US drive-in cinema owners talk about a 95 per cent spike in business. Not to mention Germans going so gaga for car-based movies that 30 new venues have opened since Covid-19 hit, with the sell-out audiences even prompting some churchgoers to requisition one for a special drive-in service.

“We were absolutely inspired by the success of drive-ins abroad,” says Alan Crofton, founder of UK event At The Drive In, a retro Americana-themed cinema that also features vehicle-based bingo and silent disco “car-aoke”. “Plus the car is like an extension of your home, so it lets people go out with that feeling of safety,” says Crofton. “That’s a big reason why so many are launching in the UK.”

In recent weeks, around 10 new nationwide drive-in events have launched. You pay per car, park in a designated bay and then have audio transmitted to your car either via a wireless speaker or by tuning your vehicle’s radio to a dedicated FM station. Confusingly, they’re mostly nigh-on identically named: At The Drive In (nationwide) isn’t the same as The Drive In (London). Drive-In Club isn’t to be confused with Drive-In Film Club (both in London) or Drive-In Events (Yorkshire). Competition for names is obviously stiff. “One company nicked my website address, they nicked my URLs, they nicked my socials,” says Brett Vincent, who runs Drive-In Club and claims to have been betrayed by his one-time collaborators after they ousted him and set up their own event. “It’s all quite cut-throat.”

The entertainment they offer is where they start to differ. Most stick to straight-up films, with a vague bit of theming (think waitresses on roller skates or an 80s-heavy schedule). But the recreators of in-film worlds that are Secret Cinema have now entered the fray, promising an “immersive drive-in experience” with “interactive pre-screening performances” at Goodwood this July. And Drive-In Club is going even further, running a cinema alongside a car-based comedy club, with a schedule of live performers including stadium comics like Bill Bailey and Jason Manford.

“It’s definitely up there on my list of most random gigs I’ve ever done, it’s essentially going into a carpark, shouting and hoping people pay attention,” laughs comedian Luisa Omielan, who will be performing her latest show God Is A Woman. “I’ve no idea what it’s going to be like, I’m not gonna lie. But drive-ins are very cool. Have you ever seen Grease?”

The audience for Omielan’s set – and all gigs at Drive-In Club – will be encouraged to sit outside their cars, which, according to Vincent, is based on World Health Organisation guidance that “people are less likely to get Covid-19 if they’re outside”. So the event should have the kind of live feedback between comic and crowd that’s integral to stand-up. It also allows the Club to host heavily interactive shows by performers such as Basil Brush and Rastamouse.

“It enables us to really stretch ourselves as entertainers,” says Dominic Wood of ex-CBBC stars Dick & Dom. Unable to perform their main stock-in-trade of getting punters on-stage, the retooling of their show for a drive-in based format relies on call-and-response-based games like “legal sweary karaoke”, in which the crowd shout-along with rude-sounding phrases (“Things like flap crackers or scampi pamphlets”) as well as old favourites. “There will be people throwing their heads out of car windows, screaming ‘bogies!’ and honking their horns,” chuckles his co-pilot Dick (Richard McCourt).

Chef Tom Kerridge is also putting on a vehicle-based comedy club curated by comedian Mark Watson. It’s part of a reformatting of Kerridge’s Pub in the Park tour, which previously offered the chance to listen to music and “taste dishes created by some of the world’s chefs” and is now called Drive & Dine Theatre featuring movies, comedians and “food by Tom Kerridge” that’s delivered to your parking bay in a brown bag. Unlike Drive-In Club, though, punters must stay inside their cars during the performances “to provide a safe environment”, they say. Which makes two drive-in comedy events trying to keep people safe by doing the exact opposite of each other. The reason? Lack of clear official guidance on best practice.

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“Why aren’t the government getting involved?” asks Vincent, who set up his event to provide employment opportunities for live events professionals and found himself spending months trying to create a drive-in-based risk assessment. “I’ve been trying to get hold of them for weeks, both DCMS and the department of health. There need to be regulations on how to do this.”

Movie-goers watch ‘Grease’ projected onto an outdoor screen in the Tantanic Quarter in Belfast, Northern Ireland (Getty)

Essentially, the post Covid-19 drive-in industry in the UK is learning on the job. Most of them are putting huge resources into public safety: Drive-In Club is spending £1,400 a day on sanitiser alone; At The Drive In are in regular contact with local councils. But none of the organisers have put on an event during a pandemic and, as a phenomenon, drive-ins are largely new to the people running them, even if they are highly experienced at events. In the words of Croxton, who usually puts on European music festivals such as Snowboxx: “If you’d told me at the start of the year that I’d be running a drive in cinema, I’d’ve absolutely not believed it.” Or, as Dick from Dick & Dom says: “It’ll be unusual for us: we’ve never performed to a bunch of cars before.”

More high-profile musicians are also about to have that experience. Live Nation have just announced Live From The Drive In (again, great name), a new series of car-based nationwide gigs that let you flash your hazards along to Dizzee Rascal or watch The Lightning Seeds through a windscreen. Drive-In Club is hosting performances by grime MC Lady Leshurr, as well as club nights from the likes of BBC 6Music’s Craig Charles. It might seem like a strangely static way to appreciate live music, but the organisers hope our car habits prove to be Teutonic.

“People were hanging out of their cars in Germany or dancing outside of their cars,” says Vincent. “They just see it as a different club night with their mates that they’re having fun with.”

Ultimately, though, don’t expect the phenomenon to last. None of its organisers do. Croxton calls it a “stepping stone back to normality in six to eight months”. Vincent says it’s a “two or three month stopgap”. Both are currently drawing up entirely new plans for how the events can grow and expand as regulations change. If nothing else, there’s one big problem: it’s not great that the trend for the reopening of UK live entertainment disenfranchises those who don’t own a car. “I want a way to have people there without a vehicle. I’ve even left a space for them at the front of the event,” says Vincent. “This is just the best case scenario with the current situation. As circumstances change, we have to change.”

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