Dancing in the Dark
It was the worst of times, and then people paid £53 to watch some Patrick Swayze cosplay in a park in Waltham Forest during a pandemic.
Plans for a ‘Dirty Dancing’ immersive screening, “steamy dancing and dangerously catchy songs” to run from July to September this summer in Low Hall Sports Ground have been submitted to Waltham Forest Council by the events company Secret Cinema. 130 residents have objected so far, many of whom are apparently concerned at the temporary loss at a crucial time of a green space used by locals for exercise. The wisdom of attracting thousands of people from outside the borough in July could also be questioned, with Covid-19 still not suppressed and with transmissible variants appearing in the UK that may reduce antibody resistance produced by vaccines.
Founded in 2007 with the slogan “Secret Cinema: Tell No One”, the immersive events company began showing films in off-the-grid spaces. A clientele mostly made up of people in the media and financial industries in and around London were sent SMS texts with directions to “secret” venues, where drama students did live routines connected in some way to the film being shown.
This grew out of the trends in the early Noughties in London for subscription-based private members’ “arts” clubs and bespoke late-night drinking “environments” which combined live theatre and cabaret, such as Shunt Vaults. A related trend was “immersive” theatre which was pioneered by companies such as Punchdrunk (whose first hit, a walk through experience based on Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘Masque of the Red Death‘, now seems ominously prescient). The fashion for immersive theatre and bespoke arts spaces in “abandoned” buildings eventually led to accusations that it was part-and-parcel of the gentrification of East London, and middle class artists’ patronising attitudes towards working class communities.
Secret Cinema has grown from this scene in London into an international business. Founder Fabien Riggall has an estimated net worth of £5 million. Secret Cinema staged a full-size replica of Hill Town in its “Back To The Future” show. It ran a “Stranger Things” drive-in experience in L.A. in partnership with Netflix which has proved highly successful during lockdown there. It also staged a controversial ‘Casino Royale’ show with the wholly Chinese state-owned Shanghai Media Group.
(Theatrical film exhibition in China is crucial to the profitability of Hollywood blockbusters in the pandemic. When ‘Mulan’ was released in 2020, Disney – another Secret Cinema partner – found itself drawn into China’s nationalist narratives about occupied East Turkestan. A series of investigations has revealed Beijing’s networks of “re-education” concentration camps for ethnic Uyghurs, and of Chinese spies in London monitoring its growing Uyghur community. Secret Cinema’s growing international reputation is therefore partly based on the Chinese public being invited to cosplay in the world of a fictional British torturer, by Fabien Riggall who’s in partnership with actual torturers.)
His company has attracted criticism on many fronts, mainly that it doesn’t pay actors, relies on volunteers, and that its tickets have become too expensive. (Riggall has retorted to this last criticism by saying his productions are more like West End shows than cinema events, which is reflected in the average Secret Cinema ticket price.)
This background hum of dissent about the rise and rise of Secret Cinema reached a crescendo of protest last year from cinema exhibitors, film professionals, and the general public, with the announcement that the company was one of many arts and (weirdly) hospitality companies receiving a substantial amount of cash from the Arts Council of England’s Culture Recovery Fund (CRF) which was set up in response to the Coronavirus.
Secret Cinema was awarded £977,000 of the £333 million dispensed in October from the CRF, which is administered from (though, confusingly, not run by) the Arts Council, a controversy which I’ve written about at length elsewhere.
This seemed like an odd choice to many critics of the awards. The CRF’s guidelines talk about the need to safeguard jobs and venues in the pandemic (from page 9). Secret Cinema doesn’t employ anyone full-time according to its financial statements (Secret Group spent £4348 on administrative costs in the 2019 tax year and had no staff costs.) Secret Cinema isn’t a secret and it doesn’t run an actual cinema. So why was it given almost a million pounds in a public health crisis, money that was supposed to safeguard cultural institutions with business models based around permanent buildings and employees?
Two “pop-up” developments in London got more than a third of a million of CRF cash between them (are you starting to see a pattern to how this works, yet?) POP Brixton – shipping-containers up-cycled as offices, shops and food stalls – received £220,385. Peckham Levels, a multi-story car park converted to similar use, was given £131,998. Both are run by Make Shift, majority-owned by London and New York-based luxury co-living company The Collective which has a property portfolio worth £2.7 billion.
Inevitably, many commentators saw evidence of Tory and Leave cronyism in Rigall’s million pound Covid bung. Other beneficiaries of the CRF included Conservative party donor and Carphone Warehouse co-founder David Ross who picked up £100,000 for his Nevill Holt Opera. The Opera was founded at Ross’s Leicestershire estate and his 17-year old son Carl has recently been made a patron. Ross has a personal fortune estimated to be around £650 million. Other lucky people included the Ministry of Sound, whose former Managing Director was Lord Bethell, now Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation at the Department of Health and Social Care.
The theme connecting many of the October CRF awards seemed to be propping up hospitality, nightclub, and property development businesses, many of which are run by people with links to the City, the Conservative party and the current government.
Lo and behold, Secret Group’s CEO Max Alexander used to work at TalkTalk for Dido Harding, Baroness Harding of Winscombe. Boris Johnson’s old friend was put in charge of NHS Track and Trace system, a job for which she was the only candidate. Her disastrous tenure in this post has led to calls for Harding’s resignation and to accusations of corruption and mismanagement that has caused much of the almost 120 000 preventable deaths so far from Covid-19.
And sure enough, in Secret Group’s financial statements – in the “persons with significant control” – we find shell companies trading shares in LEON, the restaurant chain co-founded by Henry Dimbleby, son of broadcaster David Dimbleby and friend of Michael Gove. Henry Dimbleby voted for Brexit. This, however, is where the Leave and Tory cronyism explanation starts to break down because Fabien Riggall actively supported Remain.
In the CRF’s 30-page guidance document it mentions the Arts Council’s Let’s Create framework (on page 7). Let’s Create, the English Arts Council’s usual investment criteria, includes statements such as “excellence can be found in village halls and concert halls,” that “we will expect cultural organisations […] to invest in their workforces”. The Arts Council of England wants organisations it funds to
“build closer connections with their communities, particularly those that they are currently underserving. We want them to mean more, to more people: to strengthen their relevance to the communities, partners and practitioners with whom they work.”
Mention of the Let’s Create framework by the CRF (which isn’t the Arts Council of England but is administered by it and run by many of the same people) could lead some people to think that these overtly inclusive criteria were being used in handing out the £333 million as well.
An Arts Council of England employee remarked on social media that
“CRF is DCMS funds and criteria [the UK Department of Culture, Media and Sports], not Let’s Create. The remit was much wider than ACE’s usual footprint and the ask included many applications from those we don’t normally connect with. We were the distributor rather than the creator on this occasion.”
On page 6 of the CRF document it states that awards will be to
“organisations that are the bedrock of the global reputation of England’s cultural sector […] that enable people to have access to great creative and cultural opportunities, no matter what their background or where they live.”
Arguably, Secret Cinema would meet the first of those criteria as its international reputation is growing rapidly.
How is Secret Cinema doing on people’s access to culture “no matter what their background or where they live”, though? Standard tickets for Dirty Dancing are £53. Waltham Forest is ranked as the 82nd most deprived borough in the UK according to the 2019 Index of Multiple Deprivation and is the 12th most deprived borough in London. Since lockdown began in 2020, the number of Universal Credit and Job Seekers Allowance claimants has increased significantly to 9.8% (18,195 people) or almost 1 in 10 Waltham Forest residents.
The lowest median household income in Leyton is £27,790. People living 20 minutes from Low Hall by bus in July would have to spend more than a tenth of their gross weekly income to watch Dirty Dancing – a film which is currently available to watch on Amazon Prime for £1.99 in the safety of your home – in a field, with other paying customers who may or may not have an infectious deadly disease, and who may or may not need a vaccine passport in order to attend outdoor events this summer. There have been 559 Covid-related deaths in the borough so far, which has 277 000 residents. There are 24 058 positive cases in total. The current rate of new cases, which is falling in line with the national trend, is 43 per day.
The reason to question Secret Cinema’s eligibility for CRF funding is more straightforward than cronyism or elitism, however. The CRF’s funding criteria states that organisations
‘must have been financially sustainable before COVID-19 but are now at imminent risk of failure and have exhausted all other options for increasing their resilience.’
On page 10 of the longer guidelines document the CRF states:
‘What we cannot fund:
– significant historic debt (prior to 1 March 2020)’
Secret Group lost £2.9 million in 2019, and £1.4 million before that in 2018. One of its directors received £231,000 (very probably, Fabien Riggall) while the other two shared £190,000. The Covid-19 relief money isn’t meant to service existing debts. So how can the CRF Board justify the award of almost £1 million to a loss-making company?
In a response to the criticism of the CRF award published on its website, Secret Cinema’s CEO Max Alexander said ‘we currently employ 32 full time staff and two fixed term contractors. Each show will employ hundreds of staff during the months of design.’
Secret Group’s financial reporting tells another story. Either there’s been a sudden change in circumstances in 2020 or these details are buried in further layers of shell companies and accounting which the CRF Board can see but which the public can’t.
Alexander goes on to state: ‘Instead of opening a permanent venue, we’ve chosen to rescue and revitalise abandoned and derelict spaces for the past 13 years.’ The CRF funding criteria don’t mention “rescuing” abandoned spaces anywhere. Those may be worthwhile goals on their own but that’s not what almost £1 million of public money was meant to be for. It was ear-marked to keep arts organisations going during the pandemic.
“Rescuing abandoned spaces” is a key part of Secret Cinema’s overall reputational defence. “We put places on the map and then other businesses come in our wake,” CEO Max Alexander told Waltham Forest residents recently. “We are itinerant but we leave a positive legacy with the people we engage with.”
The company’s website gives only one example in support of its claims of “far-reaching economic, social and cultural benefits”, to the area around Canada Water in Rotherhithe, East London, of three of its shows – Star Wars, Dr. Strangelove and 28 Days Later – in what’s now the Printworks music venue.
Secret Cinema’s claims are based on an impacts report by Bop Consulting which it commissioned. No supportive evidence or data sets are provided by either Secret Cinema or Bop Consulting, there’s just a graphic which summarises the findings. Both companies have so far declined to reply to a series of emails and tweets, first sent as part of this investigation in early December, asking to see either the report or – better still – for it to be published so that the public can examine the claims of far-reaching benefits. [Update 27/03/21: the Bop report is now in the public domain, 3 years after publication. CEO Max Alexander sent it to a Waltham Forest resident, and then put it on Secret Cinema’s website. Max tweets to me quite often but I never got a formal reply to my December email]. They have also been asked if the CRF Board is aware of financial information about the Secret Group’s debts in addition to what’s available through Companies House, a query which is also awaiting any kind of reply. [Update 27/03/21: still waiting.]
While Secret Cinema has run its own process of consultation with Waltham Forest residents, in which it controls the questions that are asked and how they’re answered, a reply to a Freedom of Information request to Waltham Forest states that “Secret Cinema did not submit an engagement plan as part of the planning application”. In effect, they have officially committed to nothing in terms of how they ‘engage’ with residents or what legacy their Dirty Dancing show would leave behind.
“I see secrecy as a form of truth that allows you to do what you want,” Fabien Rigall told the Telegraph in 2015. Opaque financial arrangements and carefully stage-managed community consultation would seem to speak of a reliance on secrecy, or at least to a reliance on control, which reveals its own truth. Grifters are, ultimately, going to grift.
A more pressing question may be why Waltham Forest Council, and the Culture Recovery Fund Board, have allowed Secret Cinema to ignore basic transparency rules while receiving public funds and (assuming the Dirty Dancing event goes ahead) use of public land? [Update 07/05/21: The event is cancelled due to Covid-19 restrictions and rescheduled to 2022]
Questions about why Secret Cinema was awarded almost a million pounds of Covid-19 relief money, despite clearly not meeting the CRF’s own funding criteria, may be better addressed to the great and good. The Board is chaired by multi-millionaire management consultant Sir Damon Buffini. The other members are the publisher Baron Neil Mendoza; Arts Council England Chair, Sir Nicholas Serota; Historic England Chair, Sir Laurie Magnus; Chair of Historic England National Lottery Heritage Fund, Rene Olivieri; and British Film Institute Governor Jay Hunt, a former Chief Creative Officer of Channel 4 television who’s now working for Apple Inc.