Tanya Gold Tanya Gold

Drive-in cinemas are back – but for how long?

Tanya Gold looks at the rise and fall of drive-ins – something we never had in Britain but cinema made us imagine we did

With very few films being released, drive-ins like this one from Luna Cinema screen family-style hits with dancing and dinosaurs, the classic fare of the nostalgic or depressed

Pandemic creates the oddest phenomena: here, for instance, is a British drive-in cinema. They exist for people who won’t go to a conventional cinema for fear of infection, which sounds like a film in itself. But that is the charm: attending a drive-in cinema feels like living inside a film, because every British drive-in cinema until now has failed.

It is an American invention, of course, and American cinema honours the drive-in with multiple appearances on film: in Grease (1978), where Danny jumps on Sandy as they watch a trailer for The Blob (1958); in Twister (1996), in which a tornado annihilates a drive-in cinema showing The Shining (1980); in Dead End Drive-In (1986), in which, in an apocalyptic future, drive-ins are designated concentration camps for social rejects: that is a tidy metaphor. It is no coincidence that the most popular film of the British drive-in phenomenon is Grease, which is a homage to the American car, and to the ability of American teenagers to have sex in it.

The Michelin Guide was invented by a tyre manufacturer because, in Europe, good food and scenery sold cars. In America it was bad food and static scenery: the drive-in cinema was invented by auto-parts salesman Richard Hollingshead, of Camden, New Jersey, in the early 1930s. ‘His mother was — how shall I say it? — rather large for indoor theatre seats,’ Jim Kopp of the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association told the Smithsonian Magazine. ‘So, he stuck her in a car and put a 1928 projector on the hood of the car and tied two sheets to trees in his yard.’ Hollingshead experimented with ramps — so the viewer was not, essentially, stuck in queuing traffic — patented his invention, and showed his first film commercially on 6 June 1933. It was the British comedy Wives Beware (1932) which, according to IMDb, tells the story of ‘a man in an unsatisfying marriage [who] fakes amnesia in his sly pursuit of extramarital adventures’.

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