Film al fresco: London’s top drive-in cinemas and best outdoor cinema

David Ellis
·8-min read
 (Big screen buzz: Adventure Cinema’s tour includes Chirk Castle in Wales and Streatham Common)
(Big screen buzz: Adventure Cinema’s tour includes Chirk Castle in Wales and Streatham Common)

Perhaps it is apocryphal, but it seems fitting that utterance “the enemy of art is the absence of limitations” – the idea that constraints inspire creativity – is most often credited to Orson Welles, a founding father of film. Welles may have been revered for his imagination, but one suspects even he might have struggled to comprehend what the last 13 months have meant to the world, and what they have done to the movies. And yet, true to Welles’ word, the last year has seen cinema often at its most inventive, and much of that is set to continue this summer. If months of being locked down in your living room have put you off the idea of heading into a darkened room for the buzz of the big screen, here’s where to head for cinema under the sun.

Hit the road

In the US, drive-ins were beginning to fade even by the time Seventies hits American Graffiti and Grease were glorifying them, and they’d never taken off in the UK. All that changed in 2020, when suddenly buckling up and hitting the flicks was the thing to do and a new wave of drive-ins appeared. This year the retro fun is trucking on and, while indoor screenings are off until May 17, drive-ins have already spun off the starting line.

Up north in South Chingford, aptly-named The Drive In (N18, thedrivein.london) offers a fully contact-free way to get a sprinkling of movie magic. Tickets must be booked up in advance – but, for those wont to change their mind, can be cancelled up to 24 hours before a screening – with films typically playing four times a day, from about midday until late in the evening. Cars are kept in bays one metre apart and food and drink can be ordered online, with Fifties-themed attendants delivering it doorside. You’ll need a car with an FM radio – that’s how the sound gets in – but that’s all (in fact, even having your own set of wheels is optional; The Drive In have partnered with ZipCar for £20 off a hire). Tickets start at £19.99 per vehicle, with films showing now: the line up includes brand new releases Godzilla vs. Kong, and Black Judas and the Messiah, as well as 2020 hits Wonder Woman 1984, the Witches and Tenet, with a few old favourites thrown in.

Over in Muswell Hill, Ally Pally offers an suitably cinematic back-drop for the Rooftop Film Club’s offering (N22, rooftopfilmclub.com). Like The Drive In, it’s all contact-free and cars are kept apart – but there’s no relying on your car’s dodgy radio, as a dedicated wireless speaker is provided ahead of each showing. Groups can bring their own food and drink but those who forget can call on Rooftop’s roller-skating staff, who offer meals-on-wheels or, as it were, snacks on skates. Luckily, loos are on site for those who slurp through one too many cokes. Two films are shown most days, with a line-up that leans into old favourites, from Casablanca to Pulp Fiction. For those revelling in the privacy of their own cars, there’s a sing-a-long screening of the Greatest Showman this Friday. Tickets start at £29.50 per car, and if the film’s no good, there’s always the views to fall back on.

The RFC are running a similar set-up at Brent Cross (NW4) which, while admittedly less glamorous, still has a stellar selection of films on; this Friday they’re marking St George’s Day with the Parent Trap and Spice World, and a chance to win an afternoon tea hamper, while on April 30, an Eighties weekend kicks off with ET, and includes A Nightmare on Elm Street, Back to the Future and Spike Lee’s magnificent Do The Right Thing.

Longstanding outdoor specialists the Luna Cinema (lunadriveincinema.com) also went car-crazy last year, and the drive-in fun rolls on this year too. While they’ve screens and parking spots across the countryside, the closest to London is just outside the M25 at Bluewater (DA9): those up for a road trip will be rewarded with a huge screen showing everything from Moulin Rouge to Romeo & Juliet, via Joker, Notting Hill and the Rocky Horror Picture show.

Luna Cinema drive-in at Blenheim
Luna Cinema drive-in at Blenheim

Take it outside

This is the summer of fun – with all the expectations, it has to be – and hopefully April’s icy streak will soon be long forgotten. After enough indoor time to last a lifetime, it’s now all about getting out in the sun.

The Alfresco Theatre Drive In (thealfrescotheatre.co.uk) is stopping by Syon Park (TW8) from June 9 – 13, offering something of a halfway house between a drive-in and a festival. Coming from the founders of Tom Kerridge’s Pub in the Park, it’s unsurprisingly one for those with a taste for tucking in, with dishes served from Rick Stein, Jason Atherton, Paul Ainsworth and Atul Kochhar, alongside Kerridge himself. While there will be a host of films on, including Bohemian Rhapsody, Jo Jo Rabbit and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – some will be singalong – there’s also set to be live comedy from panel show regulars Mark Watson and Ivo Graham, as well as gleefully filthy ventriloquist Nina Conti, and a performance from the Bootleg Beatles. Tickets start from around £18, and all performances come piped in through the radio.

Still, those without a convertible might want to ditch the wheels altogether. The Rooftop Film Club might be doing drive-ins, as above, but they made their name, quite literally, on top of buildings. Movie nights are held on top of Peckham’s Bussey Building (SE15) and at Roof East (E15). These tend to be as much about having a laugh as what’s on screen, though individual headphones do mean a strong breeze won’t stop the sound for those really into what’s on. Otherwise, it’s a case of settling into one of the deckchairs, savouring the open air and getting the cocktails and popcorn in. No surprise these get busy, so booking is best: things start on May 18 at Roof East and three days later in Peckham; look out for the likes of Queen and Slim and 10 Things I Hate About You.

Wandsworth might not feel like a typical holiday spot, but immersive specialists Backyard Cinema (SW18, backyardcinema.co.uk) have come a long way since they earned their name with tiny pop-ups in the founders’ back garden. In converted TV studios, they’re promising film fanatics the next best thing to direct flights to the US with their LA Nights and Miami Beach series begin on May 19 and 17 respectively, with tickets on sale now. Though they differ slightly – the LA “Palm Lounge” will channel Venice Beach vibes, Miami Beach is self-explanatory – both have seats nestled into tonnes of sand, giant screens, palm leaves galore, plenty of pizza, tons of beer and cocktails in full flow. Both screens are covered and weatherproof – so no chance of the Great British Summer breaking the illusion – and while line-ups differ slightly at both, Backyard lean firmly into the fun: Mamma Mia, Magic Mike, Pitch Perfect are on at both, along with those of that ilk. Tickets are £19.99 and on Saturdays, it’s sing-along night.

Further into the summer, Adventure Cinema are setting up for a long weekend on Streatham Common (SW16, adventurecinema.co.uk). Things start on Friday June 11 with a Grease sing-along; those with voice left can holler along the next day too with The Greatest Showman, while Saturday evening is dedicated to Pretty Woman, no singing required. Sunday is for families, with The Lion King (the good one, not the creepy CGI monstrosity) and Harry Potter. At all, it’s about packing a picnic and some camping chairs and settling in the sun. For those wanting to get away, Adventure operates across the country: Chirk Castle and Margam Country Park both look particularly beautiful.

If a picnic isn’t going to cut it, the Adventure group have recently announced their straightforwardly named Film & Food Fest (filmandfoodfest.com), too. It’s also touring, stopping at Finsbury Park between July 22 – 25 before heading south to Beckenham Place Park on August 26 – 29. At both, the four days of open-air cinema include an evening of short films from local filmmakers alongside the blockbusters. There’ll also be street food, cocktails and craft beer and live stand-up comedy. Tickets are on sale now and start from £16.50, though children under 12 go half-price.

If snacking in the sun with an old classic isn’t going to cut it, get truly lost in a film with Secret Cinema (secretcinema.org), who return in July 2021 with the perennially popular Dirty Dancing. Originally planned for last summer, the group are taking things back to 1963, via Hollywood 1987; if you’ve been to a Secret Cinema event you’ll know the gig – if not, expect to be whisked out of London and properly immersed in Catskills with Baby and Johnny; the idea is that guests get to spend an evening as if living inside the movie. Tickets start from £49, which is practically reasonable by Secret Cinema standards, and, despite some objections from locals, will be going ahead on Low Hall Sports Ground in Wandsworth (if you live closeby and fancy going, SC are giving away 1500 tickets to locals). Get out there: it’s time to celebrate film al fresco.

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