It’s a balmy summer’s evening. We arrive at the grounds of Knebworth House and wind our way deeper into this huge estate. We pass a large herd of deer grazing in the distance. Such majestic creatures. The male’s sturdy antlers are silhouetted against the sky. I’m not sure how they feel about an entourage of cars descending on their woodland, but they seem very peaceful and stay close to one another.

I marvel at the beauty of a coral sunset radiating across the evening sky. Mobile phone cameras never quite manage to capture the beauty of pink sunsets. As we drive closer to the stately home, I feel excited to be here as this is a new experience. We join a short queue and are greeted with a smile by the Luna outdoor cinema team. We’re then handed a speaker and directed to our position. My husband comments on the state-of-the-art cinema screen and equipment.

St Albans & Harpenden Review:

The sunset before the film. Photo: Marisa Laycock

Although drive-in movies are still quite a novelty in this country, there has recently been a resurgence as it seems that open air cinema works very well with social distancing. During these Covid times, some might speculate that a boom is beginning. It feels strange that we can all share in the experience of being entertained and yet remain apart in the privacy and comfort of our own cars. There’s no need to dress up and throughout the experience you can feel sort of cocooned but connected.

I can see why traditionally it was ideal for teenagers seeking the privacy of their own cars on a first date, or for families with young children to turn up in their pyjamas and just fall asleep in the back seat nestled in their own pillows and blankets while their parents enjoyed a simple night out.

The atmosphere is jovial and the radio blares out catchy tunes like Huey Lewis and the News' The Power of Love and Bob Marley’s Everything’s Gonna Be Alright. Snacks and drinks are ordered through a mobile app. Attendants whizz about on electric scooters delivering fun food in brown paper bags. I can see that this is a big operation and things run efficiently. People are chatting and eating in their cars before the film and the drivers' windows are wound down. Our food doesn’t take long to arrive. I unravel the silver wrap. The cheeseburgers look good but I’m glad I ordered a veggie hot dog. It is heaped with onions and I can taste the cheese as I bite into it. I squeeze ketchup over the top.

After our savoury food we turn to our ‘Retro Box’. As we open the lid we are delighted to find that it is filled with an assortment of old fashioned confectionery such as strawberry-flavoured Millions, Haribo Jelly beans and a Reese bar. There’s also a packet of Space Raiders Crisps and a bag of popcorn. My daughter has gone quiet. I turn around and can see that she’s enjoying some Fizz Wizz popping candy crackling in her mouth and my husband is dipping the small strawberry lolly into some Dib Dab sherbet. It’s time for me to bite into a Reese bar and enjoy the salty peanut butter melting into the sweet chocolate.

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The 'retro box'. Photo: Marisa Laycock

The trailers don’t go on for long. Soon the lights dim and the big moment arrives. We have all come along to see Pretty Woman. It was always a bit of a B-movie, although I think Gere and Roberts do give good performances. It’s 30 years old now and exudes a nostalgic feeling. The movie sound is broadcast straight through our wireless speaker on our dashboard. It seems that each car more or less has a good view wherever it is parked.

This form of entertainment is really suited to this ‘new normal’ we’re now experiencing, although there were already roughly 20 permanent drive-in cinemas dotted around the UK. It had never really taken off here due to our changeable weather and the small profit margin. The space you would use for 100 cars would accommodate over 500 people in an indoor cinema. But these days, it fits in well with physical distancing and is now becoming an attractive alternative.

The first ever drive-in movie was patented back in the 1930s by Robert Hollingshead in Camden, New Jersey. At the time, the slogan read: “The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are.” As suburban populations and therefore car ownership grew, there was a progressive boom in drive-ins. Outdoor B-movies became popular summer entertainment, such as Tarzan or The Creature from the Black Lagoon. By the 1950s it was thriving in the US and reached its peak with over four thousand theatres across the country and had established itself as an icon of American culture. However, by the 1980s drive-ins had lost their lustre and very few remained.

Jurassic Park and Back to the Future were recently screened at one or two of the London Luna Drive-ins. I must admit it would be fun to experience huge tyrannosaurus rexes and velociraptors bounding fiercely across such a huge screen; or maybe re-experiencing the powerful bolt of lightning that strikes the clock tower, charges the DeLorean and transports Marty back to the 1980s.

There is also a sing-along option. Viewers could come along and bellow out Rocket Man or Bohemian Rhapsody if they wish. Imagine the noise! I’m sure it would be very unifying experience for us all in these isolated times but I’m not entirely sure that I’d like to be there.

This kind of entertainment is no longer a relic. George Wood, founder of Luna Cinema, which introduced outdoor cinema to the UK in 2007 recently told BBC Radio 5 Live: "In this country…. most people have never been to a drive-in cinema. It's going to be springing up in every corner of the UK this summer. This is classic Americana meets 21st Century needs in terms of social distancing."

"It is the form of cinema that we think will be the route back to the big screen in all forms of entertainment.”

By the end of the film I realise that I have watched a re-run of an old 1990s movie and have not really moved for over three hours, which is not really a good thing. Next time we’ll need to book earlier to secure a place within the ‘Golden circle’ which is not only closer to the screen but as your place is reserved, you can arrive just before the movie begins.

In normal circumstances you’d be able to go for a walk and socialise with others but considering the new normal this is better than nothing I guess. It has not been the most exciting night out as we have essentially been confined to our cars, but it feels good to have had an evening away from the domestic scene. In these Covid times, it was hardly going to be like the drive-in party from Grease, where we’d all be dancing in synch while sipping ice-cream sodas!

  • Marisa Laycock moved to St Albans in 2000. She enjoys sharing her experiences of living in the city. These columns are also available as podcasts from 92.6FM Radio Verulam at