I was walking through Bloomsbury a few months back and thought I’d gone mad. As a hackney carriage clip-clopped past and some rhubarbing coachmen in brown bowlers crossed the road I looked at my watch and thought ‘Oh no, I’ve accidentally gone back 100 years again. I hate it when that happens.’ It turned out they were just shooting yet another Sherlock-type thing.
If you want to see London shooting itself, follow the little yellow arrows you sometimes see on lampposts that say LOC – it means there’s an OB unit or film van parked somewhere very nearby.
King’s Cross, where I and my detectives live, is ‘picturesque’ – i.e. you’re as likely to find nesting swans and herons as you are to see a football supporter holding his hair out of his eyes while he neatly vomits on a doorstep.
You’re also liable to find yourself surrounded by film locations. There are an awful lot of them around Kings Cross, including the most of the Harry Potter films, ‘Alfie’, ‘The Ladykillers’, ‘Chaplin’, ‘Smashing Time’, ‘Batman’ and ‘Breaking and Entering’. Spreading there net a little further out you get ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’, ‘Skyfall’, ‘Spectre’, ‘Captain America’, ‘Thor’ – all sorts. Beware if the film shows the Thames from high up near Westminster with a caption that says ‘London, England’ – it usually means aliens are about to blow up Big Ben.
I always remember the scene in Ken Russell’s ‘The Music Lovers’ where Richard Chamberlain as Tchaikovsky tries to drown himself in Regent’s Canal (good luck with that, it’s about four feet deep).
Mike Leigh’s horrendously funny ‘High Hopes’ was shot a couple of streets away. I suggested to Mike that he change the title of the film, which he had originally planned to call ‘Winter’. Ruth Sheen and Philip Davis are the couple trying to keep it together in the backstreets of King’s Cross and here, at Karl Marx’s tomb, in Highgate Cemetery.
But if you’re looking for the exact spot where Kenneth More’s vintage car got its wheels stuck in the tram lines, losing him the race (South side of Westminster Bridge) in the film ‘Genevieve’, or need to know where the invisible tennis match took place in ‘Blow Up’ (Charlton Park, the court is still there), or perhaps the spot where Jude Law has a revelation about his girlfriend in ‘Closer’ (Postman’s Park, Little Britain) you might want to pick up ‘London On Film’, which looks at 100 years of filmmaking in the capital. It mainly focusses on early films like ‘Underground’ and ‘Piccadilly’, but the photographs are wonderfully evocative and rather sad.
‘World Film Locations: London’ is written by several contributors and more up to date. It largely concerns postwar movies, from ‘The Long Good Friday’ and ‘Franklyn’ to ‘The Krays’, ’28 Days Later’ and ‘Paddington’. London’s film office used to be notoriously difficult about filming, which is why there were so few films shot on location in the 60s and 70s, unless you count ‘Brannigan’, in which John Wayne runs across Tower Bridge with a gun. (Try doing that now, mate).
‘London Film Location Guide’ by Simon RH James, has before/after comparison shots, and hundreds of films listed according to exact location, just in case you need to see every single London spot where Ray Winstone has ever threatened someone with a punch up the bracket. Greenwich and Belgravia feature heavily in period films, as does London’s most overused location, the underground alleyway underneath Somerset House.
For the bigger picture, try ‘The Worldwide Guide To Movie Locations’ by Tony Reeves, which includes a special section on the locations of James Bond (which were scouted in advance of the scripts and inserted according to scheduling plans, so if one didn’t get used in an 007 film it would turn up in the next).
London has lost much that is evocative and many views are now bisected by cheap-looking tower blocks, but it has plenty of interesting buildings left. It will be interesting to see if the ‘Mary Poppins’ reboot cleaves to original locations or opts for another Hollywood Cherry Tree Lane.
Now that CGI has blurred the lines of the past and present and Toronto stands in for everything else, it will be impossible to tell whether real locations exist in future movies. A shame, as we always liked looking out for the piles of leaves, snow and dirt that obscured double-yellow parking restrictions in period urban film shoots!