London’s Buildings On Film
London buildings were once all about class, from the grand homes of Mayfair and Brixton (!) to the sturdy banks and insurance companies of Holborn. Apparently there’s now even less social mobility here than there was in Victorian times. Want proof? I accidentally discovered this while leafing through old books (yes, I have finally become Mr Arthur Bryant).
All you have to do is take a look at British films, then see what was shot where and check out the architectural catalogues. So starting at the top of the social structure we get ‘The Crown’ – well, Westminster obviously, ‘Howard’s End’ was filmed in St James’s, ‘Wilde’ was shot in Mayfair and Kensington, as were parts of ‘Darling’, ‘Performance’ and ‘Sexy Beast’.
Edwardian and Victorian dramas get shot in Chelsea, Bloomsbury and the Thames Valley. Somerset House is the most used location in London for period movies because it has a clear skyline – as did the Tower of London until buildings in the nineties were constructed behind Tower Green. And ‘The Elephant Man’ was the last film to be shot in Shad Thames before most of it was torn down.
The melting pot of the old Soho (now mostly gone) takes a step down the social ladder on film, turning up in ‘Basic Instinct 2’, ‘Mona Lisa’ and other movies featuring hookers and pimps. By the time we get to formerly run-down Earl’s Court we’re in the land of ‘The Stud’, ‘Repulsion’ and ‘Sweeney!’. Photographer Michael York spots Lynn Redgrave in Carnaby Street for ‘Smashing Time’, and photographer David Hemings spots Vanessa Redgrave in Savile Row in ‘BlowUp’.
But there are lower rungs on the ladder of social mobility. Beryl Reid sucking a Zoom lolly in her ‘Can you see through this?’ dress in ‘Entertaining Mr Sloane’ was filmed in Camberwell Old Cemetery in Peckham Rye. The distinctly downmarket Carry On films were shot out in Middlesex and Ealing because nobody could afford to travel far from the studios.
Greenwich has stood in for every imaginable style and era, from ‘The Music Lovers’ to ‘Layer Cake’.By the time we get to the East End, ‘The Krays’ and ‘The Long Good Friday’ make an appearance, along with ‘Vera Drake’, ‘To Sir With Love’ and ‘Sparrows Can’t Sing’ – issue films about backstreet abortionists, troubled teens and council flat tenants.
The further out you go, toward Beckton, Silvertown and Straford East, you get ‘Bullet Boy’, ‘Spivs’ and ‘I Hired A Contract Killer’. Keep going out and all you have are gangster films like ‘Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels’ and ‘Love, Honour & Obey’. London’s social order, layer by layer, reconstructed in celluloid.
In my neighbourhood of King’s Cross, there’s a mix that reveals transience and rough gentility, from ‘The Ladykillers’ to ‘Chaplin’, ‘The Missionary’ (lovely film), ‘High Hopes’, ‘Robbery’ and ‘Alfie’. A number of films feature an astonishing array of London locations, from ‘Smashing Time’ and ‘Genevieve’ to ‘The Sandwich Man’ and ‘The Horse’s Mouth’.
It’s nice to see your own world reflected on film. A personal favourite for me is the night London of ‘Nil By Mouth’, an amazingly photographed film.