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.

14 comments on “London’s Buildings On Film”

  1. Anne Billson says:

    Saw The Man Who Haunted Himself for the first time the other night. After from the shock of discovering that Roger Moore could actually ACT, and of Basil Dearden going full-on Mario Bava in the final reel, I greatly appreciated the footage of 1970 London, still one foot in an era when businessmen still wore bowler hats and frequented gentlemen’s clubs, but teetering on the cusp of change.

    I guess you could interpret the entire film, and Moore’s character in particular, as a portent of that dismantling of the old regime, rigid class structure and business conducted via gentlemen’s agreements in favour of the breakdown of social order (not necessarily a bad thing, obv), more ruthless business practices and shameless hedonism.

  2. Davem says:

    Love the General Wolfe statue from which is one of the best views in London.

    My school cross-country run used to pass by the statue and often used to linger for a few minutes to take in the scene … which was even better pre-Canary Wharf.

  3. Roger says:

    Hammersmith Bridge features in many 1950s films – the studio they were made in was just north of the river there – and Theatre of Blood features a block of flats just over the bridge.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    Yes, I recognised Gen. Wolfe & persuaded a couple of teens to move so I could get the shot I wanted. He has a bullet scar, presumably from WWII. As the CO of an ancestor of mine I had to have his photo. The kids hadn’t an idea who he was – they were just enjoying the view, which is grand, I agree.

  5. Peter Tromans says:

    Hitchcock’s ‘Frenzy’ made an interesting tour of London in the early 1970s. Possibly because Hitchcock had been ex-pat so long, the sense of the 1970s imposing on a previous era is very strong.

  6. admin says:

    I must get hold of a copy of ‘The Man Who Haunted Himself’ – and ‘I’ll Never Forget What’s-‘Is-Name’ (which I’ve heard is nigh-on unwatchable).

  7. Jan says:

    Quite a few scenes from Mona Lisa were filmed around the Cross not just the scenes where
    Bob Hoskins is chauffeuring the main female character around looking for the young girl doing street work around the back of the station. The block of flats where the cage lift was featured in the story is situated in Grays Inn Road somewhere near Frederick Street. Unless I have messed right up and its Kings Cross road near Wharton Street! ( Building used to be painted white with like turquoise blue feature painting. ) Quite a few scenes featured east Bloomsbury going up toward the Cross filling in for Soho. Not the college’s + UCH area but the E section as it gets close to the Cross.

    The old Ealing comedies which feature the area are wonderful. I can remember a lovely little dairy not far south of the stations – maybe in Leigh street or Handel street? Fleet of milk floats used to set sail early each morning! You wouldn’t have ever guessed how close you were to grief worlds main North London branch it was lovely. Covered a fair bit of space that dairy be flats by now I would have thought.

    Couple of months back I was walking around Margery square and those posh roads spreading up toward Islington. There were little tiny single decker hoppa buses dropping pensioners off at their flats probably after a council lunch club or shopping trip. Unbelievable this is just around the corner from one of London’s travel and entertainment hubs. Could have been in a county town. Hard to believe you were up in Central London.

  8. Jan says:

    “Frenzy” catches on film the end of Covent Garden’s fruit and veg market shortly before Covent garden became the chi chi place it is now. In the film the sense that it’s a working market place is still there. Strange that Hitchcock whose early work was at Gainsborough studios (i think) does look at the town from an odd angle as you say maybe looking at London through a lens of its recent history.

  9. Sallyann says:

    Channel 81 is showing lots of old films from the 40’s and 50’s, many set in London. I’m really enjoying seeing London buildings from that time and so many films I have never seen before. If I watch one one on Sunday afternoon it reminds me the type of films I used to watch with my mum growing up in the 70’s after having the roast dinner. Very nostalgic.

  10. Chris H says:

    A good selection of London Locations in the 1951 “Pool of London” (including the view from Greenwich) Plenty of ordinary streets, lots in the now gentrified south of Islington, and others too in “The Salvage Gang” – a 1958 children’s film shot almost entirely on location And “Hue and Cry” has another bundle of post-war London locations.

  11. Ian Luck says:

    ‘The Man Who Haunted Himself’ has a lengthy sequence, where the moustache wearing Moore drives out of London, in a Rover P5, if I remember rightly, going up and over the Westway, which couldn’t have been very old when the movie was shot. The views are fascinating. I think that Duran Duran’s slightly perverse video for ‘The Chauffeur’ was shot there too, the car being a 1950’s Austin Princess. No, not the horrid 1970’s ‘cheese wedge’.

  12. Anne Billson says:

    I recently watched All the Colours of the Dark on the big screen. There’s a scene in which Edwige Fenech exits Holland Park tube station and, almost immediately, finds herself in Bishop’s Park in Fulham – same park where Gregory Peck meets Patrick Troughton in The Omen just prior to Troughton being impaled by a lightning conductor…

  13. Anne Billson says:

    I love giallo films set in London. As well as All the Colours of the Dark, there’s What Have You Done to Solange? and Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, which features a major scene in Alexandra Palace, plus Stanley Baker playing a detective and looking slightly baffled at having strayed into this typically bonkers giallo scenario.

  14. Ian Luck says:

    Not in London, but I still maintain the absolute pinnacle of ‘Location Telescoping’ is in ‘Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves’, where Robin comes ashore somewhere like Pevensey, in Sussex, heading for Nottingham, and is seen in the next shot, climbing up part of Hadrian’s Wall, in Northumberland. Genius.

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