London In The Background




I love to watch old London-set films as much for what’s going on in the background as the story, from ‘The Ladykillers’ (1955), which features my neighbourhood back when it was a sooty industrial wasteland bisected by railway lines (all still there), to the delightful ‘Genevieve’ (1953), which shows the tramlines still set in the cobbled roads south of the Thames, to ‘Smashing Time’ (1967), which roams from Fitzrovia to a very lilac Belsize Park to psychedelic Chelsea, via misty canals and mod streets of fashion. The layouts of the twisting streets never change, but the quirky, individual shops have largely been replaced by coffee chains.

too much on the street

‘The Elephant Man’ (1980) was the last film to be shot in the wharves of Shad Thames before they were torn down, and many of us recall the smell of cinnamon and pepper lingering in the brick alleyways years after demolition was carried out. Some films cheated in their depiction of London; Antonioni famously painted a terrace of houses in pastel shades for ‘Blow Up’ (1966), and others show characters travelling from Burlington Arcade to Tower Bridge via Wimbledon in order to take in as many sights as possible. In ‘Blow Up’ there’s an extraordinary street of shiny red tiles, which someone here may know the history of – I don’t.


The biggest shock was watching ‘The Optimists of Nine Elms’ (1973), in which Peter Sellers plays a busker befriended by two scruffy children. Set in Nine Elms, next to Vauxhall, which is not much more than diagonally opposite the Houses of Parliament, it appears in the film as it was then in reality, looking gruesomely Victorian. The Thames is shown as filthy and beset with literally thousands of gulls, and demolition is laying waste to great swathes of its industrial landscape. The Nine Elms cold-store was a vast crumbling industrial block filled with junkies. No wonder the children in the film look longingly at the new blocks of flats in which they hope to be housed! (These, in turn, were condemned and pulled down, to be replaced by millionaires’ apartments). I pulled this screen grab from the movie;


The more you look at old films, the more you realise that London passes through distinct cycles, from sumptuous cleanliness to appalling filth. In ‘Night and the City’ (1950) London appears elegant and European. In the terrific film ‘The Small World of Sammy Lee’ (1963), Anthony Newley plans a fast-talking wheeler-dealer racing around Soho trying to raise money before he gets his face razored, and Soho has never looked better. By this time, black characters are appearing on street corners (always in natty suits) and London is on the move again. In ‘Sparrows Can’t Sing’ (also 1963) East London is shown in full transition, and lonely tower blocks are replacing homes whether the locals like it or not.

Certain views, such as Thames bankside or anywhere rich don’t change much. ‘The Killing of Sister George’ (1968) is shot around the backstreets of Hampstead and might have been filmed yesterday, while this shot of a very young Michael Caine on the South Bank is timeless – but look at the utter lack of tall buildings in the city behind him!


From here London moves on to Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) in ‘The Long Good Friday’ (1980) – ‘I’m a Londoner, but I’m also a businessman’, from the iconic speech he delivers on his boat to American gangsters. He’s investing in the future, not realising that the future has no use for him, and the film features the final end of Docklands, on the cusp of being replaced by Canary Wharf – and the new financial utopia envisioned by Maggie Thatcher.


And so we come to the present day, with Daniel Craig surveying London in ‘Spectre’, by which time the city has become a peculiar hybrid of working city and tourist mecca, scrubbed up for selfies but still faintly messy, disreputable and sometimes dangerous. If I had to pick a pick time for it in my lifetime it would be around 1968, before the disastrous governance of the seventies, while so-called swinging London was still bathing the buildings in dazzling colours.



21 comments on “London In The Background”

  1. Chris Webb says:

    The red buildings in the third screenshot were discussed and identified in IMDB’s comments but they dumped them a few months ago for some stupid reason. There’s a commentary on the DVD so I’ll watch it later to see if it’s mentioned. There’s also a shot of David Hemmings driving his Roller down a very sparse looking London Wall before it became a claustrophobic canyon, a location that crops up several times in films of the era.

    Sammy Lee has an all-time-great opening sequence shot from a car driving round Soho. The cinematographer was Wolfgang Suschitzky who was also a brilliant still photographer who has influenced my photography more than anyone else.

    When I started to watch Sparrows Can’t Sing I thought “this is going to be rubbish” but then I started to get into it and realise it is a perfect invocation of the time and location. It was written by Blakey from On the Buses (Stephen Lewis) and he has a similar bit-part as a jobsworth caretaker in one of the new tower blocks.

    The Sandwich Man was made in 1966 (as was I) and follows said sandwich man (Michael Bentine) in his wanderings through London. There’s no plot to speak of, just odd people, places and cameos. Very innocent and naive – there’s even a Catholic priest in charge of a group of boys, that’s how naive it is!

    Others for your consideration:
    Faux documentaries London in the Raw & Primitive London
    Poor Cow
    No Trees in the Street
    This Is My Street

    Finally, a while ago I bought a BFI DVD called Wonderful London, a collection of 1920s short documentaries. Many of the places and buildings are familiar but the cyan or sepia toning and accompanying music give them a strange dreamlike quality.

  2. simon lewis says:

    There’s this post on Another Nickel In Machine


    David Hemmings, Blow-Up and the Red Buildings on the Stockwell Road

  3. Ken Mann says:

    One thing that struck me about the BBC’s Cormoran Strike adaptations was that whatever else one might think they were visibly filmed in a London I recognise.

  4. Brian Evans says:

    “The London Nobody Knows”, a documentary made for the cinema in late 60s is fascinating. It runs for about an hour and has James Mason roaming around London in a disappearing world. It is shot in a grainy and greyish lit style which makes it look quite bleak.

    Compare this with the “Look at Life” series. a magazine doc made as a programme filler for cinemas in the 50’s and 60s. They have an optimistic positive spin on life in London, and Britain, and are very brightly lit and coloured with an overtly positive and forward looking voice over narration.

  5. admin says:

    Thanks for these. The Sandwich Man I’m very familiar with, but I need to check out No Trees In The Street. Peter Walker’s 70s horror films capture the appalling filthiness of London in that era, as does Death Line. Everything gets sanitised by the time of the 90s.

  6. Chris Webb says:

    Working from home today so I had a quick look at the relevant bit of Blow-Up with the commentary on (Peter Brunette, author of a book on Antonioni). Sadly no mention of the red buildings but he did mention the blue building immediately after could have been painted for the film.

    A while ago I commented here that I had tried to find the park location and failed. I later found out I had ended up in the wrong place – there’s a Maryon Park and an adjacent Maryon Wilson Park. I’ll go back one day and buy a propeller.

    Also had a quick look at No Trees in the Streets. I had forgotten it is mostly a studio-bound flashback to the 30s but has aerial shots of the docklands under the opening credits. First appearance of Melvyn “Gloria” Hayes.

    Much of London was a delicate shade of pale black until the 70s, the result of running the country on coal for a couple of centuries.

    I am glad Brian enjoyed The London Nobody Knows but I thought James Mason was a bad choice. He looked bored stiff most of the time and his attempt at interviewing the men in the homeless hostel was cringeworthy.

  7. Brian Evans says:

    Chris-James Mason was a bad choice in everything, if he had to be himself. It’s worth a look though to see a vanishing London-in this film it seems clapped-out.

    Melvyn Hayes 1st film was “Top of the Form” in 1953. By “No Tees” he was a seasoned veteran. He now has his own website.

  8. admin says:

    I’ve seen The London Nobody Knows many times – he was an old curmudgeon, wasn’t he? I rather like that. I have a lot of Look At Life footage, too, plus a great set of month-by-month London discs of each year, printed for greetings cards.
    Looking at The Optimists again, there’s great footage of the buskers in a Leicester Square surrounded by operating roads (but little traffic) but no footage of the bloke in the fez, sadly.

  9. Chris Webb says:

    Brian, in the opening credits to No Trees in the Street it says “and introducing Melvyn Hayes” which is why I said it was his first role. However, as you said he did a load of stuff before, I have just checked IMDB. Mostly TV though so maybe it was his first credited film role? Seems strange though.

    I’ve been trying to figure out exactly where the photo of Mr Micklewhite was taken. Is it Albert Embankment next to Lambeth Palace, with Westminster Bridge in the background?

    “The more you look at old films, the more you realise that London passes through distinct cycles, from sumptuous cleanliness to appalling filth. In ‘Night and the City’ (1950) London appears elegant and European.”

    I think this is more to do with choices made by the director, location manager or cinematographer. A city as large and varied as London has many faces – point your camera one way on a nice sunny day and it looks lovely. Turn round when a cloud blows across and you’ve got a decaying slum. If you watch the brilliant but obscure Toast of London (with Matt Berry from The IT Crowd) they have made London look like some quaint and sleepy market town in the shire counties.

  10. Brian Evans says:

    A couple of Hayes films I have seen recently, a Dracula, and The Man Who Loved Redheads, had him in credited roles. I bet APBC pulled a fast one in “No Trees” in using him to help sell the film. He had made a hit on TV, esp “Jo’s Boys”- a children’s Sunday teatime serial-(I’m so old I saw it) and were using him to drag the kids in. Cheeky!

    To be honest, I’ve always found his voice and face irritating.

    Sorry, Chris, I do try to not be such an “Anorak”, but something always comes over me. Please humour me!

  11. Roger says:

    Anthony Simmons, who made The Optimists of Nine Elms, also made Four in the Morning, Judi Dench’s first film and set at various places on the Thames, which is very accurately portrayed.

  12. Kevin says:

    Some of my favourite background London is in ‘Melody’ (aka SWALK). (1970). Right from the opening titles. In fact, including the opening titles!

    A lot of it is filmed around Hammersmith and Lambeth, according to IMDB. And some urban wasteland and old railway sidings around the Nine Elms / Vauxhall area as well, where the lads spend their spare time mucking about.

    In the section where they go up west for the afternoon, there is some lovely footage of Soho Square, Trafalgar Square and other bits that I don’t recognise. And, I don’t know if it is the one you mean, but in one brief scene they are dancing in the street with a bloke in fez, a la Wilson and Keppel, until he realises and shakes his fist at them, and they run off. It looks like that part of it was filmed cinema verite style – they are just roaming the streets and having fun.

  13. Steveb says:

    What’s that film that begins with a long tacking shot down the Thames ending up going into an apartment??? My mind’s gone blank…

    I have the full series of ‘making of modern london’ copied to dvd from old vhs. Not modern any more!!!

    Talking of Pete Walker. His second string writer Murray Smith was one of my favourite writers, Ive got his show Strangers / Bulnan from rhe 80s on dvd, and sometimes it’s a real shock to see how it was back then.

  14. Paul Graham says:

    Steveb, could be theatre of blood?

  15. admin says:

    God, I remember SWALK – it had a score by the then unknown Bee Gees, and reunited the juve leads from ‘Oliver’!

  16. Ken Mann says:

    All ITC series were shot on location in my childhood. This is why I am often more engaged with the back-projection footage in driving scenes than I am with the plot. When did women stop wearing rain-bonnets, and why?

  17. snowy says:

    For anybody keen on researching locations, or just want to see if anything was shot near them: ‘reelstreets’ is quite handy. However it is almost exclusively focused on British films

    [link above, just click my screen name]

  18. snowy says:

    And for those with what we might call… ‘more unique tastes’, there is a site called Avengerland.

    Despite the title it covers more tv series than you might expect.

    The index lists:

    JOE 90

    [link above etc.]

    [Finding locations from a puppet show is devotion ‘above and beyond’, in my opinion.]

  19. Wayne Mook says:

    two horror films that show London, especially the Thames, Frenzy and Theatre of Blood, really do show it at it’s worst.

    Still it doesn’t look as grim as Newcastle in Get Carter.


  20. Joel says:

    Bits of one of my favourites – The (real) Italian Job – also show Sixties London. Michael Caine riding on the back of a milk float along London Wall for example…

    Ealing comedies set in London were part-shot on location, notably The Ladykillers, but with violence to Kings Cross geography.

    ITC made almost all of their programmes on film, and used location shooting extensively. Those programmes’ survival to today is because they weren’t on wipeable tape, the reason why so many ‘classic’ BBC radio and tv programmes have been lost.

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