What’s Your Background?

London

 

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[I’ve rewritten one of my favourite pieces on London, of which you’ll notice there are a great many on this little site. I thought it was worth revisiting. Coming later this week, a Christmas quiz.

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The layouts of the twisting streets never change and the quirky, individual shops have largely been replaced by coffee chains but some locations still feel the same. This corner of Belsize Park is drabber but still recognisable.

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‘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.

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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 unretouched screen grab from the movie. It was the seventies, for God’s sake!

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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. In ‘The Fallen Idol’ Belgravia looks like it always has; full of the wealthy entitled, but there are also signs of life in the film that aren’t there now (chimney sweeps! Charladies!)

By this time, black characters are appearing on street corners, always in natty suits. Although they tended to play slightly ‘other’ characters, accompanied by calypso music because West Indies, they were usually treated as a curiosity rather than meanly. In ‘The Sandwich Man’, a great film for London background-watching, a Caribbean family is teased for having a lot of children. 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. Many East Enders, resentful of finding their streets demographically changing again, moved to Essex, true home of the Cockney.

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!

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From here London moves on to Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) in ‘The Long Good Friday’ (1980) – ‘I’m a Londoner (‘Lunduna’) 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 financial utopia envisioned by Maggie Thatcher.

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And so we come to the present day, with the multi-cultural London of ‘Paddington’ and Daniel Craig surveying the city in ‘Spectre’, by which time it has become a peculiar hybrid of working city and tourist mecca, scrubbed up for selfies but still messy and disreputable. If I had to pick a favourite 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. I managed to miss it, but then we always hanker for the period immediately before our own.

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29 comments on “What’s Your Background?”

  1. David says:

    I think the street of shiny red tiles is Stockwell Road, home of the Pride & Clarke motorcycle emporiums until the early 1970’s.

  2. Liz Thompson says:

    My daughter’s favourite film is The Ladykillers!

  3. Brian Evans says:

    The shot of “Night and the City” at the top with Richard Widmark looks suspiciously like back-projection. His feet seem to be on a stage just in front of a screen. Brilliant film though.

    Admin, if you haven’t seen “The London that Nobody Knows” I highly recommend it. It was a 1969 second feature of about 50mins, shot in that grainy grey colour often used for spy films, and fronted by a lugubrious James Mason showing the audience around quiet bits of London. It is very down-beat and depressing and shows a London that was clapped out and at total variance with the “Swinging City” Then compare it with those “Look at Life” 10 minute programme fillers shown in cinemas in the late 50s and early 60s. They are wonderfully positive and show a country looking forward to a bright future, shot in glorious vibrant colours and with a fantastic energising narration.

  4. Stuart Williams says:

    I recently watched Behemoth: the Sea Monster and a lot of the action takes place around, and on, the Thames – I think it attacks the Woolwich Ferry – and the Port of London Authority play a large part in tracking it.
    I also recollect watching the Disney live action version of 101 Dalmations years ago and being impressed that the bike ride Jeff Daniels takes is an actual journey that finishes, to my recollection, going from Leicester Square to St James’s Park, but I can’t remember where it started.

  5. tony williams says:

    I recall, and still watch, films made in the 50s and 60s. A London still devastated by the blitz. When my family moved to Romford from Swansea there were still holes in the City. So many movies (sorry too much time in Boston) like ‘Passport to Pimlico’ and others showed the damage London had taken. Is it better now? Dunno. To quote.

  6. Brian Evans says:

    In case anyone is interested, and don’t know about it, there is a website called “Reelstreets”. It has stills taken from various British films made in the past, with “now” photos taken in the exact spot showing the change (or often not) that has occurred in each particular picture over the years.

    It has a lot of B pictures, and these have fascinating pics of London “then” and “now”

    https://www.reelstreets.com/

  7. Paul C says:

    Hue and Cry (with Alastair Sim stealing the film as a lugubrious pulp writer) shows gangs of kids playing in bomb craters and The Lavender Hill Mob has some very atmospheric seedy locations too.

    Talking of Night and the City (avoid the woeful remake), the forgotten author Gerald Kersh is well worth exhuming :
    his novel Fowler’s End was described by Anthony Burgess as ‘One of the best comic novels of the century with Sam Yudenow as superb a creation (almost) as Falstaff’. Kersh’s best short stories are collected in Nightshades and Damnations with a glowing intro by Harlan Ellison

  8. Barbara Boucke says:

    Commenting as someone whose experiences of the city have been limited to the number of visits from the States, I always enjoyed walking about and seeing the changes – places no longer there – buildings occupied by something else. No more Dickens and Jones to wander around in and be asked “May I help you Madam?”. I can recommend a blog I read a lot called A London Inheritance. I apologize for not remembering the name of the fellow who writes it, but his father was born in London and took many photographs of the city over time. The blog revisits those places with the old photos and present day ones as well, plus it goes into the history of the area.

  9. Davem says:

    Chris, I came across the below link recently, loads of films from the BFI National Archive showing the Thames at trade, at war and at peace.

    Some fascinating stuff.

    https://www.ianvisits.co.uk/blog/2019/08/08/see-vintage-films-about-the-river-thames-from-the-bfi-archive/

  10. Roger says:

    “The London that Nobody Knows” was based on a book – can’t remember the author, The trouble is that the book and film were so successful that it became the London everybody knew.

  11. Martin Tolley says:

    Brian. thank you for that website – didn’t know about it afore. Not only fascinating stuff, but there’s a section where you can buy movie posters – just the thing for several folk I know who are notoriously difficult to give gifts at Christmas.

  12. Jan says:

    Was “The London Nobody knows” not the work of Geoffrey Fletcher?
    Fletcher used to illustrate his own books and these drawings in themselves are excellent.

    London provided me with a thousand sights, moments and snapshots over the years. Not just beautiful places or momentous sights but little glimpses of life. I worked in so many different places spending hours and hours in many varied and not always pleasant or comfortable locations but theres always something to see.

    One of the funniest sights I can ever recall (sorry if this is repeat, I’m in my dotage now and retell lots of stories) took place at just about this time of year during the pre Christmas booze up weeks. (remember them?) I was working in the West End when at about 3a.m. some comedy drunk staggered into view along the pavement of one of the roads near Regent street I think it was. This character being fairly well dressed and obviously not that short of a few bob was however very obviously sorely in need of a sit or lie down as he was having a lot of of trouble staying vertical.

    This drunk spots a large cardboard box parked conveniently on the pavement near the building line you could see the look of joy and the sheer gratitude on the mans face “THANKYOU LORD A PLACE TO SLEEP THIS OFF” Like a wanderer suffering a terrible thirst spotting an Oasis in the desert so it was. Drunk staggers up to said box and bends down low to open its top flap of cardboard and almost instantaneously a fist rises up out of said receptacle at great speed emerging from of the space he has revealed smacking him straight in the kisser with a great deal of firmness.

    Honestly it was one of the funniest pieces of silent comedy I ever witnessed. This bash was fully occupied and all would be boarders were to be repelled. The drunk fell over immediately sitting stunned by his chosen shelter. For him it must have been like being attacked by the dismembered hand from the Addams family. Was literally all that could be seen of the assailant.

    If it had been a video I would have rewound it that many times.

    Sights like that are just as memorable as the Thames @ Westminster at dawn on a beautiful summers morning. Or snow falling gently into the beautiful squares in Chelsea. or looking over at the startling new Canary Wharf from the East End. What a place and what a time it all was.

  13. matthew Hopson says:

    The Bill, endless scenes of South London, Mitcham, Colliers wood and even Pollards Hill.

  14. Brian Evans says:

    Glad you like it Martin. Thanks for the tip-I hadn’t noticed they sell posters.

  15. mike says:

    Jan, I remember something similar in Hoxton years ago.
    An open top Alvis pulled straight out onto a roundabout causing a car already circling to jam his breaks on. He hooted and the Alvis driver stopped, turned in his seat and gave a slow deliberate V sign. The other driver leapt out of his car, ran up the Alvis and punched the driver in the mouth. He ran back to his car, got in, pulled around the Alvis and drove off. The Alvis driver was slumped into his seat looking dazed.
    All this took about 3 seconds, it was straight out of a Mack Sennet film, it still brings a chuckle after 40 odd years.

  16. Ian Luck says:

    Stuart – is ‘Behemoth’ an alternative title for the movie I know and love as ‘Gorgo’? (1960)
    Some of the best views of a London that has long gone, can be seen in the 1973 movie ‘Theatre Of Blood’, starring Vincent Price, and Diana Rigg (RIP).

  17. Barbara Boucke says:

    Jan – What a great story! Thank you.

  18. Roger says:

    If I remember rightly some of the scenes in ‘Theatre Of Blood’ have Hammersmith Bridge in its glory days – if that’s the term – in the background seen through a window in Rigg’s flat.

  19. Roger says:

    I was amused to see that an alternative title for Behemoth: the Sea Monster was The Giant Behemoth – to avoid confusion with The Midget Behemoth, no doubt.

  20. Ian Luck says:

    I did read a book once where a plot point was ‘A giant dwarf’. I cannot for the life of me think what book it was, but I fear that it was probably something to do with Vic Reeves/The League Of Gentlemen/Richard Littler’s ‘Scarfolk’.

  21. Ken says:

    The excellent, though sadly apparently defunt, Another Nickel in the Machine blog has an entry on the red buildings of Stockwell Road

    http://www.nickelinthemachine.com/2015/09/david-hemmings-blow-up-and-the-red-buildings-on-the-stockwell-road/

  22. chazza says:

    I remember that the excellent film “The Deadly Affair” had telling shots of a very sodden London pre Docklands redevelopment which I recognised fondly since my Dad had a shop in Surrey Docks since 1948 (now Surrey Quays don’t cha know). Pure Atkinson Grimshaw…

  23. Brooke says:

    Query, Friends. Port of London Murders, by Josephine Bell. Anyone read and have an opinion? Not on kindle so cannot sample.

  24. Phil Babbs says:

    ‘The London Nobody Knows’ was indeed based on the book written and illustrated by Geoffrey Fletcher. I have a dozen or so of his books based on similar themes and, I think , his writings in the Daily Telegraph? Also remember seeing the film during a trip to the Bomley Odeon. It has been televised a few times and is available on DVD.

  25. Philip Linfield says:

    Gorgo was one of my favourite monster films, growing up – it was a rather better film than “Behemoth” – Gorgo starred Bill Travers (of “Born Free” fame) who was also in a great little comedy from 1957 called “The Smallest Show On Earth” – also featuring Peter Sellers – which was about a couple’s attempt to upgrade an inherited flea pit cinema. It was filmed mostly in Kilburn in a location near the tube station
    I’m surprised no-one has mentioned Alfred Hitchcock’s “Frenzy” which is set all over London: Covent Garden, the Thames (the trailer, some might remember, had a scene with Hitchcock’s ‘corpse’ floating down the river near the old Greater London Council buildings), the wonderful Coberg Hotel (now defunct) in Bayswater (I lived on Porchester Terrace in my early twenties). In fact – thinking about “Genevieve” – I was shopping at Whiteley’s on Queensway back then (Helen – I almost said ‘Kingsway’) and all at once there was Kenneth More finishing up a little shopping and about to leave the food floor. I raced up to the book department and grabbed a copy of the Penguin volume of the Forsyte Saga with Kenneth More’s Jolyon on the cover and caught up with him and extremely apologetically asked him if he would sign it. He said with a twinkle in his eye “Oh, you just happened to have a copy on you eh?”
    I grinned with embarrassment and thanked him and continued to apologise, and he winked and gave a hearty laugh.
    Oh, there is so much more. I miss London.

  26. Mike Hill says:

    I was a student at Raine’s Grammar School for Boys in Arbour Square, Stepney when the filming of ‘Sparrows Can’t Sing’ was going on around that area and a classmate lived in the block of flats where Barbara Windsor’s character was supposed to live. The flat was meant to be on his floor and they filmed in the corridor outside, although, I think, the interior was a studio set. Whenever I’ve seen the film over the years I always get nostalgic seeing the area as I remember it.

    In the climactic car chase in the film ‘The Blue Lamp’, Dirk Bogarde is tracked across northwest London by the police radio operator telling the patrol cars exactly where he is heading. I remember watching the VHS version while sitting on my living room floor with a large scale map and following the route. Surprisingly it was an actual course ending up at the White City Stadium. None of your passing Big Ben to get from King’s Cross to The Angel. It really is worth watching the ‘The Blue Lamp’ for some great 1949/50 London locations.

    The TalkingPicturesTV channel is a gold mine of British black and white films from the 40s and 50s with location shooting galore.

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