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London in film

From Academic Kids

London has been used as a film location more times than almost any other city in the world. These have ranged from historical recreations of the Victorian London of Charles Dickens and Sherlock Holmes, to the romantic comedies of Bridget Jones's Diary and Notting Hill, by way of crime films, spy thrillers, science fiction and the "swinging London" films of the 1960s.

Because of the dominant role played by the city in the British media, the number of British films set in London is huge. It has also been used many times in American films, and often recreated on a Hollywood studio backlot. The purpose of this article is to identify some of the main topics in the cinematic depiction of the city.

Contents

Historical London

Historical recreations of London on screen have been relatively frequent. The Victorian, Tudor, Edwardian and Second World War periods in the city's history have all been regularly depicted.

Pre-Victorian London

Elizabethan London has often been portrayed in films, including Fire Over England (1937), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) and Elizabeth (1998). Much of Shakespeare in Love (1998), a comedy involving Shakespeare in a fictionalised romance, was set around the original Globe Theatre, as was Laurence Olivier's 1944 version of Henry V.

Tudor England has also been shown in other films, including the 1966 film of Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons, and various versions of Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper.

Cromwell (1970) is one of the few films to show the city during the English Civil War, but several have been set during the subsequent restoration of the monarchy under Charles II. These include Nell Gwynn (1937), Forever Amber (1947) and Stage Beauty (2003). The 1995 film Restoration incorporates both the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London of 1665-66.

Late 18th and early 19th Century London has been seen in a number of films, including Lady Hamilton (1941), Lady Caroline Lamb (1972), A Bequest to the Nation (1973), Princess Caraboo (1994), Sense and Sensibility (1995), and the various versions of The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Several 1960s films showed a grimier, more realistic depiction of 18th Century London, including Where's Jack? (1968), based on the true story of highwayman Jack Shepherd and crime boss Jonathan Wild.

Victorian London

One of the most popular images of the city is the Victorian era of Charles Dickens, Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes. There have been almost 200 films based on the novels of Charles Dickens alone, beginning with the silent short film Death of Nancy Sykes in 1897. The most memorable of these are probably the musical Oliver! and the two David Lean films of Oliver Twist (1948) and Great Expectations (1946). Other film adaptations include David Copperfield in 1935 and 1969, Nicholas Nickleby in 1947 and 2002, The Pickwick Papers in 1952 and Little Dorrit in 1987. There have also been many versions of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, the best known of which is the 1951 Alastair Sim film Scrooge.

Many films have also been made of the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. Basil Rathbone played Holmes in a series of American films from 1939-1946, with London recreated in Hollywood at Twentieth Century Fox and later Universal studios. Other notable Holmes films which have strongly featured London backgrounds and locations are Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), and the comedies The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes's Smarter Brother (1975) and Without a Clue (1988), as well as innumerable TV movies.

Holmes also dealt with the notorious Whitechapel serial killer Jack the Ripper in A Study in Terror in 1965 and Murder by Decree in 1978. The Ripper was also featured in Pandora's Box (1929), Jack the Ripper (1958), Dr Jeckyll and Sister Hyde (1971), Hands of the Ripper (1971), From Hell (2001) and several versions of The Lodger, including Hitchcock's silent film of 1926.

Much of the action in the Bram Stoker novel Dracula takes place in London, but most film adaptations set it elsewhere. The notable exception is Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

Other films set in Victorian London include the 1945 version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Victoria the Great (1937), Sixty Glorious Years (1938), The Mudlark (1950), The Wrong Box (1966), The Great Train Robbery (1978), Topsy-Turvy (1999), An Ideal Husband (1999), Shanghai Knights (2003), and the 1956 and 2004 versions of Around the World in Eighty Days.

Other British cities, such as Edinburgh, are often now used for period films instead of filming in London itself. From Hell (2001) and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) both recreated Victorian London in Prague in the Czech Republic.

20th Century

Edwardian London has been depicted in several films, notably the Ealing comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets in 1949, the Merchant Ivory E.M. Forster adaptation Howards End (1992) and the biopic Young Winston (1972).

Wartime London has featured in many films, with The Man Who Loved Redheads and Zeppelin (1971) among those set during the First World War. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) covered 40 years in the city, including the Edwardian era, the First World War and the Second World War. Several others were filmed during the the Second World War itself, including Millions Like Us (1943) and Waterloo Road (1944), as well as a number made in Hollywood like Waterloo Bridge (1940), Mrs Miniver (1942) and Forever and a Day. The latter followed several generations of owners of a London house until 1943. Later films set in the city during World War II include The Man Who Never Was (1955), I Was Monty's Double (1958), Battle of Britain (1969), Hanover Street (1979), Hope and Glory (1987), Shining Through (1992) and The End of the Affair (1999), as well as some low-budget Italian-made war films like Stukas Over London (1970) and From Hell to Victory (1979).

The 1950s has been recreated in several films including 84 Charing Cross Road (1986) and Shadowlands (1993). The 1960s has proved particularly popular with film makers in recent years, especially for crime films like Buster (1988), Scandal (1989), The Krays (1990), Honest (2000) and Gangster No. 1 (2000). Withnail and I (1987) economically recreated the Camden Town area in the 1960s.

Ealing Comedies

The Ealing comedies of the 1940s and 1950s made particularly good use of locations in the city. Hue and Cry (1947) and Passport to Pimlico (1949) were memorably set in the ruins and bombsites of post-war London. In the 1950s The Lavender Hill Mob made extensive use of London locations, as did the dramas The Blue Lamp and Pool of London, while The Ladykillers used Kings Cross Station and its surrounding marshalling yards as the backdrop to its story.

Many other comedies have used locations in the city, some of the best known being The Ghosts of Berkeley Square (1947), Doctor in the House (1954), The Horse's Mouth (1958), Bedazzled (1967), Brassed Off (1996), Billy Elliott (2000) and Bend It Like Beckham (2002).

Swinging London

With new developments in music, cinema and fashion, London found itself the centre of youth culture in the 1960s. The image of "swinging London", partly a creation of Time magazine, helped to fuel a production boom in the British film industry throughout the decade. The Beatles made memorable use of locations in the city in A Hard Day's Night (1964), and a huge number of other London-set films followed. These included The Pumpkin Eater (1964), The Knack (1965), Darling (1965), Arabesque (1966), Kaleidoscope (1966), Georgy Girl (1966), Alfie (1966), Blow-up (1966), I'll Never Forget Whatisname (1967), Poor Cow (1967), Up the Junction (1967), Bedazzled (1967), To Sir, with Love (1967), The Jokers (1967), Otley (1968), Wonderwall (1968), Salt and Pepper (1968) and The Italian Job (1969).

Romantic London

The city has often been used as the backdrop for romances like Indiscreet (1958) with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, and has become popular for romantic comedies in recent years. This is at least partly due to the television and film writer Richard Curtis, who has written some of the most successful British films of recent years - The Tall Guy (1989), Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Notting Hill (1999) and Love Actually (2003), all set or partly set in the city. The films follow the awkward love lives of largely upper-middle class characters (aside from The Tall Guy, always including one played by Hugh Grant) in a London which is sunny (even at Christmas), glamorous, clean and full of people who smile at each other.

Many Londoners find this portrayal hard to connect to the reality, and Curtis has been criticised for pandering to the American market by playing to the stereotype of the English as posh, socially awkward eccentrics. This hasn't stopped the films generally being a huge success in the American and British cinema box office charts. Other films which have followed in Curtis's footsteps include Sliding Doors (1998), Martha, Meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence (1998), About A Boy (2002), Wimbledon, and the American movie What a Girl Wants (2002).

Thrillers

Alfred Hitchcock probably started the fashion for using London landmarks for spy films, starting with Blackmail in 1929, which was set entirely in the city and finished on the dome of the British Museum. Many of his other thrillers followed a similar pattern, including The Man Who Knew Too Much (both the 1934 and 1956 versions), The 39 Steps (1935), Sabotage (1937), Foreign Correspondent (1940), Stage Fright (1950) and Frenzy (1972). London has since featured in many other spy thrillers, including The Ipcress File (1965), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), The Deadly Affair (1966), The Black Windmill (1974), The Whistle Blower (1987), The Fourth Protocol (1987), Blue Ice (1992), The Innocent Sleep (1995) and briefly in Mission: Impossible (1996). This trend was spoofed in the films Otley (1968) with Tom Courtenay, and more recently in The Man Who Knew Too Little (1997) with Bill Murray and the Austin Powers films.

Landmarks featured in some of these films include the Albert Hall, Westminster Abbey and Trafalgar Square. Both Night of the Demon (1957) and The Ipcress File (1965) feature scenes filmed in the famous reading room at the British Museum. The 1978 version of The Thirty-Nine Steps features a climax on the clock face of Big Ben, an idea borrowed from the 1943 Will Hay comedy My Learned Friend. A similar scene features in the 2003 Jackie Chan film Shanghai Knights.

Several American thrillers have also produced mangled versions of London's geography, including Twenty Three Paces to Baker Street (1956), Midnight Lace (1960) and The Mummy Returns (2001), which features a chase across Tower Bridge on a double decker bus. The 1944 version of The Lodger also features a scene by Tower Bridge, although the film was set several years before it was built.

Britain's most famous spy, James Bond, generally spends little time in London, other than to receive his orders from his boss 'M'. However, some of the films do feature locations in the city. These include On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) in which George Lazenby as Bond visits the College of Arms and For Your Eyes Only (1981), in which Roger Moore experiences a hair-raising helicopter flight over the Docklands area. In the more recent Pierce Brosnan films, the Secret Service's headquarters are identified as being the new MI6 building on the River Thames at Vauxhall. The 1999 film The World is Not Enough opens with an extended boat chase from the MI6 building down the river to the Millennium Dome, while in Die Another Day (2002) Bond visits a secret base in a disused Underground station, and makes a rare trip to his club Blades.

London Underground

London's subway system the Underground or 'Tube', has featured in several films. The 1998 film Sliding Doors shows two parallel universes, hinging on whether the central character, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, catches a particular Tube train or not. Bulldog Jack (1934), Manhunt (1941) and The Good Die Young (1954) all include chase sequences across undergound tracks. A number of horror films have also used the subterranean network of tunnels as an atmospheric location, most notably the John Landis hit An American Werewolf in London (1981), which contains a famous scene set in Tottenham Court Road tube station. The eerie 1973 horror Death Line stars Donald Pleasence as a Scotland Yard detective who traces a series of murders to cannibals living in the network's tunnels.

But it hasn't only been used for mysterious or scary films. The makers of the children's film The Boy Who Turned Yellow (1972) managed to persuade London Underground to paint a tube train and large parts of Highgate Station a lovely shade of Yellow!

The 2002 James Bond film Die Another Day features a secret MI6 facility in a fictional disused Underground Station called Vauxhall Cross. Another fictional station, Hobbs End features in the 1967 science fiction film Quatermass and the Pit.

A rare recreation of the network in the Edwardian era featured in the adaptation of Henry James's Wings of a Dove in 1997. The London underground of the 1920s is also recorded in Anthony Asquith's silent classic Underground (1928), while the 1969 film Battle of Britain shows the tunnel network converted to provide shelter for Londoners during the Blitz.

Science fiction

Nigel Kneale's Quatermass films and television series helped to popularise London as the setting for science fiction stories. The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) ends with Professor Quatermass cornering an alien monster in Westminster Abbey, while Quatermass and the Pit (1967) begins with an alien space craft being discovered during the construction of a new London Underground station. The John Wyndham novel The Day of the Triffids was made into a film in 1962 which also features scenes in London, while the much-derided 1985 film Lifeforce involved vampires from space taking over the city.

The 1950 thriller Seven Days to Noon featured a scientist who threatens to destroy London with a nuclear bomb, and was notable for its scenes of the city's evacuated and deserted streets. Despite the great difficulties involved in achieving this, the feat was repeated for the horror film 28 Days Later in 2002, which begins with the hero waking from a coma and wandering across a deserted Tower Bridge.

Another nuclear threat was explored in The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) which has many notable scenes in London, including the Thames running dry. It also includes a lot of scenes inside the old Express Building on Fleet Street and Arthur Christiansen, the recently retired editor of the Express, effectively plays himself.

Both Things to Come (1936) and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005) begin with the city being destroyed, by war and alien attack respectively, while the 2004 horror comedy Shaun of the Dead is set in the city during a zombie attack, although no explanation is ever given for the zombies' appearance.

Criminals

Historic periods in the city's underworld have been portrayed in a small number of films. Examples include Where's Jack? (17th century), The Great Train Robbery (Victorian era), Chicago Joe and the Showgirl (World War II) and The Krays (the 1960s), while 10 Rillington Place (1971) recreated 1940s London, filming in the actual street where John Christie carried out his infamous murders.

Other films have evoked London's underworld in the modern era, including Robbery (1967), Villain (1971), Brannigan (1975), The Long Good Friday (1980), Mona Lisa (1986), Face (1997), Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), Snatch (2000), Sexy Beast (2000) and Layer Cake (2004).

The other side of London

A number of films have depicted the underbelly of the city away from the familiar tourist sites. Examples of these include Up the Junction, Nil by Mouth and Dirty Pretty Things. The East End meanwhile, was shown in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Waterloo Road (1944), It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) and A Kid for Two Farthings (1955), among others.

The 1968 documentary The London Nobody Knows, presented by James Mason, attempted to show some unfamiliar aspects of the city, as did Patrick Keiller's 1994 documentary London.

Other films have tried to use less familiar locations in a new way. The 1995 version of Richard III, starring Ian McKellen, which is set in a fictional 1930s fascist version of England, makes imaginative use of London locations such as St Cuthbert's church, St Pancras chambers (the old Midland Grand Hotel), the University of London's Senate House, and the two Gilbert Scott power stations - Bankside serving for the Tower and the decrepit Battersea Power Station as the setting for the final battle scenes. Terry Gilliam's 1985 Orwellian fantasy Brazil also used the cooling towers of the same power station as a location.

Kids London

London has been a popular location for childrens (and especially Disney) films over the last 40 years. The animated features Peter Pan (1953), One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) and Basil, the Great Mouse Detective (known in North America as The Great Mouse Detective) (1986) were all set in the city, as were Mary Poppins (1964) and Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971). These, however, were all filmed in the U.S..

In more recent years The Parent Trap (1998 version), Winning London, The Great Muppet Caper and the 1996 live-action remake of 101 Dalmations all used actual locations in the city, as did the 1975 Disney comedy One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing, which was largely set around the Natural History Museum in the early 20th Century. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) was set in Victorian London, but largely used Shepperton Studios.

Musical London

"Hey kids, let's put on a show!" The immortal (or at least lastingly sprightly) Cliff Richard was, briefly, a genuine movie star with three successful musical comedies in the early 1960s. The first of these, The Young Ones (1961), was set in London. Cliff, The Shadows, and his other chums need money to save their youth club, so they set up a pirate radio station to generate publicity and put on a show. They sing! They dance! They wear brightly-coloured tapered slacks! Robert Morley does martial arts! Cliff's second hit, Summer Holiday (1963) also deserves a mention, because although most of the action takes place driving across Europe, it has a starring role for a red London Routemaster bus.

The success of some of these 1960s films helped to make up for London Town, Britain's first Technicolor musical, which was an embarassingly high-profile flop in 1946.

Mary Poppins (1964) is memorable for some superb songs, (A Spoonful of Sugar, Chim-Chim-Cheree, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious), technical excellence (notably the scene combining live action and animation) and one of the worst accents in the history of cinema. Dick Van Dyke's mangling of a cockney accent is painful to hear.

Also in 1964, Audrey Hepburn starred in My Fair Lady, the film of the musical of the George Bernard Shaw play Pygmalion. George Cukor's decision to award the role of Eliza Dolittle to Hepburn was perceived by many as a snub to Julie Andrews, who had played the part to great acclaim on Broadway. In the event, Andrews won an Oscar for Mary Poppins while Hepburn was not nominated. This is another film with some great songs, including Wouldn't it be Loverly, I Could have Danced all Night and Get Me to the Church on Time. Marni Nixon's voice was used in place of Audrey Hepburn's for the songs.

In Half a Sixpence (1967), professional cheery cockney Tommy Steele plays Arthur Kipps, a cockney who unexpectedly comes into some money, in a musical version of H.G. Wells's novel Kipps.

Oliver! (1968), the musical based on Oliver Twist, includes the songs Food, Glorious Food, Consider Yourself and You've Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two. Two more Dickens stories turned into musicals were A Christmas Carol (filmed as Scrooge in 1970) and The Old Curiosity Shop, which became Mr Quilp in 1975.

Quadrophenia (1979) draws its soundtrack from the album of the same name, a rock opera by The Who. It tells the story of Jimmy, a disaffected teenager, taking his scooter to Brighton for the August bank holiday with a group of Mods, and taking part in on of the notorious 'battles' between Mods and Rockers.

Punk, one of London's notable contributions to pop music, is the subject of Sid and Nancy (1986), a biopic of Sid Vicious, bassist with the Sex Pistols. Gary Oldman stars as Vicious. Also see the punk-rockumentaries directed by Julien Temple, the first being band manager Malcolm McLaren's take on 'his' invention of punk in his "The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle" and the more recent return volley by the estranged band members in "The Filth & the Fury".

SpiceWorld (1997) is a Spice Girls vehicle rushed out to cash in on their success. It failed to gain critical acclaim.

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