Where Alec Guinness meets his end

Castles and churches come and go, to be replaced by car parks and Arndale Centres. Changing Places is an occasional series which will draw on old paintings, maps and photographs to show the fleeting face of Britain. The first is the King's Cross railway bridge, famously featured in the Ealing film The Ladykillers. By Andrew John Davies
It's a fair bet that The Ladykillers will feature prominently on any list of the 10 best British movies ever made. Made towards the end of the great Ealing Studios regime, the film stands apart from their other productions. Whereas most Ealing comedies have sentimental hearts, The Ladykillers is blacker than black.

It starts innocently enough, with Professor Marcus (played by a fang- toothed Alec Guinness) and his gang of four - amongst them a distinctly plump Peter Sellers - planning a robbery. Pretending to be the leader of a string quintet needing somewhere to practise, the Professor rents a room from dear old Mrs Wilberforce, but things quickly go wrong and the gang turn murderously upon each other. None of them survives to the final credits.

Apart from the marvellous script by William Rose, the direction of Alexander Mackendrick and the performances of the cast, the real star of the film is the King's Cross location where it was filmed. Steam trains, cobbled streets, bomb sites, friendly neighbourhood bobbies, a barrow boy (played by Frankie Howerd) selling fruit and veg - this is a nostalgic if shabby London long-since destroyed by the motor car and the drugs culture which now infests parts of the area.

Electrification means that the grime and dirt of steam has long gone, and, should you visit it today, you will also find - in a development Rose and Mackendrick would surely have loved - a stables complete with horses and a fierce Vietnamese pot-bellied pig which noisily attacks visitors he doesn't like. But the railway bridge, from which the corpses are tipped into passing coal trucks, still spans the Copenhagen Tunnel, and the second bridge glimpsed in the background continues to carry the North London railway line (some of its tatty carriages were probably at work in 1955). Mrs Wilberforce's house was a specially built wooden set (40 years on, locals still recall the fun everyone had during filming), but the signal which causes Professor Marcus's own shocking demise is also authentic.

Sadly, Ealing Studios didn't survive.They were sold to the BBC in December 1955, the very same month that The Ladykillers itself was released.

Photograph by Andrew Yale