London's film locations: Time for some new ones?

From its dystopian underpasses to the leafy avenues of Notting Hill, London has always offered evocative backdrops for film. But must we keep seeing the same old places?

Gerard Gilbert@GerardVGilbert
Tuesday 24 November 2009 01:00

A group of young troublemakers dressed in identical boiler suits wreak havoc against a backdrop of concrete brutalism – it could be A Clockwork Orange all over again. The other connection between E4's excellent new drama, Misfits, about a bunch of kids on community service who develop superpowers, and Stanley Kubrick's 1971 movie of Anthony Burgess's dystopian novel, is the filming location. Residents of Thamesmead, south-east London, could be forgiven for emitting a low groan at seeing their neighbourhood once again used as shorthand for the ills of modern society.

And you can see their point. I visited the set of Misfits on a sunny autumn day and Thamesmead seemed peaceful, with swans bobbing on the water and the trees turning all shades of russet loveliness. Nevertheless, it seems that A Clockwork Orange locations are somewhat in vogue at the moment. As well as Misfits, the university in Channel 4's recent Comedy Showcase pilot, Campus, was portrayed by none other than Brunel University in Middlesex – the Sixties buildings that stood in for the Ludovico Medical Clinic, where Malcolm McDowell's Alex, eyelids peeled back, received his aversion therapy.

The only surprise perhaps is that the Trinity Road underpass in Wandsworth, west London, where Alex and his Droogs attack the Irish tramp, has not been employed more often, especially by some pop video director or would-be YouTuber paying homage to A Clockwork Orange's most iconic location. Maybe Kubrick's film was out of circulation for so long in this country that people are simply unfamiliar with it. Or perhaps nobody has been able to choose between the four identical and equally unnerving walkways.

Either way, the underpass is apparently but a short, bovver-booted stomp from a now vanished red telephone box that appeared in the previous year's Donald Cammell/Nic Roeg classic, Performance, starring Mick Jagger and James Fox. This was a rare excursion south of the river for a film thats exteriors were mostly shot in Notting Hill (No 25 Powis Square, to be precise, the address of the mansion that housed Mick Jagger's rock star, Turner, and female entourage – the interiors were filmed in the then far more salubrious Lowndes Square in Knightsbridge). And Thamesmead shouldn't worry about its parsimonious use as a movie location, for Notting Hill provides a lesson in the dangers of over exposure.

Its repeated use as a movie location does, however, make Notting Hill socially fascinating. For if Thamesmead is forever cast as a concrete dystopia, the stucco-clad mansions of W11 have come up in the world since Bryan Forbes filmed his kitchen-sink drama The L-Shaped Room there in 1962. The postcode was once ruled by the housing racketeer Peter Rachman, and if you add the bohemian element which came in the wake of the area's West Indian influx, you had a natural backdrop for Performance, with its blend of decadent rock stars and gangsters.

Rachman was driven around in a Rolls-Royce, and in Performance, acid was famously poured over a Roller's paintwork, while its chauffeur had his head shaved. This sets up yet another association, for that scene was filmed in Queens Gate Mews, near Gloucester Road, which was later the real home of Guy Ritchie and featured in a much later London gangster movie, the 2004 Daniel Craig film, Layer Cake.

More of that movie in a moment. Back in Notting Hill, the post-1980s gentrification led to that apogee (or nadir, depending on your point of view) of W11 as a film location with Hugh Grant seducing Julia Roberts with his floppy hair and diffident ways in, yes, Notting Hill. But has the association with Richard Curtis finally killed Notting Hill as a movie location? I would say it has. The action has moved east – to Kings Cross, Brick Lane, Shoreditch, Whitechapel and the banker warehouse conversions of Shad Thames – once home to David Lean and where the some of the film adaptation of Bridget Jones's Diary was shot. Further east still, and Canary Wharf has become Hollywood-on-the-Isle of Dogs – a backdrop for so many movies it's surprising that film-makers can manage to keep out of each other's shots.

In Layer Cake, Daniel Craig's unnamed cocaine dealer was dangled over the edge of the still unfinished Marriott Hotel, whose penthouse flats now apparently house several Premiership footballers. The Bourne Supremacy, 28 Days Later, The Constant Gardener, Batman Begins, Johnny English, the Jude Law version of Alfie, Basic Instinct 2 and the Bond movie The World Is Not Enough are other films that have taken advantage of the gleaming glass and steel towers of Canary Wharf – the latter two movies also making use of the district's plentiful waterways to film speedboat stunts. But it's actually another film, from an era when the transformation of London's Docklands wasn't even yet a glimmer in Margaret Thatcher's eye, that used the location most evocatively.

The plot of John Mackenzie's 1980 classic, The Long Good Friday, couldn't have been more prescient – what with Bob Hoskins's old school London gangster, Harry Shand, trying to interest the American Mafia in the then disused Docklands as a potential venue for the Olympic Games. The future site of One Canada Square, now Britain's tallest building, is clearly visible as Harold tours the area in his yacht, and, apart from being a brilliant thriller and swansong to Kray-era gangsterism, The Long Good Friday affords an invaluable record of one of Britain's most ambitious modern building projects in its gestation stage.

Canary Wharf is now itself a cliché, and its deployment in the opening credits of The Apprentice has surely made risible its use as shorthand for wealth, ambition and power, while the banking crisis has further dulled the area's lustre. I still recall walking to work last October, from Canary Wharf underground station to the Independent's then offices in Marsh Wall. By a footbridge just past Lehman Brothers' suddenly vacated offices was a yacht that had capsized – with its stern jutting out of the water. It seemed a neat symbol of the fall from grace of this capitalist Gotham.

Indeed the Thames is perennially London's most favoured backdrop. Landmarks – Big Ben, Westminster Bridge, Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus, The London Eye, The Swiss Re "Gherkin" – all pass eventually into cliché. But not the various river embankments. Everyone has their favourite – and least favourite. That old romantic Ian Hislop found the sight of Michael Maloney hopping, skipping and jumping along the South Bank in Truly Madly Deeply so excruciating that he made Paul Merton banish the film to oblivion in Room 101.

So where to next? Film London, the media agency that promotes London as an international movie location, has a useful website ( that lists what it calls Location of the Month – eclectic snapshots of the now favoured spots for a fresh take on the capital. The most recent examples include Elephant and Castle, where the Michael Caine thriller Harry Brown was shot, and Clerkenwell Green, where the late Heath Ledger filmed his final scenes in Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. The general push seems to be south-eastwards along the Thames corridor. One day they might even reach Thamesmead again – and this time someone might film a rom-com there.

'Misfits' is on Thursday at 10pm on E4

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