The History Of London Through Film

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London has been featured in so many films that you are able to see a unique side of London through the eyes of filmmakers. It’s really exciting to see what Trafalgar Square looked like before it was filled with tourists and souvenir vendors and it’s interesting to see what the city looked like after the World War II blitzkrieg. Even though other locations are used to recreate London in different epochs (especially Edinburgh and Prague), every era in London’s history has an iconic film that shows what it was like at the time. The team of experts at London Pass have captured these special Film locations in this research.

Here are some of the films set in London for movie fans and visitors to the city organised by era:

Pre-Victorian London (before 1836)

Before 1836 London was a much divided society with a deeply ingrained class system. The population boom (an increase from just under a million in 1801 to one and a quarter million by 1820) contributed to a wild, vibrant, and volatile scene that has been relived in many iconic films.

Shakespeare in Love (1998), for example, is a fictional story set in the Elizabethan era that depicts a love affair between Viola de Lesseps and William Shakespeare while he writes Romeo and Juliet. The film won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The Rose Theatre featured in Shakespeare in Love was a set built for the film, but the real Rose was uncovered in the late eighties during building work at London’s Southbank. The location of the command performance of Two Gentlemen of Verona for Queen Elizabeth (Judi Dench), however, was filmed on location in London at the Great Hall of Middle Temple (EC4Y; Tube: Temple). Other sites from the film include the Priory Church of St. Bartholomew the Great in West Smithfield (EC1A; Tube: Barbican) and the riverside scenes on the grounds of Marble Hill House in Twickenham (TW1; Tube: Richmond).

Belle (2013) on the other hand is a period drama set in the Georgian era and was inspired by the real life of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, the daughter of an enslaved African woman and a British Royal Navy officer who was raised by her aunt and uncle as a free gentlewoman in England. Dido’s aunt and uncle, Lord and Lady Mansfield, lived at Kenwood House, an estate in Hampstead that makes up part of the grounds of Hampstead Heath. Parts of Belle were filmed here and following a multi-million pound refurbishment, Kenwood House (NW3; Overground: Hampstead Heath) can be explored for free. Visitors will be able to see what the house looked like during the life of the Mansfields as well as the painting of Dido and her cousin Lady Elizabeth that inspired the film.

Victorian London (1837-1901)

The Victorian era was a time of wealth and London’s growth truly reflected that. Britain had an expanding empire and the country showed its prestige by building: many of London’s most famous landmarks were built during this era, including Trafalgar Square, Tower Bridge and the first lines of the underground, which often feature heavily in films set in the times.

The film Without a Clue (1988) is a spoof of the Victorian era’s most beloved character: Sherlock Holmes. Here Dr. Watson is the real genius and he hires an actor to impersonate the fictitious sleuth. Most of this film was shot on location in London, including Orpheum Theatre which is actually the Hackney Empire theatre in east London (E8; Overground: Hackney Central). The Hackney Empire was built in 1901 and was one of the first theatres with built-in projection systems, central heating and bright electric lights. The scene where Wiggins finds five pounds is the cast-iron footbridge over the Regent’s Canal near Camden Lock Market (NW1; Tube: Camden Town).

The Elephant Man (1980) tells a darker story of Victorian London. Joseph Merrick, an Englishman with severe deformities, was an attraction in a Victorian freak show when he escapes. The film is based on a true story and was nominated for eight Oscars and won three BAFTA awards, including Best Film. The opening scene of the film was shot along Shad Thames (SE1; Tube: London Bridge); however, the iconic warehouses have become wine bars and restaurants. The Eastern Hospital (now the Homerton University Hospital; E9; Overground: Homerton) in Homerton was the stand-in for the London Hospital in Whitechapel where Joseph Merrick stayed in real life. The scene where Merrick escapes from the freak show and ends up in a decrepit Victorian railway station is Liverpool Street Station (EC2; Tube: Liverpool Street) in Bishopsgate.

Edwardian London (1901-1910)

The Edwardian era was short-lived as King Edward VII was 60 when he ascended to the throne. There were significant shifts in politics with labourers and women’s rights becoming topics of debate and an overall feeling of optimism. King Edward VII enjoyed travelling and his tastes in art and fashion were increasingly influenced by Continental Europe, which are recognisable in Edwardian films.

The political nature of the time is reflected in the film Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), a story about a man named Louis Mazzini who is writing in memoirs in prison while he awaits his death. This film is considered one of the top 100 films of all time by Time magazine and the British Film Institute. Much of the film was actually shot in Kent but there are scenes that feature London, including the shot of the Houses of Parliament as seen from Lambeth Pier. The home Mazzini’s mother lives in after she elopes with a singer and leaves the countryside for the city (“73 Balaclava Avenue, SW”) is actually 42 Woodhurst Road (W3; Overground: Acton Central) in West Acton.

Wartime London

Wartime was an era of austerity for Londoners and during the Second World War, the city’s children were evacuated to the countryside to keep them out of harm’s way. Meanwhile, to survive this difficult time the country required dependable leadership.

The King’s Speech (2010) tells the true story of King George VI working with a speech and language therapist to overcome a stammer as he prepares to succeed to the throne and make his first wartime radio broadcast. The film won four Oscar awards including Best Picture and Best Director. Principal photography took place in London, with Buckingham Palace featuring prominently; however, the streets of wartime London where Lionel Logue (the speech therapist is drive to his royal residence is actually the Old Royal Naval College (SE10; Tube: Greenwich). The palace is a combination of two different locations including Lancaster House (SW1A; Tube: Green Park), a Grade I listed building commissioned in 1825. Logue’s home that is supposedly in Kensington is actually 89-96 Iliffe Street (SE17; Tube: Elephant & Castle) just south of the Elephant and Castle neighbourhood.

The End of the Affair (1999) on the other hand, shows the difficulties of life in London during the war. This film was adapted from the Graham Greene novel of the same name with scenes taking place before and after the war. It tells the story of Maurice Bendrix and his affair with a married woman named Sarah who dies of a terminal illness. The scene where Maurice and Sarah see the film 21 Days was filmed at the Phoenix Cinema (N2; Tube: East Finchley) in north London. The Phoenix is one of the longest operating cinemas in the UK and has beautiful architecture and design from the turn of the century. At the end of the film when the V1 bomb hits the house, the setting used was Kew Green (TW9; Overground: Kew Gardens) in Richmond.

Postwar London

Postwar London was a time of rebuilding with many of London’s landmarks damaged by the blitzes but the city was determined to look forward optimistically. In 1948, the city hosted the Summer Olympics and in 1951 the Festival of Britain was organised to promote British contributions to science, technology, and the arts.

That year the film Lavender Hill Mob (1951) was released. It tells the story of Holland, a bank transfer agent who arranges the transport of gold bullion and dreams of striking it rich. He forges a plan with a souvenir maker to melt the gold into Eiffel Towers so it can be smuggled into France. Many scenes in the film show the extent of the damage in London from the Second World War. Holland works in London’s financial centre known as the City and you can see him exiting Bank Station alongside monuments such as the Bank of England on Threadneedle Street and the Royal Exchange Building (EC2; Tube: Bank). The location that the van robbery takes place just south of St. Paul’s Cathedral at the 17th century St. Nicholas Cole Abbey (EC4V; Tube: St. Paul’s) which is now a coffee shop called The Wren. This is one scene where the Blitz damaged post-war London is most obvious. The car chase after the heist ends outside the Bramley Arms pub in Notting Hill. The pub has since closed but can also be seen in films like Quadrophenia (1979), Sid and Nancy (1986), and Betrayal (1983).

Swinging London (1960s)

Thanks to the success of British musicians like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the world looked to London to copy its youth culture and fashion. It marked the recovery of the British economy after World War II and the rise of names like Twiggy and Carnaby Street.

An iconic film of the era is The Italian Job (1969), the story of Cockney gangster Charlie Croker who is released from prison with a plan for a big heist: stealing 4 million dollars’ worth of Chinese gold in Italy by creating a traffic jam. It’s considered one of the UK’s top films and has inspired countless spoofs and a remake in 2003.

When Charlie is released from prison, viewers can see London’s infamous prison, Wormwood Scrubs (W12; Tube: East Acton). The facility has been on screen a number of times, including Frenzy (1972) and Morgan – A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966). Charlie is seen celebrating his release at the Royal Lancaster Hotel (W2; Tube: Lancaster Gate) and riding a milk-float in front of the 13th century London Wall (EC2Y; Tube: Barbican). To see Charlie’s typical Swinging Sixties flat, head to 18 Denbigh Close (W11; Tube: Notting Hill Gate) off Portobello Road. Other places that can still be visited include Crystal Palace Park’s Canada Gates (the site of the explosion and iconic one-liner “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”; SE19; Overground: Crystal Palace) as well as the luxurious high rise building Peninsula Heights at Albert Embankment (where the gang meets for the first time; SE1; Tube: Vauxhall).

The 80s and Beyond

Throughout the 80s, London continued its reign as one of the coolest cities in the world. Electric pop was de rigueur and disco nightclubs were opening all around the city. However, industrial parts of the UK were undergoing another revolution in the name of labour rights.

Billy Elliot (2000) is a film that depicts one of these defining moments in the UK’s industrial history. The story is set during the coal miners’ strike in 1984-1985 and shows a young boy from the northeast of England who loves to dance despite his father’s insistence that he learn to box. The story juxtaposes Britain’s industrial relations with Billy’s relationship with his family.

Most of this film was shot in the north of England but some scenes were filmed in London. The youth centre where Billy trains in ballet was filmed in the Hanwell Community Centre, a Gothic building in suburban Hanwell (W7; Rail: Castle Bar Park). This community centre has an interesting history: it was where Charlie Chaplin became a resident when it was a Victorian poor school and was one of the rehearsal spaces for rock band Deep Purple. When Billy grows up and his parents attend his performance of Swan Lake, they were at the Theatre Royal Haymarket (SW1Y; Tube: Piccadilly Circus).

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Alton loves film. He is founder and Editor In Chief of BRWC.  Some of the films he loves are Rear Window, Superman 2, The Man With The Two Brains, Clockwise, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Trading Places, Stir Crazy and Punch-Drunk Love.


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