The tube at 150: 10 great films on the underground
From a bomb shelter for families during the Blitz to the lair of a cannibal troglodyte, the tube has in its time played many parts. As the London underground celebrates its 150th anniversary, we pick 10 of its most memorable onscreen appearances.
Director Anthony Asquith
|Underground is rereleased nationwide on 11 January.|
Many feature films have included sequences shot on London’s famous underground railway but this 1928 production by talented young prodigy Anthony Asquith was the first. The tube had been an integral part of London life for well over half a century by this time and the first thing you notice about the film is how incredibly familiar the scenes filmed on the underground feel. All our favourite protocols (giving up seats, reading over people’s shoulders, invasion of body space) and other tube-specific behaviour are exhibited here.
The story – told in beautifully spare, elegant filmmaking language with the odd experimental flourish – concerns the convoluted love lives of four young Londoners and culminates in a thrilling chase over the roof of the Lots Road power station.
Bulldog Jack (1935)
Director Walter Forde
The underground provides the backdrop for the thrilling climax to this fast-paced comedy-thriller variation on Sapper’s thick-ear Bulldog Drummond adventures. Jack Pennington (Jack Hulbert) steps into Drummond’s shoes when the latter is injured in a car accident and crosses swords with master criminal Morelle (Ralph Richardson on maniacally splendid form), who’s intent on stealing some jewels from the British Museum.
Our hero tracks Morelle down to his hide-out in the disused (and fictional) tube station of Bloomsbury (an idea based on Brompton Road Station having been recently closed in 1934), leading to a frenetic chase on a runaway tube train.
Christmas under Fire (1941)
Director Harry Watt
Few scenes in this Ministry of Information short could be more poignant or better capture the spirit of British fortitude in the face of adversity than those showing the capital’s citizens sheltering overnight in London underground stations during the Blitz. Makeshift coat pegs line the tube tunnel walls as all around families lie on platforms with blankets and battered suitcases, with an occasional Christmas tree, trimmed and bedecked with tinsel, serving as a reminder that this is the traditional season of peace and goodwill.
Passport to Pimlico (1949)
Director Henry Cornelius
When the residents of Miramont Place, Pimlico discover that they are in fact subjects of the ancient Duchy of Burgundy, they decide to escape the rationing and privation of post-war Britain by declaring themselves foreigners.
In one of the film’s funniest scenes, they flag down and board tube trains to impose document and custom checks on the bemused passengers. While one tourist is delighted to have his passport stamped ‘Pemberton’s Stores – Received with Thanks’, most of the travellers are hostile to the intrusion, particularly when asked if they are carrying any “muskrats, mealworms, motorcycles, hashish, prepared opium or agricultural machinery.” The scene descends into chaos when a magician, asked if he has any livestock, releases a suitcase full of doves into the already overcrowded carriage.
Under Night Streets (1958)
Director Ralph Keene
Circa 1958, British Transport Films (BTF) was the classiest industrial film production unit in the world. Among nationalised transport concerns, London Transport (LT) came second, after British Rail, on BTF’s client list. And London Underground sat atop the pyramid of LT’s operations…
Enter Under Night Streets: an elegant middle-of-the-track study of four hours of overnight fluffing, mending and reconditioning of tube lines by over 1000 staff. Skilfully compressed into 20 minutes by documentary veteran Ralph Keene, it’s a mini-masterpiece of transport filmmaking, as stylish but stately, self-respectful and proficient, as LT’s nameless nocturnal employees.
Under Night Streets is available on the DVD British Transport Films Volume 10: London on the Move.
Director Gordon Flemyng
The Dalek invasion has left London a bombed-out shell, not unlike the post-Blitz scenes of the Second World War. The survivors have formed a resistance and set up their headquarters in a secret room in the depths of Embankment underground station, the entrance hidden behind a poster warning of the dangers of drinking rainwater. There they prepare weapons to fight the ‘motorised dustbins’ patrolling the streets.
Although much of the film is studio-bound, there are some evocative shots of London, including the sight of a Dalek emerging from the Thames – the moment when Dr Who realises that he’s facing his greatest nemesis.
Death Line (1972)
Director Gary Sherman
The underground, with its labyrinth of tunnels and disused stations, is a prime location for a horror film and Death Line makes great use of the creepy setting. In an abandoned station between Russell Square and Holborn, the descendants of railway tunnellers trapped by a roof collapse in 1892 have lived and bred, feeding on unsuspecting passengers.
Now only one of the troglodytes survives and, diseased and pustulent, he goes in search of a new mate to continue the line. Sickness and interbreeding have reduced him to little more than an inhuman creature; the only phrase he can utter is the one which he has heard echoing through the warren of tunnels over the years: “Mind the doors!”
Hidden City (1987)
Director Stephen Poliakoff
In Stephen Poliakoff’s directorial debut, visitors to underground London are taken on a trip to the past as disused stations and bunkers house archives of secret documents and films.
Academic James (Charles Dance) is persuaded by the enigmatic Sharon (Cassie Stuart) to look for clues to a film-related mystery in the Kingsway tram tunnel and in a deep level shelter under Tottenham Court Road which was used by Eisenhower during the Second World War. Hidden City serves as a reminder of the history that is tucked away in the real parts of the underground that are no longer used for transport.
Hidden City is available to view in BFI Mediatheques.
Sliding Doors (1998)
Director Peter Howitt
Forget God, it’s the London underground that determines destiny in Peter Howitt’s smart romantic comedy. Two different realities unfold for Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow), depending on whether or not she catches her tube (the underground scenes were shot at Waterloo and Fulham Broadway stations). In one alternate universe she returns home to discover her boyfriend’s infidelity, in the other she carries on oblivious.
Like Muriel’s Wedding (1994), Sliding Doors is misremembered as a lightweight date movie, but its themes of relationship breakdown, miscarriage and death add a pleasing counterpoint to the froth, and its nifty gimmick, reminiscent of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays, works very well.
Director Sam Mendes
“Welcome to the London rush hour,” the new head of Q Branch teases agent 007 (Daniel Craig) during a tense pursuit on the underground. “Not something you’d know much about.” It’s true that James Bond is more commonly found in high-class casinos or in exotic locales, but for this 50th anniversary entry in the spy series director Sam Mendes brought Bond home to London for much of the action.
Pursuing escaped cyber-terrorist Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) from MI6’s subterranean HQ, Bond tunnels out onto the platform at Temple tube, where his progress is thwarted by a swarming metropolitan throng. Seeing Silva board a westward-bound Circle line train, 007 goes one better than the most time-pushed commuter, leaping over the electrified tracks onto the rear of the rapidly departing carriage.