Blowup: in search of the swinging London locations

Visiting swinging London to make Blowup in 1966, Michelangelo Antonioni played fast and loose with geography to make the definitive existential thriller of its time. Filmmaker Adam Scovell took a walk of the capital 50 years later to try to piece Antonioni’s city back together.

Adam Scovell
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Blowup (1966)

Blowup (1966)

On the hottest day of the year I decided to reassemble London. This was the London cut-up and edited in the most William Burroughs of ways by Michelangelo Antonioni in his 1966 film Blowup, which first came out in cinemas half a century ago. Antonioni’s film defines a very particular period in British cinema and, in its presentation of London, creates a fictional realm detailing the modern day and its eccentricities.

The choice of locations that the director uses to portray his swinging London provides some of the most visited of British film locations, and the sheer volume of different roads, buildings and areas used to create the London collage suggests a lot about Antonioni’s own method of filmmaking, augmenting real locations until they suited his own needs. Colours, buildings and even trees are edited until they match the reality within.

The film follows a fashion photographer, Thomas (David Hemmings), as his fast lifestyle takes him out of his hip Notting Hill studio and all around London; an attempt to soak up his own dissatisfaction with an undisclosed emptiness. In taking photographs of a couple in a park, he finds himself at the centre of a mystery as something unnerves him about the pictures, not least because the woman in them, Jane (Vanessa Redgrave), is so adamant about having the negatives. On piecing together and examining the photos, Thomas realises that he has captured the moment of a murder. His world begins to crumble as he finds the body and questions the very reality of his dream life as a photographer: is his life for real or simply a mime?

Blowup (1966)

I decided to split the locations, using the Thames as a marker, and see how many could be visited in a day, even though the river is conspicuous by its absence in the film. Staying in Stockwell in south London at the time, I decided to begin there with the first location being only a few minutes from where I was staying.

Though only glimpsed on one of Thomas’s many drives during the film, Stockwell Road presents one of Antonioni’s most interesting uses of colour. Apart from the fact that he smoothly cuts from here to many miles east in Charlton without much notice, it is the red of the buildings on this road that confirm the director’s sharp eye for colour. Unusually, this road did not need Antonioni’s usual extreme methods of colouring the landscape (he famously went so far as to paint the trees in his previous and first film in colour, 1964’s Red Desert). Stockwell Road was famous for the huge Pride and Clarke motorbike shop, which is seen in the film. A long row of buildings with its many walls painted a bright red, it’s almost as if they had pre-empted the director’s pigment needs – even later appearing on the cover of Sammy Hagar’s second album known as “The Red Album”.

Today, the shop has gone and the buildings have been painted white, but, with a keen eye, its crumbling paintwork still reveals the red underneath that was there when Thomas drove idly by.

Blowup (1966) location shot

Blowup (1966)

The day was sweltering so I moved on and meandered towards Peckham Rye for a brief explore of the industrial elements that open the film. Though intercut with more typical central London segments, as a group of mimes cause havoc to the zone 1 establishment, Thomas is first seen having infiltrated a workhouse to take photos. He is seen leaving the area, briefly talking to some of the fellow workers before sneaking off down the road to his Rolls Royce Silver Cloud.

Diving behind Peckham’s bustling market and main street, the remains of where the outer sections’ shots here can clearly be seen on Copeland Road, with the bridge leading to Consort Road. The bridge is exactly as it was when Hemmings stood under its brickwork, oozing his effortless cool next to the road’s sign. The outer road has undergone some change and is now a yard used to store trucks. I managed to snap a man ghosting Thomas’s footsteps down the road, albeit heading towards his Ford Focus rather than a Rolls Royce.

Blowup (1966) location shot

Blowup (1966)

Blowup (1966) location shot

Blowup (1966)

With the heat being as it was, I decided to make my way straight to the film’s most famous and important location, Maryon Park in Charlton. It was some distance away and required a number of changes of train before I eventually arrived at Charlton Station, feeling in the middle of nowhere.

Antonioni’s genius is in making such out-of-town locations seem naturally part of the swinging central area, creating an illusion that literally folds the city in upon itself. Walking along Woolwich Road, largely dominated now by a retail park, it was difficult to decide how much of the area Antonioni had edited. Did he create such beauty through entirely false means or had the area genuinely declined in such a dramatic way?

Before heading to the park, I followed this road down to reconnect with the images caught on Stockwell Road. In a brief cut, Antonioni jumps the many miles between the two locations to show, rather ominously, the building of a brutalist estate. The estate is still there but an off-licence now stands where the blue painted building was. There’s a sense of an aesthetic reduction of London on Antonioni’s part, as if he was implementing the ideas of the architectural writer Ian Nairn, who despised the huge arrays of unnecessary signs and road markings. The roads have since been filled with such warnings and visual clutter.

Blowup (1966) location shot

Blowup (1966)

Blowup (1966) location shot

Blowup (1966)

I wandered back upon myself towards the park, turning off this main road and into Cleveley Close where so much of the film takes place. This is where the antiques shop sat, along with various Victorian houses and an undisturbed entrance to Maryon Park. All of these buildings have been been demolished, replaced by poorly designed newbuilds. The road has been compacted in, meaning that the wide entrance to the park has been squashed on the roadside and marked with a violent yellow zigzag, accompanied by various grace notes of rubbish and what looked to be debris from a car mechanic strewn over the tarmac.

Rather than being greeted with a giant wooden propeller, I was instead welcomed by an old mattress, left on its side like a discarded Tracey Emin. The changes were stark, not simply from Antonioni’s obvious brushing up of the place but architecturally too. The whole area felt scarred and worlds away from the ambient emptiness that Thomas began snapping with his 35mm.

Blowup (1966) location shot

Blowup (1966)

Blowup (1966) location shot

Blowup (1966)

Blowup (1966) location shot

Blowup (1966)

Meandering into the park, and grateful for the shade provided by its many trees, I experienced what felt like a temporal shift back to 1966. In contrast to its border, Maryon Park is little changed since Hemmings and Redgrave visited. I first wandered over to the tennis court and pasture where the film ends. Two men were using the court as a place to warm up, jogging and doing press-ups – far more real and tiring than the mime tennis that Antonioni placed here. Though the courts are now bisected from the field by a hedge, the essence of the park is essentially retained.

Blowup (1966) location shot

Blowup (1966)

Blowup location shot

Blowup (1966)

Blowup (1966) location shot

Blowup (1966)

Blowup (1966) location shot

Blowup (1966)

Next, I found the steps leading up to the second tier of the park and hopped and skipped up them in the spirit of Thomas. I was greeted at the top by a squirrel rather than Vanessa Redgrave sadly (“This is a public place! Everyone has the right to be left in peace…”). 

The main vista where the many photos and the murder occurs feels slightly more raggedy due to the overgrown bushes. Gone are the fences – or perhaps these were put there by Antonioni anyway. Rubbish was strewn across the field, the objects morphing in my inadequate 35mm box camera into potential bodies hidden in the edges.

Blowup (1966) location shot

Blowup (1966)

Blowup (1966) location shot

Blowup (1966)

Blowup (1966) location shot

Blowup (1966) location shot

Blowup (1966)

With time slipping away and the tubes becoming unmanageably hot, I opted to leave Charlton and head over the river to find some of the film’s more central and typical locations. After several scrunches on the Northern and Central lines, I found myself at Marble Arch station opposite Hyde Park. I wanted to find the perspective for another shot of Thomas driving, one that mixes the park with a particular high-rise tower, at the time of filming still being built. It had always rendered me curious as to where it was. A quick wander into the park revealed the exact road, creating the shot with a handful of modern cars and a bicycle lane. This brief detour allowed for the Bayswater Road to be followed all the way to Notting Hill, where another of Thomas’s car journey views is on Kensington Church Street. It is the black-tiled building that’s now largely a carpet shop and barbers.

Blowup (1966) location shot

Blowup (1966)

Blowup (1966) location shot

Blowup (1966)

The stretch eventually led to the heart of Notting Hill, near Holland Park tube station. Near here is where Thomas’s photo studio was, so it was worth spending some time exploring. Turning off Holland Park Avenue, a small side-street called Pottery Lane can be found on the left. It is an immensely affluent place and the perfect spot for a hip fashion studio.

The very end of Pottery Lane is where the outside of the studio was situated – sans phone box, which was put there by Antonioni. The walls are the same brick, the colours roughly the same hues of pastels, blacks and whites, and the general ethos is entirely as it was. I tried to recreate as many of the angles from the film as possible, sometimes using the private buildings, sometimes using the St Francis of Assisi Catholic church, which is the building seen opposite Thomas’s studio.

The pub on the corner, seen when Thomas leaves Jane Birkin and Gillian Hills hanging after a barb about the latter’s “diabolical” handbag, is now private, and the road has been blocked with bollards and partly pedestrianised. The Rolls was now replaced with a white van, and the road rumbled with traffic, in contrast to its emptiness in the film.

Blowup (1966) location shot

Blowup (1966)

Blowup (1966) location shot

Blowup (1966)

In severe need of a drink, I hopped again onto the underground and eventually made my way to Sloane Square. Here I wandered down the King’s Road and off onto Blacklands Terrace where the restaurant resides in which Thomas has a meeting with his agent, Ron (Peter Bowles). This is one of the few times where Antonioni genuinely uses areas associated with the real swinging London in his own portrayal. Up until very recently, this was still a functioning restaurant named The Five Fields, but it has since closed. The beautiful redbrick buildings around reflected and retained the warmth of the sun’s rays, and a man watched with intrigue as I stood in the road trying to photograph the restaurant and recreate the various angles that Antonioni shot around there without getting run over.

Capturing the times in a perfect moment, Antonioni films two incredibly 1960s-looking fashionistas walking past a parked mini on the road opposite, Culford Gardens. It’s an unconscious but perfect summation of the era and its King’s Road atmosphere: of swinging dandyism, miniskirt mania and double-breasted foppishness. It was the sort of world that Thomas wanted to escape from, how he wished he had “tons of money”, decrying “then I’d be free”.

Blowup (1966) location shot

Blowup (1966)

Blowup (1966) location shot

Blowup (1966)

The day was growing long and so I decided on one last push to one of the earliest locations seen in the film. A long walk through Belgravia eventually lead to Green Park. I had initially wanted to find the club in the film where The Yardbirds encounter sound problems – Jeff Beck smashing his guitar in anger, all frown and brow – but thought better of it. This club was on Heddon Street, in between Mayfair and Carnaby Street, but, with Bowie’s death still recent, I left this road to him, it being most famous for its appearance on the cover of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Instead, I kept on along Green Park, almost through Piccadilly until turning off the main road to find the Economist Building. This is where the mimes initially drove their jeep up the steps and around, causing havoc on a strangely quiet day in central London. The building, designed by brutalist architects Alison and Peter Smithson, hasn’t changed and was equally as absent of people on the day as it was in the film. I found one lone office worker, who eyed me with amusement as I snapped away at this strangely photogenic building; perhaps Antonioni chose it because of its obvious concrete exotica?

Blowup (1966) location shot

Blowup (1966)

Blowup (1966) location shot

Blowup (1966)
 

Here, I ended my walk. The sweat was pouring so I dived quickly into Soho and a regular basement hideout to catch my breath, dose up on caffeine and consider the city realigned from Antonioni’s vision. Facing the reality of the journeys between the locations in the film, it becomes instantly clear how brilliant the director’s sense of connection and geographical rhythm is, making areas in entirely different parts of the city click with ease. In many ways, Antonioni’s mapping of London feels more natural than the modern reality because the spaces captured at this point still retained the potential to be lived in; his London may be a fiction but one that also holds a very powerful communal truth.

These places are rendered in the film with an otherness, as if the director has himself captured the murder of something, zooming in, magnifying glass in hand, trying to find the body. I questioned what I had seen in these places in relation to what Antonioni saw as he rolled his own 35mm camera, fastening Stockwell onto Charlton, Notting Hill onto Belgravia, zone 4 onto zone 1.

Blowup (1966) location shot

Blowup (1966)

Was it the sense of community in the central area of the city, when it was still possible to afford to live there? “What did you see in the park?” asks Ron. “Nothing” replies Thomas solemnly.  Something has been killed: I want you to see the corpse.

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