Fifteen years after it was built, the London Eye is firmly established as one of the capital’s most popular tourist draws – even if these days the capital’s residents may tend to leave it to the visitors. In order to reconnect with Londoners, and celebrate the city’s cultural past, a special event last week organised by Antique Beat and A Curious Invitation hosted literary talks on 32 great London-born luminaries, one for each of the Eye’s revolving capsules.
Plied with specially designed gin cocktails, 640 ticket holders enjoyed a ride on the wheel, taking in breathtaking nocturnal views of the capital as they listened to stories and anecdotes about great Londoners from over the centuries, from Thomas Becket and Geoffrey Chaucer to Ray Davies and Zadie Smith. Among the 32 speakers were Ken Livingstone, Claire Tomalin, Andrew Motion, Julien Temple, Robert Elms and Dan Cruickshank.
Keeping the end up for London filmmakers were master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock and silent-film genius Charlie Chaplin. BFI National Archive curators Nathalie Morris and Bryony Dixon were invited to talk about these giants’ relationships with the capital, while the vastest visual aid imaginable spread into focus all around the viewing cars: the city itself.
Bryony Dixon on Charlie Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin is of course London’s most famous rags to riches story – rising from the depths of Dickensian poverty in Lambeth to the heights of mega-stardom in Hollywood. Chaplin starts his famous autobiography talking about the development of his area of south London after the building of Westminster Bridge (before that the only way across the Thames was London Bridge), with huge villas being built along the arterial roads to the south and the coast which by Victorian times had become dilapidated overcrowded tenements.
As our capsule reached its peak, we talked about Chaplin’s rise to stardom on the stages of the great London music halls – from the Eye, you can just see the top of the Hippodrome which was new when Chaplin performed there as a child. Chaplin’s ambitions for the first half of his life were centred on quite a close area that we could see from our pod – from Kennington to the West End. He might have spent his whole life in that little circle if he hadn’t taken that job with Mack Sennett in the small LA town that would become Hollywood.
Nathalie Morris on Alfred Hitchcock
It was hugely appropriate to be on the London Eye, now one of the city’s defining landmarks, to talk about Alfred Hitchcock, a filmmaker who loved to use memorable and recognisable settings in his films. County Hall was the perfect setting off point as a strangled corpse is pulled from the Thames, just by where the London Eye is now, at the opening of his penultimate film, Frenzy (1972). Hitchcock’s famous cameo also occurs during this scene as a politician talks about efforts to clean up the river to a crowd of assembled listeners. As we went round the Eye we also took in Scotland Yard, easy to spot across the river by Westminster Bridge. Hitchcock was fascinated by crime and policing, and by police procedure (as seen at the beginning of Blackmail, 1929) and Scotland Yard frequently features in his films. Hitch was also a visitor to Scotland Yard’s ‘Black Museum’, an exhibit of crime artefacts, used to aid police training.
At the apex of the Eye we talked about death by falling from a great height. There are many ways to die in Hitchcock’s films. Knives are popular (think Janet Leigh in Psycho, and the stabbing in Blackmail) and strangulation, drowning, and being beaten to death by a poker also feature. But Psycho’s shower scene aside, perhaps the most memorable, and cinematic Hitchcockian deaths occur from falls. From the top of the Eye you can see the setting of two of these: the British Museum, where the blackmailer (Donald Calthrop) is chased to his death in Blackmail, and Westminster Cathedral, where a bodyguard-turned-assassin plummets to his death while trying to kill his charge, the film’s titular Foreign Correspondent (1940), played by Joel McCrea.