How London has changed since Mike Leigh’s Naked

Mike Leigh’s 1993 classic Naked plays fast and loose with London’s cityscape. But then so have the intervening years…

Oliver Lunn

Naked (1993)

Naked (1993)

The London that Mike Leigh frames in Naked – his ferocious 1993 drama – doesn’t exist. It never did. Any Londoner will spot that, geographically, it just doesn’t make sense. You watch David Thewlis’s hapless loner Johnny drift into west London, then a cut hurls him into east London; then Soho, then Southwark. Oh, and by the way, he’s on foot. That’s a lot of walking for a guy fuelled solely by cigarettes.

But these are trivial gripes. This isn’t about pointing out factual inaccuracies, like supercilious pedants in below-the-line comment sections invariably do. Leigh knew what he was doing, just as Michelangelo Antonioni did when he turned Chelsea into Charlton in 1966’s Blowup. This is a fictional London that Leigh sculpted, where cinematic portals lead from north London to south London in the blink of an eye.

Naked, which bagged best director and best actor gongs at Cannes that year, was shot on location and broke all the rules when splicing locations together. The London it serves up may seem like a cubist painting – fragmented, shot from different angles – but viewed now the individual locations are a window into the London of 1993. Here’s how those locations have changed since then.

The Westway

Then…

Naked (1993)

Naked (1993)

Now…

Westway, London: Google Maps, June 2016

Westway, London: Google Maps, June 2016

Johnny arrives in London via the Westway, the Ballardian flyover that featured in Chris Petit’s 1979 cult classic Radio On. He’s driving westbound, the BT Tower trailing in his wake. Which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense geographically, because in the next scene he’s way over in Hackney, on the other side of the city. But anyway, the road itself hasn’t changed much in the 23 years since Leigh planted his camera there; the concrete has been scrubbed up a little and the cars that zoom down the lanes aren’t box-shaped like a kid’s drawing. 

Louise’s house in Hackney, E8

Then…

Naked (1993)

Naked (1993)

Now…

St Mark’s Rise, London: Google Maps, April 2015

St Mark’s Rise, London: Google Maps, April 2015

Leigh’s camera then takes a giant leap across London and we land in Hackney, at Johnny’s ex-girlfriend’s house, where he crashes for the night. It’s just around the corner from Dalston Kingsland station, sandwiched by two roads and isolated on the corner, appearing now like a monument to the film. If you look at the Google Street View image and squint it looks like Johnny’s still there on the doorstep. A black bin bag sits somberly outside like Johnny’s ghost, forever waiting for Louise to let him in. Curiously, there’s no blue plaque lionising Johnny – or Mike Leigh, for that matter.

Brewer Street, Soho

Now…

Naked (1993)

Naked (1993)

Then…

Brewer Street, London’s Soho: Google Maps, May 2015

Brewer Street, London’s Soho: Google Maps, May 2015

From Hackney, Johnny traipses on foot all the way into Soho. An impressive feat considering he’s heaving a bag load of books and can’t afford a meal. There in Soho, on Brewer Street, he plumps himself down on the doorstep of Lina Stores, a family-run Italian deli. He lights a smoke and gets chatting to a shady Scottish guy who screams in his face for no apparent reason. Today Lina Stores is alive and well, its tiles the same shade of green. But you get the sense the grit and grime has been stripped somewhat from the surrounding area. Less tawdry video stores, more designer clothes shops.

Ariel House, Charlotte Street

Then…

Naked (1993)

Naked (1993)

Now…

Security building on Charlotte St, London: Google Maps, July 2015

Security building on Charlotte St, London: Google Maps, July 2015

From one doorway to another. This is where Johnny is invited in from the cold by a lonely security guard who’s keen to “reveal the mysteries of my trade”. The place, described by Johnny as a “postmodernist gas chamber”, is Ariel House in Fitzrovia. Located in the heart of the media industry, and just down the road from the swanky Charlotte Street Hotel, it’s surrounded by glistening glass buildings and endless ‘OFFICES TO LET’ signs. You suspect if a guy like Johnny sat down in the doorway today, the guard wouldn’t be as hospitable.

Stoney Street, Southwark

Then…

Naked (1993)

Naked (1993)

Now…

Stoney Street: Google Maps, May 2015

Stoney Street: Google Maps, May 2015

When Johnny goes for breakfast with the security guard, the pair end up in Southwark. It’s supposed to be within spitting distance of the office building on Charlotte Street, but any Londoner will know it’s on the other side of the river; at least a 30-minute Uber ride from Fitzrovia. In the film the street looks quite sketchy, like somewhere you might get mugged after dark, but visiting it today you can see a fresh pile of bricks has been stacked up; there’s a Monmouth coffee shop, a slew of sushi restaurants, and of course, the buzzing Borough Market. Alas, the greasy spoon café in the film is no more.

Caledonian Road, N1

Then…

Naked (1993)

Naked (1993)

Now…

Caledonian Rd, London: Google Maps, April 2015

Caledonian Rd, London: Google Maps, April 2015

Towards the end of the film, Johnny drifts northwards to Caledonian Road. It’s late at night and he’s following a guy who’s plastering gig posters to the walls. The guy soon gets sick of Johnny’s morbid musings on life and thumps him, taking off in his van with Johnny’s bag. Defeated and disenchanted, with nowhere to go, Johnny collapses at the corner of Twyford Street. The building behind him is the still-standing Cally Pool & Gym, north-east of King’s Cross Station. In the sober light of 2016 you can see it hasn’t changed much, but the houses to the right have been cleaned up and BMWs now line the street. Hardly an ideal location for a Mike Leigh social realist drama.

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