How London has changed in the 30 years since Prick Up Your Ears

Starring Gary Oldman as tragic playwright Joe Orton, Stephen Frears’ 1987 gem Prick Up Your Ears remembers London’s hidden homosexual underground of the 1960s. What are the film’s locations like today?

Oliver Lunn

Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

Based on the life of British playwright Joe Orton, who was bludgeoned to death with a hammer by his boyfriend, British actor and writer Kenneth Halliwell, Stephen Frears’ 1987 drama Prick Up Your Ears flashes back to 1960s London. It zooms in on Orton and Halliwell’s insular relationship, their explosive rows and London’s hidden homosexual underworld, where men enter public toilets at night and unscrew light bulbs, slowly and ritualistically, in preparation for clandestine orgies.

Orton (Gary Oldman) and Halliwell (Alfred Molina) live in a ramshackle flat in Islington, north London, its walls adorned with Halliwell’s elaborate collages. You see their flat and its surrounding streets in the film. You also see parts of Soho, Russell Square and Bermondsey. But those locations – shot 30 years ago, though set 50 years ago – don’t exactly look the same today…

The flat on Noel Road

Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

Prick Up Your Ears (1987) location shot

The flat where Orton lived and died, described in the film as a cupboard, was 25 Noel Road, Islington. But it’s not the flat you see on screen. That’s on St Peter’s Street, just two roads from Noel Road. It’s not clear why they didn’t use the actual street, but St Peter’s Street, being almost identical, is a decent stand-in. You can visit the real Noel Road today and see the green plaque paying tribute to Orton. Both streets are markedly cleaner now, that sky-high Islington council tax working its magic. Other than that, the only discernable difference is the number of Foxtons signs that line the street. Presumably they don’t mention the Orton murder when selling the Noel Road flat.

Orton’s first success at The New Arts Theatre

Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

Prick Up Your Ears (1987) location shot

Prick Up Your Ears (1987) location shot

The fictional New Arts Theatre is where Orton enjoys his first major success. His play, LOOT, is promoted via a bright red neon sign above the entrance, an unattributed quote reading, “OUTRAGEOUSLY FUNNY”. The theatre is actually the Ambassadors Theatre in the West End, just off Cambridge Circus, in the heart of London’s Theatreland. Visiting it today in Google Street View, you’ll see a giant poster draped over the building, selling the “IRRESISTIBLE” Stomp.

Walking to the theatre

Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

Prick Up Your Ears (1987) location shot

Here’s the same theatre viewed from the side, as Orton and Halliwell roll up to the premiere. You can see the same red brickwork and street level windows, while opposite the theatre, just out of frame, lies London’s premier swanky restaurant, The Ivy, established in 1917. All the surrounding theatres – for example St Martin’s Theatre, right next door – still stand, amid new Starbucks and artisanal coffee shops.

Meeting as students at RADA

Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

Prick Up Your Ears (1987) location shot

When, in flashback, you see Orton and Halliwell meet as students at the RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art), the building you’re actually seeing is the Central School for Speech and Drama. It’s in Swiss Cottage, nearly four miles away from the real RADA in Bloomsbury. However, there are no exterior shots of the building, meaning only astute RADA students would put two and two together.

Attending the Festival of Britain fireworks

Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

Prick Up Your Ears (1987) location shot

Later, Orton and Halliwell attend the Festival of Britain fireworks. They stroll along the south bank, near to where the Royal Festival Hall and BFI Southbank stand today. The view we see is of the Thames and the authoritative buildings along Victoria Embankment on the north side of the river. The south bank is still lined with old-fashioned lamps, but the riverside walk is a far bigger tourist magnet, littered with buffalo burger popups, kid-friendly sandpits and a skatepark awash with eye-popping graffiti.

Outside Orton and Halliwell’s flat, looking towards Essex Road

Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

Prick Up Your Ears (1987) location shot

When Orton leaves his flat – apparently with Paul McCartney, though we never see him – we get a glimpse of Essex Road in Islington. Through the rain you can make out a pub at the end of their street. That’s no longer there. What is there, almost straight ahead, is Waterstones (Islington Green just to the left, The Diner to the right) and a block of luxury flats. While it’s described as a shabby area in the film, the same could most definitely not be said of Islington today. To buy a flat in that same area today you’d need upwards of £1m.

Observing strangers in Russell Square

Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

Prick Up Your Ears (1987) location shot

One location that hasn’t changed too much is Russell Square, in Bloomsbury. It’s here where Orton encourages Halliwell to take risks by showing him how it’s done. He tells a stranger he has a nice bum. Then he convinces Halliwell to follow a random guy, which leads to an erotic encounter. It’s hard to work out where exactly Frears placed his camera in the square, mainly because the flowerbeds seemed to have changed, but it’s not likely this place will change much in another 30 years.

Cottaging in Bermondsey

Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

Prick Up Your Ears (1987) location shot

In one of the most memorable scenes, Orton goes “cottaging” at a public lavatory in Bermondsey. The men’s loo is located under a traffic island in Bermondsey Square, at the junction of Tower Bridge Road. Before the orgy, Orton goes for a pee in silence, men all around him shooting not-so-subtle glances at each other. Then, wordlessly, he gets a leg-up from a stranger and unscrews a lightbulb. Cue orgy. The location doesn’t really have the same illicit underworld vibe today, especially not in the cold digital light of Google Street View. The since spruced-up lavatory is now, in fact, the Bermondsey Arts Club. Yes, where you could once have a clandestine sexual encounter in a gloriously sleazy public lav, you can now order a £25 bottle of wine (their cheapest, FYI).

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