BFI Southbank’s London on Film season runs between July and October 2015.
Despite housing a great many film studios (Ealing, Shepherd’s Bush, Shepperton, Twickenham), west London as a location has generally proved less attractive to British filmmakers than the central and eastern equivalents. But while it might not have as many tourist spots or a complex cultural mythology, it’s nonetheless a fascinatingly diverse part of the capital, albeit one that’s more often encountered on television (I grew up in 1980s west London and would avidly watch the likes of Minder at least as much for location-spotting reasons as for its other qualities).
Notting Hill is the part of west London most frequently showcased on the big screen – in fact, you could easily compile a 10 Notting Hill films list and maintain a high quality threshold: in addition to the titles cited below there’s The Secret People (1952), The L-shaped Room (1962), It Happened Here (1964), Alfie (1966), The Italian Job (1969), Leo the Last (1970), Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), Duffer (1971), London Kills Me (1991), Match Point (2005) and of course Notting Hill (1999) itself, although the latter ran into trouble for implying that one of London’s most culturally and economically diverse areas was inhabited mainly by floppy-haired public schoolboys and dissolute Welsh interlopers.
Heading westward, there’s Holland Park, which housed Michael Crawford in The Knack …and How to Get It (1965) and Meryl Streep in Plenty (1985). Ladbroke Grove was the location of pioneering black British films Pressure (1975) and Burning an Illusion (1981) and also where Barry Jones’s blackmailing scientist in Seven Days to Noon (1950) met his end, and where The Beatles evaded their screaming pursuers in A Hard Day’s Night (1964). Various nearby locations, notably the Westway, were also featured in punk-era films such as Breaking Glass (1980), Rude Boy (1980) and Sid and Nancy (1986), while much of Aliens (1986) was shot, if admittedly not set, in the disused Acton Lane power station.
10 to try
Each of the recommendations included here is available to view in the UK.
But one of the most memorable west London references is embedded in the title of a film that isn’t actually set there: the villain of Goldfinger (1964) was christened thus thanks to Ian Fleming’s antipathy towards the architect of North Kensington’s Trellick Tower, which remains one of the area’s most distinctive buildings.
Panorama of Ealing from a Moving Tram (1901)
Director William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson
One of the oldest films of a distinctively west London location, Panorama of Ealing from a Moving Tram stands out from contemporary ‘phantom rides’ (actualities filmed by vehicle-mounted cameras to provide a spectacle for early filmgoers) thanks to it surviving in unusually high quality. Clearly recognisable landmarks include the former town hall (now a NatWest) and a branch of the long-defunct Phillips chain of music shops, although it’s the glimpses of Ealing’s long-dead Edwardian inhabitants as they go about their daily business that gives the film its haunting staying power – no mean feat for something intended to be utterly ephemeral.
Commissioned by Clifton Robinson of London United Tramways, the film is believed to have been shot on 10 July 1901. It marks a double commemoration: of Ealing’s formal incorporation as a London borough (hence the bunting, Union Jacks and general air of celebration) and of the extension of the tram system to Ealing. Concurrent filmed records include Distinguished Guests Leaving the Power House, The First Trams Leaving Shepherd’s Bush for Southall and Panorama at Ealing Showing Lord Rothschild Declaring Line Open.
The Blue Lamp (1950)
Director Basil Dearden
Warning: this section contains spoilers.
Ealing Studios might have been a west London studio, but surprisingly few of their films are recognisably set there, although Passport to Pimlico (1949) and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) are at least on the border. This crime thriller is one of the major exceptions. Revolving around Paddington Green police station, The Blue Lamp combines a fictional narrative with an almost documentary-like study of the local public services (some policemen and workers in the then-new NHS are the real deal).
But it’s the story that catapulted this film to the top of the domestic box-office charts, most notoriously the shock moment in which Jack Warner’s avuncular PC Dixon (yes, later of Dock Green) is shot dead by Dirk Bogarde’s ruthless spiv, British cinema’s equivalent of Psycho’s shower murder a full decade earlier. That crime takes place on the Harrow Road, while the subsequent chase involves a still-traceable route through Ladbroke Grove via Latimer Road to the White City stadium.
West 11 (1963)
Director Michael Winner
In the early 1960s, Michael Winner made an unexpected detour from the likes of Some Like It Cool (1961), Play It Cool and The Cool Mikado (both 1962) into bleak social realism, earning himself some of the best reviews of his career. Made just before his celebrated quartet of collaborations with Oliver Reed, West 11 (named after the postcode) is set in a world of seedy bedsits and unscrupulous landlords – Peter Rachman was active nearby at the time.
After losing his job at a posh outfitters’, Joe (Alfred Lynch) is forced to move downmarket, where he tries to maintain a sense of identity while surrounded by the similarly dispossessed. The plot slides into melodrama towards the end, when Joe accepts an offer from the sinister Dyce (Eric Portman) to work as a hitman for much-needed cash, but the film’s strengths today are its vivid evocation of a now-vanished world, beautifully captured in Otto Heller’s black-and-white cinematography.
Director Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell
Writer and co-director Donald Cammell was a key member of the fashionable 1960s London set, and a first-hand witness not only to the intersection between the music and crime scenes but also to the many similarities between the way that gangsters and rock stars conducted themselves. This formed the kernel of what became one of the most dazzlingly multifaceted British films ever made, in which small-time criminal James Fox and washed-up musician Mick Jagger hole up together and find their personalities mysteriously merging.
Unlike many British gangster films, Performance looks westward rather than eastward, possibly because Cammell himself was more familiar with Chelsea than Stepney. Its many recognisable locations include Notting Hill’s 81 Powis Square (25 in real life), where the film’s entire second half takes place, and Queen’s Gate Mews (where both a Rolls-Royce and its hapless chauffeur are left unrecognisable) and 115 Mount Street in Mayfair (the swish offices of Johnny Shannon’s gangster Harry Flowers) are also featured.
10 Rillington Place (1971)
Director Richard Fleischer
One of the most notorious west London addresses no longer exists: such was the impact of the discovery of the serial killings of John Reginald Christie (Richard Attenborough) and the revelation of the innocence of his judicially executed tenant Timothy Evans (John Hurt) that the entire street was demolished.
Given a Hollywood director and a starry cast, it’s a surprisingly drab and downbeat affair, evoking the hideousness of postwar west London and the casual exploitation of the impoverished. Then-illegal abortion is touched upon too, as an accidental pregnancy triggers the events that led to Evans’s execution. Although it’s one of his greatest screen performances, Attenborough loathed playing Christie, but agreed to do it because he felt so strongly about the film’s anti-capital punishment message. For years afterwards, the managers of the Electric Cinema in Portobello Road would sometimes be asked to let ghoulish tourists visit the tiny projection room where Christie used to work.
Burning an Illusion (1981)
Director Menelik Shabazz
Both the first two British features by black directors – the other one being Horace Ové’s Pressure (1975) – were set in Ladbroke Grove, and both offer arrestingly detailed portraits of communities previously sidelined if not ignored. Burning an Illusion is doubly valuable for focusing on the experience of a young black British woman, an even more marginalised figure in British cinema.
Cassie (Pat Williams) strives to maintain an independent existence along stereotypical British middle-class lines, but her growing relationship with Dev (Victor Romero Evans) proves both personally stormy and politically eye-opening in what it reveals about the realities of being a black person in early 1980s London. Shot on 16mm on a tiny budget, Shabazz makes the most of his locations, which include Notting Hill at Carnival time. The ‘illusion’ that’s ultimately burned is Cassie’s formerly beloved collection of Mills & Boon novels, sidelined in favour of Malcolm X.
Director Jerzy Skolimowski
The Poles form another large west London minority community, having settled in Ealing, Acton and Hammersmith since the Second World War. Their stories have generally not been told on film (at least outside Polish TV series such as The Londoners/Londynczycy), but in 1982 Jerzy Skolimowski turned a recognisable Kensington and environs into a suitably chilly and alienating backdrop for this stark tale of deception and survival – his friend and occasional collaborator Roman Polanski had done something similar in Repulsion (1965).
Nowak (Jeremy Irons) is the only member of a quartet of imported (and therefore cheap) Polish builders who speaks English, and therefore the only one who knows that Poland declared martial law in December 1981 and that their lives back home have completely changed. Desperate to keep this news from his colleagues (he can’t afford replacements) while also running out of money, he resorts to various stratagems including increasingly risky bouts of shoplifting in order to create the impression that everything’s fine.
Absolute Beginners (1986)
Director Julien Temple
The notorious Notting Hill race riots of 1958 immediately inspired Basil Dearden’s film Sapphire and Colin MacInnes’ novel Absolute Beginners (both 1959), and the latter became the source for one of the most notorious British films of the 1980s. Hyped to distraction throughout production, it ultimately bit off far more than its relatively inexperienced production team could chew, but its sheer ambition at a time when British cinema seemed on the point of collapse was weirdly heroic.
Despite being set in 1958, it’s at least as much a glossily stylised product of its time, with soundtrack contributions from Sade, the Style Council and David Bowie. But the film also catches the era’s huge shifts: teenagers and early twentysomethings were becoming a dominant economic and cultural force (albeit one shaped and corrupted by adults like Bowie and James Fox), while west London’s black community was increasingly unwilling to accept second-class citizen status, especially in the face of provocations from overt racists (represented here by Steven Berkoff).
Bend It like Beckham (2002)
Director Gurinder Chadha
Set in Hounslow, Gurinder Chadha’s breezy comedy is one of the few high-profile British west London films to stray significantly from familiarly beaten tracks, and is all the more refreshing for it – indeed, a central storyline revolving around women’s football has suddenly become highly topical in the wake of England’s third place in the recent World Cup, something that the men’s team have only bettered once, and that was in 1966.
Football-mad Jess (Parminder Nagra) dreams of turning professional, but her Punjabi Sikh background works against her: even exposing her legs while wearing shorts is considered culturally taboo. Talent-spotted by Jules (Keira Knightley), Jess is invited to join a team, which opens up both opportunities and new challenges, especially when a family wedding clashes directly with a vital match. Bend It like Beckham was much praised for Chadha’s willingness to tackle tricky cross-cultural issues (also including homosexuality and racism) head on.
Director Paul King
With both film and protagonist named after the westernmost of the great London railway termini, Paddington has already joined the ranks of the great west London films, even if its primary location of ‘Westbourne Oak’ doesn’t exist (an amalgam of Royal Oak and Westbourne Grove, its tube station is actually Maida Vale). But despite the fantastical trappings, unavoidable in a film about a talking bear from darkest Peru, it offers a decidedly more convincing impression of the area than the likes of Notting Hill: calypso bands may be a rarer sight on street corners than is implied here, but there’s a real sense of the authentic community.
The other key west London location is Kensington’s Natural History Museum, the setting of the suspense-filled climax. Now that the film is out on video, what’s the betting that its curators hold private parties dressed as Paddington’s would-be nemesis Millicent Clyde (Nicole Kidman) in order to cheer her on?