In spite of the glamorous arrival of Ian Fleming’s James Bond on screen, espionage of the postwar years was often a decidedly shabby affair. In novels by John le Carré and Frederick Forsyth, and television series like Callan (1967 to 1972) and The Sandbaggers (1978 to 1980), the lives of spies were far from the glitz that epitomised 007’s escapades. On the big screen, nothing captured this peeling-paint-and-mildew atmosphere better than the 1965 adaptation of Len Deighton’s novel, The Ipcress File.
The film follows Michael Caine’s shabby chic agent Harry Palmer in search of Radcliffe (Aubrey Richards), a missing government scientist. After being moved between departments and batted about between bosses Ross (Guy Doleman) and Dalby (Nigel Green), a conspiracy is clearly afoot – all seemingly linked by a word on a partly burned tape spool: ‘IPCRESS’. In his search for the truth, Palmer will lose his colleagues and his liberty as he gets closer to a traitor in the midst of the British service.
Get the latest from the BFI
Sign up for BFI news, features, videos and podcasts.
With an early career high for Caine and a jangly score by Bond composer John Barry, The Ipcress File is one of the great espionage films of the age. And unlike Bond’s globetrotting adventures, its drama is focused intensely on London, which director Sidney J. Furie mines for mood and paranoid atmosphere. Here are what five locations from the film look like more than 50 years on.
Surveillance in St John’s Wood
After Palmer has finished up his morning routine, he heads out of his flat to the building where he has a surveillance job ongoing. In the early morning light, we see Palmer walking down Hamilton Terrace in St John’s Wood. Today the road is one of the wealthiest and celebrity-favoured in London and far from the quiet, decrepit street seen in the film.
The house where the surveillance is taking place is number 139. The original house has long since been demolished and has been replaced with an even bigger, more lavish property.
Back to HQ
After getting a call from HQ to discuss a transfer, Palmer takes a taxi there and walks inside. The first shot is taken on The Mall, with the Admiralty Arch seen in the background. Although it’s recently undergone some restoration work, the general architecture is little changed.
Palmer enters the MoD headquarters via a door leading inside Admiralty House from Admiralty Place. The stonework of the area has been cleaned in the years since filming but is again little changed. The building is now used for the Department for International Trade.
Tailing in Kensington
Once out on his new job, Palmer quickly makes progress thanks to his contacts in the police. He finds the car of ‘Bluejay’ (Frank Gatliff) and ‘Housemartin’ (Oliver MacGreevy) due to an array of parking tickets. He stakes it out, waiting for Housemartin to come and pay the parking meter. The shot is taken outside the Royal Albert Hall, with the car parked next to Prince Consort Statue. Today, the whole area has been pedestrianised, but the surrounding buildings are the same.
With Housemartin spotted, Palmer begins to tail him. He follows him down the steps by the statue.
Palmer watches as Housemartin enter what is now an Imperial College London building housing the Royal School of Mines. The standing statues by Paul Raphael Montford have since been cleaned, but the location is mostly the same.
Palmer’s flat in Shepherd’s Bush
Later in the film, Palmer heads home for a well-deserved rest. Although some of the film’s most famous segments take place in Palmer’s flat, including its stylish title sequence, we see very little of the building’s exterior. The house in question is in Shepherd’s Bush at the junction of Stanlake Road and Stanlake Villas. It’s less shabby now than when seen in the film, but the building is basically as it was.
Escape in the Docklands
After escaping his captors, a disorientated Palmer is surprised to find that he hasn’t in fact been taken somewhere beyond the Iron Curtain but is in London’s docklands. The location is St Katharine Docks, far before the area was redeveloped as one of the first luxury housing areas of the post-industrial capital. The first shot we see looks towards the gate that leads to East Smithfield. The brick buildings have all been destroyed, but the general imprint of the shot remains, as do the cobbles.
Palmer climbs over the gate and on to East Smithfield where he finds a phone box. The buildings all around him have been replaced now, but the distinctive pillars of the gate and its wall remain.
The Ipcress File series digs deep into the backstory of Harry Palmer
By Jonathan Romney
10 great TV spy series
By David Parkinson
10 great spy films
By Matthew Thrift
Michael Caine: 10 essential films
By David Parkinson
Moviegraphic: The Ipcress FileMoviegraphic: The Ipcress File