Several years before the Sexual Offences Act decriminalised homosexuality in the UK, British director Basil Dearden presented audiences with a gripping crime drama about the closeted gay community in Victim (1961). The film portrays a group of gay men – notably successful barrister Melville Far (Dirk Bogarde) – who are being blackmailed by someone willing to expose their secret.
Dearden is often overlooked in discussions of important British directors, but he had a fascinating career that’s striking for his willingness to tackle social issues from within the confines of genre fare. He first came to my attention when I saw his 1959 film Sapphire, also written by Victim scribe Janet Green, which deals with simmering racial tensions in suburban London after a murder.
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Made two years after that film, Victim offers equally provocative subject matter (which originally saw the film banned in the US), as well as what many consider to be Bogarde’s very best performance as the beleaguered barrister. Melville’s relationship with Jack Barrett (Peter McEnery) is the subject of a blackmail threat that puts him in the crosshairs of the police, while also imperilling his marriage to Laura (Sylvia Sims).
Melville and Laura live in Chiswick in west London, and when I arrived there on a scorching June morning it was striking to note just how unchanged the area appeared since the film was shot there more than half a century ago. London is a city whose architectural identity exists as a balance between new and old, between development and preservation. Chiswick, with its leafy streets, spacious period homes and listed buildings fits firmly in the latter category, remaining largely untouched.
These picturesque locations on the north bank of the Thames underlined how the class backgrounds of the film’s central lovers are worlds apart. Victim might be a movie about the exploitation of an enforced underworld, but it’s also one in which the central character is a wealthy legal professional, and the Chiswick locations perfectly reflect Melville’s social standing.
Melville’s house is on the riverfront Chiswick Mall, which boasts a hedgerow of beautiful wildflowers opposite an array of luxurious homes, including 17th-century mansions. At the end of the mall stands the recently restored St Nicholas Church, a little square church with a tower dating back to the 15th century. Here Melville walks through the sun-dappled grounds that provide the resting place of William Hogarth.
Both church and mall were more obscured by summer shrubbery when I visited than they are in the film, but they’ve endured impressively. Melville meets Laura outside his immaculate redbrick terraced townhouse. The scene is actually filmed at a spot further along the mall, where the expanse of water and the looming Hammersmith Bridge serve as a starker, moodier backdrop for confrontation than the pristine private gardens that line the river opposite the house.
The nearby Ravenscourt Park Preparatory School in Hammersmith, where Melville visits Laura at work, has received something of an upgrade. The multistorey modern buildings either side of the playground suggest a much larger cohort of students than those Laura is seen shepherding in 1961, but the original brick building with its archway door was still very recognisable.
The King’s Road, Brompton Road
Change seemed much more likely at my next couple of stops: Fulham police station on the King’s Road (at which Jack is held and Melville questioned) and a car showroom on Brompton Road (outside which Jack approaches a friend for help). Funnily enough, the old Fulham police station is now a car showroom and the car showroom is now a boutique furniture shop. Both areas are still busy and bustling, as well-heeled now as they were in the 1960s. I pictured Jack gazing in through the showroom window; I could easily see him coming here, searching for a more well-to-do pal to give him a lift out of town.
Arriving in London’s judicial heartlands at Middle Temple, I felt conspicuous among legal clerks taking their lunch. We tend to think of London crime dramas as taking place in less rarefied locales than these Inns of Court, but the setting proves a double-edged sword for Melville, where the prestige of his surroundings only emphasises all he has to lose. The setting heightens the sense of discomfort he feels when he’s accosted by Jack’s friend Eddy Stone (Donald Churchill) near the Carpmael building.
In the heat I could begin to understand the role that such formal surroundings would have played in shaping Melville’s frame of mind. More importantly, these locations help to give the audience key shorthand information about the character. Melville’s position of authority and financial comfort are immediately suggested as he walks in the shadow of Temple Church; it cuts a striking contrast to Jack, introduced working on a building site.
As I left Middle Temple, I came back to the Thames, beside which (several miles west) I’d stood that morning imagining Melville and Laura’s frank conversation. In a strange way, the river seemed suggestive of Melville’s secret, winding through London’s core, far more powerful than it might seem from the shore.
My first stop in Soho was Henry’s barbers. Mr Henry (Charles Lloyd Pack) was another blackmail victim and the premises on Earlham Street, just off Shaftesbury Avenue, are still there now, inhabited by Sainath newsagents.
This area has remained a commercial hub in the centre of London in the intervening years, and other locations visited – such as the Noël Coward Theatre on St Martin’s Lane (called the New Theatre in 1961) and the adjoining St Martin’s Court, both of which feature in the film’s finale – are still landmarks. While I was making my way between these sites I passed a sign for Agatha Christie’s long-running mystery play The Mousetrap, currently in its 65th year. I wondered whether Melville Farr would have seen it in its original run at the Ambassadors Theatre.
One location that was always going to be drastically different was the building site from which Jack flees in the film’s opening scene, rushing to phone Eddy Stone and asking him to retrieve an incriminating package. The view of Westminster Cathedral tower as seen from Palace Street in Victoria no longer exists, as sleek new glass buildings obscure the view. In an area rife with rejuvenation, not all of the buildings built on the McAlpine development site featured in the film still stand today. Buckingham Place, down which Jack runs to the phone box, remains largely unchanged – except that the phone box has since been removed.
My final trip took me the furthest afield, following Jack’s trip as he tries to make his getaway from London and approaches another friend for help outside the Regal Cinema in Uxbridge. That this building is a cinema no more provided a poignant conclusion to my search. It closed in 1977 and now houses two nightclubs and a pool hall, which was just opening its doors to waiting punters when I made my journey out there on the Metropolitan line. Above the doors, the old façade still exists, offering a reminder of the venue’s heyday. It’s a shame the newly restored Victim won’t get a chance to play there.