One of the key British films of the 1950s, Pool of London was far out ahead of the crowd in tackling racial issues on screen. This classic dockside noir was directed by Basil Dearden. During the 1940s, he’d made some of Ealing Studios’ darkest and most innovative features, including sections of the classic anthology horror Dead of Night (1945). Pool of London indicated his later turn towards more political subjects, whether disenfranchised working-class youth in Violent Playground (1958), homosexuality in Victim (1961) or racism in Sapphire (1959).
Pool of London follows two sailors, Johnny (Earl Cameron) and Dan (Bonar Colleano), on a weekend’s shore leave in London. Dan is involved in petty smuggling and is fooled into carrying some hot jewellery, stolen in a heist in which someone was murdered. Johnny meets Pat (Susan Shaw), quite by chance, and falls in love. He spends the weekend exploring the sites of the city with her. Unaware of its origin, Dan passes the jewellery to Johnny, but with the police on the hunt for the goods, Dan must decide whether to let Johnny take the rap, knowing he’ll go down harder because of his race, or whether to step up and give himself in.
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A film about friendship and love in the face of prejudice, Pool of London was among the first films made in Britain to feature an interracial romance. It’s a taut drama that also provides stunning documentation of London as a functioning port. Seventy years after it was shot, here are five locations from the film, then and now.
Pool of London takes its name from the area along the Thames between Tower Bridge and Limehouse, and Dearden’s film features extensive footage around the location. It’s a detailed time capsule of the time when the area was a bustling network of docks. Tower Bridge itself features prominently. We see it early on when Dan is heading to a shipping company’s office, and then later many times when Johnny is walking with Pat.
There’s something odd about the building where Dan visits the shipping company in that, looking at aerial views taken during the same era, it doesn’t appear to be there. Instead, these views show another of the wharf’s dock buildings with no such lavish entrance. It’s clear that a mock-up was attached to the dock building next door, though that building has also since vanished.
Evocative warehouses feature throughout the film. We see Shad Thames several times. When Johnny is feeling lost and walking back later in the film, we look down the street where it curves away from the river. Earlier in the film we see daytime shots of another character wandering to meet his date there. This is the same street but this time seen from the marking for St George’s Wharf, which can still be seen today. The whole area was notably one of the first redeveloped for luxury spaces, as foreshadowed in a later dockland crime film, John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday (1980).
The film’s heist sequence takes place in the City. We see the area in various states of disrepair, still battered from the years of the war. Firstly, a pickup is seen outside St Paul’s Cathedral. Today the area is extensively changed, though the cathedral and surrounding buildings still retain their beauty.
The building where the robbery occurs is in the heart of the City. The tall, lavish gates are The Argyll Club at 41 Lothbury. Although the road has been cleaned up in line with the wealth of the area, the building is mostly as it was, but is now used for expensive office space.
After the robbery, Charlie Vernon (Max Adrian) escapes using his skills as an acrobat. Jumping an array of dangerously high rooftops, he eventually makes his way down to street level, which is bombed out and empty. In the shot, the spire of St Nicholas Cole Abbey can be seen, having survived the Blitz, marking the location roughly where Distaff Lane is today. The church was originally rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London and then again by Arthur Bailey in the early 1960s. Today, aside from the church, the area is unrecognisable, given over to mass office developments.
The area around London Bridge features heavily. Throughout the film we see various shots of Tooley Street, still with its fully functioning tram service. Today, the street is unrecognisable. London Bridge station has been transformed, a number of the older buildings in the shot have been replaced by high-end office spaces, and the tram system has gone.
Later in the film, we see Pat wandering to a garage. Although the cut suggests this is near the theatre where she works, the road is in fact Borough High Street, with the spire of St George the Martyr seen in the background. Frustratingly, the distinctive pub seen in the back of the shot was demolished only recently in 2016, replaced by the Nexus building of luxury flats. Even with the Shard menacing the skyline, older images from Google Streetview show it more accurately than a modern visit now can.
When Dan is on the run after the goods become linked to the heist, he tries to find a way back to his ship to warn Johnny. On his way, he passes through Borough Market. The shot in question shows a location that is almost (but not quite) intact, where The Globe pub stands on Bedale Street.
The Queen’s Theatre, Poplar
Perhaps the most changed of all of the film’s locations is Poplar, the district further east along the river. Dearden’s only real detour out of the City and Pool of London areas, Poplar is home to the theatre where Pat works and first meets Johnny.
The theatre in question was The Queen’s Theatre, which once sat at number 275 on the busy and low-key Poplar High Street. The theatre was built in the mid-1800s and was a popular institution for the locals of the Isle of Dogs. The area has since been extensively redeveloped. The original high street and its wonderful low-rise buildings were demolished in 1964, eventually making way for Robin Hood Gardens in 1972. Since then, the side of the estate that was built on top of roughly where the theatre stood has itself been demolished. Luxury flats are now destined for the site.
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