10 great films set in Soho

Sin, sleaze and swing hold sway in these evocative movies set in and around Soho.

28 April 2016

By Neil Mitchell

Beat Girl (1960)

Although modern-day Soho has succumbed to a wave of gentrification that has stripped its (in)famous streets of much of its character, London’s entertainment district will forever be synonymous with the seamier side of life in the capital. Once dominated by the sex industry and a hub for London’s underworld figures, Soho has provided filmmakers with a geographical and mental landscape rich in atmosphere and reputation, perfectly suited for tales of teen angst, violent crime, sexual exploitation and, occasionally, creative freedom and unadulterated pleasure. A Rabelaisian playground in the heart of the city, the Soho committed to celluloid has alternately been reflective, exaggerated, celebratory and condemnatory. One such film to have used Soho’s sights, sounds and reputation in foreboding, sensationalist terms is Edmond T. Gréville’s Beat Girl (1959).

A coming-of-age tale of adolescent rebellion and its consequences that plays out in Soho’s coffee shops, strip joints and jazz clubs, Beat Girl pitted beatniks against ‘squares’ in a prime example of a British ‘juvenile delinquent’ B-movie. Often cheesy (especially the imported American slang on display) but never less than entertaining, Beat Girl’s cast included pouty 15-year-old starlet Gillian Hills as the titular, wayward teen Jennifer, David Farrar as her father, a young Adam Faith and Oliver Reed as two hip-swinging cool cats and Christopher Lee as Kenny King, a sleazy, Machiavellian strip-club manager. As well as its eye-catching cast, Beat Girl is notable for containing the first commissioned work for film of the late, great John Barry. Barry’s theme tune is an absolute corker too, an edgy, upbeat guitar- and sax-driven number that sets the tone for the racy tale that follows. Its thrills are sure to send you over and out, daddio!

To celebrate our release of Beat Girl on Blu-ray and DVD, as part of the Flipside series, here are 10 more features that have captured some of the spirit of Soho on film.

Piccadilly (1929)

Director: E.A. Dupont

Piccadilly (1929)

One of British silent cinema’s high points, German filmmaker E.A. Dupont’s Piccadilly is an innovative and stylish tale directed and performed with confidence and passion. Dupont had written and directed Moulin Rouge for British International Pictures the previous year, but now turned to a script by novelist and screenwriter Arnold Bennett about desire and murder set in the eponymous Soho nightclub, which the film brings to life in opulent, expressionistic fashion.

Cosmopolitan, modernist and designed to appeal to an international audience, Piccadilly was dominated by the performance of Chinese-American actor Anna May Wong. As Shosho, a scullery maid turned dancing star, Wong is compelling as she flits between icy ambition, seductiveness and youthful vulnerability. Gilda Gray and Jameson Thomas provide solid support as former star turn Mabel and impresario Valentine Wilmot respectively, the latter’s growing and reciprocated fondness for Shosho causing jealousy and despair in Mabel and Shosho’s erstwhile beau, Jim (King Hou Chang). In Piccadilly, Soho is a hothouse of emotions, the strength of which destroys lives.

Murder at the Windmill (1949)

Director: Val Guest

Murder at the Windmill (1949)

Though calling Murder at the Windmill a great film would be pushing things, it is nonetheless of much worth, capturing as it does the comedy sketches, skits and songs of the ‘Revudeville’ shows that helped to make the Windmill Theatre’s name. Mystery at the Burlesque, as it was known in the US, was the first film to include footage from inside the theatre as it was shot partly in situ at the famous venue.

A not entirely successful crime drama-cum-musical, Guest’s self-penned tale starred Garry Marsh and Jon Pertwee as Metropolitan police officers investigating the murder by shooting of an audience member during a performance. Instructing the Windmill’s acts (played by the theatre’s actual stars) to repeat the full routine in order to help them solve the case, the police officers, and by design the viewer, are treated to a variety performance that far outshines the thinly plotted whodunit it’s wrapped up in.

Night and the City (1950)

Director: Jules Dassin

Night and the City (1950)

Though Jules Dassin’s adaptation of Gerald Kersh’s 1938 novel of the same name strays beyond the confines of Soho on numerous occasions, it is very much a Soho movie. This classic film noir – with its expressionistic camerawork and lighting, lack of sympathetic characters and desperate, doomed central protagonist – portrays the neighbourhood as a magnet for all manner of wideboys, panhandlers, petty thieves and vicious thugs.

Richard Widmark’s Harry Fabian, a small-time hustler and nightclub tout whose criminal plans go awry, may be naturally at home in this den of vice, but its temptations and their inevitable consequences make it a home full of dangers lurking around every shadowy corner. The Soho of Night and the City is a bleak place where the rule of law isn’t upheld by the bobby on the beat, but is brutally executed by the underworld bosses who control its streets and businesses, as well as the nefarious lackeys who populate them.

Street of Shadows (1953)

Director: Richard Vernon

Street of Shadows (1953)

Less celebrated that many British noirs from the era, Richard Vernon’s Street of Shadows is an atmospheric thriller revolving around the framing of a Soho pin-table casino owner for a murder he did not commit. Based on Laurence Meynell’s 1941 novel The Creaking Chair, and released in the US as Shadow Man, Vernon’s self-penned adaptation followed the tradition at the time of parachuting in a Hollywood star to take the lead role. This tightly woven crime tale saw Cesar Romero’s Luigi wrongly earmarked by the police as the prime suspect when Luigi’s ex-girlfriend Angela (Simone Silva) is found stabbed to death in his apartment.

Mystics, hawkers, spivs and ne’er-do-wells populate the Soho of Street of Shadows, with Victor Maddern’s sympathetic but shifty and deformed casino hand Danny ‘Limpy’ Thomas being a particularly memorable creation. Worth seeking out for Eric Spear and Tommy Reilly’s excellent, mood-enhancing harmonica-based score alone.

Passport to Shame (1958)

Director: Alvin Rakoff

Passport to Shame (1958)

Street prostitution, sham marriages and white slavery in Soho are the sleazy themes of Alvin Rakoff’s late 50s (s)exploitation drama Passport to Shame, also known in some countries as Room 43. Released a year before the Street Offences Act was introduced to clamp down on public solicitation, Rakoff’s big-screen directorial debut may be high on clichés and low on production values but it grimly highlights the tawdry and dangerous nature of sex work in Soho at the time.

Shot on location and at Walton Studios in Surrey, this B-movie thriller sees Eddie Constantine’s London cabbie Johnny and French waitress Malou (Odile Versois) unwittingly drawn into the seedy world of a Soho prostitution ring presided over by Herbert Lom’s callous pimp Nick Biaggi. It is Diana Dors’ unhappy prostitute Vicki that really grabs the attention here, however, as the horrific reason Vicki works for Biaggi culminates in an aptly fiery act of revenge.

Expresso Bongo (1959)

Director: Val Guest

Expresso Bongo (1959)

Adapted for the screen by Wolf Mankowitz from his and Julian More’s own West End musical of the previous year, Expresso Bongo (now released in a new Flipside edition on BFI Blu-ray and DVD) is a smart satire on the music industry. Set in the bustling world of Soho’s coffee shops, strip clubs and bars and directed by the ever versatile Val Guest, the big-screen version saw Laurence Harvey take on the role of Johnny Jackson, a sleazy, small-time promoter and talent scout. Having ‘discovered’ teenage singer Bert Rudge (Cliff Richard) performing in an espresso coffee shop, Jackson christens his new protégé ‘Bongo’ Herbert and sets about making him a star.

Despite being less spiky than the original stage production and musically reworked to promote Richard and his band, this tale of slippery, exploitative business deals, youth culture and fame retains an edge thanks to Harvey’s dynamic performance as the two-bit hustler finally out-manoeuvred by a rapacious veteran of the industry.

The Small World of Sammy Lee (1963)

Director: Ken Hughes

The Small World of Sammy Lee (1963)

Life for strip club compere Sammy ‘Lee’ Leeman (Anthony Newley) goes from bad to worse in Ken Hughes’ hugely under-appreciated crime drama. In debt to unscrupulous bookies to the tune of £300 (a hefty sum back then), likeable loser Sammy runs in ever decreasing circles around the streets of Soho in a desperate effort to raise the sum before the deadline that will usher forth a vicious beating.

Extensive location work, a downbeat climax and a wonderfully evocative jazz score by Kenny Graham are just a few of the many plus points of The Small World of Sammy Lee. With solid supporting turns by Wilfrid Brambell, Warren Mitchell and Roy Kinnear, Hughes’ film is awash with colourful characters and provides an authentic documentation of the area at the time. This tangible sense of place is beautifully instilled during the opening credits sequence as the camera follows a dustcart through Soho in the early morning, its streets littered with the detritus of the previous evening’s hedonism.

Where Has Poor Mickey Gone..? (1964)

Director: Gerry Levy

Where Has Poor Mickey Gone? (1964)

Distributed by Tony Tenser and Michael Klinger’s Compton-Cameo Films, Gerry Levy’s hour long ‘quota quickie’ Where Has Poor Mickey Gone? is a genuinely oddball British B-movie. Initially released as the bottom half of a double bill with Paolo Heusch’s retitled 1961 Italian horror I Married a Werewolf, Levy’s tale of the supernatural plays out like an extended episode of Tales of the Unexpected.

Ejected from a Soho basement jazz club for rowdy behaviour, loutish youths Mickey (John Malcolm), Ginger (Ray Armstrong) and Tim (John Challis) are joined by the bored Kip (Christopher Robbie) as the gang break into a nearby backstreet magician’s workshop and terrorise the owner. In this bizarre blend of juvenile delinquent movie and fantasy chiller, things go badly wrong for the proto-Droogs as Warren Mitchell’s magician, Emilio Dinelli, takes macabre revenge on the troublemakers. Bookended by Irish Blues singer Ottilie Patterson’s striking theme tune, Levy’s tale casts Soho as a dangerous, otherworldly location.

Ping Pong (1986)

Director: Leong Po-chih

Ping Pong (1986)

The weight of tradition, the lure of modernity and familial responsibilities lie at the heart of Leong Po-chih’s Ping Pong, the first feature-length film to be shot on these shores by a British-Chinese filmmaker. This gentle comedy-cum-mystery was also the first film to portray Soho’s Chinatown in any great depth. Utilising numerous shops, restaurants and clubs in Chinatown, Ping Pong depicts a British-Chinese family facing an uncertain future after the death of paterfamilias and local restaurateur Sam Wong (K.C. Leong).

As Elaine Choi, a law clerk tasked with executing Wong’s will, then newcomer Lucy Sheen is the viewer’s eyes into both the Wong family members’ relationships and Chinatown itself, as Wong’s widow, offspring and staff begin to pull in different directions. A clash of Anglicised lives, traditional cultural values and personal ambitions makes Choi a go-between as her seemingly easy task is made complex, with Wong’s restaurant in the heart of Chinatown the family’s symbolic battleground.

Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon (1998)

Director: John Maybury

Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon (1998)

The winner of three awards at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, John Maybury’s biopic of famed, figurative painter Francis Bacon (Derek Jacobi) is a raw and booze-soaked representation of the artist’s fractious seven-year relationship with petty thief George Dyer (Daniel Craig). Maybury’s visually arresting directorial debut revolves around two key locations, Bacon’s studio in South Kensington and his favourite drinking den in Soho, The Colony Room on Dean Street. The private members club for artists and creatives was painstakingly recreated at 3 Mills Studios to match how it looked during the sixties.

Maybury is unflinching in his portrayal of the mammoth drinking sessions and often scabrous, ugly slanging matches indulged in by Bacon and his coterie in The Colony Room, which included famously foul-mouthed proprietress Muriel Belcher (Tilda Swinton) and chronic alcoholic photographer John Deakin (Karl Johnson). Bohemian it might have been, but this Soho was also grotesque, debauched and destructive.

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