In search of the London locations for crime drama Sapphire, 60 years later

Ahead of its time tackling racism in Britain, Basil Dearden’s trail-blazing murder mystery Sapphire is now 60 years old. Writer Adam Scovell turns detective to track down its locations to see how they’ve changed.

Adam Scovell

Sapphire (1959)

Sapphire (1959)

Basil Dearden was one of Britain’s foremost filmmakers. Branching out into tougher, more politically fuelled dramas in the 1950s after a number of films produced by Ealing Studios, he created some of the earliest films that questioned inequality in British society, whether born of class, sexuality or race.

The last of these was particularly important to him, being first addressed in Pool of London (1951), the first British film to feature an interracial relationship between a black man and a white woman. But it was in his 1959 film Sapphire that the director really attempted to address the issue of racism in all strata of 50s British society.

Sapphire (1959) poster

Credit: Renato Fratini

The film follows the murder of a pregnant girl called Sapphire (Yvonne Buckingham) on Hampstead Heath. With revelations regarding her mixed heritage, which she had kept mostly a secret, it becomes clear to the investigating officers, Hazard (Nigel Patrick) and Learoyd (Michael Craig), that the murder was motivated by race. Tracing the drama back to tensions with Sapphire’s boyfriend, David (Paul Massie), and his family, it becomes clear that they are hiding a dark secret.

Traversing many different London locations, all shot in crisp autumnal colours, Sapphire presents a dark vision of the capital, but one filled equally with beautiful cobbled streets, quaint terraced houses and picturesque high streets. Behind this faded gentility, however, lies something nastier. Much progress has been made since 1959, but what has survived of the ever changing city 60 years since the film was released?

Central London

With a great deal of London to cover, I began with a recognisable location. The Royal Academy of Music on Marylebone Road is seen early on in the film – it’s the place where Sapphire goes to college. With the police investigating, we see a shot of the building and then a pan to their car pulling up in the school’s driveway. The original ‘In’ and ‘Stick No Bills’ signs are still on display today, though the building’s entrance has since been cleaned up.

Sapphire (1959)

Sapphire (1959) modern location shot

Sapphire (1959)

Sapphire (1959) modern location shot

With the news of Sapphire’s murder, her friends in the coffee bar are told of the tragedy. Foscari’s, of the film, is now Siam Central between Windmill Street and Charlotte Street, not far from Tottenham Court Road. Eagle-eyed viewers will also spot an early role for Barbara Steele as one of Sapphire’s arty, beatnik friends. We later see a full shot of Windmill Street too, though it’s far more upmarket today than the moody street captured by Dearden.

Sapphire (1959)

Sapphire (1959) modern location shot

Sapphire (1959)

Sapphire (1959) modern location shot

Next I ventured to Chelsea to find the beginning of one of the director’s most cunning sleights of hand. When the affluent Paul Slade (Gordon Heath) offers himself up for questioning, the police begin to link Sapphire to her other, more secretive life of clubbing and dive bars. After being questioned, we see Slade leave the station. This is in fact the very end of the King’s Road, with the station building and the housing to the left since demolished and now replaced with a high-rise and a luxury jeep dealer.

Sapphire (1959)

Sapphire (1959) modern location shot

When Dearden cuts to Slade being driven away, however, he opts to join the King’s Road with the Great Western Road much further north, just by Westbourne Park tube station. The houses to the left have again been demolished, but the bridge is still marked by its railings and The Union Tavern to the right.

Sapphire (1959)

Sapphire (1959) modern location shot

Later in the film, the officers question people at a club designed for young people of different races called the International Club. The building, just around the corner from Alfred Hitchcock’s London home, is on Collingham Place in Kensington and is now the Medical Chambers building.

Sapphire (1959)

Sapphire (1959) modern location shot

Sapphire (1959)

Sapphire (1959) modern location shot

Moving away from the lavish streets of Kensington, I went in search of the route that Johnnie (Harry Baird) runs through when trying to escape the police. He’s been forced on the run after the law investigates the club where Sapphire used to dance. The club itself proved impossible to find but segments of Johnnie’s run were traced, far and away from the Shepherd’s Bush area that the film suggests the club to be in.

The first location I found was on Lorenzo Street, not far from King’s Cross. Virtually everything about the street has changed, and all but one of the buildings having been demolished. The marker that it’s the same location, however, is the triangular pillar of the one surviving house.

Sapphire (1959)

Sapphire (1959) modern location shot

Walking further north into the Barnsbury Estate, we see Johnnie running around here at various times, through alleyways and along empty, harsh streets. The main street is Copenhagen Street, near Matilda Street, though the whole of the high street with its shops, including the pub seen housing some unfriendly Irish people, has been flattened and replaced with a block of flats. Similarly, a number of buildings around the Ladbroke Grove area used later on in the film have faced the same fate, only with no evidence being left of anything resembling the old streets seen in the film.

Sapphire (1959)

Sapphire (1959) modern location shot

For my final trip for the day, I wanted to find the site of one of the most iconic visuals of the film. Johnnie’s run has some of the most atmospheric shots of any 1950s London film. One of the most popular and widely shared images of Sapphire is of Johnnie running down a beautifully cobbled alleyway. Logically, it should have had access to Copenhagen Street, but, with the new development, it became clear that the alleyway had been cut off.

The route in question is now Prices Mews, the buildings on the right of the shot now luxury flats and the whole alleyway now gated as a private community. I managed to slide my camera through a gap and get a partial shot taken from what would be the far end on the left of the still, looking on to the buildings on the right. But the high gate and spiked tops prevented me from getting a better shot of this once public space.

Sapphire (1959)

Sapphire (1959) modern location shot

Hampstead Heath

Hampstead Heath is pivotal to the drama, being where Sapphire’s body is found amid the scrubland in the film’s opening moments. Dearden constantly returns to it as the narrative progresses and more clues become apparent. However, the heath is so large and, with a multitude of changes to it in the last 60 years, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where the locations used are.

After hours of searching satellite views and comparing them to scenes from the film, I marked Lime Avenue as a possible site of the film’s many scenes shot there. Wandering to the heath later, it was clear that the pathway curves in the same way as in the film and has the potential pathways off to where Sapphire is found.

Sapphire (1959)

Sapphire (1959) modern location shot

After further wandering, it was clear that the paths to the side had changed also, with old desire paths once walked into the heath’s grass now remapped with concrete. I’d wager that most of the scenes take place in what is now overgrown greenery growing in between the two official paths, perhaps moved during the replanting of the avenue after the storm that disrupted it in the late 1980s. I took a shot of the path now parallel to this to give some idea of how it looks now, looking on to roughly the same view of Lime Avenue’s trees.

Sapphire (1959)

Sapphire (1959) modern location shot

These estimations of the locations also make sense when considering the one solid location found by the heath. When David finds a vital piece of evidence near where Sapphire was discovered, he quickly pockets it and walks on to dispose of it down a grid, seen by an eagle-eyed detective played by a young Peter Vaughan. The location is just near the beginning of Lime Avenue, on the corner between Well Road and East Heath Road, with the corner of The Pryors building seen just around the corner.

Sapphire (1959)

Sapphire (1959) modern location shot

North London

The bulk of Sapphire’s most interesting locations are in north London, and so I planned a separate trip in search of these, finding both the most preserved locations and the most radically changed.

My first stop was in search of the picturesque shop and high street in which David’s father, Mr Harris (Bernard Miles), is seen working on some delicate window lettering before his daughter, Mildred (Yvonne Mitchell), comes to tell him the bad news. The shop was on the corner between Malden Road and Rhyl Street, not far from Chalk Farm tube station. It is now totally decimated by new builds and bad planning. The high street has been demolished entirely on the side seen in the shot, and the shop itself is now a graffiti covered off licence.

Sapphire (1959)

Sapphire (1959) modern location shot

Sapphire (1959)

Sapphire (1959) modern location shot

Further north, near Tufnell Park, is where I found the majority of the film’s domestic locations. Starting closest to the tube station, we actually see the station itself from Dartmouth Park Road when the officers talk to a constable on the beat (Rupert Davies). The interchange is exactly as it was, though the road is a little busier now than in the film.

Sapphire (1959)

Sapphire (1959) modern location shot

Next I followed Fortess Road down and along until it meets Highgate Road. Here is where the cinema is seen when Mr Harris and David’s solicitor are trying to solidify the alibi. The cinema building, which once housed the Forum Cinema, is preserved but is now the O2 Academy music venue.

Sapphire (1959)

Sapphire (1959) modern location shot

Continuing with minor but interesting locations, I followed the road back until walking from Churchill Road onto York Rise. This is where the shop Mildred worked in was. The street is much quieter now, with the shop being changed into a luxury boutique called Sonya. The main indicator that it’s the same building is the curving part of the wall. However, the buildings beyond are pretty much the same.

Sapphire (1959)

Sapphire (1959) modern location shot

Next, I wanted to find the main house of the film and the shots Dearden filmed around it. The house is not far from the shop at 2 Oakford Road. The street is as it was, and even the front door of the building retains some of the same colourful glass as seen in the film.

Sapphire (1959)

Sapphire (1959) modern location shot

Mr Harris’s workshop in the yard behind was also accessible, including the outbuildings where he hides the pram that’s vital to the film’s mystery. It’s now the offices of an architecture firm. All of the buildings behind are used as the various office spaces under the title of Oakford Court and so, with open access, I was able to recreate a number of shots almost exactly as in the film.

Sapphire (1959)

Sapphire (1959) modern location shot

Sapphire (1959)

Sapphire (1959) modern location shot

One of the film’s final shots was also to be my final location. Having discovered the fate of his sister and the perpetrator of the crime, Dr Robbins (Earl Cameron) walks away after saying his farewells to Hazard and Learoyd. He walks down the road from the house and turns right onto Lady Somerset Road. The road has changed little, but thankfully other things have in the 60 years since Dearden filmed this heartbreaking scene.

Sapphire (1959)

Sapphire (1959) modern location shot

References
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