Movie London History

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A Potted History

Out of the Fog

Villains and other scary folk have long had a wail of a time in London, at least according to the city’s portrayal on celluloid.

Traditionally, with its foggy Victorian streets, dark alleyways and dingy river, filmic London proved the ideal cover for all sorts of nefarious activities from mass murder to dog theft. Just ask Sherlock Holmes (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1939, plus others). Perhaps the most memorable of the mass murderer type was Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960), a disturbing little film about a psychopathic photographer which Martin Scorsese counts as a major influence. As an antidote, there is An American Werewolf In London (John Landis, 1981) which played with all the dingy streets of London clichés to hilarious effect.

At the other end of the crime scale, comical small time crooks, complete with often awful Cockney accents, are a London film trademark not least in Ealing comedies. Oliver Twist (David Lean, 1948) is a fine example of the sub-genre, with Alec Guinness going down market to play Fagin the pickpocket king.

The Second World War, most particularly Hitler’s bombing campaign, changed the way London appeared on film. Bomb scapes emerged out of the fog to give London an apocalyptic feel, as in Hue and Cry (Charles Crichton, 1947) a theme revisited in Hope and Glory (John Boorman, 1987)

Out of the rubble and hardships of the post-war years bloomed the 60s and with Swinging London making headlines worldwide it is no surprise that the capital was the site for a whole tranche of, mostly dodgy, flowered up movies. Chief among these is Blow Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966), a terrible, if stylish, movie that has unfortunately achieved cult status.

More recently the fog, rubble and flowers have been replaced by a new vision of London as a modern city bathed in the harsh light of corrupt commercialism as in Defence of the Realm (David Drury, 1985), a trend in contrast to the first real stirrings of an ethnic representation on the screen with movies like My Beautiful Launderette, (Stephen Frears, 1985). But elements of the old clichés remain. In the London scenes in Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996), for instance, dingy London is much in evidence alongside the new money, and villainy, in the form of drug crime, takes a front seat, too.

The future? For an answer let us turn to The Time Machine (George Pal, 1960), a film based on the HG Wells book. In the year 802,701 London will witness a face off between a heartless gang of pleasure seekers and a mass of hard pressed workers who spend lots of time underground. Or maybe we don’t have to wait that long.

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