“My God,” the old lady said crushed by the crowd against the Selfridge’s window like Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), “It is bedlam out here.” And I took the excuse to take sanctuary from my wife’s Oxford Street January sales shopping expedition. A burger and pint, maybe two (pints) later in a generic sandwich shop on nearby Molton Street, I regained consciousness and deciphered the blue marker above my non-descript black leather booth, noting it as the site of arcane poet/copper engraver William Blake’s studio in the 18th century.
London is a collection of ancient and contemporary neighborhoods sprawling into a massive world capital. By definition a city continuously redefines, reimagines, and remaps itself with each new generation. In an idiosyncratic grid, London entangles the most perplexing similarly- named streets, roads, avenues, rows, lanes, squares, mews, and circuses. Then London numbers them all in an equally incomprehensible system of addresses to mark the doors from Samuel Pepys to Martine Rose.
London also maps myriad fictional addresses from Eliza Doolittle to Bridget Jones and has been mapped in our imaginations by literature, theater, and film. Thus to investigate London is a passport to history…actually to histories.
Visiting London movie locations can be particularly problematic—because some London sites were pure Hollywood invention. Even if you find the specific location of a shoot, the site was most likely among a conglomeration of different locations pieced together for the camera.
For example, classic Alfred Hitchcock London. Although some of his movie locations are still there—these exteriors had been altered for the shoots—most buildings have been highly renovated if not demolished—many were matte shots anyway—still others were sets built at the studio—and consequently, these classic locations were already imaginary London.
Both Hitchcock’s 39 Steps (1935) and The Paradine Case (1947) are set on London’s Portland Place, but neither was shot there. Shots of nearby Park Crescent East augmented the sequences shot at the studio. In Dial M for Murder (1954), the Wendice home address is 61A Charrington Gardens, Maida Vale. No such address exists in Maida Vale. The film was actually filmed in Hollywood and the London location used by the second unit team to shoot the Maida Vale exterior is unknown. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 & 1956) depicts the “Wrong Man” being chased while he is on the chase of the “MacGuffin” (red herring), and Hitchcock considered the original the first real Hitchcock thriller. The Park Lane House that served as the Embassy was demolished for the Hilton Hotel. The exterior of Ambrose Chapel at 17 Ambrose Street, Bayswater in the film was actually shot at St. Savior’s Church Hall on Vicary Street in Brixton Hill. A temporary belfry was added for the establishing shots. While the building’s rear exterior was a studio matte painting and the red phone box studio rear projection, the interior was a constructed set at Paramount Studio in Hollywood. Vicary Street was demolished in 1968 and, like St. Savior’s Church Hall, neither now exists. But Albert Hall is gloriously still there.
My wife and I once celebrated New Year’s Eve in this historic circular Victorian orchestra hall. We were immersed in the firing cannons and proximate pyrotechnics of “The 1812 Overture” erupting on stage in counterpoint with the underlying tension of that final cymbal crash of The Man Who Knew Too Much’s “Storm Clouds Cantata” all around us. Arthur Benjamin’s “Cantata” was composed for Hitchcock’s original (perhaps better) black-and-white sequence and also scores the 12-minute, no-dialogue, Hitchcock color sequence remake at the Royal Albert Hall. In the remake, composer Bernard Herrmann appears as the symphony conductor, leading The London Symphony Orchestra and Covent Garden Opera Chorus performing one of the few songs he didn’t write for the 1956 film.
And we were there, in London, in the practical monument dedicated to Prince Albert just south of the decorative monument, Albert Memorial, there in Hitchcock’s 1934 classic, and there in his color remake all at once. Victoria Regina rules; Doris Day loudly sings a song to save her son; then saves World Order screaming aloud. Just when you fear there is no stopping that musical codetta and the cymbals will note disaster, Right triumphs over Evil. And there is champagne at the intermission.