Tag Archives: London films

Not feeling myself today

These past few weeks have found me with more time on my hands than usual due to feeling, as my mother would say: “Not myself Today”.

To fill my idle mind I found an unwatched DVD of Tim Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love. Over 20 years old, this film starring Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow (before she grew rich and balmy) still feels fresh and for any lover of Elizabeth London is essential watching.

There is a boatman (the predecessor of London cabbies) who ferries Shakespeare across the Thames while bragging, “I had that Christopher Marlowe in my boat once.” After another crossing, as Shakespeare steps ashore, the boatman tries to give him a script to read. The contemporary feel of the humour (like Shakespeare’s coffee mug, inscribed ‘Souvenir of Stratford-Upon-Avon’) makes for a very accessible journey into the Shakespearean theatre.

Philip Henslowe the owner and producer of the Rose Theatre has advanced money for Will’s latest working title: ‘Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter’, but our playwright has writer’s block and is just practising his signature. This amongst a host of contemporary references: Shakespeare had many spellings to his name; street cries pay reference to the Bard’s writings “A curse on both your houses; A Rose by any other name”, among others.

The film opens with Hugh Fennyman (Tom Wilkinson) demanding monies owed from Henslowe by: “holding his feet to the fire”.

In Shakespearean theatre, it was conventional not to notice the gender disguises (in fact I’ve watched an excellent all-women Taming of the Shrew at the Globe), and Shakespeare in Love asks us to grant the same leeway, as Viola first plays a woman auditioning to play a man and later plays a man playing a woman. As the young man auditioning to play Romeo, Viola wears a moustache and trousers and yet somehow inspires stirrings in Will’s breeches; later, at a dance, he sees her as a woman and falls instantly in love.

With Will’s love interest ignited his writer’s block disappears and he finds himself writing one of the world’s greatest plays. Like Romeo and Ethel, both “Star cross lovers” their love is doomed as Viola is to be married in two weeks to the odious Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), who will trade his title for her father’s cash.

The title of the play is suggested by vain Ned Alleyn (Ben Affleck) who was London Elizabethan theatre’s greatest actor at the time and to his surprise finds his character dies in Act 3.

Like the play we know today, the film is a romance that leaps across barriers of wealth, titles and class. The story is ingeniously Shakespearean in its dimensions, including high and low comedy, coincidences, masquerades and jokes about itself.

At the same time we get a good sense of how the audience was deployed in the theatres, where they stood or sat and what their view was like, and also information about costuming, props and stagecraft, this was, after all, a city in which 1 in 10 went to the theatre every week.

It all goes to show that London, the West End and cabbies have hardly changed these past 400 years.

Where are we?

They would say that if The Knowledge wasn’t taking over your life, you weren’t doing it right. The problem, once qualified, is that it doesn’t leave you.

Soon after receiving my Green Badge, I watched one of my favourite London films, Brannigan, starring John Wayne as a Chicago detective. It is as if Visit London had commissioned Paul Greengrass to direct a travel documentary aimed at American tourists.

Fast-paced it has The Duke pursuing villains around London with each shot featuring a tourist destination and his ability to cross the capital at speed is impressive.

One minute he’s in Battersea’s Prince of Wales Drive (my first question on The Knowledge), then next Buckingham Palace appears behind his shoulder as he tears around London. Within minutes he is driving his 1973 Ford Capri over an opening Tower Bridge in pursuit of justice.

Watching dramas at home I’m still forever trying to spot the location, no matter how tight the shot.

I’ve spotted Bridget Jones’ flat above the Globe pub on Bedale Street, just around the corner from Borough Market. Another market easily identified was Leadenhall Market in one of the Harry Potter sequels.

You can tell when a film is getting tedious when instead of listening to the dialogue I try to locate the exact street. Having worked in Clerkenwell my concentration was focused in and around the diamond district in The Hatton Garden Job, by my reckoning the ‘job’ was on the corner of Greville Street and Hatton Garden.

Years earlier a group of us rode our motorcycles to Pride and Clarke in Stockwell Road, London’s biggest motorcycle dealer known as ‘Snide and Shark’. Our long trek was partly due to its appearance in Blow-Up with David Hemmings driving a Rolls Royce past the blood-red building, but more I suspect his co-star – Veruschka a 6’4″ model. Then decades later I spotted the shop now painted white when on The Knowledge.

In Killing Eve I identified the Barbican Estate, but couldn’t place the ‘nearby’ churchyard, not surprising it was St. George in the East in Shadwell.

But the one that has evaded me is 221b Baker Street in the latest BBC adaption of Sherlock Holmes. The famous sleuth’s flat is above Speedy’s Sandwich Bar and isn’t to be found in Baker Street. Sadly I had to resort to the world wide web to find it’s just around the corner in Euston Road.

All our yesterdays

I should have named this post ‘All our great-great-grandparents yesterdays’. Yestervid have collected a series of old films from the early days of film (1890-1920) and produced a truly fascinating video.

In March 2015, old footage was researched and collected from various credible sources. The original shots were then recreated by visiting sites across London. The footage was carefully matched up, arranged by location.

[T]hey show London with its fogs, horses and general chaos side-by-side with the identical modern scenes from the same vantage point. And for those less familiar with London a handy map pin-pointing their locations.

With a perfectly matched soundtrack forty-six shots from Tower Bridge (still heavy with traffic, albeit horses) to Trafalgar Square (almost traffic free) to St. Paul’s once standing proud unoverlooked at the summit of Ludgate Hill which now peers out between skyscrapers more akin to a sci-fi city.

One of the most memorable shots is of The Tower of London grey in black-and-white film alongside a bright red sea of poppies from 2014’s Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red.

The final shot is of a grainy Trafalgar Square in 1890 claimed to be the oldest moving picture of London.


Television’s Dickens

Jack Rosenthal

It was last year when walking down a high street in Dorset when I saw in the window of a charity shop Jack Rosenthal’s autobiography for the bargain price of £3.

Having always liked his plays I could not wait to get home to start reading, but when I opened its first pages what surprised me was to find the text had been written in the format of a play.

The early disappointment quickly dissipated for when I started reading the book Jack just seemed to leap from each page with life’s anecdotes narrated with pathos and humility, with beautiful observations of the inherent caricature in human behaviour.

[H]is death in 2004 led The Guardian to dub him ‘television’s Charles Dickens’, now next week on 7th February marks the bi-centenary of Dickens’s birth and you are going to hear an awful lot about Dickensian London, but nearly eight years after his death not much of our own master Twentieth Century wordsmith who also based many of his stories around London.

So in the interest of balance I have selected a play that defined one of the iconic characters of the Capital from the dozens of scripts that he wrote. For we London’s cabbies he is best known for his 1979 play The Knowledge. It was the last one-off drama ever to be made by Euston Films, filmed around central London (watch out for a prime piece of ‘George Davis is innocent OK’ graffiti), which features outside shots of the old Carriage Office in Penton Street along with some pretty run down parts of London.

Known for his attention to detail and creating credible characters, good research played a large part in writing The Knowledge he spent many hours amongst the cabbie fraternity, and in so doing Jack was granted an honoury taxi driver’s license in the process.

The story charts the trials and tribulations of four men attempting to learn the knowledge to become a London cabbie. Chris played by Mick Ford is the youngest of the four, he is on the dole and given up all hope of finding a job. Dippy and dopey he is encouraged to start the knowledge by his exasperated girlfriend Janet (“Look, I can’t help the word ‘job’ coming up in the conversation, it’s a word!”), eventually he becomes so engrossed in learning the knowledge his girlfriend decides it’s either the knowledge or her in their relationship – she loses. Gordon played by the late Michael Elphick is a cowboy builder and serial womaniser (“Ignorance is bliss. My wife is completely blissful about the whole thing.”), who leaves behind his irate wife (played by Jack Rosenthal wife Maureen Lipman) to spend half of his time learning London’s road routes and use it as an excuse to carry on an extra-marital affair. Jonathan Lynn plays Ted Margolis who comes from a Jewish cabbie dynasty and is the most confident of the quartet and is quickly pages ahead of his fellow Knowledge boys in memorizing the routes but makes the mistake of trying to ingratiate himself with Mr. Burgess, nicknamed The Vampire played with delicious sadistic pleasure by Nigel Hawthorne (“I won’t take offence if anyone here decides to call me ‘Sir’”) and lastly the elderly Walters (David Ryall), is so much one of life’s losers he is nicknamed ‘Titanic’ who views The Knowledge an escape from his uncommunicative wife. He attempts to learn all the runs on a bicycle and farcically wobbles all around London in an effort to do so – frequently falling from his bike.

At intervals they are called in to see Mr. Burgess for an appearance, which involves the student attempting to describe verbally the runs whilst Burgess endeavours to put them off with a series of diversions often involving throwing water or putting Vick nasal inhalers up his nose. Gordon is kicked off the Knowledge for losing his temper while being tested by the Vampire. Ted Margolis of course passes with flying colours only to lose his licence the day he gets it after going to a pub with the rest of the boys to celebrate passing. Chris passes and then is admonish by a passenger when he gets the first route he learnt – Manor House to Gibson Square – for being cheeky and Titanic scrapes through and leaves his wife. He tells the boys she begged him to come back, when truly it can be heard her shouting,”Piss off and don’t come back”.

Jack Rosenthal’s prime interest lay in the way people interacted with each other, much like Charles Dickens, and in the relationship between individuals and institutions. In much of his work he wrote about particular groups of working men, The Knowledge was about trainee taxi drivers, London’s Burning was about firemen, and Dustbinmen was about dustmen. In each he deftly observed the conflict between the aspirations of the protagonists and what others demanded of them.

My fifteen minutes


[R]ecently I was contacted by the BBC London Arts Unit with a view to my contributing to a documentary they were making to be transmitted in the run up to the 2012 Olympics. Entitled ”A Picture of London’ the assistant producer/researcher explained to me over the phone that they wanted to feature a number of people who work and live in the capital, who would relate their favourite places in London.

Meeting with the documentary’s producer in of all places the Museum of Childhood – would that be a reflection of childhood memories – he explained over a cup of coffee that they were filming about nine individuals and some would eventually end up on the proverbial cutting room floor.

Filming was scheduled for a Sunday evening a week or so later to rendezvous in a car park near Tower Bridge. My cab had a camera mounted on its bonnet by the grips man Garth (I had always wondered what grips were) and after about half an hour we were driving to Battersea via Tower Bridge.

One of my favourite spots in London is the beautiful Georgian church of St. Mary’s perched above the Thames in Battersea. It is said that Turner painted some of his rivers cape studies of light from the vestry window of the church and was rowed over every day by his servant in order that he might paint.

While taking numerous zoom shots of the cab approaching the water’s edge we were scrutinised by the River Police inquisitive of our intentions. It was explained to me that this was an occupational hazard of film units and they had already been stopped more than once that day.

Next was a drive across the capital with a camera pointing into my left ear with me trying to negotiate London’s traffic while commentating of what life was like for a London cabbie, not as easy as it looks with everybody cutting you up.

One arrival at the London Zoo (where both my father and grandfather worked) it was pitch dark but that didn’t stop them taking another round of rolling shots of the cab, which again drew the attention of this time the Zoo’s security staff, hardly surprising as the main entrance by now was illuminated by their floodlights. A short piece of commentary by me as an audio recording rounded off the day.

Would I be contacted again by the BBC? Could this mark a career in broadcasting? These thoughts ran through my, by now, exhausted head.

Two weeks later I picked up a copy of our trade’s newspaper, there inside was a full page article written by the doyen of cabbie journalism – Al Fresco – writer, raconteur, sometime editor and a cabbie of some 40 years, describing how on a Sunday morning recently he was filming for the BBC.

How could I compete? Here was an erudite part time journalist, old fashioned Jewish cabbie who had more tales of London’s East End after the war, a place where most of the cabbies hailed from at the time, featuring in a documentary entitled A Picture of London.

Oh well! My Andy Warhol moment will have to wait.