Ten great films of London past … a random collection

London has often looked at its best when film directors have used its bleak and ruined beauty, and in a raft of post-World War II movies, bombsites and often ill-conceived redevelopments featured large. We look at a random selection of ten of the best.

The two young stars of Hue and Cry

Joan Dowling and Harry Fowler in Hue and Cry


Hue and Cry

Shot almost entirely on location, Charles Crichton’s 1947 movie is a triumphant example that forgotten British spirit, making do with what you’ve got. This was a very austere post-War London. Buildings in bombed-out ruin? They’ll make superb backdrops for a film that never goes near a studio. Inexperienced juvenile cast? Just let the camera run and capture their spirit. A standout scene is the little kid miming dive bombers and dogfights. Amid all this you have sterling performances from villainous Jack Warner (an East Ender of course) and Alastair Sim.


Bronco Bullfrog

And just 23 years later we return to an East End that still hasn’t been rebuilt after the war. Anyone growing up in the 1970s remembers the gap sites and the boredom. Director Barney Platts-Mills grabbed a bunch of teenagers from a youth group in Stratford, gave them the bare bones of a script and let the camera run. The tedium, petty crime and pointless, tragic rebellions of the bunch are played out in black and white against an E15 that looks more Communist Bloc Bucharest than the new Olympia. The Swinging Sixties have swung by leaving these kids untouched. If they look miserable now then it’s a good job they don’t know what the 1970s are going to be like. We venerated this movie as a suedehead template in the late seventies, though viewing the clothes now I’m not quite sure why.


Broken Blossoms

Political correctness was a long way off when DW Griffith adapted Thomas Burke’s book in 1919. Burke was an enthusiastic chronicler, alongside Sax Rohmer, of the supposed ‘yellow peril’, which stigmatised the Chinese in London (mainly in Limehouse) as opium toting fiends, itching to corrupt young white girls and sell them into prostitution. Limehouse’s China Town would disappear within a few years, as racial persecution was writ into law and the area was cleared. But Griffith did make some attempts at verisimilitude, scouting East End locations. And in Donald Crisp, who plays Battling Burrows, the father of heroine Lilian Gish, we have a real, genuine East Ender, born in Bow.


Sparrers Can’t Sing

Possibly the only time you’ll see a writing credit on a major motion picture for Blakey off On the Buses. Stephen Lewis penned this as part of his work with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop (Stratford again). Full of proper Londoners, such as Barbara Windsor and the unfairly forgotten James Booth. Great locations around Bethnal Green, real al fresco pub action (lots of toothless singalongs) and the Krays were on set. Retitled Sparrows Can’t Sing for the American market, though it really needed subtitles.


A Clockwork Orange

Still hard to watch this without feeling queasy. For most of my youth this was a movie of myth,talked about but never seen, as director Stanley Kubrick withdrew it from distribution after a series of supposed ‘copycat’ violent attacks in the early seventies. Thus it wasn’t officially broadcast until after the director’s death in 1999. Largely filmed on location in Thamesmead, a south-east London new town development out of Woolwich that never quite lived up to its Venice on the Thames billing. If you think A Clockwork Orange is scary, spend an afternoon in SE28. No don’t.


Passport to Pimlico

Bombsites, lovely bombsites … where would the British film industry have been without them. A very English fantasy of devolving from the UK, as kids discover an old parchment in a crater which proves that Pimlico is in truth a possession of Burgundy. Cue withholding of taxes and the quaffing of fine wines replacing bitter in the boozer. Margaret Rutherford (Balham Born) is superb as is Manor Park’s own Stanley Holloway. And it’s still funny.


The Lavender Hill Mob

A masterpiece of English restraint in the writing. Stanley Holloway (again) to Alec Guinness as a criminal plan begins to take shape. “By Jove, Holland it’s a good job we’re both honest men.” Guinness: “It is indeed Pendlebury”. But of course they’re not and they recruit two cockney crooks: Alfie Bass (Bethnal Green born and bred) and Sid James (actually South African) to smuggle the gold Eiffel Towers through customs. Does crime pay? Of course not; we are English after all.

A Kid for Two Farthings

You got to have a dream … or how you going to make a dream come true? Unfortunately the dream of Joe, kicking around Whitechapel in Carol Reed’s beautiful slice of 1955 Technicolor, is to own a unicorn. And of course, with the East End full of those wise to a quick buck, he finds someone to sell him one. A beautiful and poignant tale of broken dreams and growing up. This was adapted by East End polymath Wolf Mankewitz from his own novel. A great cast with Diana Dors, Irene Handl and Sydney Taffler, and David Kossoff draws deep on his East End Jewish background for his portrayal of Mr Kandinsky.


It Always Rains On Sunday

1947 film adaptation of Arthur LaBern’s novel, and some would argue the dawn of the British New Wave of cinema – which the press quickly dubbed ‘Kitchen Sink Drama’. It does retain some of the gloss of the studio (this was an Ealing movie) through its stars. Googie Withers (later on TV in Within These Walls) was a bona fide star and even playing drab and downbeat she looks amazing. And Jack Warner is on hand as the copper (but of course). A real attempt at showing the boredom and drudgery of a Bethnal Green which had been bleak before the war but was now bleak with bombsites. You’d have thought we would have wanted cheering up and distraction after six years of conflict but no … this was the best-selling movie at the box office in the UK in 1948.


The Blue Lamp

Evening all. Jack Warner of Bow makes a third appearance in this 1950 Dearden and Balcon movie from Ted Willis’s script. Hard to believe now that this was considered near cinema verite at the time, with location shots around Paddington Green and the White City, and a decent old-fashioned copper coming up against the harsh new London of guns and careless violence (delivered by Dirk Bogarde). A corny Ealing ending (Hue and Cry style) where the ordinary decent villains of London band together to catch George Dixon’s killer (unlikely we think). Gave birth to Dixon of Dock Green, which featured a copper hero even older than TJ Hooker.

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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