East is East
Poverty, violence, zombie invasions and war. Rakesh Ramchurn looks at how the urban development of London’s East End has affected its film heritage
From the ‘Kitchen Sink’ dramas of the ’40s and ’50s through to gangster flicks, war epics and even zombie movies, films set or filmed in the East End have always tended towards the dark side of life. Themes of poverty, violence and conflict are rife. These films would not be so dark were it not for the turbulent history of the area and the effect it had in shaping the East End’s discordant urban environment. It’s no wonder soppy filmmakers such as Richard Curtis feel more comfortable in west London.
The East End gets special attention in Urban Wandering, a season of films at the Barbican which explores the crucial relationship between the London landscape and the films it produces.
The season opened with It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), a classic of post-war British cinema which follows the story of Rose, matriarch of a family living in Bethnal Green, who is forced to provide shelter for escaped convict and former lover Tommy.
The Blitz which devastated much of the East End inevitably weighs heavily in the film – some of the action takes place in the family’s Anderson shelter in the garden – and scenes shot on Whitechapel Road and around Petticoat Lane Market depict the destruction of the area. The climax of the film takes place in the alleyways and on rail lines around Stratford, providing the perfect setting for its typical film noir ending – a night sequence of men in suits chasing the doomed fugitive through deserted city streets.
However, it is the docks which more than anything else define the cityscape and character of the East End. The construction of the first wave of enclosed docks in the early 19th century involved the destruction of thousands of homes and the creation of an alien environment of wharves, boat repair yards, cranes and pulleys. Making great use of the dockside location is Pool of London (1951), a film which follows the fortunes of merchant sailors who become involved in diamond smuggling while on shore leave in London. Much of the film is shot on and around Tower Bridge and the surrounding docks, which contrast dramatically with scenes filmed in front of the classical facades of St Paul’s Cathedral and nearby buildings where a diamond robbery takes place.
While Pool of London captures a moment when London’s waterways still teemed with merchant ships, the docks had largely been abandoned by the time The Long Good Friday was made in 1979. In this film, gangster Harold Shand wants to make his fortune by leading the redevelopment of the deserted docks, prefiguring Michael Heseltine’s plans for the area. Watching the film now affords a snapshot of St Katharine Docks, the West India Docks and the Royal Docks, all before the development of Canary Wharf, London City Airport and countless luxury flats changed the area beyond recognition.
The Long Good Friday is another of the many gangster films set and filmed in the East End. Although the criminality of the area has been much sensationalised, the access to desirable commodities at the docks, together with the strong community spirit of the overcrowded and poverty-stricken East End, where many people saw the police and other authorities as ‘outsiders’, fostered an environment where criminal gangs could prosper. The Krays (1990), depicting the story of the eponymous twins, is the most obvious film to mention, while later gangster movies such as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) provide glamourised gangland stories which add to the mythology of the East End’s criminal heritage.
Shoreditch’s Pedley Street alone seems to have held a special attraction to directors of crime capers – the usually deserted cobbled street bordered on one side by foreboding railway arches and on the other by a gritty housing estate was the backdrop to a police chase at the beginning of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and the site where a taxi is dropped onto an uncooperative debtor in Gangster No.1 (2000).
The East End also has a rich history of dystopian cinema filmed in the area, with filmmakers taking advantage of the area’s disharmonious mix of architectural styles, abandoned warehouses and derelict industrial infrastructure to depict shattered societies.
Parts of the East End doubled up as Oceania, the war-ravaged Anglophone state in perpetual war against rival superstates in the most famous dystopian story of them all – Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984), based on George Orwell’s novel. The lawless ‘proletarian zones’ were filmed at the abandoned Beckton Gas Works, at one time the largest gas plant in Europe but an industrial wasteland at the time of filming. Three years later, Stanley Kubrick transformed the same site into the Vietnamese city of Hué in Full Metal Jacket (1987).
But it is Twenty Eight Weeks Later (2007) which makes the most lavish use of the East End’s discordant cityscape. The Isle of Dogs becomes ‘District 1’ – the only UK site cleared by US marines of the ‘Rage Virus’ which wiped out the British population in a deadly zombie epidemic.
London has seen wave after wave of migrants setting up home in the East End. For many, the docks were their first port of arrival in the UK, while the prospect of shipyard work and cheap accommodation kept many in the surrounding area. There they formed distinct communities, before being joined or displaced by new migrant communities. With heightened debate around the problems and virtues of multiculturalism in the past few years, the rich ethnic mix of the area makes it the perfect place to explore the issues on film.
One such film is Brick Lane (2007), which depicts the twinned problems of Islamophobia and Islamic extremism within Whitechapel’s Bengali community. Famously, the filmmakers could only shoot a handful of the scenes planned for Brick Lane itself, due to demonstrations by local residents, who felt the Sylheti community was badly represented in the novel, making the film itself a symptom of London’s intercultural tensions.
Where will future East End films take us? No doubt the global economic downturn will lead to a wave of narrative films attempting to depict the human stories behind the crisis. The contrast of the neglected streets of Tower Hamlets – one of London’s poorest boroughs – sandwiched between the gleaming towers of the City of London and Canary Wharf will prove too tantalising a juxtaposition to miss.
Then there are the new landmarks in east London – the Olympic Stadium, the ArcelorMittal Orbit and the other structures and regeneration work that came about as a result of London’s hosting of the Olympic Games last year. They will provide the perfect setting in which to explore London’s much-heralded Olympic ‘legacy’.
Ill Manors (2012) does just that – uses the Olympic Park as a backdrop and was released before the Games had even started. The film, directed by rapper Plan B, encompasses gang violence, drug-dealing, murder, poverty, rape, bullying, sex trafficking, theft, and some pretty foul language, clearly implying that the money spent on the 2012 Games could have been better spent elsewhere. Hardly an upbeat appraisal of the Olympic legacy, but what did you expect? The gritty pulling power of the East End endures.
Robert Rider, curator of Urban Wanderings at the Barbican Centre:
‘It Always Rains on Sunday is the definitive post-War feature film about East End life and was hailed in its publicity material as ‘the symphony of London’s East End’. With all the action taking place on a miserable, bleak Sunday, this is a film that reveals so much about the post-War East End - rationing, markets, over-crowded housing, the frustrations of women who, having worked in factories during the War and obtained a measure of independence, are now forced back into domesticity; cockney accents and Yiddish terms and phrases; spivs and petty crooks alongside solid, respectable hard-working characters, and the claustrophobia of a small cramped house symbolising the stifling atmosphere, repression and anxieties of the post-War era.’
Neil Mitchell, author of World Film Locations: London
‘Crime is the dominant genre. There’s been countless representations of and variations on Jack the Ripper’s murders, with ‘Spiv’ culture, The Kray Twins’ era and the modern fascination with youth and gang related crimes also all drawing from real life and adding to the mythology of the East End. If you look at From Hell, The Krays, It Always Rains on a Sunday, Brick Lane or Bullet Boy – which encompass horror, crime, melodrama, immigrant and youth cented narratives – there’s a real mix of fact and fiction at play, the area is steeped in actual and imagined mythologies, the changing physical spaces and population demographic of the East End over time may usher in new vistas and stories but the genres utilised to represent them re-appear with regularity. There’s a claustrophobic feel to many of the films set in the East End, with cramped terraced houses, bustling street markets and over-crowded tower blocks creating a sense of entrapment, pressure and hermetically sealed lives. Reality and fantasy feed off each other in creating the ‘idea’ of a place; the East End, obviously, isn’t populated entirely by crooks, murderers and angry adolescents, but that’s the nature of all media representations of places to zone in on particular aspects of an area.’
Tom Wareham, curator, Museum of London Docklands
‘Because the nature of the urban environment is changing I think it is unlikely we will see another Vietnam movie, or gangland films like Long Good Friday or Empire State - though admittedly, we have had the television crime series Whitechapel. Canary Wharf has already lent itself as the backdrop to more subtle crime environments, for example, banking or confidence capers and we have seen other directions develop to reflect the changing social environment, such as the adaptation of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. I think we might see more thoughtful films along those lines in the future – but of course, it’s not the availability of a location that determines what film is made. In some ways now the inspiring backdrop to the area is not so much the change to the built environment as the change to its people and this, I think, is where future films will focus.’
Lawrence Napper, lecturer, Department of Film Studies, Kings College London
‘The association [of the area] with crime extends of course to the notion of the East End as a labyrinth – an idea that extends back to Dickens and beyond. So the narrow streets, the small courtyards, and the dead ends are represented as a frightening and threatening space where the cultural tourist might easily get lost or corrupted. Fog is really important in these representations - the idea that you can’t see what’s going on, and everything is shrouded in mist. There’s a good version of this in the opening sequences of A Study in Terror (1965) which has Sherlock Holmes investigating the Jack the Ripper murders. In fact the whole Jack the Ripper legend is massively important for representations of the East End in this way, and of course there are plenty of examples from Pandora’s Box right up to From Hell and the TV series Whitechapel. Another good example of the area as a labyrinth is to be found in the opening sequence of Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929) where the police follow a criminal into these maze–like streets in order to arrest him. There’s a good sense that nobody living nearby is going to help them find him.’
Film season Urban Wandering – Film and the London Landscape, Barbican, until 2 October