London has long held an A-listing role in the cinematic world. It is after all where James Bond calls home, from where Harry Potter commutes and where Bridget Jones falls out of taxis.
Selecting the best films set in the Big Smoke then is a tall order, but here are some of our more offbeat suggestions to get you excited for your next visit.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), North London
This modern take on John Le Carre’s classic evokes a 1970s London where spies conspire in smoke-filled rooms and dank alleys – not the imperial grandeur of the capital as so often depicted in 007’s outings. The film tracks spymaster George Smiley’s (Gary Oldman) attempts to uncover a traitor at the heart of British Intelligence and in doing so reflects a darker and murkier side of London during the difficult period of the 70s – more a Battersea Power Station than a Buckingham Palace.
In the midst of all the darkness though, London still manages to occasionally sparkle whether it is during clandestine rooftop meetings where the city spreads out below or watching characters stalk through Islington townhouses and Hampstead parks. It's a wonderful period piece.
The film’s hero takes a bracing dip in Hampstead Heath Ponds to help clear the mind for searching counter-espionage activities. Londoners flock to these ponds throughout the year for a similarly rewarding swim and visitors too can enjoy what is perhaps the best outdoor activity the city offers. To cap off the swim, have a walk up to Parliament Hill to see one of the best free views of London.
Attack the Block (2011), South London
Joe Cornish’s horror-comedy flick set in a South London tower block highlights parts of London that are not normally in the spotlight. Taking place somewhere between Peckham and Brixton (but in reality shot in council estates throughout the city), the film follows a teenage gang coming up against a marauding army of aliens attacking their estate. With a cast recruited from nearby council blocks (including an early role for John Boyega), Attack the Block showcases the wit and warmth of everyday communities of Londoners outside of Zone 1.
Brixton has long been on the tourist map thanks to its world class food and nightlife, but worth checking out too is Elephant and Castle where large parts of the film were shot. Mercato Metropolitano is teeming with great eating spots and don’t forget nearby Imperial War Museum (no aliens). Afterwards you can head to the Prince of Wales pub in nearby Kennington tucked away in a lavish square that also boasts its own petanque court.
About Time (2013), West London
Richard Curtis has been firmly planting flags in London since the very beginning of his filmmaking career. About Time might not be the obvious choice among his oeuvre of rom-coms set in the capital, but arguably builds up a more realistic sense of what living in London actually entails; some of the characters even take the Tube! In fact, the "How Long Will I Love You" montage sequence in Maida Vale Station where the film’s couple are seen going to work, going out on the town and returning from holiday is pretty much a spot on encapsulation of what life is like in your early 20s moving to London and falling in love.
Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams’ characters first meet in Dans Le Noir, a real restaurant where you eat completely in darkness. You too can follow in their footsteps and meet the love of your life in this Farringdon institution but bookings are advised as this place fills quickly. Nearby The Jerusalem Tavern is often cited as the best pub in Central London and you can just imagine Domhnall and Rachel meeting up here for a post-work pint.
Mary Poppins (1964), Central London
Though not filmed at all in London (and having some pretty dodgy accents to boot), we defy anyone not to get hairs standing up as the opening credits roll over a London skyscape with the unmistakable music. Mary Poppins fully captures the whole spectrum of Edwardian London, showcasing hardy suffragettes, soulless bankers and cavorting chimney sweeps. Everyone’s favorite nanny guides the Banks children through a whole host of adventures across Kensington Parks, through the heart of the City and up to London’s heights. The film helps plant London firmly on the map for kids’ imaginations the world over – a place that offers magic and adventures to all who pass through.
Perhaps one of the most iconic scenes is on the footsteps of St Paul’s Cathedral where “The Bird Woman” exhorts passersby to feed the pigeons who make London their home. Even if you are not in the mood to feed the pigeons, you can still climb the cathedral’s dome for a bird’s eye view of the City of London. A short walk away, Postman’s Park features an Edwardian memorial commemorating people who died saving the lives of others – something Mary would definitely approve of.
The Long Good Friday (1980), East London
Bob Hoskins’ breakthrough makes the cut not just for being a cracking gangster film, but effectively foretelling London’s canny ability to reinvent itself. Anchored in the Docklands area, the film follows mob boss Harold Shand’s attempts to go straight by luring the American Mafia to invest in property development on the Isle of Dogs. This might not exactly go to plan in the film but ten years after it was released, the barren wasteland Harold was trying to flog rejuvenated into the gleaming towers of Canary Wharf. It is the film’s prescience towards London’s shifting modernity as well as early roles from Helen Mirren and Pierce Brosnan that make it a great watch prior to a London visit.
It may be the most boringly named museum in London, but the Docklands Museum provides an excellent, interactive way to explore the history of the area from its Roman roots, to its role in the slave trade through to the modern day. Closer to the city, The Dickens Inn is a good spot to take in views of St Katharine Docks where Harold moors his luxury yacht and speculates on the future of London. Further afield, the gorgeous Salisbury Tavern in Haringey doubles up as a Belfast boozer in the movie and is one of London’s hidden gems.
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