Southmere Lake and Binsey Walk, Thamesmead. © George Plemper 1976.
In late 1972 I made the journey to Leicester Square to see A Clockwork Orange. As with all Kubrick’s
films I thought the film was visually stunning and I loved the use of music throughout. The physical
and sexual violence seemed to me more theatrical than factual and I was astonished to hear a year
later the film had been banned.
All thoughts of the film had long gone when I crossed the footbridge across Yarnton Way
to Riverside School, Thamesmead in 1976. I had no idea I was entering a scene from Kubrick’s vision
of a desolate and violent Britain. My aims were simple; I was going to use the camera to show my
pupils that they were great, to show them that we were all worthwhile.
From A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain by Owen Hatherley:
It’s impossible to praise the original Thamesmead without caveats. There were never enough facilities, the transport links to the centre were always appalling, and the development was always shockingly urban for its outer-suburban context. Regardless, it is something special, a truly unique place. It always was, and remains so in its current, amputated form.
Unlike its successors, it’s flood-proof and still architecturally cohesive, after decades of abuse. Around Southmere lake you can see, just about, how with some decent upkeep and with tenants being given the choice rather than being dumped here, this could have been a fantastic place … This is basically a working-class Barbican, and if it were in EC1 rather than SE28 the price of a flat would be astronomical. Today it feels beaten and downcast, and it only ever gets into the news through vaguely racist stories about the Nigerian fraudsters apparently based here; but its architectural imagination, civic coherence and thoughtful detail, its nature reserves and wild birds, have everything that the ‘luxury flats’ lack.
Southmere Lake and Binsey Walk today. © David Secombe 2013.
Where Alex walked … watch him pitch his droogs into the cold, cold waters of Southmere Lake here.
Stanley Kubrick on the set of A Clockwork Orange. © Dmitri Kasterine 1969.
From A Clockwork Orange, dir.: Stanley Kubrick, 1971:
………………………………One thing I could never stand was to see a filthy, dirty old drunkie,
………………………………howling away at the filthy songs of his fathers and going blurp
………………………………blurp in between as it might be a filthy old orchestra in his stinking,
………………………………rotten guts. I could never stand to see anyone like that, whatever his
………………………………age might be, but more especially when he was real old like this one
(… and with that, Alex and his three droogs start attacking an old tramp lying in the underpass shown below.)
This week’s offering on The London Column is a short series on Stanley Kubrick’s use of London as a giant prop basket. Dmitri Kasterine’s portrait shows the director in his pomp: extravagantly booted, Arriflex to the ready, the world-conquering auteur of 1969. Only 41, he already has The Killing, Spartacus, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey behind him, an amazing achievement – which might explain why he looks a little weary. But his tiny camera and huge boots suggest the nature of his new project, a film far removed from the 70mm, Cinerama world of 2001. SK’s new one is set much nearer home.
Kubrick’s withdrawal of A Clockwork Orange in the UK – a ban that lasted from the late ’70s until his death – lent the film a mystique for all those British film fans unable to see it. I bought a pirated VHS tape of it (£15 in 1991) from a stall in Greenwich market and was, inevitably, hugely disappointed. A friend who watched it with me commented ‘Whatever I expected, this isn’t it.’ It is prescient in many ways, especially in its depiction of the dissemination of sexualised imagery (even if it exhibits some old-world sexism in the process), but time has not been kind to the Kubrick/Burgess brand; Kubrick’s other films of the ’60s and ’70s stand up much better. But it remains a terrific showcase for 1960s architecture.
Kubrick shot A Clockwork Orange quickly and cheaply in found locations within easy reach of his Hertfordshire lair. Carefully chosen new builds in Wandsworth, Uxbridge, Sydenham, West Norwood, Borehamwood and, most famously, Thamesmead, served as ready-made cycloramas for the director’s realisation of Burgess. The film’s opening atrocity is committed by Alex and co. in an underpass beneath Wandsworth roundabout. Like the Westway and the approaches to the Blackwall Tunnel, the roundabout and its environs constitute a sort of Birmingham in London: an imposing 1960s circulatory system just south of Wandsworth Bridge, complete with truncated and pointless autostrada carrying traffic to and from Wandsworth Common, where the motorway peters out in despair. (Wandsworth roundabout’s other claim to cultural distinction is the Sunday in 1973 when, during a furious row with his wife Jill Bennett, John Osborne drove his Mercedes into it.)
The pedestrianised centre of the roundabout is an assemblage of geometric concrete forms, served by brooding, permanently shadowed underpasses: ideal for Kubrick’s purposes and, subsequently, anyone else seeking to create representations of urban anomie. In fact, the association of Brutalist buildings with urban hopelessness has become such a cliché that it is worth noting that A Clockwork Orange pioneered the look. Francois Truffaut had shot Fahrenheit 451 in similar fashion a couple of years earlier, using Roehampton’s Alton Estate as a setting for a future society where the printed word is forbidden; but the dreamy, otherworldly mood of his film is worlds away from Kubrick’s visceral scenario. In seeking a cinematic equivalent for Burgess, Kubrick used Brutalism to create a visual shorthand for future awfulness. One can only imagine the dismay of early seventies architects and civic engineers seeing the finished film, which simultaneously treasures and trashes the well-meaning buildings on show, and explicitly links massed concrete with looming dread.
If Kubrick were making the film now, one wonders what visual cues he would employ. The social idealism of Brutalism has been supplanted now by an aggressively ingratiating public architecture based on consumerism, a landscape pithily described by Owen Hatherley as ‘the post-1979 England of business parks, Barratt homes, riverside ‘stunning developments’, out-of-town shopping and distribution centres.’ Which locations would Kubrick use today? Bromley? Woking, maybe? Corporate faux-vernacular would offer the right look. Saturday night in a modern British provincial town offers ample scope for rape and pillage, the pedestrianised shopping precinct the perfect setting for a spot of ultra-violence. Hell is the walkway between Nando’s and Asda.
Southern underpass, Wandsworth Roundabout. © David Secombe 2012.
… for The London Column.
Charlton House. Photo © David Secombe 2010.
Charles Jennings writes:
Nowadays just another stop on the railway line, a part of the sprawl of outer London, Charlton has, to its great and inexplicable glory, one of the most stunning pieces of Jacobean architecture in the whole country. This is Charlton House, dating from 1607 and built for Adam Newton, tutor to Prince Henry, James I’s eldest son and heir to the throne. It is the most wonderful building, made all more wonderful by the drabness of its surroundings.
To get to it from Charlton railway station requires an uninspiring five-minute slog south on Charlton Church Lane before you reach the brow of the hill: a redbrick church – St. Luke’s – on the left, ranks of flats on the right and in the centre, hemmed in by a car park and a stretch of lawn, a fabulous dark red brick Jacobean mansion, decorated with white stone quoins and dressings, and with a great wedding cake frontispiece, involving a huge bay window and the main entrance porch. Sir Niklaus Pevsner claimed that Charlton House contained ‘the most exuberant and undisciplined ornament in all England’; while Ian Nairn drew a metaphor – aptly enough – from Jacobean melodrama, seeing the building as ‘Sinister poetry: the Duchess of Malfi in SE7′. John Evelyn, writing fifty years after the house was built, described the view from the house as ‘one of the most noble in the world, for city, river, ships, meadows, hill, woods and all other amenities’.
At the end of Lights Out for the Territory, Iain Sinclair’s epic psychogeographical trek across London, the author visits Charlton House and ruminates upon its brooding presence and desirability as a residence for an aristocratic version of himself. Psychogeography is a much-derided concept, and it has been derided in these pages more than once (most recently by Andrew Martin earlier this week), but Charlton House is the kind of place which makes one wonder whether there might be something in it. It just seems monumentally wrong. In the midst of the anonymous south London sprawl it is spectacularly incongruous, but it isn’t just that (in fact, Charlton is the only London village where all the traditional elements remain visibly intact: the big house, the green, the church, the village). There is something else going on.
I once made a short film in which Charlton House featured as the main location. The film was a sort of parody of the English ghost story tradition, three men holding a night-time vigil in the Long Gallery of the House in the hope of seeing ‘something’. When being shown round the building during a recce, we ascended to the Long Gallery in a conspicuously modern elevator. I expressed my surprise at such an unexpected convenience, and was told that when the lift was being installed workmen discovered the body of an adolescent boy walled up behind one of the fireplaces. How long it had been there, no-one could say.
Buckingham Palace, 1991. Photo © David Secombe.
David Secombe writes:
In 1991, the BBC produced a documentary to mark Queen Elizabeth’s 40th anniversary as monarch. It was produced by the doyen of BBC documentary filmmakers, Edward Mirzoeff, famous for his Betjeman films and his editorship of the flagship 1980s documentary series 40 Minutes. I was tasked with doing the stills. The access Eddie and his small team had been given was unique, but the stills photographer had to manage as best he could, ducking out of shot (or not ducking out of shot), not treading on the sound man’s heels, and generally trying not to get fired. This picture was taken on my first day of the project, and shows the Queen having her portrait painted by Andrew Festing. The grainy, lightly impressionist tone of the image is largely a product of the fast Fuji film I used for much of the project: more a product of desperation, looking for stock that would cope with the relentlessly low levels of light, than any conscious creative decision. (‘Braille photography’ was a phrase which got used on more than one occasion.)
Stephen Frears film The Queen, featuring Helen Mirren’s acclaimed turn as Her Majesty, opens with a sequence in which the Queen has her portrait painted. The look of the sequence betrays the research the production team invested in Eddie’s film, and some of the details are lifted from the above picture (when the image first appeared, I remember being asked a lot of questions about the Queen’s silver shoes – this obviously made an impression on Frears’ team). I have heard that Stephen Frears denies ever seeing Eddie’s film. How sweet.
… for The London Column. © David Secombe 2012.
Although only officially designated a market in the 1880s, East Street Market continues a tradition of street trading in Walworth that goes back to Tudor times. Perhaps more germane to the purposes of the current post is the identification of the market with the 1980s & 90s situation comedy Only Fools and Horses, which is set in Peckham and uses photographs of East Street Market in its opening titles.
The popularity of John Sullivan‘s TV series has given this stretch of south London its own place in modern popular culture. Sullivan himself was from Balham, and he knew the milieu very well. He was working as a scene shifter at the BBC when he approached producer Dennis Main Wilson with an idea for a comedy. Main Wilson was a genuine enthusiast for comedy, a quality not always found in producers of ‘light entertainment’, and had an impeccable gift for searching out the genuine article. The idea was commissioned and became Citizen Smith.
Sullivan’s south London is a fabled place: Del and Rodney live in the mythical Nelson Mandela House (although there is a Nelson Mandela Way not too far away), the local boozer is a haunt of cartoon geezers and Peckham the bucolic playground for an assortment of genial chancers, through whom Sullivan has contributed several phrases to colloquial English. Television writers such as Sullivan and Galton & Simpson (Hancock’s Half Hour, Steptoe and Son) have created Dickensian characters for modern times, refashioning London in the image of their creations. Peckham has become Del Boy’s manor, just as any mention of Cheam conjures up the ghost of Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock – and Surbiton still bears the scars of The Good Life.