With the quaint social history and timeworn aesthetic of the East End, it’s no surprise that moviemakers have chosen this less conventional section of the capital for film locations over the clichéd playgrounds of Notting Hill or Westminster. From indie cults to global blockbusters, camera crews have been on site with slider rails, mics and roadblocks since memory serves in the effort to introduce viewers to a more challenging cinematic experience that perfectly suits the genres of poverty, the gangland life and of course our homegrown categories of Jack the Ripper horror and Alfred Hitchcock suspense.
While the area’s industrialised past makes a great backdrop for concrete brutalism, you’d be surprised at the diversity of sequences not just recorded but set here, tapping into the adaptability of the urban locality and its raw visual beauty. There are unique British dramas like Secrets & Lies (above left) which depicts a middle class black woman trace her birth mother to a lower class white woman, narratives of immigration like award winning My Brother The Devil (above centre) where two Egyptian brothers come of age on a sprawling estate, and old school family classics like To Sir, With Love (above right) which sees Sidney Poitier’s character take the old number 15 bus route to East Ham so that he can undertake his new appointment as teacher at an unruly school full of slum children, shot in Poplar, Shadwell and Wapping.
And then there are the ones that wish they were here but weren’t, like Mary Poppins; set largely in these parts but shot entirely in a studio in Burbank, California. And the controversial Brick Lane production based on the novel by Monica Ali, which was cast out of its namesake street after opposition from the native Bangladeshi community. As well as Made in Dagenham, which was about the Ford sewing machinists’ strike that happened in the suburb but was recreated in a factory in Wales.
But this article is not about the ones that imitated the community or the neighbourhood for there are so many; this is about celebrating the movies that celebrated East London by immortalising its actual physical landscape on the silver screen. Here are seven motion pictures, in order of release, that were rolling right here:
It Always Rains On Sunday (1947)
Location: Whitechapel High Street, Petticoat Lane and Temple Mills Depot in Leyton.
A forerunner to the kitchen sink, It Always Rains on Sunday is set in post-war Bethnal Green and sees a housewife/stepmother have her joyless existence overturned in one day by the return of an old, still kindling flame. Escaped from prison, Rose finds former lover Tommy hiding in the family’s air-raid shelter where he asks her to help conceal him. Still in love she moves him into the lockable bedroom while everyone is out but it proves ridiculously difficult to keep her secret, especially as he is still up for seducing her midst the hustle and bustle of her family home. The strain is agonising, the police close in and the whole thing ends bitter-sweetly in this emotionally thrilling and tensely erotic noir.
Grim frames of spitting rain were captured on Whitechapel High Street and the market scenes were filmed in Petticoat Lane, while the climactic ending was shot at Temple Mills Marshalling Yards, Leyton – now a Eurostar train maintenance depot (clip below). Thankfully this British box office hit went on to see better days with an even more applauded re-mastered second release.
The Elephant Man (1980)
Location: Homerton Hospital and Liverpool Street Station.
The gothic splendour of Victorian Hackney as it is portrayed in the Joseph Merrick based biopic, The Elephant Man, is unfortunately no longer visible in its former glory, as most of the sets in the area have been long knocked down. In this touching black and white movie, a sympathetic surgeon (a rather dashing young Antony Hopkins) helps the disfigured freak-show of a circus ('The Elephant Man' played by John Hurt) escape and prove to the brutes that incarcerated him that he is in fact human.
One of the most dramatic scenes shows the runaway fleeing from a mob past the wonderful web of wrought iron and crumbling brickwork that was the old Liverpool Street Station. From there he ascends onto the grand station bridge as he is taunted by a mob below, before escaping into a toilet to emotionally exclaim, “I am not an Elephant, I am not an animal, I am a human being!” Some of the opening scenes of the movie are also filmed in the area at what was the Eastern Hospital, which now stands as Homerton Hospital after being demolished and rebuilt.
Nineteen Eighty Four (1984)
Location: Cheshire Street.
The year is 1984, Big Brother reigns (the scary dictator kind), blue jumpsuits are the look and screaming hatred at a flickering screen is the most popular past time. In a city controlled by the dangerous dictatorship ‘Ingsoc’, Ninety Eighty Four tells the story of Winston whose full time job it is to rewrite history in favour of the country’s leaders. Tired of being told what to think and do, he rebels, falling in love with his colleague Julia, and starts an illegal secret relationship, renting a bug-ridden bedsit that was actually on Cheshire Street (clip below).
Thanks to the not too uncommon smashed glass windows and crumbling buildings of 1980s Shoreditch, it was the perfect rundown area to represent the decrepit, proletariat side of town depicted in Nineteen Eighty Four and is visible in all its gritty glory.
The Krays (1990)
Location: The Royal Oak, Columbia Road.
This gangster flick was based on notorious real life identical twins, Ron and Reggie Kray. Born in Hoxton and raised in Bethnal Green, they rose from poverty to power in the 1960s to ruthlessly rule over London’s gangland. The film tells the story of them as a very brutal, new breed of mobsters as they grow from obscurity to fame, eventually rubbing shoulders with London’s high society and seemingly skimming above the law. The East End makes numerous appearances throughout though its starring role in the film in a scene where the Krays dramatically shoot up a pub belonging to their rivals, the Maltese Boys. The Royal Oak on Columbia Road still stands bullet hole free today, though patrons of the popular local are highly unlikely to find any shoot-em-up action beyond the pool table.
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
Location: Pedley Street Tunnel, The Royal Oak on Columbia Road and Blackman’s Shoes, Cheshire Street.
It doesn’t get much more cockney than Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, so of course this testosterone fuelled black comedy is taped in the rough-cut ends of East London. At the very beginning of the picture, we find the gang escaping from the law in a race down railway steps (now covered in graffiti) towards Pedley Street (clip below).
Later, we are back in the Royal Oak on Columbia Road, a pub clearly not unfamiliar with the limelight of gangster movies; here the story of infamous gangster Rory Breaker unfolds as he calmly sets another bar goer alight “like a leaking gas pipe” just because the fella dared to switch the TV channel over from the footy (clip above). Just down the road at 42-44 Cheshire Street is another notable location and where the main villain, Hatchet Harry’s sex shop features. Off screen it’s actually a lot less exciting, doing business as a shoe shop called Blackman’s Shoes.
Bridget Jones' Diary: The Edge of Reason (2004)
Location: The Light Bar, Shoreditch High Street
Bridget Jones’ Diary - the single girl’s guide to how not to conduct oneself in adult life - returned with its second edition, The Edge of Reason, in 2004. Renee Zellweger’s character became an ex-spinster when she began life with new wonder boyfriend Mark Darcy in what would normally have been a perfectly harmonious relationship, but her undying need to question everything, including the way he folds his pants, also saw her debut as a hilarious relationship anti-heroine. The flick gained itself extra ‘hip points’ in a scene filmed in Shoreditch High Street’s swanky Light Bar, where Bridget and her chain smoking buddies break down every last detail of her relationship over cocktails and beer.
Eastern Promises (2007)
Location: Broadway Gents Hairstylist on Broadway Market and Ironmonger Row Baths
In this very dark drama, midwife Anna comes to be in possession of a diary written by a young girl, Tatiana, who died during the birth of her child. The new owner soon finds herself tangled in a web of clues that may unveil a rape calculated by a viscous Russian mob family. While much of this sinister movie was filmed in Three Mills Studios in Bromley-by-Bow (also where parts of Corpse Bride and The Fantastic Mr Fox were filmed), the appropriately drab scenes set in London Fields and Shoreditch include a gory murder at ‘Azim’s Hair Salon’ which in reality is Broadway Gents Hairstylist (54 Broadway Market) and another murder in the film’s ‘Turkish Baths’, which in actuality is the Grade II listed public wash-house known as Ironmonger Row Baths (1-11 Ironmonger Row), built in 1931.
So here's to citizen eccentricity and brick-and-mortar naturalism. From historic streets, overground platforms and riverside views to seemingly indistinct warehouses, raw parkland and rooftop panoramas: East London's characteristic mix has gradually become an A-list filming location for everything from arthouse to Hollywood. Upcoming motion pictures featuring the distinctive cityscape of these parts include Kevin Costner's newest venture, Criminal, out in late August 2015; do keep an eye out for more newbies and let us know of any vital ones we've missed on this list.