The Daily Telegraph
Published on Thursday November 1, 2007
Chris Alden visits Black Park in Buckinghamshire, location for countless English movies – and rounds up famous film locations from around the country.
Taking a walk through Black Park, near Iver in Buckinghamshire, is a little like standing in the eye of a hurricane. Around you, in three sides of a square, are three of England’s busiest motorways: the M40, the M25 and the M4. Three miles southwest is Slough, the town that Betjeman wanted to see bombed – in the friendliest possible way, of course. The heart of all that energy and noise is the last place on earth you’d expect to find peace.
But Black Park is a place of such stillness and calm, such elemental beauty, that as you wander in the trees you start to lose all sense of perspective – not just of time, but of space. You could be anywhere. Walking for hours here among giant pines, through the ragged heathland and tangled ferns, I saw maybe a dozen people at most. It felt like a dreamworld.
If others have felt the same, that’s one reason why Black Park – so easily reached from London, yet so far from the world of men – is such a popular location for so many British films.
Another reason is that the park is adjacent to Pinewood Studios. Which helps.
It started, in the late 1950s, with Hammer – and if you take a walk in the woods here, you can easily see why. Producers would decamp to the forest to shoot outdoor scenes, in which Black Park represented Transylvania, or rural Spain, or anywhere eerie and European on a dark night.
It was just that spooky woodland feel that attracted the Harry Potter franchise to Black Park, when they chose the estate as the backdrop for Hagrid’s cottage.
In fact, the same reasons that Black Park is so attractive to filmmakers are why it is so popular with visitors: it’s flat, it’s accessible, there’s a good network of paths to walk, cycle or ride in – and though it’s big enough to get lost in, it’s not big enough to get lost in for too long.
Some of the most creative use of the park has been made by the James Bond franchise. You know that scene in Octopussy where the two evil twins Mischka and Grischka chase and kill agent 009, who is dressed as a clown? Black Park. The Alpine chase in Goldfinger where Bond shows off the wizardry of his Aston Martin? Black Park. The Ugandan rebel warlords’ camp in Casino Royale? Black Park. For that film, producers brought red soil from Devon, used tropical plants, and sprayed water around with an agricultural crop sprayer to make the area look like it had been in a tropical rainstorm.
Even Monty Python have been here. When they repackaged their sketches for the US market in Now For Something Completely Different, this was where they filmed “I’m a Lumberjack and I’m OK”. Get that song out of your head as you wander among the trees, and you’re a stronger person than I.
Lesser giants of the movie world shot in Black Park include four Carry On films, Black Beauty and even Wombling Free: the Movie – after Uganda and Transylvania, it’s not so hard pretending Black Park is Wimbledon Common.
As you relax with a coffee or a fry-up in the cafe by the lake in the southwest corner of the park, you might think you’re out of the way of film references for a moment – but no, you’re still on location. Rowan Atkinson apparently fished on this lake for the opening scenes of Johnny English; even Supergirl flew over here back in the 80s; and Richard Gere filmed here with First Knight.
Of course, all over south-east England, countless landmark houses and monuments have doubled up for places real and fantastical on screen.
That race around a Cambridge quadrangle in Chariots of Fire might have looked like the real thing, but it was actually filmed at Eton College, Berkshire. And continuing the university theme, Christ Church in Oxford not only becomes Hogwart’s Hall in the Harry Potter series of films, but also appears in the Golden Compass, the first film of the His Dark Materials trilogy, out later this year.
London itself has been the backdrop to so many films – Alfie, A Clockwork Orange, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’ Diary, 28 Days Later – that it’s scarcely possible to document them.
No wonder we often get the sense that we’re living in a movie: wherever we go in England, it seems the movies have already been.
Famous scenes … and where they were filmed
The pathetic, sissyish, middle-class fight between Colin Firth and Hugh Grant in Bridget Jones’ Diary is one of the funniest British comedy scenes of recent years. Although in the book, Bridge lives in plush Holland Park, the film convincingly relocates her to a flat above the Globe pub in up-and-coming Southwark. The fight starts in the street and moves into a taverna, where the rivals pause to sing happy birthday to a diner before careering out through the window.
A proper fight, this one. “We are the mods, we are the mods, we are the, we are the, we are the mods,” sing the mods (who else?) in Quadrophenia, before having a Bank Holiday set-to with the rockers on Brighton seafront. Watch out for Sting and Lesley Ash.
Definitely a place for neglected women at one with their landscape: scenes include Kate Winslet pining for Willoughby in a green outfit in Sense and Sensibility (then getting drenched and nearly catching her death of cold, the poor love) at Montacute House in Somerset; and Meryl Streep as the French Lieutenant’s Woman, standing on a bleak seafront in Lyme Regis in Dorset.
What is it about Pride and Prejudice that sets hearts racing? Yes, Darcy with a wet shirt might be the lure, but Pemberley is the prize – which is why Chatsworth House, probably the poshest pile in England, was chosen to represent Darcy’s home not only in the 90s TV adaptation, but also in the 2005 film starring Keira Knightley.
East of England
If you could find Illyria, the fabulous island of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, would you go there? Producers of Shakespeare in Love thought Holkham Bay in Norfolk was idyllic enough to represent it – and this was where Gwyneth Paltrow walked into the sunset at the end of the movie. Meanwhile in nearby Cambridgeshire, Ely Cathedral is also set to appear on screen – as London, in Elizabeth: Golden Age, out this year.
Alnwick Castle in Northumbria is the standout film location in the north-east. Harry Potter learnt to fly his broomstick in the grounds here; Maid Marian had her home here in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves; but perhaps the most dramatic scene was the opening of Elizabeth, starring Cate Blanchett, where the castle was used as the backdrop to the burning of Protestant martyrs.
Can it really be 10 years since the Full Monty? This story of men being men thrust Sheffield into the limelight back in 1997 – and won an Oscar for its soundtrack. The final scene was filmed at the Shiregreen Working Men’s Club, which this year held a men’s stripping competition (with posing pouches) to commemorate a decade since the movie.
“I’ll have you, even if it must be burglary!” Students everywhere can quote the line from the scene in Withnail and I, in which two resting actors, Withnail and Marwood, travel to the Cumbrian cottage of Withnail’s Uncle Monty – only to be woken late at night by Monty himself, who has designs on Marwood. The cottage itself, Sleddale Hall in Cumbria, is derelict, but the scenery speaks for itself.
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