Following the Regent’s Canal west, I arrive at one of the classic ghost sites of British cinema – the space where the gas-holders used to glower over the horizon around King’s Cross. Gas-holders have one function – to hold gas. Without gas, they are monumental, almost sculptural. For generations of film-makers, they weren’t just back-drops, but acted as scene-setters and mood-enhancers. Suitably portentous in The Ladykillers, they lent a slather of industrial chic to Lewis Gilbert’s otherwise glossy production of Alfie, while their alien quality was exploited, none too subtly, by David Cronenberg to suggest the skewed interior landscape of a schizophrenic Ralph Fiennes in Spider.
Seen in isolation, they typified a very British kind of bleak, doleful and quirky at the same time. And therefore perfect for Mike Leigh’s doleful and quirky High Hopes (or indeed almost any doleful and quirky Mike Leigh film)
The last gas-holder was removed in 2011, and so their film appearances are now an easy short-hand, a one-shot solution to signify the past. In Sally Potter 60’s coming-of-age drama Ginger & Rosa, two friends meet in the lee of the gas-holders, which don’t appear ominous, alien, or even industrial, but somehow romantic. This is what absence does to the film-maker’s heart. Made 2 years after the last one was removed, the gas-holders were resurrected thanks to some computer-generated wizardry, reminding us that locations are becoming increasingly virtual. And it’s a computer generated image that seems to confront me as I turn a corner just past the King’s Cross basin (with its art college and coffee roaster/restaurant Caravan)…
The closer I get, the image doesn’t pixelate, the mirage doesn’t evaporate…
This is Gas-Holder Number 8, re-housed a few hundred yards down the canal and re-purposed as a plaything..
From King’s Cross to Regents Park (The King’s Speech), past the zoo (Withnail And I), I could leave the canal and take a series of diversions to the ex-studios in the heart of the city, such as Westminster, Camden, Southwark, the underground studio in Great Portland Street, or Cecil Court, the epicentre of London’s nascent film industry, otherwise known as Flicker Alley. Instead, I continue west to join the dots and tell the other side of the Gaumont story.
The route leaves the park and travels along Baker Street, past the improbably long queue for The Sherlock Holmes Museum…
Crossing the six lane race track that is the Marylebone Road and dropping into Bayswater and along to Notting Hill (Performance, Leo The Last, Flame In The Streets and of course, Notting Hill), I finally arrive foot-sore at the home of Westfield, formerly known as Shepherd’s Bush. A suburban street linking the Goldhawk Road and the Uxbridge Road, Lime Grove is a rackety collection of Victorian terraces, a thoughtless 60s estate and a thoughtless modern estate.
On closer inspection, it turns out that this Legoland is the site of the old studios. Seven decades of British film and television history is commemorated with a couple of street names.
After a few minutes at Lime Grove, I’m beginning to warm to the statue of Hitchcock after all.