Frenzy | 1972
There are wonderful London locations in Alfred Hitchcock’s first British film since The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1956, but first the collision between the blackly humorous script and director Alfred Hitchcock’s virulent misogyny, previously kept in check by production codes, makes for queasy viewing today.
The film is based on the novel Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square by Arthur La Bern (author of the excellent downbeat slice-of-life drama It Always Rains On Sunday, filmed by Robert Hamer in 1947) and adapted by Anthony Shaffer, the writer of Sleuth and cult horror flick The Wicker Man.
The body of the Necktie Strangler’s first victim drifts into view in the River Thames alongside the terrace of the old London County Hall, at the foot of Westminster Bridge, across from the Houses of Parliament, while a politician blathers on about pollution to an audience which includes a rubber-necking, bowler-hatted Hitch.
County Hall was home to the GLC (Greater London Council) until this was abolished by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1986. Today County Hall houses an array of businesses and tourist attractions, including the London Sea Life Aquarium (featured in Mike Nichols' Closer), the London Dungeon and the Namco Funscape amusement arcade. The London Eye is next to County Hall, and its visitor centre is inside the building. At the top of the steps from the Terrace to Westminster Bridge stands the little security booth which masqueraded as the entrance to MI6 in 2002 Bond movie Die Another Day.
Most of the film is set around Covent Garden in London’s West End. Now titivated to become terrace cafés and boutiques stocked with designer clothes and scented candles and populated by street entertainers, Covent Garden was until 1973 London’s major wholesale fruit and vegetable market. You might recognise it as the setting for the musical My Fair Lady (the film of which was made entirely on Warner Bros sound stages in Burbank).
St Paul's Church, overlooking the west side of the piazza, is known as The Actors' Church being so close to the city’s Theatreland, it's seen memorial services for many greats of stage and screen. If you peek inside, you'll find its walls covered with memorials to such luminaries as Charlie Chaplin, Boris Karloff, Robert Shaw, Laurence Harvey and Vivien Leigh. There's a touching little scene in Roger Michell's 2006 film of Hanif Kureishi's Venus, as Peter O'Toole and Leslie Phillips pay homage to their fellow thespians.
In 1973, the whole market operation moved to a soulless new facility at Nine Elms, south of the Thames near Vauxhall, and Frenzy has gone on to become an invaluable record of the old market as it had been for decades.
Many of the locations are still recognisable, however. The pub at 37 Bow Street, from which Blaney (Jon Finch) is sacked from his job as a barman by landlord Felix Forsythe (Bernard Cribbins – far nastier than he was as Stationmaster Perks in The Railway Children), is serving pints again after being closed for several years, although it's been revamped as The Bow Street Tavern.
At least, people no longer confuse this pub with The Globe, in Borough south of the Thames, which was home to Bridget in Bridget Jones’s Diary.
The pub where Blaney overhears the city gents drooling over the wave of sex killings remains unchanged. It’s the Nell of Old Drury, 29 Catherine Street, WC2 opposite the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The pub has connections – literally – with the Theatre Royal: an underground tunnel joins the two establishments. An interval bell once rang in the pub for theatregoers who’d popped across the road for a quick drink. The Nell in name of the pub, of course, is King Charles II’s favourite, Nell Gwynn.
Blaney takes his barmaid friend Babs (Anna Massey) to the Coburg Hotel, alongside Queensway tube station opposite Hyde Park, where they check in as Mr and Mrs Oscar Wilde. This is where Blaney is recognised but nevertheless manages to make his escape before the law arrives. The hotel still exists as the Hilton London Hyde Park, 129 Bayswater Road, W2.
Coincidentally, London’s other Hilton hotel, the London Hilton on Park Lane, 22 Park Lane, W1, is where Blaney goes to ask for help from his old RAF chum Johnny Porter (Clive Swift), despite suspicious wife Hetty (Billie Whitelaw – the creepy nanny from The Omen).
Opposite the London Hilton on Park Lane is the tiny patch of grass where Babs meets up with Blaney after his escape from the Coburg.
I don't have to post a 'spoiler' alert – this isn't a whodunit: Hitchcock reveals the identity of the killer early on. The flat of ‘necktie strangler’ Robert Rusk (Barry Foster), where Hitchcock pulls off the eerie silent tracking shot up and down the stairs, is 3 Henrietta Street back in the heart of Covent Garden. Notice the barely perceptible cut as a porter carrying a sack of potatoes passes in front of the camera – the interior is a studio set.
Slightly disturbingly, the place has now been reopened as a smart restaurant, called Pivot British Bar & Bistro. I'm assuming any potato sacks have been checked for – um – foreign bodies.
The home of doomed Brenda Blaney is 31 Ennismore Gardens Mews, tucked away in a maze of streets in South Kensington. From another era of British film altogether, 17 Rutland Mews South was home to John Gregson and Dinah Sheridan in the cosy 1953 comedy classic Genevieve. If you were wondering, 'mews' were originally stables, the name deriving from the sound of falcons that were kept alongside horses.
There’s another bravura Hitchcock sequence at Brenda’s marriage bureau, after she is raped and strangled (in the director's most disturbingly graphic scene). When Brenda's secretary returns from lunch, Hitchcock holds the still shot of the exterior for an astonishingly long time before releasing the tension with a scream.
Unfortunately, the little alleyway running south from Oxford Street, on which the bureau stood, has now gone. It’s been incorporated into a shop (ownership seems to change regularly), though you can still see its elaborate wrought-iron arch above 119 Oxford Street near the southeast corner of Wardour Street.