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Tuesday March 5th 2024

My Fair Lady | 1964

My Fair Lady filming location: St Paul's Church, Covent Garden
My Fair Lady filming location: the real St Paul's Church in Covent Garden (not seen in the film), with no sign of an Opera House: St Paul's Church, Covent Garden, London WC2

No, there's no Covent Garden in London, nor Ascot Racecourse in Berkshire. In fact, not a frame of the classic musical was shot in the UK.

The entire film was made on sets at the Warner Brothers studio in Burbank, California.

The geography of Covent Garden is juggled about for convenience, so that the front of the Royal Opera House, the church of St Paul's (not to be confused with St Paul's Cathedral) and the old flower and vegetable market all face the same square. In fact, the Opera House stands on the opposite side of the market from the church and faces in the opposite direction too.

Covent Garden, a corrupted reference to the old Convent Garden which once occupied the area, was one of the capital's three great produce markets – Billingsgate for fish, Smithfield for meat and Covent Garden for fruit, veg and flowers.

It was a world to itself – one of the few places where the country's stringent licensing laws were relaxed, allowing market porters to down a pint of all at 6am. If you didn't look too much like a tourist, you could join them. And if you were poor, you could help yourself to scattered leftover vegetables once the market closed in the evening.

The market relocated to a purpose built site in 1974 and the old market buildings have been repurposed as boutiques, gift shops and restaurants.

St Paul's Church, where Eliza Dolittle sold violets at the foot of its grand pillars, was built in 1633. A plaque commemorates that the first ever 'Punch and Judy' show was performed here (as recorded by diarist Samuel Pepys). By the way, this grand looking frontage is the rear of the church. You access the entrance through the garden alongside.

It's become known as the Actors' Church and inside you'll find memorials to the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Noël Coward, Robert Shaw, Boris Karloff, Vivien Leigh, Diana Rigg, Ian Holm and others.

Also to My Fair Lady's lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and Stanley Holloway, who plays Alfred Dolittle in the film.

You can see the church interior, and some of its memorial plaques, in 2006 film Venus, for which Peter O'Toole received his eighth and final Oscar nomination.

The Royal Opera House is featured in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 1948 classic The Red Shoes and oddly features as the 'Fhloston Paradise' where the blue alien diva performs in Luc Besson's The Fifth Element.

And the vegetable market itself is at the centre of Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy, filmed shortly before the market closed down.

As for Ascot Racecourse, it was very obviously a recreated in the studio – but those were real horses. It was a little joke to put real horses and jockeys racing through that very stagey set.

In order to pull this off, the soundstage doors were opened on two sides so that the horses could get up to speed then race through the set at full pelt, leaving the audience gasping "Did I just see that?".

The real Ascot Racecourse has been seen on screen in two Bond movies, though only once as a racetrack, when Bond (Roger Moore) first checks out Zorin (Christopher Walken) in 1985's A View to a Kill.

In Skyfall, its Grandstand was used as Shanghai’s ‘Pudong International Airport’.