Who is the greatest movie star of our times? Tom Cruise? Brad Pitt? Will Smith? Harrison Ford? It’s actually London. These days, it’s not just costume dramas that make use of the capital’s time-warp streets and historic buildings. Action blockbusters, from Star Trek Edge of Darkness to James Bond’s Skyfall, have been vying to find ever-more inventive ways to blow the place up.
In the last decade, the number of films shot in London has increased by a third, pumping £3.5bn a year into the economy with generous tax breaks for foreign productions being shot here. Part of it is practical: Film London rolls out the red carpet to Hollywood productions, clearing streets and smoothing out problems with residents. When World War Z shot a zombie chase scene in south London’s Heygate housing estate, locals were drafted in to work on the film. This great city, with its startling mix of thousand-year-old landmarks and futuristic towers, is just so darn photogenic. London has the best crews and special effects houses, too. Gravity may look like it was shot in outer space, but it was all constructed within the computers of Framestore in Soho.
So when you’re strolling round London, keep half an eye out for a superhero or two; maybe even the odd Star Wars actor, since the new trilogy is being shot at Pinewood. You’ll certainly bump into Paddington Bear: 50 statues of the loveable kids’ character have been erected on plinths through the capital, in honour of his big-budget movie opening this month. A simple stroll along the Thames will bring you eye-to-eye with some of the biggest movies of the last few years.
Battersea Power Station
The iconic building first featured in Hitchcock’s Sabotage in 1936. This is where Harvey Dent was blown up by the Joker in Batman: The Dark Night (2007); the King’s Speech (2010) was broadcast from its control room. Its current £8 billion redevelopment, however, may end its movie career.
It took the combined superpowers of the Fantastic Four (2007) to prevent the London Eye from falling into a gigantic whirlpool in the Thames. They needn’t have bothered: it was spectacularly blown up, along with the rest of central London, in GI Joe: Retaliation (2013).
Houses of Parliament
The tower of Ben Big has been seen in countless films and major TV programmes. To shoot the climax of V For Vendetta (2008), two tanks, 400 masked protestors and 200 “police” massed in the square outside for three nights. However, the upcoming Suffragette, starring Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep, was the first ever allowed to film inside the Houses of Parliament. Back on British screens, the new series of Doctor Who, starring Peter Capaldi, uses the unforgettable Big Ben in its skyline.
Just north of the river is Film Central. James Bond stood on the rooftop of 3 Whitehall Place in Skyfall (2012); the cars of Fast & Furious 6 (2013) raced along the Embankment here towards Piccadilly Circus; Lord North Street was a key location for the artist biopic, Mr. Turner (2014). But nothing can top the sight of Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow (2014) landing a real helicopter in Trafalgar Square.
Look again at the alien city scenes in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Anything seem familiar? Yes, they are crossing the Millennium Bridge, doubling for far-flung future architecture. Strange, given that the Death Eaters destroyed it in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)…
St Paul’s Cathedral
The Geometric Staircase doubled as the Divination Stairwell in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), and hosted a chase in Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock Holmes (2009). The rival Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch, obviously took offence: St. Paul’s is clearly visible when he blows up future London in Star Trek Into Darkness (2013).
Hollywood has been slow to capitalise on The Shard’s spectacular recent addition to London’s skyline. Perhaps it’s because Doctor Who gave them a tough act to follow: zooming up the outside of the building on his antigravity motorbike in The Bells of St John (2013).
Tower of London
Whatever stirring and regal sights the Tower of London has witnessed within its imposing stone walls over a thousand years and more, none can have prepared it for Miss Piggy’s wedding, in Muppets Most Wanted (2014). London locations also stood in for Berlin, Madrid and Dublin in the family caper.
Bollywood films love London even more than Hollywood does. And they don’t keep blowing the city up. To get his scenic shot of Tower Bridge during a key song in Ra.One (2011), one of the most expensive Indian films ever produced, Shahrukh Khan gamely balanced on a high, thin wall despite a knee injury.
With its grand naval buildings, Greenwich doubled for revolutionary Paris in Les Misérables (2012) as well as 18th-century London in Belle (2014). It also hosted the climactic smackdown in Thor: The Dark World (2013). Just don’t try to follow Thor’s Tube journey: Greenwich is NOT three stops from Charing Cross!