The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Aug 19, 2007

Moving Bridges

Fanatics of the Mummy series of movies will no doubt recollect (with a thrill) the scene where Brendan Fraser runs onto Tower Bridge desperately trying to catch up with his son's kidnappers.

As he speeds towards the car carrying his son, the drawbridge starts to rise. He slows with the effort of running upwards - there is a shot of him barely moving - but then he jumps across what looks like twenty metres of air, and grabs hold of the other blade of the drawbridge, gasping for breath, face strained with despair.

Tower Bridge, that fruity complement to the Tower of London, was pilloried in intellectual circles when originally erected in 1894 as an architectural gimrack, a monstrous and preposterous architectural sham, and a discredit to the generation that created it. The main design goal was to blend it with the ancient Tower, and the fact that many visitors assume the bridge has been longer than just over a century is further proof of the success of the design, as Chris Roberts points out in his excellent Cross River Traffic. The public loved it from the start, however, and it has proven to be an icon of London much more recognised than any other.

Many films, including the Mummy referred to above, have used London's bridges and the areas around them for backdrops. St. Katherine's Dock, just to the north of Tower Bridge, is a fancy part of town, mixing posh with public housing. The Long Good Friday, a famous British crime film, is based here, with Bob Hoskins playing a villain sensing opportunity in the redevelopment, but also a victim of his own narrow parochialism.

Basil Dearden's Pool of London is another crime film set near the Tower Bridge. This, in fact, shows the docks fully operational - as they were in the 1950s. Besides the Tower Bridge, the most heavily filmed bridge in London is that of Westminster. Meanwhile, Albert Bridge appears in Absolute Beginners, Maybe Baby, and Gwyneth Paltrow's Sliding Doors, but not to overly great effect, for which Chris Roberts refuses to blame this doxy of a bridge.

Suzy Kendal leaves the bright lights of the Swinging Sixties in Chelsea for Battersea crossing over Chelsea Bridge to see for herself how the working classes lived, in Up the Junction, while the paranoid thriller Defence of the Realm makes use of Hungerford Bridge (in whose darkly lit walkways two young men were beaten senseless in 1999, and thrown over the railings into the river by a gang of six hoodlums). And Southwark Bridge adds its two mites to the crime flick, starting with the first of the Ealing comedies, Hue and Cry.

Waterloo Bridge plays a role in the song Waterloo Sunset by the Kinks: Terence Stamp and Julie Christie, lovers at the time, cross the river symbolising the wonder at Swinging London, the beautiful city being reborn in the Sixties. Surely, though, the finest tribute to it should be the eponymous film starring Vivien Leigh as a young ballerina who falls for Robert Taylor, a Scots officer. She is fired from the ballet, no doubt for immorality, for spending a last evening with him before he heads for the war, and is driven to prostitution around the bridge where she had met her love for the first time. It's all very tragic and ends with her leap into the Thames off the bridge. The film starts and finishes on the bridge, but most of it was filmed on a backlot in California, and Chris Roberts, moved by it all, says it has everything: love, life, opportunity, despair and hope, which pretty much sums up the bridge .

Lastly, Westminster Bridge, London's oldest river crossing still in use, is put to stark effect in the eerie 28 Days Later; other disaster movies in which it appears are The Day of the Triffids and Reign of Fire (the latter I watched only because it starred dragons, and one, you agree, cannot have too many dragons in one's life).


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