The tiny shadow of a boy scampers along the Thames path at dusk between two gallows that swing in the shrieking wind, calling out it seems for new victims. London doesn’t get much more epic than this, the opening scene of David Lean’s unsurpassable adaptation of Great Expectations.
Perhaps best known now as the globetrotting neo-colonial director behind films like Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence Of Arabia, Lean was also the quintessential London filmmaker. He was born in Croydon and died in Limehouse and in between, the capital helped shape his career; it was here that he made his name through his landmark collaborations with Nöel Coward and his adaptations of Dickens, and where he hatched the plans for his great late masterpieces.
Brought up as a Quaker, Lean was not allowed to watch films as a child and had to sneak out of his house in Blenheim Crescent to visit Croydon’s now-demolished Scala Cinema. His first clandestine excursion was at the age of 13, when he escaped the domestic strife of his parents, who were breaking up at the time, to see Maurice Elvey’s creepy silent film of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Later in life, Lean recalled the trip as being like a religious awakening: "I would look at that light as a pious boy might react to a shaft of sunlight in a cathedral. I still find it a slightly mystical experience. Something to do with forbidden and secret things."
No wonder then that at the age of 19, Lean headed for the film industry proper, signing up as an unpaid teaboy at the Gaumont-British studios in Lime Grove, Shepherd's Bush. His contemporary Alfred Hitchcock was also under contract there and while Hitch was busy making The 39 Steps and The Man Who Knew Too Much, Lean was wangling his way into the editorial department to become a ‘cutter’ on newsreels. He then worked his way up to editing war movies and dramas under the tutelage of American émigré Bernard Vorhaus as well as Anthony Asquith for whom he edited the 1938 version of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, which was set in Covent Garden flower market and Wimpole Street but shot at Pinewood.
Lean’s editing skills were to become one of his trademarks, something he told a BBC interviewer he loved almost as much directing: “Most people think cutting is a question of cutting out things, but it’s nothing to do with that — it’s the juxtaposition of pictures.” Nothing demonstrates this more amply than the famous cut in Lawrence of Arabia (see clip below at around 1:18) where Peter O’Toole puffs out a match and instantly conjures up the Sahara.
It’s a moment that inspired a 15 year old Steven Spielberg to make films (although he and Lean later fell out when they eventually tried working together). JJ Abrams also appears to pay homage to it in his new Star Wars film, compare and contrast with the first shot of the trailer.
Collaborating with Coward
Lean’s break into directing came in the early 1940s courtesy of iconic London playwright Nöel Coward who needed a co-director “because he got terribly bored,” as Lean later put it. They made four films together — all of which are screening this month at a Nöel Coward Festival being held at the amazing Regent Street Cinema.
As Lean embarked on a new creative period with 'The Master', he also joined forces with several other rising filmmakers to set up a company called Cineguild which would make nine films with Lean at the helm. This Happy Breed came first in 1944. It's set in Clapham and celebrates the stoicism of an ordinary family during the turbulent first half of the 20th century. It opens with a virtuoso aerial shot of London, the camera swooping over the Thames and across the city until it gets to front door of the Gibbons family before it carries on right through it and inside the house.
The film was Lean's first solo directing job and became the most successful film of that year. Bend It Like Beckham director Gurinder Chadha has said of it: “The dialogue is great, but I love the way he shot it, with all those shots through windows and doorways. It’s set in a London street between the wars, and it shows how this family changes. To me, it presents such a brilliant social history of the English character at that time.”
Coward didn’t much care for Lean’s next attempt at turning one of his plays into a film, apparently saying of the supernatural comedy Blithe Spirit (1945): “You’ve just fucked up the best thing I ever wrote.” But Coward couldn’t argue with the one that followed it that same year. It was called Brief Encounter and it took the Grand Prize at Cannes as well as being nominated for three Oscars. It's also being re-released on 6 November as part of the BFI’s Love season.
The film is the archetypical depiction of English reserve as a middle class man and woman very nearly almost, but then don’t, have an affair. The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane probably describes it best: “The film has been a favourite, almost a fetish, among British audiences ever since. This year, on Valentine’s Day, it was screened outside the National Theatre, in London, so that young lovers could sit in the cold, huddle together, and learn just how incredibly miserable the business of love can be. What other country would subscribe to this?”
While the key scenes in Brief Encounter are set in the fictional train station Milford Junction, the essence of that limbo-like location goes all the way back to Lean’s teenage years when he would head up to the West End to watch movies then sit smoking in the cafe at Victoria Station delaying his return home to Croydon. And though most of the film was shot out in Bucks and Lancashire, its the shamefully-demolished Metropole in Victoria Street that stands in for the Palladium Cinema in the story where the non-lovers go on their non-dates. The start of the clip below shows the building's art deco interior with its Wurlitzer organ.
A double dose of Dickens
Cineguild also made Lean’s two mighty adaptations of novels by Charles Dickens: Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948), both of which featured his "good luck charm" Alec Guinness, who originally hailed from Maida Vale. Neither films could be more Londony with unforgettable images of Victorian workhouses, smoky pubs and pungent back streets, yet rather than use the capital, Lean opted for locations in the Home Counties and on studio sets. Not that this hampers the sense of reality. Is there a more claustrophobic scene than Nancy’s death in Oliver Twist? Lean presents it from the perspective of Bill Sikes’s terrier Bull’s Eye as it whines and scrapes at the door, trying to escape the room where Nancy is being murdered (see clip below).
In Great Expectations there are more external locations, with a replica of the Gargery's blacksmith forge erected on St Mary's Marshes on the Thames Estuary (which isn't quite London but it is the Thames, so we’ll take it). St Paul’s also appears when Pip arrives in the city full of hope and hunger to make his fortune.
One for the tube nerds
Another lesser known film that’s also worth a brief mention here (knowing Londonist readers penchant for a bit of tube porn) is The Passionate Friends from 1949. It’s a romance based on a novel by H.G. Wells and features a terrific scene set on the London Underground in which Ann Todd (who was to be one of Lean's six wives) walks through the eerily empty tunnels before contemplating throwing herself under a train that's heading to North Acton. Watch a fuzzy clip here (the tube stuff starts at 1:10).
The golden years and Lean’s final project
Lean pretty much abandoned his home in London for his five epics after that, trekking across the world to find exotic stand-ins for stories set at the edge of civilisation: Morocco for the desert in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Finland and Spain for Siberian steppes in Doctor Zhivago (1965), Sri Lanka for Thailand in The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957). Then Ireland and India stood in for themselves in the less lauded Ryan's Daughter (1970) and A Passage to India (1984).
It’s not right to say he retired after that. Into his 80s, Lean was working on an all-star adaptation of Joseph Conrad's novel Nostromo with a potential dream cast that included Marlon Brando, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Peter O'Toole, Paul Schofield and Isabella Rosellini — with Steven Spielberg on board at one point as the film's producer. But pneumonia got the better of Lean while the project was still in pre-production and he died on 16 April 1991 in Limehouse.
Lean did not want any statues of him put up, which is a shame as it would be nice to see his stiff upper lip in, say, Leicester Square. But there is a room named after him in the BAFTA building on Piccadilly and there's also the David Lean Cinema in Croydon. This small but perfectly-formed movie theatre is located within the Croydon Clocktower arts complex on Katharine Street and is equipped with a couple of 35mm projectors. It's been going since 1995 and after a brief stint of closure when the council pulled the plug, it's now back and shows films every Tuesday and Friday. There is a plan to screen Oliver Twist for the 25th anniversary of Lean’s death next year with a talk by the director’s biographer Kevin Brownlow (follow the cinema on Facebook for up to date info and buy tickets here).
Or, if you're quick, you could snap up Lean's £3m Limehouse home, which recently went on the market. Lean oversaw the conversion himself from four warehouses into an architectural gem that features a basement screening room, a 120ft walled garden, a giant turntable previously used for redirecting Lean’s Rolls Royce plus a private beach by the Thames. And if you can't quite afford that — maybe just buy a pint at Ian Mckellen’s pub The Grapes nearby, you can see the house from the riverside terrace.
The Nöel Coward Film Festival at Regent Street Cinema is on from 20-22 November and features four of David Lean’s film with introductions and discussion from the likes of Hayley Mills, Twiggy and Alistair McGowan.