A tour of Hitchcock's London
Hitchcock honed his unique vision on the streets of London – Dave Calhoun traces his steps
‘The sky was always grey, the rain was grey, the mud was grey and I was grey.’ That’s how Alfred Hitchcock described the city in which he was born in 1899 and where he spent the first 40 years of his life. In 1939, the film director left London for Hollywood, where he would shoot films such as ‘Notorious’ (1946), ‘North by Northwest’ (1959) and ‘Psycho’ (1960), and live with his wife and collaborator, Alma, until his death in 1980. But it was London that crafted Hitchcock and it was where he spent the first two decades of his 60-year career.
He was born and schooled in the east of the city. He shot films at studios in Islington and Shepherd’s Bush. He included landmarks in his films such as Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, the Royal Albert Hall and the British Museum. When he returned to London in 1972 to make ‘Frenzy’, his penultimate film, it was marketed as a big homecoming, the master of suspense returning to the streets that shaped him. London, with its infamous murders, colourful characters and everyday intrigue, fed his imagination throughout his working life.
As a BFI retrospective of Hitchcock’s canon kicks into top gear, we’ve compiled a guide to Hitchcock’s London – the places that mattered in his life and featured in his films. At a push, you could do it in a day – but as there is at least one pub, a museum and a cinema on the route, we suggest you take your time, and stay out of the shadows…
View Hitchcock's London on our map
517 High Road, Leytonstone
Kick off the trail at the start of the great man’s life: Hitchcock was born on August 13 1899 above his family’s grocery at 517 High Road, Leytonstone. The site is now a petrol station but a nearby blue plaque marks the spot. The eagle-eyed might spot buildings named after his films: Topaz Court and Marnie Court are here, and there’s even a Hitchcock Business Centre. While in the area, check out the attractive mosaics dedicated to Hitchcock and his films in the underpass at Leytonstone tube.
Onwards to Limehouse, and Salmon Lane. Hitchcock’s family used to run a fish and chip shop at number 130 and they lived just down the road at number 175 from 1907 to 1915. They moved back to Leytonstone out of fear of enemy bombing at the nearby docks during WWI. The move came relatively soon after the death of Hitchcock’s father when the boy was just 14 years old, and the Hitchcocks’ part of Salmon Lane was later destroyed in the slum clearances of the 1930s.
Just under a mile from Limehouse is Poplar, where Hitchcock attended the London County Council School of Engineering & Navigation at 112 Poplar High Street: it’s now the Poplar Centre, part of Tower Hamlets College. On completion of his studies there, the teenage Hitchcock found work at a cable company called Henley’s, where he started writing short stories for its in-house paper, a task that marked the beginning of his career in entertainment.
Hitchcock shot a number of his early films – including ‘The Lodger’ (1927) and ‘The Lady Vanishes’ (1938) – at Gainsborough Studios on the banks of the Regent’s Canal in Hoxton where Hackney meets Islington. He began working here as a title designer in 1920 and quickly worked his way up to become a director. The site is now a block of luxury flats bearing the same name – and a massive Buddha-like sculpture of Hitchcock’s head now sits in the courtyard.
Cromwell Road, Kensington
As his career picked up in the 1920s, Hitchcock naturally headed west. After marrying at the Brompton Oratory in Knightsbridge on December 2 1926, the Hitchcocks moved into 153 Cromwell Road in Kensington. Alfred and Alma lived together in a flat in this building until they left Britain for good in 1939, and regularly used the place for script meetings with writers (Alma was a central presence in Hitchcock’s work throughout his career). There is now a blue plaque here too.
While you’re on this side of town, head to Shepherd’s Bush. Between 1933 and 1938, Hitchcock worked for Gaumont and was based at Lime Grove Studios; it was here that he shot ‘The 39 Steps’ (1935) and ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ (1956).
Back into central London, the aquarium at London Zoo was the site of the clandestine meeting in ‘Sabotage’ (1936) between a foreign terrorist and his handler. The film is an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s ‘The Secret Agent’ and tells the story of a foreign anarchist living undercover as a London family man and cinema owner.
Beetle over to Bloomsbury and the British Museum, where you can stand in the Great Court and imagine Hitchcock walking round the BM in 1929 to plan the rooftop chase sequence at the end of ‘Blackmail’ (1929), his first film with sound (he actually made two versions, one silent, one ‘talkie’). He filmed most of the sequence in a studio, but the exteriors are real: the blackmailer Tracy stops for a moment to drink water from a fountain at the building’s entrance.
Rada, Gower Street
In 1950, Hitchcock returned to London to make ‘Stage Fright’ (1950), a thriller set in the world of acting. The opening of the film shows the original entrance to the Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts at 62-64 Gower Street in Bloomsbury.
Traverse the West End and wander down Regent’s Street on the way to Piccadilly Circus: this is the same route as that taken in ‘Sabotage’ by a 159 bus carrying a boy who, in turn, is unwittingly transporting a parcel bomb.
Take a detour to the Royal Albert Hall to tick off one of Hitchcock’s most important locations. This building witnesses the attempted assassination of a foreign ambassador in ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ (1934). The scene was mostly shot in a studio with some location work mixed in. But when Hitchcock remade the film in colour in 1956 with James Stewart and Doris Day, most of the Albert Hall scenes were shot on location.
It’s time to visit the river for the first time. Stand on the South Bank between the Thames and County Hall: it’s here that the opening shot of Hitchcock’s ‘Frenzy’, the second-to-last film of his career, sees a body wash up on the riverbank while a politician addresses a crowd from his soapbox. Why not pop into the BFI Southbank while you’re here?
Cross back over the river by Westminster Bridge and walk up Whitehall towards Trafalgar Square. The view of the square from Whitehall is the same as the one that pops up in ‘Blackmail’. Once you’re in the square, remember it’s here among the pigeons that Verloc’s wife meets an undercover cop in ‘Sabotage’.
Walk up the Strand and turn left into Covent Garden: this is where Hitchcock shot many of the exterior scenes for ‘Frenzy’, back when the area still hosted London’s main fruit and veg market. Have a pint at The Globe (37 Bow Street), the pub Blaney works at in the film.
Wander back to Waterloo Bridge to finish the tour. Look east down the river. This is where Hitchcock’s camera comes from at the start of ‘Frenzy’, travelling through Tower Bridge (specially opened for him) and down the river to County Hall. You’ll also see St Paul’s in the distance: it features at the beginning of ‘Stage Fright’ as a curtain rises on Hitchcock’s first film in Britain for more than a decade.
The BFI’s retrospective ‘The Genius of Hitchcock’ runs until October and features gala screenings of restored silent films including ‘The Pleasure Garden’, ‘The Lodger’ and ‘Blackmail’ as well as regular screenings at BFI Southbank from August 1 of every single Hitchcock film. See www.bfi.org.uk/genius-hitchcock for timings and bookings.