Mike Leigh's London locations

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Mike Leigh might be Manchester-born but his films, most of which are set in London, are testament to his love of the capital. The director, who always makes intensive use of location, takes Time Out on a two-day whistle-stop tour of the streets, shops, flats, office blocks and markets that, over the past four decades, his characters have made their own. Click to see a gallery of Leigh's London places

Mike Leigh's London locations
Mike Leigh revisits a location for 'Meantime' © Rob Greig. Click on the image to see more locations
It started with a modest proposal to Mike Leigh: let’s spend a few hours seeking out a handful of the locations where he’s filmed in this city over the past 37 years. Leigh, 65, is a London filmmaker through and through; he’s lived here since 1960, when he moved down from Manchester to study at Rada, and has made the vast majority of his films in London, from his first, ‘Bleak Moments’, in 1971 to his latest, ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’, an upbeat work that stars the brilliant actress Sally Hawkins as a bubbly, 30-year-old teacher with an optimistic take on life.

But Leigh came back with a better suggestion: let’s spend two days driving around the city and hunt down as many of his old locations as we can. It made sense: locations are everything to Leigh. He barely ever shoots in a studio and the usual drill is that he, his cast and crew will take over a location and inhabit it fully, whether it’s a gothic-looking corner house in Dalston for ‘Naked’ in 1993 or a derelict council estate in Greenwich for ‘All or Nothing’ in 2002. It became obvious, too, as Leigh leapt in and out of the car, squeezed through canalside railings in Haggerston, or gamely stood beside the traffic at the entrance to the Blackwall Tunnel, that he lives and breathes this city. There’s no need to ask him where he gets his inspiration from: you’ve only got to watch him in action to see that real people and places mean everything to him.

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'Life Is Sweet', 1990

Day 1

Tuesday 8am, Enfield, ‘Life Is Sweet’

We’re in a cab on the way to Enfield, site of the fictional ‘Regret Rien’ restaurant in ‘Life Is Sweet’ (1990), run by the ridiculous Aubrey (Timothy Spall). We drive through Wood Green and past a street where Leigh lived for 30 years. ‘I moved out three years ago and haven’t been back,’ he says, remembering how convenient it was to film up the road, not least as his then-wife Alison Steadman was one of the cast. We reach the ‘Regret Rien’; it’s now an Indian restaurant. Why always shoot in London? ‘Frankly, we can’t afford to go anywhere else,’ he says. ‘And the city is a great canvas. You can make anything you want here, short of a film about farming.’

8.45am, Winchmore Hill, ‘Secrets

We stop outside the photo studio run by Maurice (Spall) in Leigh’s ‘Secrets and Lies’. It’s now a brasserie. He tells how, during rehearsals, an agitated Greek-Cypriot woman screeched up demanding to book her wedding photos. ‘I said something which she had no way of decoding: “This is not real.” She was very angry.’

9.25am, Caledonian Road, ‘Naked’

We try to photograph on the forecourt of a petrol station, the site of a violent nighttime scene involving David Thewlis as Johnny in 1993’s apocalyptic ‘Naked’. Leigh shot the scene, in which a bashed-up Johnny writhes in the middle of the road, ‘on the hoof’, as Leigh puts it, at 3am with few crew. Today, we’re not so lucky: an employee asks what we’re doing. Leigh considers imitating Johnny’s mid-road ‘wobbly’, but we cut our losses and leave. ‘One of the difficulties of filming in London is that often other people have been there, didn’t behave well and screwed it up for other shoots.’
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'High Hopes', 1988

10am, King’s Cross, ‘High Hopes’

Opposite the new entrance to St Pancras are the remnants of Stanley Buildings, a nineteenth-century block of railway-workers’ flats that housed Cyril (Phil Davis) and Shirley (Ruth Sheen) in Leigh’s touching 1988 film ‘High Hopes’, a story of a disenchanted bike courier (Davis), his girlfriend (Sheen), and his elderly mum (Edna Doré) who are facing up to a changing city. ‘Weird, weird,’ mutters Leigh, looking up at the building, which is spliced in half and derelict. Net curtains hang in the windows still. ‘One of the first things we invented with the backstory was that Cyril’s father worked on the railways. It was synchronicity that we shot here and at the end they’re able to look down at St Pancras and talk about Cyril’s father.’

10.45am, Agar Grove, Camden, ‘Career Girls’

We stop outside the flat where Leigh filmed ‘Career Girls’ in 1996. Katrin Cartlidge (who died suddenly in 2002, aged 41) and Lynda Steadman play Hannah and Annie, two women we observe first as 20-year-old students, then a decade later as disappointed professionals. Leigh and his team invented a Chinese takeaway on this spot: it was only when Leigh arrived to check the set that he found that his production designer, Eve Stewart, had named the fake takeaway the ‘Lo Hung Lee’. ‘I was very amused, which was fortunate. It’s entirely true, of course.’ For Leigh, the memory of Cartlidge, who also worked with Leigh on ‘Naked’ and ‘Topsy-Turvy’, hangs over the place. ‘It’s emotional. I can only think of Katrin Cartlidge, standing there and being very emotional about memories and lost things.’

11.20am, Camden Market, ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’

We drive through Camden Town and past an osteopath’s surgery, a burger stall near the tube, the Lock Tavern pub – all locations in Leigh’s new film, ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’. We get out and retrace an early scene, in which the lead character, Poppy (Hawkins), her sister and three of their mates stagger over Camden Lock at dawn on their way back from a night out at Koko. ‘We shot in Koko for real. We went in at 9pm but from 11pm onwards it was so full we had to get out.’ For our camera, Leigh walks over the lock and remembers what the area was like when he moved to London in the early 1960s. ‘All along there,’ he says, pointing up Chalk Farm Road, ‘there were shops that sold only second-hand cookers and fridges. It was totally different back then, quite laid back.’

12noon, Primrose Hill, ‘Abigail’s Party’

‘See that place there?’ asks Leigh as we drive past St Mark’s Church in Primrose Hill. ‘That’s where we put together “Abigail’s Party” in 1977. I rehearsed a lot there early on. I had a standing arrangement with the vicar that if he got any other bookings he would call me up first.’
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'Happy-Go-Lucky', 2008

12.15pm, Regent’s Park boating lake, ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’

We’re standing by the lake in Regent’s Park where Poppy and her flatmate, Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) row a boat in the final scene of ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’. Talk turns to persuading people to let him film in their backyard. Leigh: ‘For “Topsy-Turvy” we wanted to use a Victorian oyster bar near the Monument. But the owner was a very old lady who had once been to a party where someone had said: “Never let a film unit in your house.” Nothing would shift this woman! Not even talk of a putative Royal Command performance. No gold in sums untold would persuade the old girl, so we shot in the Institute of Directors on Pall Mall instead.’

1pm, Trafalgar Square, ‘Meantime’

We’re standing on the steps in front of the National Gallery, overlooking Trafalgar Square. We’re here because there’s a shot of the square in 1983’s ‘Meantime’, Leigh’s film about unemployment under Thatcher. Most of the film takes place on a council estate in Hackney and focuses on a family with two unemployed young sons, Mark (Phil Daniels) and Colin (Tim Roth). But there’s one scene in which we see Mark away from his drab surroundings, strolling through the West End. ‘It reminds you that he has legs, that he can make choices.’

2.30pm, Lina Stores, Brewer St, ‘Naked’

‘We shot some of “Naked” around Soho at night. There’s a famous scene between David Thewlis and Ewen Bremner. We had first improvised it on the steps of a church in Marylebone. To film it, we went to Brewer Street, picked Lina Stores and made it happen there. We made no attempt to control traffic or crowds.‘There’s another scene with Thewlis outside Leicester Square tube, which we shot with the camera wrapped in a bin-liner with a hole in it on a traffic island in the middle of Charing Cross Road. We walked away. There were members of the crew dotted all around ready to rush out and punch anybody who interfered with the camera.’

3pm, Soho Square, ‘Topsy-Turvy’

As we walk through Soho Square near his office, Leigh touches the statue of Charles II that was donated by Lucy Gilbert, wife of WS Gilbert, played by Jim Broadbent in ‘Topsy-Turvy’ (1999). This is a ritual he initiated when raising funds for ‘Topsy-Turvy’ and continues today.

3.30pm, Charlotte Street, ‘Naked’

We find the office block where Thewlis’ Johnny rants and philosophises to Brian (Peter Wight), a nighttime guard. Fittingly, Leigh, who briefly worked for Securicor in the 1960s (‘when you didn’t have to be brawny’) starts chatting with the current guard, who hasn’t seen ‘Naked’. When he hears the film’s name, he looks worried.

Day 2

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'Meantime', 1984

Wed 8am, Haggerston, E8, ‘Meantime’

To Haggerston, off the Kingsland Road in Hackney, to find the council estate where Leigh shot ‘Meantime’ in 1983 with young bucks Gary Oldman, who plays skinhead Coxy, and Tim Roth, who plays his taciturn pal, Colin. The estate is pretty much as it was then, although Leigh is impressed that there’s now a civic garden where before there was just concrete. ‘Gary and Tim were doing an improvisation in the rehearsal space round the corner, a big room with strip-lights. Gary threw a milk bottle that hit a fluorescent light and suddenly I saw his head erupt in red. We jumped in my car and rushed to the hospital. Gary was dressed in braces and boots and was worried they’d think he was a real skinhead.’We talk about the scene for which Oldman crashes about inside a barrel. ‘I said to him “Get inside it, go nuts.” That’s the kind of spontaneous thing that I don’t think I’d find if I sat in a room writing.’We walk to the bank of the Regent’s Canal, site of a shot of Oldman and Roth playfighting. ‘That’s where they squeezed through,’ says Leigh, pointing to a hole in the railings and clambering through.

9.25am, Enfield Road, near De Beauvoir Square, E8, ‘Meantime’

Leigh imitates Oldman’s Coxy as he leans against what was the entrance to the Labour Exchange in ‘Meantime’: ‘I could be a skinhead.’ I offer to find him a razor. ‘Come here and say that, you cunt,’ he jokes in a mockney accent.We drive past an old office block on the Kingsland Road where Leigh rehearsed ‘Meantime’. He’ll take over a rehearsal space for up to six months before shooting a film. But he stresses that it’s at the locations that his films come alive. ‘The rehearsal space is merely the scaffolding of the film, or, if you like, the incubator or the laboratory where the premise is born.’
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'Secrets & Lies', 1996

10am, Quilter Street, near Columbia Road, ‘Secrets

We go looking for the two-up, two-down that houses Brenda Blethyn’s Cynthia in ‘Secrets & Lies’. ‘Hello Mr Leigh, I think that’s the door you’re looking for,’ says a neighbour. ‘The house had been bought by a lawyer as a pied-à-terre. A well-known sculptress next door got a bit fed up with us.’ He remembers realising it was going well. ‘There’s always a moment where you start to feel that what you’re putting together is all right.’

10.30am, Stepney Green, ‘Vera Drake’

To Cressy House in Stepney Green, a late nineteenth-century block of flats where, in 2003, Leigh shot ‘Vera Drake’ – his film about an illegal abortionist (Imelda Staunton) in early 1950s London. ‘This place lends itself brilliantly to a period film,’ Leigh says. We bump into a woman, one of the residents. ‘Hello, Mr Leigh, are you coming back to shoot here?’ Leigh: ‘It was fun, but I don’t think we’re going to make the sequel, not least because I think we know what happens to Vera: she stops doing what she does.’ The woman: ‘Yes, I liked “Vera Drake”, but not as much as “Topsy-Turvy”. Leigh: ‘Yes, there were more songs in “Topsy-Turvy”.’

11.10am, Shacklewell Lane, Dalston, ‘Naked’

We drive to the house in Dalston used in ‘Naked’, where Johnny (Thewlis) shows up and plays havoc with two flatmates (Katrin Cartlidge and Lesley Sharp). Leigh hobbles down the street exactly as Johnny does for the film’s final shot. With ‘Naked’, Leigh was looking for a location to match a film that took his filmmaking somewhere more unusual, more poetic. ‘You didn’t want it to be just another domestic space.’

12noon, Blackwall Tunnel, ‘All or Nothing’

Leigh stands at the entrance to the Blackwall Tunnel, through which depressed cabbie Phil (Timothy Spall) drives in ‘All or Nothing’.

12.20pm, Greenwich

We’re on the site of the council estate where Leigh shot ‘All or Nothing’, which at the time was derelict. ‘There was one couple left, who had refused flatly to move out.’ Most of the estate has gone, replaced by flats. Leigh made the film after ‘Topsy-Turvy’: ‘I wanted to do a contemporary piece about working-class people, a film about the emotional struggle to hold onto relationships,’ he explains.
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'Bleak Moments', 1971

1.30pm, Tulse Hill, ‘Bleak Moments’

We end where Leigh began: outside the semi-detached house where, in 1971, he shot ‘Bleak Moments’, his first film, which was backed by Albert Finney and told of Sylvia (Anne Raitt), a repressed young woman with a hippy lodger in her garage. Leigh hasn’t been here for 37 years. ‘It’s got the same front door and the garage is the same. When filming, the old couple next door grew to loathe all these slobs hanging around. Every time they heard the clapperboard they turned the vacuum cleaner on.’How does it feel to be back? ‘Some people say you should never go back. I think that’s bollocks. It’s fantastic to come back to the location where I shot my first feature, the first of 18 full-length films. I’m blown away by all the amazing things that people have contributed to those films.‘On this spot, I was a crazy, ambitious 28-year-old, and I couldn’t have imagined all the films and all the things that would come later. What’s particularly fantastic is that I can stand here and think I’ve made 17 more films with just the same freedom.‘What do I feel? Actually I’m overwhelmed. It’s very exciting, without being smug about it.’
‘Happy-Go Lucky’ is out on Apr 18. The Mike Leigh Feature Film Collection is out on DVD.

Author: Dave Calhoun. Photography Rob Greig


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