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London on screen: How David Lynch recreated Victorian London in ‘The Elephant Man

Written by
Thomas Hobbs

Few films capture Victorian London as atmospherically as ‘The Elephant Man’, 40 years old and back in cinemas this week. With its flickering gas lights, filthy cobbled streets and historic London locations which have since been either demolished or radically altered since it was filmed in 1980, David Lynch’s great (and only) period piece is a true urban time capsule. ‘We built on the bones of the city,’ remembers producer Jonathan Sanger. ‘There was a lot of construction going on, so we filmed at these more down-at-heel, raw Victorian locations. We knew they’d soon be gone for ever.’

The real-life story of Joseph Merrick (called ‘John’ in the film, and played by John Hurt), a man with appalling physical deformities who turned fear and loathing into acceptance, ‘The Elephant Man’ was filmed partly at Shepperton Studios and Wembley’s Lee International Studios on soundstages. But to recreate the bustle and edginess of Merrick’s London, Lynch used real-life locations – most of them in the east of the city.

A key discovery was Homerton’s Eastern Hospital. The building would be demolished six years later but an abandoned ward there made a perfect surrogate for the London Hospital, where Dr Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) treats Merrick. ‘That ward hadn’t been used in over a hundred years and the fact we got to light it ourselves really made the film look like this authentic gothic fairytale,’ says Sanger.

John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins in The Elephant Man
John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins in ‘The Elephant Man’
Photograph: Courtesy StudioCanal

Tower Hill’s grand Royal Mint Court was used for the hospital’s exterior shots, while the cobbled streets of Rotherhithe and Wapping stood in brilliantly for the nineteenth-century capital as a whole. ‘They still looked like something out of a Dickens novel,’ says Sanger. Finding an ‘atmospheric urinal’ in Hammersmith for the scene in which Merrick is taunted by strangers and makes his famous ‘I am not an animal!’ speech was another ‘eureka!’ moment. 

David Lynch and John Hurt on set of The Elephhant Man
David Lynch gives notes to John Hurt in a W12 WC.
Photograph: Courtesy StudioCanal

In a strange way, London also provided the film’s relatively rookie director with a creative safe haven (Lynch had only ‘Eraserhead’ to his name at this point). ‘[Co-producer] Mel Brooks used to call David “Jimmy Stewart from the planet Venus”,’ laughs Sanger. ‘I think if we had filmed in America with an American crew, they might have found David confusing. You Brits love an eccentric.’

The locations bring authenticity and the film’s craft makes it great, but there’s a deeper reason why it endures: in angry times, Merrick’s journey from bullied to beloved is a much-needed reminder that hatred can be overcome. ‘It’s a hopeful film about the importance of humanity,’ says Sanger. ‘Those stories never go out of fashion.’

The Elephant Man’ 4K restoration opens Fri Mar 13. 

Want more London on screen? Here are the 30 best films set in the capital

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