Guest article by Gary Lunt of Reel Tours.
You may not have realised it, but Liverpool is a cinematic hub. The city was captured on film for first time in 1897 and believe it or not, that actually pre-dates the first credited Hollywood movie by a staggering thirteen years.
It has been well over a century since the cameras first rolled in our Liverpool home, but it’s connection with the movie and TV world is stronger today than ever. In fact, Liverpool is the most filmed in city in Britain after London and one of Europe’s most popular filming destinations.
Of course, there are many reasons for this, but rather than making this a history lesson, let’s delve straight into some of the locations in the city, that you might pass on a daily basis and have no idea that you’re actually standing on a former film-set.
Letter to Brezhnev
Letter to Brezhnev is a tremendous piece of scouse cinema that dates back to 1985. It was written by Frank Clarke and directed by Chris Bernard and it had a tremendous cast, featuring the likes of Alexandra Pigg, Peter Firth, Alfred Molina and Margi Clarke.
It tells the story of two Soviet sailors, Peter (Firth) and Sergei (Molina), who go ashore in Liverpool to spend one night in the city before departing the following morning. Whilst out on the town, they bump into Elaine (Pigg) and Theresa (Clarke), and an instant romance is formed, so much so, that Elaine writes to the Soviet General Secretary, Leonid Brezhnev, asking for him to arrange a reunion.
The film acts as a postcard of 1980s Liverpool, with plenty of locations still familiar today, but those of you who may frequent the JD Gym on Dale Street, which was previously the State Ballroom nightclub, will be achieving your fitness goals in the very venue where Peter, Sergei, Elaine and Theresa all meet for the first time.
Since The Beatles called it a day back in 1970 there has been a great deal of Fab Four flicks, be it biopics, tales of ‘What if’ and of course jukebox musicals such as the massively underrated Across the Universe from 2007.
Certainly the most popular of recent Beatles films was Danny Boyle’s Yesterday from 2019, which was written by Richard Curtis and stars Himesh Patel, Lilly James, Ed Sheeran and Joe Fry, just to name a few.
An unexplained event occurs which plunges the world into a moment of darkness and when all resumes, it appears that nobody can remember who The Beatles are. That however, is nobody, except for struggling musician, Jack Malik (Patel). With this sudden realisation, he decides to pass off the music of John, Paul, George & Ringo as his own, so in order to make everything seem authentic regarding the countless locations that feature in the lyrics of the songs, Jack makes a pilgrimage to Liverpool.
You can take your pick of The Beatles hotspots in the city which all feature predominantly, however, one particularly important exchange isn’t a musical themed location, but merely the gateway into Liverpool. The next time that you pop into Upper Crust in Lime Street station, you can sit at the “Yesterday” table and pretend that you’re the protagonist in a Danny Boyle flick.
Chariots of Fire
It’s quite amazing to think that a film that won four Oscars, including Best Picture which is the most prestigious Academy Award of them all, was actually filmed right on our doorstep. But that’s what happened with Hugh Hudson’s sporting drama Chariots of Fire.
Two men, Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), race for the gold in the 1924 Olympics. While one runs for his faith, the other participates to leave prejudice behind. It’s a stirring tale of friendship, determination and religion all set to an incredible score by Vangelis. Few films have had the cultural impact of Chariots of Fire and with Rowan Atkinson comedically referencing it in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012, you come to realise just how important of a film it still is.
There are numerous locations in the local area that feature in the film, but the most famous of which has to be the Bebington Oval, which is located on the Wirral. When you’re watching the Olympic games set in Paris, 1924 in the film, you’re actually just on the other side of the river Mersey!
The Irregulars is an original Netflix series that went live on the streaming service in March this year and it focuses on the ‘Baker Street Irregulars’ who were a gang of children and young adults, that frequently popped-up in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes’ mysteries. They would act as the Great Detective’s eyes and ears on the ground and supply him with information or “the word on the street”.
Writer, Tom Bidwell, wrote an eight episode series for the streaming giant that focused on the adventures of the gang. It features a talented, young cast, who you can be sure will go on to have long and successful careers in film & TV in the years ahead. Thaddea Graham, McKell David, Jojo Macari, Harrison Osterfield and Darci Shaw make up the Victorian group of friends and they are all backed-up by an equally talented supporting cast.
Of course, the show is set in Victorian England, with much of the action taking place in central London, however, Liverpool once again stepped-up and was able to transform itself into the capital of yesteryear. Locations such as St George’s Plateau and William Brown Street feature in the series, but if you head up to Falkner Street, in the Georgian Quarter of the city, you’ll be able to track down the building that doubles for the famous 221B Baker Street, which of course is Sherlock HQ.
The 51st State
The 51st State is such an important film to Liverpool being used as a major location, as it truly brought the city into the 21st Century by showcasing a wide range of areas that are suitable for making major motion pictures. Not only that, but the cast in the film from outside of the city, all sang Liverpool’s praises afterwards, which surely helped the cause.
Stars such as Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Carlyle, Emily Mortimer, Rhys Ifans, Meat Loaf and Sean Pertwee all had major roles in the film, as well as top local talent including Ricky Tomlinson, Michael Starke and Paul Barber. The narrative focuses on Elmo (Jackson), who is a master chemist that has created a new drug that provides the ultimate high. News of this new substance of course creates a bidding war between some of the most powerful drug dealers on either side of the Atlantic and things soon take a bizarre and violent turn…
Ronny Yu’s direction makes it a genre mash-up of crime, comedy and action all rolled into one and what is wonderful about it, is that it uses practically the whole city as a backdrop. You see pubs on the outskirts of the region, the docks, some of the iconic buildings of the city centre, but the most memorable scene has to be in the final moments, which takes place in a corporate box at Anfield stadium as Liverpool take on Manchester United. If you haven’t seen the film before, it’s a scene that you’re not likely to forget any time soon.
You would be hard pushed to find a TV series that has caused as much of a stir as what The Crown has done in recent years. It just goes to show that there is a real thirst for dramatised Royal gossip and whether you’re a fan of the occupants of Buckingham Palace or not, this has truly become one of the shows most discussed around water coolers in workplaces across the globe.
Earlier this year, series 4 was added to Netlix, however, in the previous series Liverpool, ever a chameleon city when onscreen, was doubling for Washington D.C. in the 1960s. North John Street featured heavily in the scenes as restaurants and shop fronts on the busy Liverpool street were all decorated to make them appear as if you were stood in the American capital.
Street signs were changed, American phone booths were erected and the street was filled with yellow cabs, popular cars from across the pond and of course a series of extras who had all been dressed up to represent the fashions of the swinging 60s.
A House Through Time
A House Through Time is a tremendous documentary series that has aired annually on BBC 2, since its debut in 2018. The show focuses on one individual residential property in a British city and it gives the complete social history of the building and its occupants over the years.
Later this year, the fourth series will be screened, featuring a home in Leeds and previously, properties in Newcastle and Bristol have appeared in the show in the second and third series, respectively, however, in the inaugural series, it was Liverpool that took centre stage.
Renowned historian, David Olusoga helmed the four episodes that revealed the history of the owners of 62 Falkner Street, which is located in the Canning area of the city. The four-bedroom, Grade II listed property has a rich heritage, dating all the way back to the 1800s and catching up with the series on BBC iPlayer, is well worthy use of your time, it is truly excellent television.
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool
Back in 2017, the wonderful drama, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, hit cinema screens worldwide. It’s a powerful tale that surprised audiences once they had discovered that it was a true tale. It was written by Matt Greenhalgh, who is certainly no stranger to scouse narratives, after he had previously written the screenplay for Nowhere Boy back in 2009.
The narrative focuses on the personal life Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening), who was an Oscar winning actor and at one time, seen as a screen rival to Marilyn Monroe. In the mid-1970’s, Grahame was predominantly working in theatre and whilst staying in London, she met a young actor from Liverpool called Pete Turner (Jamie Bell), whom she immediately struck-up an instant romance with.
As their romance blossoms, Grahame falls ill and she decides to try and recuperate away from the limelight, so she retreats to Pete’s family home in Liverpool. It’s a heartwarming tale about a fading film star wanting to spend some time in a city that they love so dearly.
Of course, there are many locations that feature throughout the films run time, but one prominent scene takes place in Ye Cracke, one of the finest watering holes in Britain. You can visit the pub on Rice Street, order yourself a beverage, pick a tune on their glorious juke box and enjoy the cinematic link that the venue has to offer.
Boys from the Black Stuff
Boys from the Black Stuff is a gritty five-part drama series that originally aired on BBC Two back in 1982. It was written by Liverpool writer, Alan Bleasdale and it focuses on the social struggles of the British working class during Thatcher’s reign as Prime Minister; in a time when just over one-eighth of the population was unemployed.
The titular “Black Stuff” is due to the central characters in the show, being tarmac layers before they lost their jobs, and over the course of the five episodes, we see them trying to find their way in world, during a notoriously difficult time.
One of the major locations from the show was The Green Man pub, which was located on Vauxhall Road, just outside of the city centre. Unfortunately, that location has recently been demolished with new housing built on its site, however, one part of the city features in a particularly prominent scene and it is all the more noteworthy due to how it has changed in the years since the shows release.
Today, the Royal Albert Dock is one of the most beautiful parts of the city. It’s a vibrant hub, filled with museums, galleries, restaurants and cafes, and yet, in Boys from the Black Stuff it is shown as being a derelict, tired and dangerous area to visit. It wasn’t until the end of the 1980s, when the now booming area, was drastically redeveloped to make it more appealing to visitors.
If you would like to discover more of Liverpool’s cinematic secrets, then you can join Gary on a film location walking tour by booking online at reeltours.co.uk (new dates are on the site now).
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