British Cinema: Setting the scene

We explore Britain on location, discovering the picturesque places that have provided some of the most memorable of cinematic moments

Keira Knightley in The Duchess at Chatsworth House
Keira Knightley in The Duchess at Chatsworth House © Pathé

Young men race across the endless sands of a St Andrews beach in the opening sequence of Chariots of Fire (1981); flaming arrows arc like deadly rain over the trees of Surrey’s Bourne Wood in the classic Gladiator (2000) battle scene and Billy Elliot dances down the tough terraced streets of County Durham’s Easington Village on his way to ballet stardom.

These iconic sequences, and hundreds of others like them, make full use of Britain’s remarkable variety of landscapes, with locations across the country able to serve as the most beautiful of backdrops. Dramatic coastlines, craggy mountains, bleak moorlands, soaring hills, glistening lakes, surging rivers and the more gentle countryside of lowland Britain are distinctive and spectacular, and that’s even without the country’s huge numbers of impressive and imposing buildings that include medieval cathedrals and great country houses.

To start with the nation’s capital, London is full of memorable movie locations. Somerset House, on the north bank of the River Thames near Waterloo Bridge, is an arts and cultural centre today, but in the late 18th century it was built to house government offices, replacing a 16th-century royal palace. In recent years its imposing courtyard and elegant exteriors and interiors have been used to film scenes in The Duchess (2008), Sherlock Holmes (2009), and two James Bond films, Goldeneye (1995) and Tomorrow Never Dies (1997).

Just a few hundred feet east of Somerset House is the Temple Church, a unique round medieval church built in the late 12th century by the religious military order of the Knights Templar. It is one of the key locations in Da Brown’s hugely successful 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code and a number of scenes in the film of the book, released in 2006 and starring Tom Hanks, were shot here.

Portobello Road in Notting Hill
Portobello Road in Notting Hill © Loop Images/Pawel Libera

If you enjoyed Notting Hill (1999), head to the area of the film’s name in west London. Worth a visit in particular is Portobello Road Market, where Hugh Grant’s character ran his travel bookshop in the film at number 142.

Travel east along the Thames out of central London and you’ll reach the Old Naval College at Greenwich, a magnificent 18th-century baroque building designed by the architect of St Paul’s Cathedral, Sir Christopher Wren. Even if you’ve never been anywhere near Greenwich, it’s likely you have already seen the College, often used for street scenes in particular, in films including The Madness of King George (1994), Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Young Victoria (2009) and The King’s Speech (2010).

A few miles away, in Hackney, east London, is the Hackney Empire, originally built as a music hall in 1901 and still one of the capital’s greatest theatres outside the West End. Charlie Chaplin performed here as a young man and the theatre was used as the location for a scene in the film of his life, Chaplin (1992), when Robert Downey Jnr’s Chaplin arrives drunk and late to his seat beside the stage.

The Da Vinci Code / Notting Hill / Shakespeare in Love
The Da Vinci Code, Notting Hill, Shakespeare in Love © Moviestore collection Ltd / Alamy

North of London, Hatfield House in Hertfordshire – a beautiful Jacobean country house and seat of the Cecil family – has been well used by filmmakers. The house and its formal gardens appear in the 1992 film of Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando, starring Tilda Swinton; in Elizabeth, the Golden Age (2007) as Chartley Hall, where Mary, Queen of Scots, played by Samantha Morton, is imprisoned before her execution; and in Shakespeare in Love (1998) as the home of Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow).

A few miles further north is another country house, Knebworth, home of the Lytton family since the late 15th century. It was rebuilt in an elaborate Tudor/Gothic style and is the setting for the 1985 film The Shooting Party, which portrayed the decadence of the English aristocracy on the eve of the First World War and starred James Mason, Edward Fox and Sir John Gielgud. It also appeared as Balmoral, the royal family’s Scottish retreat, in The King’s Speech.

Highclere Castle in Hampshire, which television viewers all over the world now immediately recognise as Downton Abbey, is the seat of the Earls of Carnarvon and was built in the mid-19th century by Sir Charles Barry, architect of the Houses of Parliament. Parts of the house are truly sensational and the Gallery at its heart is bathed in sunlight from a glass ceiling 50 feet above.

Sam Riley plays the ruthless Pinkie in Brighton Rock
Sam Riley plays the ruthless Pinkie in Brighton Rock

Down on the coast, the pebble beach and Victorian pier at the peaceful seaside resort of Eastbourne has been used to portray busier Brighton in a previous era, in the 2010 film of Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock. Eastbourne is just a few miles from Beachy Head, a terrifying series of huge white chalk cliffs soaring 162m (530ft) above the sea and commanding stunning views along the coast. It has appeared in many films, including the children’s classic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) – Beachy Head is where the magic car flies for the first time.

The most successful British films of recent years have been those in the Harry Potter series. Some scenes at Harry’s school, Hogwarts, were filmed inside distinguished buildings at the University of Oxford. Duke Humfrey’s Room in the Bodleian Library stars as the school library in several of the films; while the Divinity School, a gem of English Gothic architecture famous for its elaborate vaulted 15th-century ceiling, is a ballroom in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), and the Hogwarts sanatorium in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001).

Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Bourne Wood
Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Bourne Wood

It’s not far from Oxford to Blenheim Palace, seat of the Dukes of Marlborough, birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill (a grandson of the 7th Duke), a masterpiece of 18th-century English baroque architecture and a World Heritage Site. Films to have used it include Gulliver’s Travels (2010); The Young Victoria; Orlando (1992); the Kenneth Branagh version of Hamlet (1996); and of course Young Winston (1972), starring Simon Ward and Robert Shaw.

The Georgian houses lining the Royal Crescent at Bath will be immediately recognisable to anyone who has watched adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels. But Austen films have also made the most of other beautiful locations in this part of the country, including Wilton House in Wiltshire, used for scenes in the 1995 movies Pride and Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility. The house was designed in a rather austere but elegant Palladian style by Inigo Jones in the 17th century and is full of architectural and artistic interest. Other films with scenes shot here include Mrs Brown (1997), about Queen Victoria’s friendship with John Brown; The Madness of King George; and the 2003 English Civil War drama To Kill a King, starring Dougray Scott.

Fans of Sense and Sensibility might also wish to make the short journey from here to the cathedral city of Salisbury, where the elegant 18th-century Mompesson House, on Chorister Green near the cathedral, portrayed Mrs Jennings’ London house in the film. Alongside the cathedral itself this is one of the most enjoyable properties in Salisbury. It’s furnished in the style of Queen Anne’s reign (1702–1714) and you can take afternoon tea in the peaceful garden at the rear.

South Wales was a much-disputed territory in the medieval period, leaving a legacy of magnificent ruined castles. Both Chepstow Castle, in the south-east corner of the principality and Pembroke Castle, in the rural county of Pembrokeshire (which also contains some of the best beaches in Britain, used for Harry Potter and Ridley Scott’s 2010 film of Robin Hood) featured in one of film director and ex-Monty Python animator Terry Gilliam’s early films, Jabberwocky (1977), a quirky comedy set in the Dark Ages starring Michael Palin and inspired in part by Lewis Carroll’s nonsensical poem.

Brideshead Revisited, Sense and Sensibility, Warhorse
Brideshead Revisited, Sense and Sensibility, Warhorse

One of England’s most sumptuous country houses is Castle Howard in Yorkshire, immediately familiar to fans of either the epic Granada Television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, made in 1981, or the 2008 film version. In both productions Castle Howard, designed by Vanbrugh for the Howard family and built between 1699 and 1712, served as Brideshead, home of the Flyte family.

Director Tim Burton was inspired by another classical house – Antony in Cornwall – where the silvery Pentewan stone, avenues of clipped yew and lawns sweeping down to the River Lynher proved the perfect location for his fantastically surreal adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.

Antony is shown in all its opulent splendour on film, but Britain’s landscapes are also shown in their full glory, most recently in Steven Spielberg’s epic adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s book, Warhorse. The endless rolling hills and striking scenery of Dartmoor were perfect for the film’s early scenes, while pretty Castle Combe in Wiltshire was used to film the horse auction where the film’s hero, Joey, is bought by Ted Narracott. Other Dartmoor locations Spielberg chose included the villages of Meavy and Widecombe and an isolated Grade II-listed building, Ditsworthy Warren, near Sheepstor, that served as the Narracott family’s farmhouse.

The ancient clapper bridge over East Dart River on Dartmoor
The ancient clapper bridge over East Dart River on Dartmoor © Loop Images/Craig Joiner

Back in northern England, Durham Cathedral is a masterpiece of Norman Romanesque architecture built in the early 11th and 12th centuries. It stood in for 16th century Westminster in 1998’s Elizabeth, in scenes where the Queen addresses Parliament, and was also used extensively in the Harry Potter films. The Chapter House appears as Professor McGonagall’s classroom at Hogwarts.

Scotland’s epic scenery has also been drawing filmmakers for decades. Often, films shot here celebrate cunning locals outwitting outsiders. The remote island of Barra, southernmost of the Western Isles, was used for locations in the great Ealing comedy Whisky Galore! (1948), based on a true story, in which Scottish islanders plunder a shipwreck then connive to hide its alcoholic contents from the authorities.

Jane Eyre
Classic apple blossom in bloom provides a beautiful backdrop to a romantic scene in Jane Eyre © AF archive / Alamy

Another beguiling Scottish comedy, Local Hero (1983), written and directed by Bill Forsyth and starring Peter Riegert and Burt Lancaster, is a popular story of a big American oil company trying to buy a remote village on the west coast of Scotland in order to build a new refinery – only to find that the locals have other ideas.

Everyone remembers the scenery in this film. In 2005 critics voted it as having made the best use of locations in Britain. It was shot in a number of different places in Scotland, but perhaps the two most memorable are the beautiful white sandy beach at Morar, near Mallaig, on the west coast, from where you can look out across the sea to the Isle of Skye and the Inner Hebrides; and Pennan in Aberdeenshire, a tiny fishing village on the east coast. To this day, a steady stream of visitors arrive at Pennan to take photographs of the single street and the small harbour, trying to capture a little bit of British movie magic to take back home with them.

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