Film Locations: Notting Hill

Sophia Satchell Baeza

Everybody knows the Richard Curtis rom-com classic, right? The famous blue door, that charming yet unkempt bookshop milling with beautiful people and the toothy but adorable film star played by Julia Roberts. Notting Hill (1999) has, rightly or not, been charming audiences and sky-rocketing real estate prices in the area for over a decade. In reality, its vision of the area is a far cry from the real Notting Hill (although it may have accurately predicted its extreme gentrification). Curtis’ ethnic cleansing of the area obscures its rich history of West Indian immigration in the 1950s, its roots in the Notting Hill Carnival, and its subcultural and underground links to everything from punk to the hippy movement.

I asked Neil Mitchell, writer and editor of World Film Locations: London, for his opinion on how Notting Hill is represented in cinema, and he said: "During the writing and editing of [the book], Notting Hill inadvertently became symbolic of London and London-set movies as a whole. Alternately trendy, white, middle class, rich, bohemian, sleazy, crime-ridden, economically deprived and racially mixed – Notting Hill has been all things at different times both onscreen and off. As the area has changed over the years, so has the city – and consequently so have their representations on film."

With Notting Hill Carnival and the Portobello Film Festival about to kick off for another year, we thought we’d cast our eyes over some other interesting portrayals of this famous and cinematic London area. 

Pressure (Horace Ové, 1975)

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Horace Ové’s Pressure is a rousing and critical account of Britain’s growing multi-culturalism and systematic racism. The story focuses on Tony (Herbert Norville), a black teenager trying to navigate himself through a prejudiced, white-dominated society. As police and potential employers repeatedly reject him, and the authorities violently raid a Black activism meeting, we see how Anthony’s political activism grows. The first feature-length fiction film made by a black British director, Pressure was primarily set in Ladbroke Grove, an area famous for its Caribbean community since the 1950s. Pressure is an incredible, practically documentary account of an area and its vibrant street life – from the reggae soundtrack, incredible '70s fashion, and street patois.

Performance (Donald Cammell, Nicolas Roeg, 1970)

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Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s film is a dark, drug-infested look at the merging identities and louche squalor of a struggling rock star (Mick Jagger) and an East London gangster (James Fox). Most of the events take place in a Gothic mansion on Powis square in Notting Hill, then an area with rock star credentials and cheap bedsits. Listen out for Ry Cooder’s excellent song “Powis Square” in the film. The film was unique in combining two worlds of 'Swinging London': the bohemian debauchery of the West London ‘in-crowd’ with the thriving East End gangster underworld to glorious, shocking (and even career-ruining) results.

The L-Shaped Room (Bryan Forbes, 1962)

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Back in the days when it was a run-down ghetto of squats and bedbug-ridden boarding houses, Notting Hill was the perfect location for '60s social issue movies, like Bryan Forbes’ The L-Shaped Room. Based on the novel by Lynne Reid Banks, it tells the story of a young pregnant French girl living in an L-shaped bedsit in run-down West London.

Separation (Jack Bond, 1967)

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Jack Bond’s incredible New Wave film tells the story of a woman’s schizophrenic breakdown against the backdrop of Swinging London. The central character, performed and written by his wife Jane Arden, pursues a liaison with a handsome young man (Ian Quarrier), as they wonder around Portobello market in fur coats and flowers. Daaahling!

Some Voices (Simon Cellan Jones, 2000)

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Another story of schizophrenia in Notting Hill, Simon Cellan Jones’s film follows Ray (a very bottle blonde Daniel Craig) after his discharge from a psychiatric hospital. His chef brother Ray (David Morrissey) lets him crash in his West London flat, in hope that the medication and some TLC in the form of a new lover (Kelly Macdonald) will do the trick. Notting Hill, including Portobello market and the fly-over, are key locations in the film’s unfolding of events.

The Squeeze (Michael Apted, 1977)

“You’ve heard of Notting Hill. It’s off the beaten track for London tourists. But it hits the headlines with colourful festivals and even more colourful riots. Notting Hill is the sort of place where things happen”. A group of gangsters kidnap a women and her daughter in order to bribe money off her rich husband. Husband and ex-husband decide to take on the gangsters themselves, in this oft-neglected British crime drama of the 1970s.

Territories (Isaac Julien, 1984)

Isaac Julien’s 25-minute experimental documentary on the Notting Hill Carnival is as loud and lively as it is critical. Composed of montages of police surveillance and street rioting, with festive scenes from the Carnival itself, it openly criticises the way black communities are represented by mainstream media, and why such events bring up violence and resentment. Julien’s roving camera captures the colour, the anger and the dark, throbbing music of this world-famous event.

Withnail & I (Bruce Robinson, 1987)

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Even though Bruce Robinson’s '60s-set novel is meant to unravel in London’s Camden Town and Penrith in Cumbria, many of the scenes were actually filmed in Notting Hill. This includes their rather grimy bedsit and the ‘Mother Black Cap, Camden” pub where they order “two large gins. Two pints of cider. Ice in the cider”. The pub, which was actually located in Tavistock Crescent, sits right in front of the Westway flyover and the infamous Trellick Tower building, which was actually completed in 1972 – one of the film’s slight historical anachronisms, but whatevs.

A Hard Day’s Night (Richard Lester, 1964)

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The Beatles first feature film is something of a London ramble for the Fab Four. At one point, Ringo Starr decides to duck the fame and fans and go for a wander through Notting Hill, taking arty farty photos of a milk bottle carrier and other antique ephemera. He spots some shrieking fans and hides in junk shop on All Saint’s Road. These days, you’ll be lucky to find One Direction wandering the streets, although several famous locals still grace its hallowed markets. But I couldn’t name names… that would be telling.

Notable omissions...

Moon Over The Alley (Joseph Despins, 1976)
Absolute Beginners (Julien Temple, 1986)
The Man Who Knew Too Little (Jon Amiel, 1997)
Match Point (Woody Allen, 2005)
I Hired A Contract Killer (Aki Kaurismaki, 1990)
Golborne Variations (JC Carroll) 
Alfie (Lewis Gilbert, 1966)
The Italian Job (Peter Collinson, 1969)

Follow Sophia on Twitter: @SophiaSB1

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