Home > Films > A > Arabesque

Saturday May 18th 2024

Arabesque | 1966

Arabesque location: St John's College, Oxford
Arabesque location: Gregory Peck’s Oxford college: St John’s College, Oxford

Veteran director Stanley Donen invests this lightweight – and today hilariously un-PC – sub-Hitchcockian comedy thriller with lurid Sixties visuals, as Professor Pollock (Gregory Peck) is marked for death after deciphering some mysterious Egyptian hieroglyphics.

The university where Prof Pollock lectures is, of course, Oxford, and you can see the rather grand quad where he’s propositioned at St John’s College on St Giles Street. It’s the inner Canterbury Quad (which also appears in Joseph Losey’s Accident, released the following year).

In London, the home of silkily villainous Mr Beshraavi (“I'm a very Arabian Arab, I'm afraid”, intones Mancunian Alan Badel, in brownface) is 2 Carlton Gardens, a tiny street running between Carlton House Terrace and Pall Mall.

The house seems to have been moved to Regent's Park – when Prof Pollock and Yasmin Azir (Sophia Loren – OK, racially sensitive casting is not one of the movie's better points) escape the house and flee down the flight of steps alongside it, they emerge, not on the Mall, but by London Zoo, Regent's Park NW1.

The same house is pointed out by psychic Robert Lees (Donald Sutherland) to a sceptical Inspector Foxborough (David Hemmings) as the home of the killer in the 1979 Sherlock Holmes-Jack the Ripper mystery Murder By Decree and became home of The Baroness (Emma Thompson) in Disney's Cruella.

Once home to Lord Kitchener, and now the Privy Council Office, the mansion used to house Section Y, the arm of the British Secret Intelligence Service responsible for technical operations against the former Soviet Union.

After Pollock and Yasmin make their escape through the zoo, other touristy London locations include Trafalgar Square (unable to use a helicopter shot, Donen took his camera up Nelson’s Column using block and tackle); the British Museum; Waterloo Station, where Pollock arrives only to find he’s wanted for murder; and, for good measure, the Royal Enclosure at Royal Ascot Racecourse in Berkshire.

Ascot Racecourse appears in two very different Bond movies – A View To A Kill and (as an airport) Skyfall, though for what many people consider its most famous screen appearance, in My Fair Lady, a studio set in Burbank was used.

The climactic chase, with helicopter-borne villains pursuing Pollock and Yasmin under a railway viaduct, was filmed at Crumlin, on the railway line between Newport and Abertillery, Gwent in South Wales.

In the first edition of the Worldwide Guide, I made the mistake of calling this the Abertillery Viaduct, and received a through slagging off from the Crumlin Viaduct website. I've learned my lesson. Sadly, the viaduct was demolished shortly after filming.

According to studio publicity, road, rail, gas and electricity were cut off during the stunt filming, and 350 people from a nearby village had to be evacuated – though £2 ‘disturbance money’ was handed out to each family. Ms Loren’s wardrobe, by comparison, cost £53,500.