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Saturday May 18th 2024

Sabotage | 1936

Sabotage film location: Trafalgar Square, London
Sabotage film location: Sylvia Sidney meets the undercover cop: Trafalgar Square, London

Location filming was still something of a novelty in 1936 when Alfred Hitchcock made this adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. The early suspenser contains more real London locations than any other feature film seen at the time.

The 'Bijou' cinema of foreign agent Verloc (Oscar Homolka), the 'High Street Station' and neighbouring street are a studio set, but the opening scene sees sabotage at Battersea Power Station on the South Bank of the River Thames, plunging into darkness central London landmarks such as the Palace of Westminster, Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus.

Sabotage location: Battersea Power Station, Battersea, London
Sabotage location: target for terrorists: Battersea Power Station, Battersea, London | Photograph: iStockphoto / Val Mansfield

Battersea Power Station – one of the most recognisable London landmarks and the largest brick building in Europe – was brand spanking new at the time. It finally closed in 1975 and was gutted in 1983. The many plans to turn it into a theme park or leisure centre have fallen through, though it’s found steady use as a film location. Its dilapidated railway station was one of the shabby backdrops to Michael Radford’s grim 1984 film of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, as well as hosting the climactic ‘Battle of Bosworth’ in Richard Loncraine’s adaptation of Richard III. The power station’s rundown interior has since been seen in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and in Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus.

It's in Trafalgar Square that his innocent wife Sylvia (Sylvia Sidney) later meets up with undercover cop Detective Spencer (John Loder), before going for a meal at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, 100 Strand (just a few minutes east of Trafalgar Square).

The restaurant, one of Hitchcock's favourites and where he entertained the press to publicise the movie, was mocked up in the studio, but you can see the real thing in Howards End.

Sabotage film location: Royal Courts of Justice, the Strand, London
Sabotage film location: the Lord Mayor’s Show: Royal Courts of Justice, the Strand, London

The Lord Mayor’s Show, where Sylvia’s young brother waits unknowingly with the bomb, was also faked. The parade was filmed in front of a giant photograph of the elaborately Gothic Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand. You can see the real law courts in Bridget Jones’s Diary and Genevieve.

On the second Saturday in November, the newly elected Mayor makes his way from Mansion House to the Royal Courts of Justice to pledge an oath of allegiance to the sovereign, a tradition going back to 1215. The day is rounded off with a fireworks display.

In that time, the Lord Mayor’s Show procession has only been diverted once (for the building of St Paul’s Cathedral), and the only time it has ever been cancelled was for the funeral of the Duke of Wellington in 1852.