Tommy | 1975
The film adaptation of The Who’s rock opera has a dazzling first half – virtually inventing the music video – as Ken Russell gives full rein to his considerable imagination, but then falters with obvious budgetary restrictions as the lumpen allegory takes over.
The countryside idyll of Captain Walker (Robert Powell) and Nora (Ann-Margret) is the Borrowdale Valley, south of Keswick in the Lake District in Cumbria, an area often used by Russell to evoke a sense of peace and nature (The Devils, Mahler...), and where the director chose to live.
With Captain Walker called off to war, the destruction of a row of terraced houses during the Blitz (the film updates the period of the story from post-WWI to post-WWII) was filmed on Cumberland Road, near Fratton Station. As you can see in the film, the street was being demolished, and it’s now a smart new housing estate.
With his dad presumed killed in action, young Tommy is taken by his mum Nora to a kitschy Fifties-style holiday camp, which is a composite of several different locations.
Its swimming pool, where the lustful attendant Uncle Frank (Oliver Reed) is smitten by Nora’s shapely legs, is Hilsea Lido, London Road at the roundabout by Port Creek, Hilsea, north of Portsmouth, opened in 1935 in the period’s glorious art deco style.
Romance blossoms as Nora and Frank dance romantically in the theatre on the old South Parade Pier, in Southsea.
Since it opened in 1879, the pier has been dogged by bad luck – burning down in 1904, and rebuilt only to be consumed by fire again in 1967.
You know what’s coming next. During filming, the hot lights set fire to curtains and – oh no! – the pier burned again. Fortunately, the cameras kept turning and footage of the conflagration is incorporated into the movie’s climax. The pier has been rebuilt, though sadly without the Victorian detailing it once had. Since 2012, it's sadly been closed.
After witnessing the murder of his returning father, Tommy is stricken with psychosomatic blindness, and in an attempt to jolt his senses, Uncle Frank and his Mum take Tommy to the funfair.
The subterranean tunnel, through which Uncle Frank and his Mum take Tommy is at Southsea Castle, south of Southsea Common, and the fair itself is Clarence Pier Amusement Park, Clarence Esplanade, Southsea.
Hoping for a miracle, Nora drags the older Tommy (Roger Daltrey) along to a gruesomely showbizzy church, where the halt and the lame worship at a giant statue of of Marilyn Monroe as Eric Clapton performs Eyesight to the Blind, and Arthur Brown rewards believers with a pills’n’booze communion.
This was St Andrew’s, the former garrison church for the Royal Marine Barracks at Eastney. After the barracks closed, the church was converted to luxury housing and is now Grand Division Row, on Henderson Road, at Dunn Close, Eastney, east of Southsea.
In possibly the film’s most famous sequence, Tommy faces off against pinball champ Elton John, teetering on a pair of mega Doc Martens. The raucous Pinball Wizard number is staged in the incongruously elegant 1907 King’s Theatre, Albert Road, Southsea.
Elevated to the status of cult leader and suddenly regaining his sight and speech, Tommy spreads a message of peace, love and universal brotherhood, by hang-glider (and what Seventies movie would be complete without its hang-gliding sequence?).
He perches atop the remaining tower of Warblington Castle, the rest of which was destroyed during the Civil War. It’s on private land, but you can glimpse it peeking above the trees just east of the B2149 by the bridge to Hayling Island, south of Havant.
Also in Warblington, just a little further south on Church Lane, you can find the church of superfan Sally Simpson’s father. It’s the historic Church of St Thomas à Becket, Church Lane. The bomb-like war memorial was just added for the film, by the way.
On the southwest of Hayling Island itself, is Tommy’s house. Here, he sits on the roof welcoming hordes of followers, on Bacon Lane, opposite Winston Close, South Hayling (this is a private home, so I’m sure I don’t have to remind you not to disturb the residents).
‘Tommy’s Holiday Camp’, where a swivel-eyed Uncle Ernie (Keith Moon) flogs trinkets to converts, is Fort Purbrook, one of five Victorian forts overlooking Portsmouth. Known collectively as Palmerston’s Folly, after the Prime Minister who oversaw their construction, they were meant to defend the south coast against a French invasion – which is yet to materialise.
Purbrook, most easterly of the five, is now an activity centre, on Portsdown Hill Road, off London Road, northwest of Cosham. The entrance to Tommy’s camp is the fort’s westerly gate.
The interior of the camp used piles of buoys, painted silver in an imaginative, if not totally successful, attempt to resemble giant pinballs. The buoys were stacked at the now-gone Pound’s Scrapyard, which stood on Twyford Avenue, by Alexandra Park.
After his dream crashes and burns, Tommy returns to the place of his conception – the unspoiled landscape of Borrowdale – for a final moment of redemption.
• Many thanks to Dom Walton of Corporate Communications for help with this section.