The greatest film scenes shot on the River Thames – ranked!

As a new David Attenborough documentary examines the waterway’s history, we rate the river’s finest movie cameos

10. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

This film follows a well-understood movie tradition of using the Thames, with its twists and turns and swerves, as a spectacular setpiece to whoosh us along the city, tracking the river from the air. Here, Harry (played by Daniel Radcliffe) has been expelled from Hogwarts and is under attack from Dementors, so “Mad-Eye” Moody (Brendan Gleeson) takes Harry and his pals on an amazing broomstick ride along the river, past the Canary Wharf towers and the museum ship HMS Belfast. Tower Bridge makes its mandatory appearance before Harry and the gang rocket past the Houses of Parliament and arrive in Grimmauld Place, the former headquarters of the titular Order of the Phoenix, somewhere north of the river. 

9. Sliding Doors (1998)

The sliding doors in question are those of a tube train at Embankment station, just by the Thames. As Gwyneth Paltrow’s PR executive Helen heads home early, having just been fired, she rushes for the train and the doors are on the point of closing; in one reality she’s too late, but in the other reality she scrambles aboard, chats to nice John Hannah and gets home to find her creep of a fiance in bed with someone else. (The delay involved in missing the train, in the other universe, meant Helen didn’t return in time to find him in flagrante.) Devastated, Helen breaks off the engagement and throws her ring into the Thames from Albert Bridge. The river is a potent and mysterious symbol of time and chance surging heedlessly onwards. 

8. Fires Were Started (1943)

Humphrey Jennings’ Fires Were Started is a docu-drama classic about firefighters in the second world war, using nonprofessionals. The drama follows the story of a new recruit joining the crew at the most dangerous time. The substation covers the area of Alderman’s Wharf in the docks, where a munitions ship on the Thames is being loaded, vital for the war effort. During a terrifying air raid, a warehouse is set ablaze, and a fireboat is despatched on the Thames. One firefighter is to lose his life; Jennings sombrely juxtaposes his funeral with a shot of the ammunition ship steaming down the Thames. The battle against the Nazis goes on in London and the Thames is a dramatic arena for this battle.

7. Shakespeare in Love (1998)

The feelgood romantic fantasy has Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) falling in love with a young woman (Gwyneth Paltrow) who is pretending to be a boy to bypass regulations about women acting on stage. The London riverside locations of the Globe theatre and Hampton Court Palace give the Thames an important role. Boatmen here seem like both our loquacious London cabbies and wannabe-screenwriter Los Angeles drivers. One ferries Shakespeare across the river while saying: “I had Christopher Marlowe in my boat once.” Others have a habit of handing their theatrical passengers plays they have written.

6. Bullet Boy (2004)

Saul Dibb’s crime drama has Ashley Walters’ character Ricky released on licence from a young offenders’ institution. On arriving back in his east London neighbourhood of Hackney he is given a dangerous coming-home present: a gun. And, of course, there is only one thing to be done withit: use it and/or throw it away – in the Thames, London’s secret and age-old crime depository. Dibb creates many thoughtful panoramic high-rise shots of east London and the Thames estuary from Hackney marshes and beyond.

5. The World Is Not Enough (1999)

The MI6 building at Vauxhall Cross overlooking the river gives James Bond some exciting Thames moments in his corking speedboat chase at the beginning of The World Is Not Enough. In it, 007 launches his rocket-powered hi-tech craft from the SIS HQ, with Q petulantly complaining in his wake that it isn’t ready. He then powers past Parliament, through Docklands and all the way down to the Millennium Dome (as the O2 Arena was then known). In so doing he provides an inadvertent river tour of how east and south London was being redeveloped in the late 90s. Pierce Brosnan keeps getting soaked in yucky Thames water before miraculously appearing groomed and dry in the next shot. 

4. Paradise Omeros (2002)

This complex experimental short piece is from the artist and film-maker Isaac Julien, inspired by Derek Walcott’s epic quest poem Omeros. Julien takes Walcott’s character Archille and morphs him into a young black British figure, played by the St Lucian classical tenor Hansil Jules, who is searching for orientation in a British environment. Julien’s film alludes indirectly to the Windrush experience of an ocean crossing and then the Thames journey into the treacherous and elusive Britain, via Tilbury docks – symbolised in a scene of Walcott and Jules gazing out on to the Atlantic and then a shot of the Thames itself.

3. Close My Eyes (1991)

Clive Owen plays a young guy, troubled by his sexual attraction to his sister (Saskia Reeves), who is married to a wealthy City trader (Alan Rickman). The early scenes between Owen and Reeves are filmed at the then burgeoning London Docklands, where Owen’s character is working as an environmental analyst. Later, we go to Rickman’s lavish home in Henley-on-Thames. The river in the early part of the film is a commercial waterway, the backdrop to growing wealth; by the end, it feels like a teeming delta in the middle of an unbuilt landscape at the end of the world, just about to burst its banks with passion. 

2. Frenzy (1972)

The opening of Hitchcock’s film is a travelogue-style flight along the Thames, past Tower Bridge and ending with the old County Hall building, well before the London Eye was even thought of. But, in a way, Hitchcock gave us the more bizarre Thames movie-moment with his trailer for the film, which showed us a dummy Hitchcock floating in the Thames; then we cut to a close-up of his great jowly face as he drawls: “I dare say you are wondering why I am floating around London like this. I’m on the famous Thames river, investigating a murder. Rivers can be very sinister places and in my new film, Frenzy, this river, you may say, was the scene of a very horrible murder …”

Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday
A lovely day out on the river: Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday. Photograph: Allstar/Handmade Films

1. The Long Good Friday (1980)

This British crime classic, from screenwriter Barrie Keeffe and director John Mackenzie, is a vivid history lesson in the Thames itself, the site of shady dealings and adventures, a place to get rich – or drowned. Bob Hoskins stars as an ambitious London mobster, Harold Shand, with his smart, glamorous new wife Victoria (Helen Mirren), who is out of his league socially. At the dawn of the Thatcherite age, he has big dreams of redeveloping the London Docklands with cash provided by the American mafia and, to facilitate this, he stages a riverboat party for the visiting US gangsters, setting off from the then modish St Katharine Docks, cruising past Tower Bridge and the West India Docks to the vast, empty, financially fertile stretches beyond: “Mile after mile and acre after acre of land!” as Shand excitedly puts it. Hoisting a glass of champagne, he gives a pompous speech about being a Londoner, and the fact that this party is a day of “great historical significance for London”. With 40 years’ hindsight we can see that he is right. The images of the Thames and the city are of historical significance, as they show London on the point of changing. Harold is shown talking to his criminal associate in the blank, empty site of Royal Albert Dock on the Thames – now the site of London City airport and totally changed. The river scenes show something very different to the glamour and excitement of so many other movies: here, the Thames is cold, grey and threatening.



Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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