London’s Soho on screen – from Peeping Tom to Mona Lisa

It’s one of the capital’s most storied districts. Here Kim Newman leads a tour round 15 memorable movie locations in Soho and surrounds.
Illustration by Lyndon Hayes

Map of Soho
Illustration

Last Night in Soho covers a large patch of London’s West End, from the Toucan pub on Carlisle Street on the northern edge of Soho, to the heroine’s digs in Goodge Place, Fitzrovia, just across Oxford Street. The movie echoes many earlier films set in and around London’s liveliest, strangest, most haunted sector – this map picks out just a few of the highlights.

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1. Newsagent, corner of Rathbone Street

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In Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), this is where photographer Carl Boehm takes pictures of 1950s pin-up Pamela Green. Just across the road is Newman Passage, where Boehm accosts sex worker Brenda Bruce in the opening scene, then murders her in a flat above the Newman Arms pub.

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2. Oxford Street

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The thoroughfare that defines the boundary between Soho and Fitzrovia is a throbbing vein of nightlife in the dizzying opening sequence of Val Guest’s drama of showbiz cynicism, Expresso Bongo (1959), where manager Laurence Harvey makes a monster hit out of layabout Cliff Richard. Guest combines footage of real Frith Street and Hanway Street, on either side of Oxford Street, with an impressive studio set – the whole sequence was recreated in Absolute Beginners (1986).

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3. Frith Street

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Ken Hughes’s The Small World of Sammy Lee (1963) – which opens with a prowling shot through Berwick Street market – follows desperate strip club MC Anthony Newley as he tries to raise money to cover a gambling debt. The Peepshow Club was a convincing studio set, but Sammy’s flat is on the real Frith Street.

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4. Colony Room Club, Dean Street

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Before the loosening of licensing laws, after-hours drinking clubs flourished around Soho. In John Maybury’s Love Is the Devil (1998), the painter Francis Bacon (Derek Jacobi) and his muse (Daniel Craig) spend a lot of time in the Colony Room on Dean Street. Other Colony Room habitués included Tom Baker, John Hurt and Jeffrey Bernard. It’s now a restaurant called Ducksoup.

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5. Earlham Street, off Cambridge Circus

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Earlham Street runs from Cambridge Circus to the intersection known as Seven Dials – both now eminently respectable, but once extremely demi-monde. In Basil Dearden’s pioneering gay drama Victim (1961), leather-jacketed blackmailer Derren Nesbitt exerts so much pressure on a hairdresser (Charles Lloyd-Pack) that he dies of a heart attack – Dirk Bogarde proves to be made of sterner stuff.

Illustration

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6. Old Compton Street

Gary Sherman’s extraordinary Death Line (1972) – one of the great London movies – is mostly set around and under Russell Square tube station, but opens with a bowler-hatted VIP (James Cossins) prowling the strip clubs and sex shops of what was then London’s major porn thoroughfare, Old Compton Street.

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7. Madame Jojo’s, Brewer Street

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Soho often pretends to be somewhere else. In Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), the Club Sonata – a New York piano bar – is actually Madame Jojo’s on Brewer Street. Tom Cruise’s reconciliation with Nicole Kidman at the end of the film takes place in a NYC toy store that’s actually Hamleys on Regent Street.

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8. The Raymond Revuebar in ‘porn alley’, Walker’s Court off Brewer Street

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Michael Winterbottom’s The Look of Love (2013) casts Steve Coogan as porn baron Paul Raymond, whose highly lucrative if controversial empire centred on the Raymond Revuebar. The interior of the club appears in Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa (1986), where just-out-of-prison Bob Hoskins presents gangster proprietor Michael Caine with a rabbit. Today the venue houses The Box Soho cabaret club, but the Revuebar’s famous neon survives.

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9. The Windmill theatre, Great Windmill Street

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The story of the nude tableaux of the Windmill theatre – which famously continued all through the blitz without interruption – is told in Stephen Frears’s sugary Mrs Henderson Presents (2005). A grubbier account of the place is Secrets of a Windmill Girl (1966), where a stint on stage leads Pauline Collins to a bad end. Earlier, the actual theatre was seen in Murder at the Windmill (1949).

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10. The Eros theatre, Piccadilly Circus

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In John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London (1981), David Naughton transforms into a monster in the auditorium of the Eros theatre – a longtime Soho porn venue – before causing a multi-vehicle crash in Piccadilly Circus. The theatre later became a clothing store (until it closed in 2020). The lights of Piccadilly Circus feature in many a welcome-to-London montage, notably in the silent classic Piccadilly (1929).

Illustration

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11. The Criterion, Piccadilly

The most famous fictional event that ever took place at the Criterion is the first meeting of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet (1887) – though the Piccadilly institution represents a high-toned Gotham City establishment owned by a later great detective, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008)

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12. Fortnum & Mason, Piccadilly

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Fortnum & Mason, the high-end department store, has been a fixture of Piccadilly since William Fortnum and Hugh Mason established it in 1707. It has always been associated with fine, if ostentatious, living – patronised by posh characters in the likes of Howards End (1992). In John Schlesinger’s Darling (1965), free spirit Julie Christie shoplifts there.

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13. Brewer Street

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Edmond T Gréville’s Beat Girl (1960) features chanteuse Gillian Hills as a trouble-seeking blonde who strides along Brewer Street and Old Compton Street. Her road to trouble leads from the Off-Beat cafe – a teen venue where Oliver Reed jives and Adam Faith strums – across the road to a strip club managed by Dracula-grinning Christopher Lee.

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14. Carnaby Street

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Synonymous with fashion in the 1960s, Carnaby Street features in many a whirlwind montage of the era. In Smashing Time (1967), a skit on swinging 60s dramas, northern girls Lynn Redgrave and future Last Night in Soho star Rita Tushingham head straight there. Bend It Like Beckham (2002) visits Soccer Scene at 56-57 Carnaby Street.

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15. The Palladium, Argyll Street

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The London Palladium, an entertainment venue since 1910, is seen in Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935), where Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) catches a peculiar variety act, Mr Memory. Hannay returns to the Palladium in the climax where his question (“What are the 39 steps?”) prompts a mid-act murder.

Contributor

Kim Newman

The GuardianTramp

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