Released in 1971 and directed by Stanley Kubrick, A Clockwork Orange was by far one of the 20th century’s most controversial films.
Based on Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel of the same name (the title being inspired by the old Cockney phrase “as queer as a clockwork orange’), the story is set in a dystopian London of the near future and centres on Alex DeLarge–a sadistic youth with a passion for Beethoven- who leads his gang of ‘droogs’ through the city on nightly sprees of ultra-violent mischief.
After committing murder, Alex is finally locked up… but is soon offered a quick way out when he agrees to act as a guinea pig for the Ludovico Technique; a controversial brain-washing programme designed to suppresses the desire for violence (and something which caused actor Malcolm McDowell great pain and discomfort when it came to portraying these disturbing scenes).
In Britain, thanks to high levels of upset whipped up in the press, the film version of A Clockwork Orange gained such an intense notoriety that Stanley Kubrick himself withdrew his work from circulation; a self-imposed ban which remained right up until 2000.
So strict was this embargo that, in 1993 when the Scala Cinema in Kings Cross attempted to screen the film, Warner Brothers took the owners to court; an action which led to the cinema going bust thanks to the immense legal costs involved.
Considering A Clockwork Orange was filmed entirely around London and the Home Counties (including areas such as Borehamwood, Kingston-Upon-Thames, Elstree, Radlett, Brunel University, Bricket Wood and Wandsworth prison) it’s rather ironic that British audiences were forbidden from viewing Kubrick’s film for so many years.
Here are some of the film’s most prominent London-based scenes:
The Chelsea Drugstore
Whilst Alex’s nights are spent committing all manner of horrific acts whilst tanked up on drug-laced milk, his days are rather more civil… devoted to indulging his love of classical music; especially that of the “lovely, lovely Ludwig Van” Beethoven.
In one of the film’s scenes, we follow Alex, decked out in his dandiest threads as he peruses his favourite record shop (click below to view):
This scene was filmed in the basement of the Chelsea Drugstore; a modern building fashioned from glass and aluminium which opened on the King’s Road in 1968.
Open 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, the Chelsea Drugstore was an avant-garde, mini shopping mall, its three floors boasting eateries, boutiques, a record shop, bar, newsagent and chemist.
It also boasted its own ‘Flying Squad’… an exclusive team of women clad in purple castsuits who were employed to make unconventional home deliveries on their fleet of motorbikes. Groovy!
The Chelsea Drugstore was also name checked in The Rolling Stone’s 1968 hit, You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” (Speaking of The Stones, Mick Jagger was once earmarked to play Alex DeLarge in an earlier proposed adaptation of Burgess’ novel which never came to fruition…)
Although the Chelsea Drugstore ceased trading in 1971, the shops in the basement (as featured in A Clockwork Orange) remained in place until the late 1980s whilst the rest of the building became a wine bar.
Today, the building is occupied by the Chelsea branch of McDonalds.
Despite the inclusion of the psychedelic Chelsea Drugstore, A Clockwork Orange is mostly set against a cold, dystopian backdrop; a precedent set in Burgess’ original novel as the following excerpt, in which Alex and his gang are evading the police, atmospherically illustrates:
“Just round the next turning was an alley, dark and empty at both ends, and we rested there, panting fast then slower, then breathing like normal. It was like resting between the feet of two terrific and very enormous mountains, these being flatblocks, and in the windows of all the flats you could viddy like blue dancing light. This would be the telly. Tonight was what they called a worldcast, meaning that the same programme was being viddied by everyone in the world that wanted to… and it was all being bounced off the special telly satellites in outer space.”
In order to realise Burgess’ bleak, futuristic vision Stanley Kubrick turned to the modern, Brutalist architecture which was sprouting across London during the era in which the book and film were created; architecture which, as early as 1962, Anthony Burgess was already predicting would provide fertile ground for many unforeseen social ills.
In Burgess’ novel, Alex lives in “Municipal Flatblock 18a”, a block daubed in obscene graffiti and plagued by vandalism.
To represent this domestic seediness, Kubrick took his film crew to the newly built Thamesmead Estate; a vast, sprawling development near Woolwich in South East London.
Built on a former military site, the Thamesmead Estate, which was optimistically promoted as being the “town of the twenty-first century”, was built piecemeal between the 1960s and 1980s.
One of the film’s most famous sequences takes place on Thamesmead’s Binsey Walk.
Walking alongside the man-made Southmere Lake Alex, whose leadership has just been challenged, decides to show his droogs whose really in charge (click below to view):
In recent years, the Thamesmead Estate has been used as a set for the E4 comedy, ‘Misfits‘.
York Road Roundabout, Wandsworth
One of the most notorious scenes in Kubrick’s adaptation takes place at the very beginning of the film and involves a vicious assault on a hapless down and out as he lies drunkenly in a grimy, pedestrian subway.
The scene was filmed in the warren of walkways beneath York Road roundabout, which sits at the southern foot of Wandsworth Bridge.
Typical of the architecture of the time, York Road roundabout was laid out in 1969 and was pretty much brand new when Stanley Kubrick set up his cameras.
Today, the labyrinth beneath the roundabout is just as bleak and unwelcoming as it was some 40 years ago…
More recently, a large atom-esque sculpture of sorts has been plonked down on the roundabout, becoming something of a local landmark.
Apparently inspired by the 1950’s Atomium sculpture in Brussels, but kitted out with a bulky and intrusive advertising gantry, the tangle of metal doesn’t really do much to beautify the 1960s concrete…
As for the unfortunate tramp who was attacked by Alex and his droogs below Wandsworth’s grimy roundabout… don’t worry, he gets his own back…
After recognising the recently released (and now, thanks to his treatment, defenceless) Alex DeLarge glumly contemplating a view of the Thames, the tramp leads his own rabble in a revenge attack on the former and now defenceless yob, right beneath Albert Bridge; one of London’s most beautiful river crossings (click below to view):
Want more on Stanley Kubrick’s London? Then check out this post: A Monolith in St Katherine Docks…