Back in 1960, the Rank Organisation’s ‘Look at Life’ division (which created short, factual films for cinemas across the UK) made a documentary focusing on London’s famous black taxis.
In nostalgic terms this short film is a real treat. Here are some highlights:
The opening sequence features a traditional horse-drawn hansom cab trotting over Waterloo Bridge. The cab was driven by Fred Jones who, then aged 75, was old enough to have embarked upon his career long before the combustion engine took over. London’s last horse-drawn cab was withdrawn in 1947.
According to the film, in 1960 there were “about 6,000 taxis in London.” In 2017 that figure now stands at around 25,000, alongside approximately 115,000 private hire cars. The narrator also informs us that in 1960 there were 2,000 less cabs than before the war- a subtle reminder of the impact WWII had on the trade.
One of the older incarnations of the Public Carriage Office (the body responsible for regulating the capital’s taxis) can be glimpsed in the film. In those days it was based at 109 Lambeth Road, moving to Islington’s Penton Street a few years later in 1966. The office is now located in Southwark.
In the early 1960s Knowledge students tended to explore London on bicycles. Mopeds are now the vehicle of choice.
Although this was filmed in the early 1960s, the Knowledge school I attended looked pretty similar to this; big maps, books spread out and lots of anxious students. The school featured here was run by the Royal British Legion for ex-servicemen and was based on Kennington Oval. According to the film, the course took one year in 1960… today the average time to complete The Knowledge is at least four times that.
Tough driving tests are still required today. Luckily I didn’t have to suffer an audience when I took mine.
In 1960 there was a lovely mix of old taxi models on the road.
In this modern day and age with everybody glued to apps, London cabbies are often unfairly accused of being ‘dinosaurs’ (even though we had a taxi app long before a certain American multinational started splashing its billions about). But as this film shows, cabbies were embracing technology almost 60 years ago by utilising mobile radio units- quite a feat back then.
On older cabs built in the 1940s and 50s (such as the Austin FX3) luggage compartments were open to the elements meaning suitcases could get quite soggy in wet weather. In the winter, this also meant cabbies had to wrap up warm.
Like today, many cabbies rented their taxis from a garage in the early 60s…. and I must say it looked like the fleets ran a far slicker operation back then. A daily wash and check up for your vehicle, a welfare section, a sports club, cafeteria and a free ride home- that’s the sort of service we can only dream of nowadays.
When this documentary was made, taxi driver identity badges were huge with little change in design since the Victorian era. No wonder Charles Dickens once claimed the large brass labels made cabbies look as if they’d been “catalogued in some collection of rarities.”
Until the 1980s, taxi meters were mechanical and, as shown in the documentary, they had to go through vigorous testing at the National Physical Laboratories before being allowed on the road.
At the end of the film, we’re told that “Tips are going up these days, the average is between a shilling and two bob.” Hmm…I wouldn’t quite say that’s the case in 2017!
To watch the full film, please click below…
I was recently driving along ‘Parkway’; a busy road lined with bars and restaurants which ploughs through trendy Camden.
Being a Monday afternoon, it wasn’t exactly the busiest part of the day for the area, and I wasn’t really expecting a job. If truth be told, I was in fact heading towards Camley Street, a small, Camden backwater which happens to be home to a popular cabbie’s café (where a cup of will set you back a mere 60p!)
However, whilst waiting at a set of traffic lights, a woman jogged towards me, arm held aloft.
“I need to get to Earl’s Court please.”
From Camden, that’s a very good journey indeed, and I was more than happy to forfeit my cuppa!
Only problem was, we were in the middle of Camden’s complex one-way system and, in order to head in the right direction, a bit of twisting and turning along a number of small side-streets was required. Whenever I have to do this (which, unsurprisingly in London, is quite often), I often quickly explain the reason to my passenger, for fear that it looks like I’m deliberately going around the block in order to nudge the meter up!
“No problem; you’re the boss! Do what you have to do.”
The passenger was most cheerful and clearly very friendly; an energetic woman colourfully dressed in a long, purple coat and red hat.
“Have you been shopping at the markets?” I asked, turning into yet another one-way street.
“Oh no, I wish! No, I’ve been working at rehearsals.”
“Oh… are you an actress?”
“No, nothing that glamorous I’m afraid! I’m a make-up artist; been working on a sitcom for the BBC.”
Now that I’m finally out of Camden’s labyrinth one-way network and heading through the quicker, tranquil roads of Regent’s Park, I ask the passenger where exactly in Earl’s Court she’s heading for.
“Redcliffe Square, please; I’m meeting a friend there.”
I’m interested to learn a little bit more about my passenger’s experience in make-up.
“You probably get asked this all the time,” I ask, “but what shows and films have you worked on?”
“Oh, quite a lot… I’ve been doing makeup professionally for over 25 years now. I suppose my favourite job I worked on was ‘Frankenstein’; the one directed in the 1990s by Kenneth Branagh.”
I’m quite familiar with that version, mainly because the creature cobbled together from various corpses is played by Robert De Niro; a popular actor amongst cabbies thanks to his role as ‘Travis Bickle’, the troubled loner in the classic 1976 movie, ‘Taxi Driver.’
It is perhaps the most clichéd question I could possibly ask on the subject, but I can’t help but inquire;
“What was De Niro like to work with?…”
“He’s very approachable… a polite man but, when working; whilst in character, he is deeply intense.
I worked on Saving Private Ryan too; that was an interesting job. Very upsetting though.
I did make-up on the opening scene… you know; where the soldiers storm the beach and get shot at and blasted from all sides.
It made you realise what those men went through. For that scene, they used a lot of amputees; guys with arms and legs missing. False limbs were made, and then blown off; graphic stuff. That wasn’t filmed in France though; they did it on a beach over in Ireland.”
“Do you get to travel much with your job then?” I ask.
“Quite a lot yes. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful; I know how lucky I am, but it can get pretty tiring sometimes; especially when you’re stuck in an open field for 12 hours in the freezing rain, it doesn’t feel that glamorous!
I did another film though with Kenneth Branagh; ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ and that was wonderful… got to spend lots of time in the Mediterranean sunshine; a real treat!”
By now, we’ve hit the inevitable traffic. I apologise for the hitch, and start to wind through a number of twisting shortcuts.
“Oh, don’t worry about it” my passenger reassures me.
“I grew up in London; I know what the roads are like around here.
When I was younger, I used to drive around town all the time. It was so much easier back then; traffic didn’t seem quite as bad, you could park a lot easier. No cameras watching your every move- that’s the worst thing, isn’t it? You know the ‘Ritz’ Hotel; where they have that covered walkway outside?”
I do indeed know it. The passenger is referring to a fancy pedestrian walkway; a colonnade sheltered by a long, fancy roof. It runs along the front of the famous hotel; the windows and blue-coated doormen offering a tantalising glimpse into the luxury which lies within.
“Well, I was just a kid at the time; only about 19. I’d just passed my driving test, and I became the proud owner of an old Mini.
I went all around London in it and, early one Sunday morning, I drove through the Ritz’s walkway! Ha ha! It was like something out of the ‘Italian Job’! You’d never get away with that now would you; the CCTV would catch you out like a shot!”
The image which this conjures up in my mind makes me laugh so much that I nearly have to pull the taxi over! The make-up artist laughs too, amused at the impact her tale of juvenile anarchy has on me.
“I bet you’ll never be able to look at the Ritz in quite the same way again now, will you?!”
Usually, I’d take such a story with a pinch of salt, but the passenger is certainly eccentric enough to have committed such a reckless stunt!
As we drive on, I’m reminded of a film; revolutionary in its make-up and special effects which was filmed in the very square to which we are headed.
“Going back to movie make-up,” I say, “do you know the film, ‘An American Werewolf in London’?”
“Ohh, of course I do… it was the very first film I worked on!”
“You’re kidding? Did you know that they actually filmed that on Redcliffe Square?!”
“I do indeed… “
She pauses and looks out of the window briefly, clearly remembering, and then smiles to herself.
“Didn’t really think about it until you mentioned it, but I’m returning to where my career started aren’t I?”
To those unaware, ‘An American Werewolf in London’ is a film which has steadily gained the status of cult classic.
Released in 1981, the movie tells the story of two young, American friends; David and Jack who, as the story begins, are backpacking across the windswept, Yorkshire Moors.
Seeking a hot meal and a cup of tea, the pair come across a rather sinister pub called ‘The Slaughtered Lamb’.
(London has its very own ‘Slaughtered Lamb’ pub, named in homage to its famous movie namesake. It can be found on Great Sutton Street in Clerkenwell, and has a great music venue downstairs).
After being made to feel rather unsettled by the somewhat sinister, cagey locals, the two Americans leave the pub and resume their hike across the moors…
However, shortly after leaving the pub and as night sets in, the pair are attacked by a large and wild, vicious beast. Jack is killed instantly but David, who is severely injured, survives and slips into a coma.
When he awakes several weeks later, David finds himself lying in a London hospital bed.
The authorities tell him that he and Jack were ambushed by a crazed lunatic, but David knows better and insists that the attacker was a creature; a werewolf. Naturally, his bizarre recollections are brushed off as a symptom of the trauma through which he has been.
After being discharged from medical care, David is invited home by a young nurse; Alex Price (played by Jenny Agutter) who has rather fallen in love with the young American. Her flat is on Redcliffe Square, near Earls Court.
As he recuperates, David is haunted by gruesome nightmares and visions of his dead friend, Jack. Every time Jack appears- including a haunting in the Redcliffe Square apartment- he appears to be in an advanced state of decay. He warns David that, as he has been clawed by a werewolf, he is destined to become one himself.
Sure enough, on the full moon, and whilst Alex is on night-duty at the hospital, David undergoes a startling and painful transformation… Never before has Redcliffe Square witnessed something so terrifying!
Following the metamorphosis, David- in werewolf form- proceeds to go on a midnight rampage across London; feasting on a number of hapless victims.
In one of the film’s most famous scenes, the beast finds its way into Tottenham Court Road tube station and chases a late-night commuter along the eerily deserted walkways before cornering him on an escalator…
The following morning, David has returned to his human form. Despite waking up in the unusual location of London Zoo, he has no memory of his violent antics from the night before… and it takes a talkative London cabbie to make him realise what his nocturnal self has become!
(I must say, I wish I could drive from Earl’s Court to Trafalgar Square that quickly; it would do wonders for my blood pressure!)
After failing to get the police or authorities to take him seriously, David is forced to roam the streets of London and, as night falls, he finds himself in the ‘Eros Cinema’ on Piccadilly Circus.
(The Eros was a cinema which used to screen films of a more adult nature. Back in 1981, the area around Soho and Piccadilly Circus was notorious for its seediness and attractions of a more red-lit nature. The Eros closed in 1985, and has since been replaced by a far more clean-cut Gap clothing store).
Being a full moon, David once again warps into a werewolf. Bursting out of the grubby cinema, he proceeds to cause havoc in the West End, as the following clip demonstrates (Warning! Some if it’s a bit gory!)
For this amazing sequence, director John Landis was granted permission to completely close Piccadilly Circus off to the public for a night-time shoot.
All of the people you can see are actors, all of the vehicles carefully choreographed. The only other film to have been granted this amount of access to this famous London landmark was the more recent Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
When the American Werewolf in London scene was being prepared, the film crew had to do a sweep of the area, making sure all entrance points were closed, and no members of the public were around to stumble upon the carefully organised set.
There is a story (probably an urban legend, but fun all the same!) that an elderly homeless fellow, tucked away and fast asleep in an alleyway was missed by these roaming checks.
A few hours later, when he awoke, the filming was well underway; complete with crashing cars, screaming actors and a marauding, animatronic werewolf… needless to say, the elderly tramp received quite a shock!
* * *
“I was 16 years old when I got that job” continues the make-up artist. “Gosh, I was a precocious kid; a little snot really! I just went up to them and asked them to take me on. I practically insisted.
But you could do that in those days- it was certainly a lot easier to get into that business than it is today. Nowadays, you have to go through all sorts of hoop-jumping; lots of expensive courses and training.
On the American Werewolf set, I was just a tea girl; they had me running all over the place. I got to see things though; I picked up lots of knowledge on set.
I remember seeing one of the werewolf models; it was on a sort of see-saw contraption, and I got to move that up and down a bit.. quite primitive really, but then I still think models and puppets like that are miles better than the computer animation they use today, don’t you agree? You can’t beat having something solid in front of you; you know; something that actually exists. I learnt a lot on that job, and I’ll always be grateful to them.”
We finally arrive at Redcliffe Square and the friendly make-up artist bids me a cheerful farewell, leaving a generous tip in the process.
Putting the cab in gear, I drive off, turn the corner, and drive past the apartment where a team of talented make-up artists worked their magic all those years ago.