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Tag Archives: London Taxi

A History of the Elephant & Castle (Part Two)

This is the second part looking at a history of the Elephant and Castle area of south London. To read the first instalment please click here

The Elephant at war

Being a major transport hub with a large civilian population, the Elephant and Castle was bombed heavily during World War Two. 

Londoners sheltering at Elephant and Castle tube station during the Blitz.

The worst raid to hit the area took place on the 10th May 1941, when bombers deliberately targeted the south London district in order to create a ferocious firestorm which rapidly engulfed the Elephant. 

A painting depicting the night in which the Elephant was consumed by flames.

After the war much of the Elephant lay in ruins, a shadow of its pre-war days when Londoners had flocked there to indulge in its many shops and places of entertainment.

Bomb damage at the Elephant, 1941. The destroyed building had been a branch of ‘Woolworths’.

A concrete renaissance

For over a decade, the Elephant remained pretty much in tatters, pitted by numerous bomb craters which provided exciting playgrounds for local kids.

In March 1958, the down-at-heel area received a welcome dash of American glamour when rock and roll star, Buddy Holly played to a huge audience at the Elephant and Castle’s Trocadero. 

Buddy Holly, backstage at the Elephant & Castle Trocadero, March 1958. (Image by Bill Francis, from Patrick Sweeney website)

To read more about Buddy Holly’s time in London, please click here.

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Meanwhile, behind the scenes, town planners were hard at work, drawing up plans for a massive redevelopment of the area… for Elephant and Castle was about to become a huge canvas for some of London’s most prominent post-war architecture.

Model of the Elephant & Castle proposals from 1956 (image: Thecarandtheelephant)

The importance of the vast rebuild was summed up in 1956, when the London County Council stated:

The Council regards the Elephant and Castle as one of its most important comprehensive reconstruction projects. A unique opportunity is presented for creating a new shopping, business and recreational centre for south London, for effecting major traffic improvement and for realising fine, civic design.

The new road-layout was the first part of the scheme to be implemented, with two huge roundabouts stamped down during the 1950s.

The Elephant & Castle road system circa 1990s (image: Knowledge Rush)

This prominent road system was highly representative of the mood of planners at the time, who envisioned a future in which the motor car would be king. 

Consequently, little thought was given to those who had to traverse the Elephant on foot and, to this day, pedestrians are forced to cross the area via a series of gloomy, narrow subways.

Subway beneath the Elephant’s northern roundabout.

It was during the 1960s that the majority of the Elephant was rebuilt; the architects’ love affair with concrete and stark urban planning resulting in the heart of the district evolving into a landscape more akin to communist East Berlin

The very first building to be completed at the new Elephant was the Faraday Memorial; an avant-garde electricity sub-station, clad in stainless steel and plonked in the middle of the northern roundabout.

The Faraday Memorial

Unveiled in 1961 as a taste of things to come, the Faraday Memorial can still be seen in its original location, un-disturbed by the many millions of vehicles which have roared around it during the past fifty years.

The Faraday Memorial, overlooking the northern roundabout.

Next to pop up was Alexander Fleming House which opened in 1963.

Alexander Fleming House. Now known as ‘Metro Central Heights’, the exterior of this 1960s development has since been fitted with blue and white cladding. (Image- Design Museum)

Originally designed as a triple set of office blocks, Alexander Fleming House has since been converted into luxury apartments and renamed Metro Central Heights (or, as some like to jokingly call it, Metro Sexual Heights; a reference to the many young, urban professionals who now reside there!)

The modern trio of towers was designed by Erno Goldfinger, the infamous architect noted for his bold, uncompromising buildings… and egotistically fierce temper!

Erno Goldfinger, who was highly influential in London’s post-war architecture.

To find out more about the curmudgeonly Goldfinger, please click here for my earlier post on the ‘Trellick Tower’ which is widely regarded as his true masterpiece.

*

Lost cinemas

Goldfinger would go onto wield great influence over the Elephant and Castle.

In 1966, he incorporated an Odeon cinema into Alexander Fleming House… which was rather fitting considering the complex was built on the site of the former Trocadero which had been demolished a few years after Buddy Holly’s celebrated visit. 

Goldfinger’s 1960s design for the Odeon cinema (image: Cinema Treasures)

Designed in the Brutalist style, the modern Odeon contained seats for over 1,000 movie-goers.

Sadly, the cinema was demolished in 1988 which is a real shame as, given current trends, I have a feeling it would have found a new lease of life as an independent picture-house had it been allowed to remain.

The Odeon at Elephant and Castle in 1983- by which point it had been renamed the ‘Coronet’ (many thanks to flickr user dusashenka for this rare image)

The Odeon’s foyer in 1988, shortly before demolition (many thanks to flickr user, dusashenka).

*

Tickled pink

In 1965, yet another Goldfinger creation was unveiled in the area… the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre.

The Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre in 2012

At the time, this new building was revolutionary; the first covered shopping complex in Europe.

The Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre, 1960s (Image- BBC)

Locals however who, for generations had patronized traditional local shops and markets, were slow to embrace the new concept.

When the shopping centre first opened, trade was painfully slow with just 29 out of 120 shop units being occupied.

Inside the Elephant Shopping Centre, 2012

Originally providing three floors for trade, it quickly became clear that this was one floor too many.

In 1978 the centre was purchased by Ravenseft Properties who promptly converted the third level into office space. As a spokesman for the company said at the time, “one has to do something when one has inherited such a horrible asset!

In 1990, the powers that be thought it would be a good idea to paint the Elephant and Castle shopping centre bright pink, a colour which remained on the building until very recently. 

The shopping centre during its pink phase (image- Evening Standard)

I’ve often wondered what the idea behind this lurid scheme was. Not that I have anything against pink, but I was under the impression that a ‘pink elephant’ was something one only saw after a few to many sherries!

Some rather creepy pink elephants can be seen in the following excerpt from the 1941 Walt Disney classic, Dumbo, in which the lovable little elephant hits the booze rather too hard…

The Heygate Estate

By far the largest post-war project to grace the Elephant and Castle was the vast Heygate Estate, which was completed in 1974 and provided homes for 3,000 people.

The Heygate Estate

Designed by Tim Tinker, the Heygate Estate was very much a product of its time; a huge housing scheme conjured on an incredibly ambitious scale, and designed with the best of intentions in mind.

They Heygate Estate under construction, early 1970s (image- ideal homes.org)

Aiming to make the estate an oasis of calm away from Elephant’s characteristic roar of traffic, Tim Tinker placed the tallest of the tower blocks around the perimeter, encircling and shielding smaller accommodation and areas of greenery within the middle.

When viewed from above, it is indeed surprising just how much greenery the Heygate encompassed.

Bird’s eye view of the Heygate Estate (image- Google)

However, as with many estates, the utopian ideal quickly became sour, with the modern innovations having quite the opposite effect of their intended purpose.

The towering apartment slabs isolated their inhabitants, slicing off communities rather than drawing them together, whilst the windswept walkways and secluded communal areas provided fertile breeding ground for crime and anti-social behaviour.

Unfortunately, unlike other examples of London Brutalist architecture- such as the Trellick Tower, National Theatre and Barbican Centre- the Heygate has received no revival and is currently undergoing demolition.

Thanks to the large amounts of asbestos present, the destruction is a slow process, not expected to be completed until 2015.

One of the large Heygate blocks, empty and boarded up…

An abandoned Heygate bridge.

At present, the drawn out wrecking of the Heygate has made the old estate quite an atmospheric place; a vast, inner-city chunk of quiet decay, rather like something out of a post-apocalyptic film.

A deserted service road…

One of the Heygate’s low-rise homes… now in a rather sorry state.

Despite being eerily deserted, at the time of writing, a tiny handful of residents are refusing to leave their homes on the Heygate in protest at Southwark council’s compulsory purchase order.

A traditional phone-box, looking just as dilapidated as the estate behind it…

This small but hardy bunch include an elderly couple with a leasehold… both of whom are in their 80s and, like their small band of remaining neighbours, see the Heygate as their rightful home…

Graffiti on the moss-ridden garages.

A large, decaying block…

*

The Elephant on Film

Thanks to its present state, the Heygate has proved a popular location for movie makers in recent years, with Southwark Council raking in a substantial £91,000 in filming fees since 2010.

Two films to make substantial use of the estate are Harry Brown and Attack the Block.

Released in 2009, Harry Brown stars Sir Michael Caine who, just like Sir Charles Chaplin a generation before, spent his tough working-class childhood in the Elephant and Castle area.

In Harry Brown, the popular actor plays a pensioner after whom the film is named; an ex-soldier living out his twilight years on a hellish council estate.

Sir Michael Caine on-set at the Heygate Estate (image: Le Cool London)

One night, Harry has to rush to hospital, where his wife is dying.

Despite the emergency, he is too terrified to take a short-cut as the subway in question is plagued by gangs and drug-fuelled violence. His failure to take the shorter route means that he is unable to be at his beloved wife’s bedside when she passes away…

This, coupled with the murder of his friend who also resided on the estate, leads the pensioner to turn vigilante…a very grim film indeed.

*

Being a comedy, Attack the Block is one of the more cheery films to emerge from the Heygate Estate.

Released in 2011, this movie centres on a gang of youths… who find themselves having to defend their turf against an alien invasion!

As can be seen in the following trailer, the Heygate Estate played an integral part in the story:

More recently, the Heygate has been used as a backdrop for World War Z; a horror film in which the world is gradually taken over by zombies.

Due for release in 2013, the film stars Brad Pitt, who spent time on the estate filming some rather terrifying looking night scenes…

World War Z… the zombie apocalypse comes to Elephant and Castle…

*

The Heygate is not the only the only area of the Elephant and Castle which has been used as a filming location.

In the 2011 film, The King’s Speech, Iliffe Street, just south of the junction towards Kennington, was used to represent a road in fashionable West London.

Iliffe Street, used in the award winning film, ‘The King’s Speech’ (image- Google Streetview)

In 1968, the then brand new shopping centre featured in The Strange Affair which starred Michael York.

In 1987’s gangster film, Empire State, the young protagonist and his moll live in Draper House, their balcony overlooking the Elephant’s large twin roundabouts.

Looking out over the Elephant… screen shot from the 1987 film, ‘Empire State’.

In 1982, the Elephant loaned its streets to the music industry when Brook Drive– which lies just west of the junction behind the Metropolitan Tabernacle, was used to film the video to the much-loved hit, Come on Eileen by Dexy’s Midnight Runners.

Please click below to view:

In the past year, I have had two fares to Brook Drive and, in both cases, each of the passengers stated how chuffed they were to live on the same street where this hit, which seems to be played at every single wedding reception, found a home for its video!

Below is a photo of the Brook Drive newsagent as it appears today:

Brook Drive, junction with Hayles Street where the famous music video was filmed.

Also in 1982, Dexys Midnight Runners released The Celtic Soul Brothers which was filmed on the other side of the Thames at the Crown Pub in Cricklewood- please click here to read more).

*

All change at the Elephant

Today, the Elephant and Castle is undergoing its biggest change since WWII.

A smashed up information board outside the Elephant shopping centre. Hopefully, such ugly scenes will soon be a thing of the past…

As part of a £1.5 billion scheme, the 1960s shopping centre is due to be demolished and replaced with a pedestrianized market square and green open spaces.

As for the Heygate Estate, once that has been fully knocked down, the empty land will be replaced with 2,500 new homes, of which it is sad 25% will be “affordable”… I suppose that means the other 75% will be unaffordable then…

Visions of the new Elephant

Overall, the change at the Elephant is estimated to take some 15 years.

At present, the most prominent sign of this slow evolution is the Strata Building; a new tower which replaced Castle House and has been nicknamed by some Londoners as the ‘Lipstick’ building. 

The Strata Tower, which stands across the road from the Elephant’s 1960s shopping centre

The Strata contains 310 luxury housing units, retail space at ground level and, most famously, three wind-turbines on its roof which are used for powering a small percentage of the tower’s utilities.

The Strata’s wind turbines

Wether of not these new developments will last longer than their 1960s predecessors remains to be seen… however, one thing is for sure- they are merely the next stage in the long and varied history of the Elephant and Castle.

***

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Friday Night on Old Street

(Please note; although I have used stars to block them out, this post contains some offensive words)

As I often say, the vast majority of people I meet in my cab are polite, friendly and pose no hassle whatsoever.

However, every now and then, you will encounter the sort of job which made you wish you’d driven on by.

*

January is always quiet in the taxi trade; so much so that, in London Taxi driver slang, it is known as the ‘Kipper Season.’

The origins of this phrase are uncertain, but the two main theories are that it either refers to the amount of work being ‘flat’ (i.e. like a kipper), or that kippers, being a relatively cheap food, is all a cabbie can afford to feed himself with during the slow months.

Anyway, the kipper season is a pretty desperate time (made even worse at the moment of course due to the current, dire economic climate which is having a negative impact on many), and passengers are very difficult to come by.

During the slow season, it is not uncommon to drive around for well over an hour or two; cab empty and hair being torn out as you strive to locate a fare; your precious reserve of diesel being roasted in the process.

A way of conserving diesel of course is to find a taxi rank, but these are always chock-full. A few days ago, I saw the rank at Waterloo stretching right around the station; approximately ¼ of a mile.

Bearing this in mind, when you see a hand go out during the Kipper season, you don’t hesitate to snap the job up with little rational thought.

*

Such a job happened last Friday evening.

I was driving along Old Street and, although a piercing headache was throbbing away over my right temple, I was happy that I had at least covered my costs for the week, so was no longer working at a loss.

Suddenly, on the other side of the road, a hand went up, accompanied by a whistle. The hailer was a short, young man, smartly dressed. He twirled his hand around in the air; a signal often made when people require you to spin the cab around and head in the other direction.

Quickly checking my mirrors and blind spot, I put the wheel lock on and spun around accordingly. The young fellow came to the window and appeared polite enough.

“Cheers for that, mate.”

“No problem. Where do you want to go?”

His polite nature vanished suddenly as he ignored the question and watched his four mates jog over. Apparently, they’d been a few yards away, trying to hail a cab to no avail. In they piled; their laughter and rowdiness making the intercom strain, whistle and rattle.

The door slammed and they chatted and laughed amongst themselves. The taxi was pulled over, hazard lights blinking, but still in the way of traffic.

“Where are we going?” I ask again.

“Huh?”

They continue to jostle each other.

“Lads, I need a destination” I say a little more sharply.

“Oh… hang on…”

“Ha ha! Where…where are we going?” slurs one of the group.

Out comes the I-phone, his thumb scrolling the portable internet. A blended stench of beer fumes, tobacco breath and an array of various aftershaves wafts through the Perspex divide, the combination of which does my headache no favours.

“Erm… do you know Browns, mate?”

“Yep, no problem.”

The drunkest member pipes up again.

“That’s it! Yeah! Browns!” he slurs, “Browns– the strip joint! We wanna’ go and see the slags dancing! Those f****** slags, ha ha!”

The young gentleman was indeed right as to the nature of the club- Browns is one of London’s seedier entertainments; a famous and long-established lap-dancing club, spilling garish pink and blue neon flashes across the junction of Hackney Road and Shoreditch High Street.

Four of the passengers appear to be relatively sober and chat boisterously amongst themselves with good humour.

It is the scrawny, heavily inebriated young fellow sitting directly behind me who is the real pain in the proverbial. 

I hear the various switches, located on the passenger door, being clicked and snapped as he strives to wind the window down.

“What is this?” he slurs… “Why can’t you get a proper f****** vehicle?!”

He then drunkenly turns towards his chuckling mates and makes further, charming comments about the women who dance in Browns and their various assets. 

Now that the window is finally down, he starts to shout abuse at the public.

“Bus w******!” he laughs, actively encouraged by his pals.

“Bus w******!” he shouts again, passing a line of people waiting in the cold at a bus stop.

“Ha ha! You know that dontcha’?” he manages to ask the others, “that scene in the Inbetweeners!”

(For those unaware, The Inbetweeners is a popular Channel 4 comedy, about a group of teenage misfits at sixth-form college.

In one episode, they drive to London, seeking nightlife and excitement. Boastful that they have the privilege of a car, one of the group decides to shout out the insulting phrase, “bus w******” at a group of innocent bystanders waiting by a bus stop.

The joke backfires when their car is abruptly made to stop at a set of red-lights- and two, burly looking men from the bus-stop walk over to teach the group a lesson. It is funny of course, because it is fiction, and the joke is on the boys themselves; their pathetic immaturity and the consequences which follow.

Sadly, in this real-life re-enactment, no such humour is generated, although the drunk’s mates seem to find it funny and laugh uproariously).

Bringing his head back in from the open window, the little troublemaker surveys the road ahead.

“Where is this bloke going? For f**** sake? We want Browns.”

I’m not sure exactly what route he wants, but Old Street to Browns lap-dancing establishment is the simplest route I’ve had all week; straight all the way. In Knowledge speak it would be described thus: ‘forward Old Street, comply Old Street roundabout, leave by Old Street continued, forward Hackney Road… set down Browns on left.’ Simple!

I can only imagine that the drunk’s head is spinning, a symptom which has lead him to believe he is been driven around all over the place. Quite how someone can be so intoxicated at 8.15pm in the evening I do not know.

The drunk then brushes the seat on which he’s sitting and mutters loudly to himself… “it’s clean… clean in here… ha ha! Bet this ****’s never had anyone drunk in here before.”

Of course I’ve conveyed drunks before, but this is the first time I’ve ever had anyone complain about my cab being clean.

In cases such as this, many cabbies would feel obliged to pull over and politely ask the rowdy bunch to vacate the vehicle. However, we are very close to our destination and to ask such a thing would certainly create confrontation and a ‘scene’; things I don’t need with my already aching head. Best to just get them there and have done with it.

As we approach, I hear further banter; a line both clichéd and tiresome which is commonly employed by those out on the binge:

“You know we haven’t got any money, dontcha, cabbie?! Ha ha! Don’t expect us to be paying ya!”

Even as I pull up outside the club, the drunkest of the group is barking at me, “No! It’s on HACKNEY ROAD… Hackney Road…. We want Hackney Road!”

One of his friends tells him that we are in fact here, and to shut up. The drunk waves off his scolder and fumbles for his wallet. The digital meter, with its little, glowing red numbers, states that the total fare is £5.40.  

“It’s ok, I’ve got this…”

His mates pile out, leaving the heavily drunk fellow alone in the back.

As he tries to stand, he tumbles around, rather like a toddler in a playpen. Gripping a yellow handle by the door, he steadies himself and stuffs a £20 onto the pay-tray. A little way up the kerb, a young street-sweeper has paused to watch the spectacle, smiling and shaking his head in disbelief.  

“There you go, mate,” he burps.

I hand him back a £10 note and start to count out the remaining change- but he staggers off after his pals, arms held aloft like a gibbon, before I have time to hand it over. I’ll assume that’s a tip then!

Driving off, I feel immense pity for the lap-dancing girls who have to put up with such characters in even closer quarters… then again, I’m certain the club’s bouncers, decked out in their long, black Crombie coats and smart-bow ties, will have plenty to get their teeth into later on…

Werewolves & Make Up

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.