Monday, December 2, 2013

In search of the "Critchley Hotel"...

   ...from a photographer's notebook

An homage to "Blue Ice"

Trains at night can create a mysterious, often ominous and foreboding mood, don't you think?

Something about those lighted windows against the pitch black of the night sky, vivid sparks from interrupted contacts with third rail or overhead catenary. There is also the sound aspect – the formidable crescendo of rumble and clatter and screech of wheels as the train approaches and flashes past.

And if that train happens to be on an overpass, hurtling past old buildings of dark brick illuminated by the occasional street lamp…

It’s a challenging motif to photograph, as the lighting is almost always tricky, but the results can be quite rewarding when it all comes together right, as happened on a recent November night in London.

This “project” actually had its genesis last year when, during my November visit to London, I discovered the motif-rich area around Borough Market in the London Borough of Southwark.

Many of the buildings in this part of London, just south of the Thames near London Bridge Station (if one excludes the soaring modern form of The Shard looming above them to the east) have that somewhat brooding Dickensian appearance, consistent with that of the Market.

Station Approach carries trains above Borough Market
And rising just above Borough Market, between it and Southwark Cathedral, is the Station Approach overpass that carries trains into busy London Bridge Station.

I mentioned last November as the genesis of this particular project. But it’s more accurate to say that the real genesis went back to sometime in the ‘nineties, when I purchased a VHS videotape of a 1992 film that had captured my interest and which had probably not yet been released on DVD.

“Blue Ice” was a crime thriller starring Michael Caine as a very interesting character named Harry Anders. Harry is a former intelligence operative who, after retiring from those shadowy activities, opens a jazz club in what looks to be an old industrial or warehouse building in London.

Harry, while definitely a romantic, can also be lethal when provoked. But who says those two traits need be mutually exclusive? His passion is jazz, and, one might imagine from his shiny black Jaguar XK-140 coupe, vintage motorcars with large cats leaping forth from their bonnets.

It is in that black Jaguar, with some energetic be-bop playing on the music system, that Harry is rear-ended at a stop light by a Mercedes roadster driven by Stacy Mansdorf (Sean Young), the provocatively attractive young wife of the American ambassador.

The unfolding plot leads Harry back into a world of intrigue, including the murders of two of his friends, as he tries to help Stacy, with whom he has fallen in love, resolve a difficult situation with an ex-lover.

The plot gets pretty involved and I wouldn’t want to spoil the suspense if you intend to watch it one evening (which I’d highly recommend), but I will tell you about the scene that so engaged my senses that I had to track it down, years later, with my cameras.

Harry and a London police detective friend whose help he has enlisted have tracked down Stacy’s ex-lover, Kyle, at an Italian café in Southwark. 

They watch as Kyle leaves the restaurant, as it closes and goes dark, and heads across the rain-wet street to a run-down, sleazy, and rather ominous looking "Critchley Hotel.” Harry says to Ozzie, the copper, "That's the kind of place defrocked vicars take young boys and then hang themselves." Looking at the building, the elevated trains rumbling by just behind it in the misty night, and the way the scene was lighted, you could believe it! 

The scenes that followed made extremely effective use of those arcing blue sparks created by the electric railway on the overpass, and the sound of those trains heightening the tension as Harry discovers the murder victims...

As a train rumbles by overhead on Station Approach, Harry Anders (Michael Caine) approaches the "Critchley Hotel."

I first discovered the area around Borough Market and the Station Approach overpass last year and there was just this pervasive feeling of deja-vu -- engendered, of course, by vivid memories of those scenes in "Blue Ice."

And while London has several railway embankments and overpasses running by old buildings (one of the reasons I find parts of the city so strongly appealing in terms of photography), I could not escape the feeling that I had to have been really close to where the “Critchley Hotel” sequences in “Blue Ice” were filmed. But, standing there in that space between Borough Market and Southwark Cathedral with trains rumbling overhead on the Station Approach, I had no idea how close I actually was!

However, twilight was nigh, and I had some other motifs beckoning that night, so I did not further reconnoiter the area.

But...When I returned to London this November, I knew I had to find that building in Southwark with the railway overpass just behind it, and to shoot it - and the trains - by night. And perhaps even capture that foreboding atmosphere I'd remembered so vividly from the film.

So, camera pack and tripod in hand, I headed subterranean, boarding a Bakerloo Line train at Paddington station, changing at Baker Street (elementary, dear reader) to the Jubilee Line for the short trip that would lead under the Thames to London Bridge station, which I remembered from the previous year’s visit had an exit on Borough High Street, close by Borough Market.

Platform-edge doors, Jubilee Line, London Bridge Station

By the way, while the London Bridge Tube Station is in a very old section of Southeast London, the Jubilee Line platforms are impressively bright, clean, and modern, with platform edge doors that sync with the doors of arriving trains, affording passengers a more secure experience, and less wind effects as trains blast out of tunnels into the station.

Now, up on Borough High Street in search of that ominous looking “Critchley Hotel” with the Station Approach behind it.

Close, but no cigar...but nonetheless picking up the scent!

The search had one false start. As I spied the railway overpass, with a pub in front of it, architecture similar to what I remembered from "Blue Ice," I thought I had hit pay dirt. But while I could hear the trains rumbling above, I could not see them! I did not know at the time that as part of the expansion of the London Bridge (railway) Station, a second, converging overpass had been built to the east of the one I was seeking, and from my position on Borough High Street, I was too close to it to actually see the trains, anyway.

Ah, but I was on a mission, and not about to admit defeat. So I tucked in my tripod and proceeded to walk up the street toward where the Station Approach crosses over on its way into London Bridge Station. That is also the direction of Borough Market…

Then, at the intersection of Bedale Street, I find myself, looking dead on (you should pardon the expression) at the scene of the cinematic murders and the vividly remembered night trains rumbling past the “Critchley Hotel.”

I can now tell you the “hotel” was actually a popular Southwark pub, the Globe Tavern. Only the sign had been changed to protect the, err, innocent.

And the Globe Tavern is just a stone’s throw from…Borough Market! So that deja-vu experienced last November was dead-on.

Actually, the sight lines had changed, however, since the film was shot – the original overpass was exactly where it should be, but that new converging overpass swoops over between Borough High Street and the Critchley, pardon, Globe.

Ahh, but that’s when the wide angle lens yelled out “In here, mate – I’m in your bag!”

Wow - It really exists! Tucked in between the original Station Approach overpass and the newer one in front - that was the bright green structure seen behind the other pub in the earlier photo. Actually, it looks pretty inviting here, doesn't it?  Ah, but let's wait....

So, it’s now about 10:45 and I do some hand held shots just to make sure I had the scene covered, before getting down to serious tripod placement and testing various exposure settings to ensure the right amount of motion blur for those trains rumbling above and behind this somewhat forbidding Dickensian edifice.

Well, the building in its setting between railway overpasses and with its Dickensian air might look forbidding, but, after all, it is a busy London pub with lots of convivial activity, so the shot I was looking for would need to wait until the Globe closed, the last imbibers departed, and some of the outside lights (hopefully) got turned off.

The window on the third floor went dark ... after the murder!
About 45 minutes later, those requirements had been mostly met. With no more customers entering and leaving the tavern...and with the help of a different white balance in the camera to make the scene a little "colder," I think I managed to make the Critchley, err, Globe look just a little more "brooding."

Fortunately the trains kept rumbling by overhead, just minutes apart, on their way in and out of London Bridge Station. 

Perhaps the third rail and the pick-up shoes of the newer trains cause less arcing, or maybe the filmmakers conjured up some special effects to get all those spooky blue flashes from the trains passing overhead...

But that was OK, as I’d found my cinematic inspiration from almost twenty years earlier, still there for the taking in.

It was fun, while waiting for some of the lights to go out, or between trains, talking to some local chaps who seemed quite entertained by the reasons I had sought out the “Critchley.” I hope they’ll seek out “Blue Ice” to fill in the blanks in my photo-interrupted bits of narrative!

By the way, when I got back to my hotel late that night, first thing I did (after downloading my images to a portable hard drive, of course) was go on line and order up the DVD of “Blue Ice” to ensure I’d have a fresh, sharp copy to watch on my return.

Next year I shall return a bit earlier in the evening and raise a glass -- inside the Globe.

And, perhaps if I ask nicely, they’ll let me go upstairs and look down at – and shoot – the night trains rumbling past on the Station Approach. Only, I promise not to jump down onto the tracks and risk being zapped by the third rail or mowed down by a speeding train as Harry Anders did in the film!

The Globe Tavern from a different angle
About the title I gave my many photos that night,"Homage to Blue Ice," I should say it was not my intent to "mimic" the scene in the screen-grab above. Nor could I have, as the streets were dry that night and there was no mist to speak of. Plus, I had no special effects crew available to me to create those blue spark flashes from the trains on the overpass. And there's also that second overpass crossing over Bedale Street in front of the Globe, which changes those sight lines, as well as casting the upper floors of the Globe in shadow.

But those "Critchley"scenes in the film are just so indelibly etched in my cinematic synapses that I just had to track down and experience that little corner of Southwark by night. 

Next time, perhaps I'll luck into some rain to make that old street a bit more dramatic...some fog to shroud the scene in mystery...some sparks from a train...

Meantime, thank you, Michael Caine. Thank you, London. You too, Globe Tavern.

©2013 Steve Ember

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