SCREEN GEOGRAPHY / WHITE NOISE

The montage is foreign to real life. Off screens, we fill out forms and wait for buses and generally get on with the slow, narratively unexciting business of living. This stands in notable contrast to visual mediums, which hold elision as one of their most important tools. To better serve the story and for the avoidance of confusion, superfluous details in films and TV programmes are often changed or omitted entirely: a supporting character in a biopic will be a composite of several actual people, an inessential sub-plot will be dropped from an adaptation, and years will pass over the course of a pop song or even a single jump cut. No-one uses the toilet or does laundry or defrosts a fridge, unless something of narrative worth is going to happen when they do.

A certain amount of abridgement is to be expected in a finite story, but things become interesting when looking at how the process affects the presentation of physical geography. In a 2012 interview, writer-director Martin McDonagh discussed the footchase at the climax of his black comedy In Bruges:

“The chase can be done in real time. From point A to point B to point C. They weren’t the most pretty bits of Bruges but it was a straight one-minute run. I’ve read online of people going there after the film and seeing how logical and truthful it actually was.”

For the majority of his audience who don’t live in Bruges or intend to travel there to test it out, McDonagh’s decision to make the sequence spatially accurate may seem perverse rather than admirable, but I’d argue that it’s admirably perverse instead. By choosing verisimilitude over aesthetic considerations, the film – shot entirely within half an hour’s walk of the director’s hotel – has an internal logic. The story may be outlandish but is grounded in a place that feels like the real Bruges, boring and beautiful in equal measure.

McDonagh’s strict approach is relatively uncommon. Films and TV shows set in real locales often have an elastic sense of distance, invent fictional areas, or choose disparate locations in order to find somewhere better looking or more convenient to film in. Some of these deviations are stylistic, while others are pragmatic, hence Vancouver, nicknamed ‘Hollywood North’, frequently stands in for various American cities due to its generous tax incentives.

By exploring how different productions use geographical logic when depicting the same city – in the following examples, television programmes set in contemporary London – it is possible to reflect on our own relationship with urban spaces. Our experience of city life is similar to a film-maker’s: while we live in a real, ever-evolving place, we self-construct it through the areas we frequent. Everyone in a city lives in their own particular version of that city, but given its size and the socio-economic and cultural variety, this is more true of London than of most places.

 

Sherlock

While Sherlock is among television’s most intricately plotted shows, the London it depicts is made of silly putty and string. The most egregious example of its fickle geography was during the 2014 episode The Empty Hearse: Dr John Watson’s journey sees his Jubilee line train transform into a District line train, before he jumps out at Euston Square – a station served by neither line – after which the episode’s portrayal of the Tube network only becomes more inaccurate and haphazard. The complicated logistics of shooting on the Underground necessitates some fudging (hence Watson and Holmes eventually heading to disused station/ubiquitous filming location Aldwych), but as most Londoners have specific sections of the Tube map tattooed onto their brain, the experience of seeing Watson bounce around an ephemeral Underground is disorientating.

Sherlock Watson tube Martin Freeman

Eastenders

Fassett Square in Hackney bears an conspicuous likeness to Eastenders‘ benches-and-crying-filled Albert Square, which is unsurprising as the garden space was used to film the show’s pilot. That the producers ultimately decided to eschew the actual square for a set was one of their most significant decisions: the fictional borough of Walford exists in its own bubble, able to emulate the identity of the East End without being tied to any specific part of it. The hermetically sealed environment contributes a dramatic component essential for any soap: the sense that the characters are part of a community but also somehow trapped, able to leave only through death or in the back of a taxi. Its portrayal of life in an imaginary part of a real city has always inspired an odd dissonance, which has only grown more pronounced as Albert Square has struggled to keep up with the brutal rate of gentrification. Walford may have its own postal district and a stop on the Hammersmith & City and District lines, replacing Bromley-by-Bow on the programme’s tube maps, but it doesn’t boast a single crêperie.

Doctor Who

The return of Doctor Who to television screens after 16 years away was accompanied by many changes, but perhaps the two biggest were the shift in narrative focus towards the Doctor’s companion Rose Tyler and the movement of production from London to South Wales. As Rose was from modern London these would seem to be at odds with each other, but the solution employed was a mixture of London-based location shooting and Cardiff-based fakery. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the new incarnation’s first episode, where Queen’s Arcade in Cardiff was half-heartedly disguised with an outdated tube roundel and an old Routemaster. But if, on occasion, London in Doctor Who looks suspiciously like Cardiff then this is only following in a charmingly lo-fi tradition, where the interiors of spaceships look suspiciously like darkened corridors at the BBC and alien planets look suspiciously like quarries in Surrey or Kent. The slightly ridiculous, cheap-and-cheerful aesthetic is essential to the programme, so it would be stranger if its depiction of London wasn’t also uncanny.

 

Luther

Aside from the time its eponymous detective got grumpy with his job and threw his coat off Southwark Bridge, or the other time he got grumpy with his job and fled to the seaside, Luther is set almost entirely in east London. While the show makes good use of interesting, rarely filmed locations, however, the relatively confined setting means that most of the time Idris Elba is hunting down serial killers who are a couple of stops away on the 55 bus, and who he could probably find if he just yelled loudly enough. The vivid sense of place means that the programme avoids the could-be-anywhere quality of sleek London rival Sherlock, but also means that it’s essentially an urban Midsomer Murders: characters drive towards and away from the Shoreditch Central junction so often it’s remarkable that it’s never been the victim of an intricate satanic murder. Unlike Sherlock Holmes, DCI John Luther works in a living, breathing London, it’s just a shame that it’s a London so small you’re liable to run into your murder suspect at the local newsagents.

Luther Idris Elba bus

Originally published on White Noise. To read the original article click here.

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