Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) is one of the few London-set films whose locations you can visit IRL and not break a sweat crossing the city. That’s because its story, about a young Pakistani who opens a glamorous launderette with his white punk boyfriend, takes place mainly in a single pocket of the capital, specifically SW8.
Penned by Hanif Kureishi and shot in 1985, Frears’ film paints a vibrant portrait of mid-80s multicultural London, where street punks in pork pie hats lurk ominously, like the droogs from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971). It’s memorable, first and foremost, for Daniel Day-Lewis’s Johnny, with his dip-dye hairdo and ‘souf’ London accent. But beyond that there’s a remarkable sense of place: those grey streets, that ever-present railway junction outside Omar’s (Gordon Warnecke) bathroom window, the sparkly launderette on Wilcox Road – all of which you can walk between. In other words, it makes sense geographically.
But, more than three decades later, do these places still exist? Do they still look the same? Roll film…
The beating heart of the film is, of course, the brand spanking new Powers Launderette, on Wilcox Road, Lambeth. Sandwiched between a dry cleaners (convenient) and an accountants, Powders is the swankiest launderette in town, its walls adorned with giant waves, a flashing neon sign blinking brightly in an otherwise dimly lit street. It’s naff and conspicuous. But Powders doesn’t exist in reality. Today it’s a Portuguese café with an extendable canopy where you can buy a single croissant for £2.30. It may have a similar aquatic colour scheme, but it no longer lights up the street like a beacon in the night. The other main difference? The Vauxhall Wharf development – specifically St George Wharf Tower – which looms large on the skyline, a monolithic symbol of gentrification in south-west London.
On the same street, right next to Powders, is the turf accountants and the alleyway where Omar and Johnny share a furtive kiss right before the punks kick off outside the launderette. Independent bookmaker Charles A. Perry has since been replaced by a William Hill that looks like every other William Hill. On the opposite side of the street – where in the film exists a Video Forum (“cinema for the home”), a farmers store, a hardware store and a chemist – now lies a bureau de change, a ‘Glamour Beauty Salon’ and a Portuguese jewellery store. There’s now another launderette – surprisingly with no nod to Powders. It’s purple, and an imaginative wordsmith has named it ‘LAUNDRETTE’.
Under the railway bridge
The railway underpass in Wandsworth appears a number of times in the film. It’s where Omar first sees Johnny – an old friend with whom he’d lost touch – with his obnoxious layabout punk mates. And it’s where, later, those same mates come face to face with Salim’s speeding car and Moose is knocked off his feet. The road is Stewart’s Road, a stone’s throw from Battersea power station and a five-minute drive from the launderette. The underpass itself hasn’t changed much at all. Until you step back…
Viewed from this perspective – from Ascalon Street – you can see a new block of flats has shot up opposite where Frears once parked his camera. The original Ascalon Street sign no longer exists, nor does the public patch of grass next to the underpass.
Nasser walks towards Hussein’s flat
When Nasser goes to visit Hussein at the flat next to Queenstown Road station – the flat with a bathroom overlooking the train tracks and the London Stainless Steel Exhaust Centre – he strolls down Ravenet Street, in SW11. There’s a skip behind him and traces of building work to the side. That work might explain the look of today’s Ravenet Street, where you can see a new layby, parking meter and, to the left, The Nacro Crime Reduction Charity. The tunnel is still there, and the street sign still leans against the wall in that same tired way, but the brickwork has been touched up. As for the house itself – just out of frame, to the right – a Foxtons sign is planted outside the front door. Are the suits at Foxtons aware of the flat’s movie fame, I wonder?
The Gladstone pub
The Gladstone pub appears behind Omar moments before he intervenes in a fight between Johnny and his punk cohorts outside Powders. Meaning, yes, like most of the filming locations, this is mere steps away from the titular launderette. Along with boozers from Withnail & I (1987) and Shaun of the Dead (2004), The Gladstone is another lost London movie pub. Visiting it today, you’ll face an ATM machine, bricked up windows and a half painted-over sign that now reads: “Welcome to”.
Johnny drives down Wandsworth Road
In the scene where Johnny waits in the car on Wandsworth road, seeing Moose hobbling on crutches after the incident with Salim, we’re offered a sweeping vista of south-west London. The postwar blocks of flats, the bright red post boxes and the old hop-on 77 bus, which still runs today minus the hop-on. It disappears into a horizon now dominated by St George Wharf Tower and the Vauxhall Wharf development. The actual bus stop outside the flats, on the left, is the Wilcox Road bus stop, the stop at which many a film fan will alight for Powders Laundrette.