Alfred Hitchcock on location on the South Bank for Frenzy (1972)
Alfred Hitchcock repeatedly revisited the city of his birth. From the chase through and over the British Museum in Blackmail (1929) to the thrilling Royal Albert Hall set-piece in both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 and 1956), he contributed more to the mythology of London than almost any other filmmaker. But it’s in his penultimate film, Frenzy (1972), that he captured the dirty old town most vividly – and at a key point in the city’s evolution.
Hitchcock filming Frenzy (1972) on the streets of London
The London of Frenzy feels like a city lost in time. With the exception of the odd mini skirt and kipper tie, this could almost be the 1930s. It’s a city of blackened buildings and long-vanished alleyways. Best of all, it captures the Covent Garden fruit, vegetable and flower market just two years before it decamped to Nine Elms and the tourists took over.
Frenzy also showcases Hitchcock’s famously ambivalent attitude towards food. In a succession of increasingly revolting recipes, an amateur gourmet cook (the sublime Vivien Merchant) terrorises her husband with meals that resemble something from an autopsy slab.
Following in Hitchcock’s steps, and in the company of my very patient friend J, I jumped on my bicycle to rediscover the London of Frenzy and hunt down a decent bite to eat.
Location: the spot where the latest victim of the ‘necktie strangler’ is found floating in the Thames
Where to park your bike:
Quite clearly, no one wishes to park their bicycle near County Hall. At least, we could find no bicycle stands. Head across Westminster Bridge to the grounds of St Thomas’s Hospital, where you will find plenty.
Saturday morning is possibly not the best time to visit the area around County Hall. The appeal of the London Eye, the London Aquarium and Shrek’s Adventure has turned the relatively narrow strip of the Queen’s Walk into one of the most congested spots on earth outside the New Delhi metro. It makes the size of the crowd in Frenzy listening to a politician droning on about cleaning up the river seem meagre. Where the politician stands, the windows are now adorned with the defiant ‘M’ of a burger chain. Where the crowd jostles to catch a glimpse of the necktie killer’s latest victim (whose discovery puts an abrupt end to the politician’s blather), people are now stuffing their mouths with sesame seed buns. But the sweet Thames flows just as softly.
The steps down to the river outside County Hall, London, 2015
Where to eat
The only places to eat near County Hall are those to which you resort in desperation. We weren’t desperate, so we walked for five minutes west along the river alongside St Thomas’s and found peace and great cakes among the idyllic outdoor setting of the Garden Cafe at the Garden Museum.
2. Bow Street and Covent Garden
Locations: the Globe pub; Covent Garden fruit, veg and flower market; Rusk’s apartment at 3 Henrietta Street
Where to park your bike
There are bicycle stands directly opposite the Royal Opera House.
Walk 20 metres south down Bow Street and you’ll come to the spot where Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) buys a newspaper – the Evening Standard heralding “Another Neck Tie Strangling” – from a vendor. A couple of metres further and you’re at the Globe, a pub that back in 1972 boasted Bernard Cribbins as landlord and Anna Massey as Babs the barmaid. The Globe has had a facelift since Hitchcock’s time. It still maintains a degree of Victoriana with its embossed ceiling and brass fittings, but the blood-red exterior penetrates deep into your retina – like the shock of red Hitchcock’s contemporary Anthony Asquith used so effectively across a few frames in A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929).
The London Transport Museum, Covent Garden, 2015
We then headed down Russell Street and towards Covent Garden market. Hitchcock brilliantly captures the energy of a real working market in the heart of London. This world of oranges and cauliflowers is a far cry from the bijou tourist shops of today. We struggled to find every one of the locations, but contented ourselves with a handful of key spots. Robert Rusk’s (Barry Foster) fruit business, for example, is opposite the west-facing side of the London Transport Museum where today a busker was abusing a young woman tour guide who had the audacity to stand in his patch.
3 Henrietta Street, London, 2015
We walked west towards Henrietta Street, heading for number three, Rusk’s home – and scene of some of the film’s most memorable sequences – only metres from his business. Next to Lloyds Bank Chambers (now a restaurant), 3 Henrietta Street underlines the extent to which so much of London has been scrubbed and sanitised. In Frenzy it is a soot and smog-blackened edifice. Today it glistens white and cream and its brass letterbox has been polished within an inch of its life.
Where to eat
The Globe’s menu prides itself with a union flag-waving traditionalism in the kitchen: fish and chips with mushy peas, pies and mash, curry and rice. However much I liked the idea of dining in the footsteps of Bernard Cribbins and Anna Massey, with the temperature pushing 27 degrees it was a quick drink, then off for something a little lighter. Easier said than done. Unused to Covent Garden’s weekend crowds, and discovering that a stalwart on Floral Street chooses to close on Saturdays, we decided that we’d skip lunch for the time being.
The Globe, 2015
3. 117 Oxford Street
Location: the Blaney Bureau for Friendship and Marriage, proprietor Brenda Blaney (Barbara Leigh-Hunt)
Where to park your bike
There is a bicycle stand about 30 metres east of 117 Oxford Street.
At first glance, 117 Oxford Street is not the loveliest of locations – nor readily recognisable. It is now a Clarks shoe shop and, when we visited, was enjoying an up-to-50%-off sale. Look up above the main entrance and you’ll see an archway and iron grille. This once led into Dryden Chambers, home of The Blaney Bureau for Friendship and Marriage, location of one of Frenzy’s most shocking and infamous scenes. The alleyway was one of those remnants of central London that still felt Dickensian.
117 Oxford Street, 2015
There is not a hint of Dryden Chambers left; it has been absorbed into the adjoining buildings. We suspected that the entrance to the Blaney Bureau was roughly where there is currently a large display of size 11 shoes at the tail end of the sale.
It was at this point that I realised that we had forgotten to have a drink at Nell of Old Drury (29 Catherine Street), location for the unnervingly misogynistic conversation between a doctor and solicitor, but decided against heading back to Covent Garden. In any case, we didn’t wish to be drunk in charge of a bicycle.
Where to eat
There are an overwhelmingly large number of food and drink outlets nearby (like rats, in central London you are rarely further than five metres from a Pret A Manger), but nothing we fancied. With hunger mounting, Vivien Merchant’s caille aux raisins started to seem appealing. We cycled down Oxford Street and made a quick detour via Lebanese supermarket Green Valley on Upper Berkeley Street, over-bought food for a picnic, then headed off towards Queensway.
4. 129 Bayswater Road
Location: the Coburg Hotel where Blaney and Babs stay in room 322, the Cupid Room.
Where to park your bike
There’s a bicycle stand by the Queensway tube sign and immediately by our next location.
The London Hyde Park Hilton (formerly The Coburg Hotel, 2015)
The slightly seedy Coburg Hotel, where Blaney takes Babs, is now the London Hyde Park Hilton. A quick peek inside didn’t make us want to investigate further. In 1972 the redoubtable Elsie Randolph ruled the reception desk with formidable hauteur. From the welcome that we received, I suspect that people with bicycle panniers tend not to stay there. Outside, despite a change of name and the loss of the portico, very little else has changed, but its majestic Victorian facade has had a bit of a spruce up.
Where to eat
We ate our picnic – an excess of freshly baked flatbreads (still warm), hummus, triangular lamb, cheese and spinach pastries and salad – in Hyde Park. J had also insisted on buying a side order of batata harra (spicy Lebanese potatoes), a tribute, she said, to poor Babs (spoiler alert) whose final journey is made in a lorry full of the tubers.
Even on such a beautiful day it was possible to lie in the afternoon sun and feel as if we had the park to ourselves. Over our very late lunch we decided against heading over to 31 Ennismore Garden Mews (location for Brenda Blaney’s house) as taking photos of someone else’s property might be misconstrued as excessive voyeurism. And the ride to Wormwood Scrubs on Du Cane Road where Blaney is incarcerated felt like an act of excessive completism. In any case, cycling along Westway is not my idea of fun. So, we headed across Hyde Park to our final destination.
I had hoped we’d find the exact spot where Babs and Blaney sit in the park, but that eluded us. We looked up at the tower of the Park Lane Hilton, location for the apartment of Blaney’s chum Johnny (played by Clive Swift) and his wife (a fantastically frosty Billie Whitelaw). The exterior of the hotel didn’t seem to have changed in over 40 years. We then headed back into the park.
The London Hilton on Park Lane, 2015
Nearby is the memorial to the victims of 7/7. It was still strewn with flowers marking last week’s 10th anniversary of the horrific attacks. When confronted so movingly with the reality of sudden death it was hard to talk about Hitchcock’s wicked playfulness with the subject of murder. We talked instead about Billie Whitelaw who died last December and how much we missed her. And about Jon Finch who died in 2012. We wondered whether Blaney in Frenzy or the title role in Polanski’s Macbeth (1971) was his defining role, though I still harbour a soft spot for him as the improbable socialist in Death on the Nile (1978).
The Park Lane Hilton tower peeked out from above the trees behind the memorial. By this point the shadows were getting longer and J had failed to bring her bicycle lights with her, so we said farewell, leaving Hitchcock’s London of 1972 behind.
7 July Memorial, Hyde Park
I had the promise of a lamb curry in Maida Vale that evening, but couldn’t resist stopping off at one final Hitchcockian London location. I stuck my head into Maida Vale tube station where Ivor Novello continues his descent to his own personal hell in Downhill (1927). Then I was ready for dinner.