With a screenplay by novelist and film critic Penelope Gilliatt, John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) was a pivotal moment in British cinema. After the Oscar-winning sensation of his New York street-hustler saga Midnight Cowboy (1969), Schlesinger returned to the UK for another groundbreaking portrayal of sexuality. His new film would prove radical by staying unusually true to everyday London life.
Sunday Bloody Sunday follows the complicated polyamorous love triangle between divorced job consultant Alex (Glenda Jackson), youthful sculptor Bob (Murray Head) and affluent doctor Daniel (Peter Finch). The tensions are high as it’s clear both Daniel and Alex want Bob for themselves. With their friends going on holiday, Alex attempts to keep Bob by playing at being a family and looking after their friends’ children for the weekend. But, as Bob has a job offer across the Atlantic, things don’t bode well for his two admirers.
Another hit with the critics, Schlesinger’s film earned a number of Oscar nominations as well as winning many of the major BAFTA categories that year. Newly released on Blu-ray, it’s a quintessential 1970s London film, with the city looking moody and elegant throughout.
Here’s how five key locations from the film look today.
Dr Hirsh’s house
The first location of note in the film is the house and private surgery of Dr Hirsh. It’s featured throughout the film in all of its lavish beauty. The house is not far from Earl’s Court at 38 Pembroke Square. The private tennis court is still there today backing on to a garden centre, so recreating the view was not quite possible, though the area retains the same sense of affluence.
The Hodsons’ house
Alex agrees to look after her friends’ children and dog over the weekend, giving her the excuse to play happy families with Bob, even if he eventually disappears halfway through to meet Daniel. The design of the house, not to say the lifestyle of the characters, implies that it’s in Hampstead. However, in reality Schlesinger filmed at a house in Wandsworth, still standing today at 5 Spencer Park, though currently undergoing major renovation work. A kind builder let me through the temporary entrance to take a photo of the doorway today.
The house is seen early on in the film at night and is used throughout for its vast interiors and garden shots. Towards the end of the film, we get to see the house properly from the outside when Alex and Daniel finally meet. Seeing that Daniel is with her friends, Alex opts to wait in the cold on the common directly outside the house. The patch of grass, adjacent to Wandsworth Common, is Spencer Park, the green space that gives the curving road its name.
A chance meeting
Dr Hirsh has a chance meeting with an old flame after a night at the theatre, allowing a view of the underside of London that his wealth usually distances him from. His night begins in a heavy shower before running to his car. The road is just behind Tottenham Court Road, at the junction between Percy Street and Charlotte Street.
St Alfege Church
When looking after the children, Alex and Bob take them on a wander around London. This allows for many evocative locations to be seen, documenting a part of London that has changed dramatically since filming. One of the unchanged locations we see early on is the church of St Alfege in Greenwich. The group walks down St Alfege Passage, where we see graves and some children scratching cars with bits of broken bottle. Eagle-eyed viewers may spot a very young Daniel Day-Lewis as one of these young vandals. The alleyway today has a fence protecting the rows of graves but is otherwise as seen in the film.
While in Greenwich, the group makes the most of their time and visits the Royal Observatory. They look out on to the view of Queen’s House and the Thames beyond it. Today, the podium they stand on to look out of the telescope is fitted with a small guide to the many monolithic buildings that stand on the other side of the water on Canary Wharf.
Later on the walk, after visiting Greenwich, one of the film’s most dramatic and unnervingly believable scenes occurs. While walking in an ambiguous park, hinting at the same Hampstead luxury implied throughout the film, one of the Hodsons’ children runs out on to a busy main road. She only narrowly avoids getting hit by a huge truck. The family dog, however, doesn’t fare quite so well.
The location is far from Hampstead, filmed in Barnes. The road the lorry is driving on is the winding Mill Hill Road, just before it joins with Station Road leading to Barnes Station. The paths meanwhile run parallel to the first houses on Cedars Road, and the path that the child runs down after the accident is now a thick forest path that eventually leads back to Station Road. It represents yet another of Schlesinger’s effective illusions in a film that almost uniquely implies its setting to be anywhere but the south London locations really shown.