By Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw
To learn more about London past and present, check out a few of these books and films.
A History of London (Inwood), topping out at 1,000 pages, covers 2,000 years. London (Ackroyd) takes the form of a biography rather than a conventional history. Elizabeth’s London (Picard) re-creates 16th-century life in the era of England’s first great queen.
Originally published in the New Yorker magazine, Letters from London (Barnes) captures life in the city in the early 1990s. The book 84, Charing Cross Road is a collection of letters between a stiff-upper-lip London bookseller and a witty writer, Helene Hanff, in the post-WWII years. (Also worth reading is the sequel, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street.) Although not specific to London, consider Notes from a Small Island, which is chock-full of Bill Bryson’s witty observations about Great Britain. Dava Sobel’s Longitude — a must-read if you plan to visit Greenwich — tells the story of the clockmaker who solved a problem that had thwarted previous geniuses. Kids of all ages enjoy the whimsical and colorful impressions of the city in Miroslav Sasek’s classic picture-book This Is London.
Describing the classics of British literature is a book in itself. But some favorites that feature London include Pygmalion (Shaw), the story of a young Cockney girl groomed for high society; Persuasion, a beloved Jane Austen book partially set in Bath; and Charles Dickens’ tale of a workhouse urchin, Oliver Twist.
Dating from the turn of the century, P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves series, with a problem-solving valet as the lead character, have endured. A Study in Scarlet (Doyle) introduced the world to detective Sherlock Holmes.
Edward Rutherfurd’s London, which begins in ancient times and continues through to the 20th century, is as big and sprawling as its namesake. The Jupiter Myth (Davis) takes place in the days when the city was called Londinium. In The Great Stink (Clark), the sewer system is also a metaphor for the blight that plagued the city.
Lucia in London (Benson) sends the protagonist of this 1920s series to the big city. Helen Fielding created another well-loved heroine in her Bridget Jones books, which began in the late 1990s as a newspaper column (and inspired two fun films). Confessions of a Shopaholic (Kinsella) continues the Bridget Jones formula. Nick Hornby explores a young male perspective of life and love in Fever Pitch, High Fidelity, and About a Boy.
London’s movers and shakers commit bad deeds in the detective story In the Presence of the Enemy (George). Murder in Mayfair (Barnard) is based on a true crime from the 1980s. Rumpole of the Bailey, created by Sir John Mortimer, is a popular detective series, spawning both books and television shows.
Ian McEwan’s highly praised post-9/11 novel, Saturday, takes place over the course of a day all over the sprawling city. Many recent works feature the city’s thriving immigrant communities, including The Buddha of Suburbia (Kureishi), White Teeth (Smith), and Brick Lane (Ali, also a 2007 film).
Movies and TV
In terms of world influence, Britain’s filmmaking output rivals its substantial literary contributions. Britain gave birth to the two top-grossing film series of all time: Harry Potter and James Bond. Add to that the fact that much of the Star Wars series (ranked third) was filmed in England, and that the casts of the Lord of the Rings (fourth) and Pirates of the Caribbean (sixth) series were both dominated by British actors — and it’s impossible to deny Britain’s cinematic clout. But it’s not all super-blockbusters. Here are some films that will flesh out your understanding of this small island, past and present.
For a taste of Tudor-era London, try Shakespeare in Love (1999), which is set in the original Globe Theatre. In A Man for All Seasons (1966), Sir Thomas More faces down Henry VIII. Showtime’s racy, lavish series The Tudors (2007–2010) is an entertaining, loosely accurate chronicle of the marriages of Henry VIII.
For equally good portraits of Elizabeth I, try Elizabeth (1998) and its sequel Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), or the BBC/HBO miniseries Elizabeth I (2005). In The Duchess (2008), the 18th-century Duchess of Devonshire glides languidly through life in big skirts and even bigger wigs.
Written and set in the early 19th century, the works of Jane Austen have fared well in film. Among the many versions of Pride and Prejudice, the 1995 BBC miniseries starring Colin Firth is the winner. Persuasion (1995) was partially filmed in Bath. Other Austen adaptations include Sense and Sensibility (1995, with Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, and Kate Winslet) and Emma (1996, with Gwyneth Paltrow). The 1995 SoCal teen comedy Clueless also (freely) reinterprets Emma. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre was filmed in 2011 with Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbinder.
In The Elephant Man (1980), the cruelty of Victorian London is starkly portrayed in a black-and-white film. Sweeney Todd (2007) captures the gritty Victorian milieu, as does the highly stylized Sherlock Holmes (2009). (Sherlock shows up again in an excellent 2010 BBC updating of the detective’s story, set in present-day London.) On a lighter note, Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) is set in a boys’ boarding school during Victorian England.
The Edwardian era of the early 20th century has provided a setting for many films. Producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory teamed up to create many well-regarded films about this era, including Howard’s End (1992, which captures the stifling societal pressure underneath the gracious manners), A Room with a View (1985), and The Remains of the Day (1993). The critically acclaimed TV series Downton Abbey (2011–present), filmed at Highclere Castle about 70 miles west of London, so far has taken its viewers from 1912 to the mid-1920s.
The all-star Gosford Park (2001) is part comedy, part murder mystery, and part critique of England’s class stratification in the 1930s. Chariots of Fire (1981) ran away with the Academy Award for Best Picture. Shadowlands (1993), set largely in Oxford, tells a fictionalized account of author C. S. Lewis’ relationship with his future wife.
Wartime London has been captured in many fine movies. The King’s Speech (2010) won the Best Picture Oscar, with Colin Firth named Best Actor for his portrayal of King George VI on the cusp of World War II. Hope and Glory (1987) is a semi-autobiographical story of a boy growing up during WWII’s Blitz. Waterloo Bridge (1940) is a story of lost love between a woman and a WWI officer. In Passport to Pimlico (1949), an explosion in a Tube station is the source of riches and comedy in a time of post-WWII rationing.
British acts were all the rage in the States, thanks to a little band called the Beatles, whose A Hard Day’s Night (1964) is filled with wit and charm. During this time, “swinging London” also exploded on the international scene, with films such as Alfie (1966), Blowup (1966), and Georgy Girl (1966). (For a swinging spoof of this time, try the Austin Powers comedies.) In To Sir, with Love (1967), Sidney Poitier brings order to his undisciplined students.
You can watch Hugh Grant charming the ladies in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and Notting Hill (1999); Gwyneth Paltrow living two lives in Sliding Doors (1998); and John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Kevin Kline hilariously double-crossing one other in A Fish Called Wanda (1988).
For a departure from the typical Hollywood fare, see My Beautiful Laundrette (1986), a gritty story of two gay men (with Daniel Day-Lewis). For another portrayal of urban London — and the racial tensions found in its multiethnic center — look for Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987). Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) is a violent crime caper set in the city.
Billy Elliot (2000), about a young boy ballet dancer, and Bend It Like Beckham (2003), about a young girl of Punjabi descent who plays soccer, were both huge crowd-pleasers. An Education (2009), about a bright schoolgirl who falls for an older man, takes place in 1960s London. V for Vendetta (2006), based on a British graphic novel, shows a sci-fi future of a London ruled with an iron fist.
In The Queen (2006), Helen Mirren expertly channels Elizabeth II during the days after Princess Diana’s death. If you enjoy The Queen, don’t miss two other reality-based films by the same screenwriter and many of the same cast members (most notably Michael Sheen as Tony Blair): The Special Relationship (2010, about the friendship between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton) and The Deal (2003, about Tony Blair’s early relationship with Gordon Brown).
Britain has offered up plenty of comedy choices over the years. If you’re in the mood for something completely different, try Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), a surreal take on the Arthurian legend. The BBC’s deeply irreverent “mockumentary” series The Office (by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant) inspired the gentler US television show. In The Full Monty (1997), some working-class Yorkshire lads take it all off to pay the bills. Calendar Girls (2003) has a similar setting and premise, if a slightly more noble cause. Shaun of the Dead (2004) combines comedy and horror, when the city’s residents turn into zombies.
Anglophiles of all ages are likely to enjoy Mary Poppins (1964), My Fair Lady (1964), A Little Princess (1995), the Wallace & Gromit movies, Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean television series and movies, and the Harry Potter films.
Gene Openshaw is the co-author of the Rick Steves' London guidebook.