London: Recommended Reading and Viewing
A History of London (Inwood), topping out at a thousand pages, covers two thousand 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.) While not specific to London, Notes from a Small Island is chock-full of Bill Bryson's witty observations about Great Britain.
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; andCharles 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).
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. For equally good portraits of Elizabeth I, try Elizabeth (1998), its sequel Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), and Elizabeth I (2005, a BBC/HBO miniseries).
Written and set in the early 19th century, the works of Jane Austen have fared well in film. Persuasion (1995) was partially filmed in Bath.
Equally genteel was the Edwardian era of the early 20th century. Howard's End (1992) captures the stifling societal pressure underneath the gracious manners. In The Elephant Man (1980), the cruelty of Victorian London is vivid, starkly portrayed in a black-and-white film.
Wartime London was captured in many fine movies, including Waterloo Bridge (1940), 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.
In the 1960s, two blockbuster Hollywood musicals were set in London: Mary Poppins (1964) and My Fair Lady (1964). 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 like 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.
For more recent films, 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 A Fish Called Wanda (1988), in which John Cleese is embroiled in love, revenge, and exotic fish.
For something completely different from the typical Hollywood fare, see My Beautiful Laundrette (1986), a gritty story of two gay men (one of whom is played by Daniel Day-Lewis). For another portrayal of urban London — and the racial tensions found in its multi-ethnic 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.
In the last decade, Billy Elliot (2000), about a young boy ballet dancer, and Bend It Like Beckham (2003), about a young Punjabi soccer player, were both huge crowd-pleasers. In The Queen (2006), Helen Mirren expertly channels Elizabeth II during the days after Princess Diana's death.
Shaun of the Dead (2004) combines comedy and horror, when the city's residents turn into zombies. The same team more recently merged cop/action films and comedy in Hot Fuzz (2007). V for Vendetta (2006), based on a British graphic novel, shows a sci-fi future of a London ruled with an iron fist. Sweeney Todd (2007) captures the gritty Victorian milieu.
If you're traveling to London or Great Britain with children, consider watching A Little Princess (1995), Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady, any of the Wallace & Gromit movies, Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean television series and movies, and the Harry Potter films.