London: Recommended Books and Movies

By Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw

To learn more about London past and present, check out a few of these books and films.

Books: Nonfiction

  • 84, Charing Cross Road (Helene Hanff, 1970). Correspondence between a proper London bookseller and an outspoken New York writer turns into a trans-Atlantic friendship (also a 1987 movie with Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft). In the sequel, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, the writer travels to London.
  • Elizabeth's London (Liza Picard, 2005). The author re-creates 16th-century life in the era of England's first great queen.
  • Fever Pitch (Nick Hornby, 1992). Hornby's memoir illuminates the British obsession with soccer.
  • A History of London (Stephen Inwood, 1998). Two thousand years of city history is laid out over 1,000 pages.
  • The Last Lion (William Manchester, final book completed by Paul Reid; 1983, 1988, and 2012). This superb, three-volume biography recounts the amazing life of Winston Churchill from 1874 to 1965.
  • Letters from London (Julian Barnes, 1995). The New Yorker's former London correspondent captures life in the city in the early 1990s.
  • London: The Biography (Peter Ackroyd, 2001). The author uses an imaginative biographical approach to tell London's story.
  • Longitude (Dava Sobel, 1995). A London clockmaker solves the problem of keeping time aboard a ship — a timely read for visitors to Greenwich.
  • Notes from a Small Island (Bill Bryson, 1995). In this irreverent and delightful memoir, US expat Bryson writes about his travels through Britain — his home for two decades.
  • St Pancras Station (Simon Bradley, 2007). Bradley presents a treasure trove of history about London's iconic gateway to Europe.
  • A Traveller's History of England (Christopher Daniell, revised 2005). A British archaeologist and historian provides a comprehensive yet succinct overview of English history.
  • With Wings Like Eagles (Michael Korda, 2009). An English-born writer gives a historical analysis of Britain's pivotal WWII air battles versus the German Luftwaffe.

Books: Fiction

For the classics of British fiction, read anything — and everything — by Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and the Brontës. Some favorites that feature London include Persuasion, the beloved Austen book partially set in Bath, and Charles Dickens' tale of a workhouse urchin, Oliver Twist. Here are some other good reads:

  • Brick Lane (Monica Ali, 2003). A Bangladeshi woman in an arranged marriage to an older man raises her family — and starts an affair with a young radical — in contemporary London (also a 2007 film).
  • Bridget Jones's Diary (Helen Fielding, 1996). A year in the life of a single 30-something woman in London is humorously chronicled in diary form (also a motion picture).
  • The Buddha of Suburbia (Hanif Kureishi, 1990). The son of a self-proclaimed suburban guru gets swept up in the fast lane of 1970s London.
  • Confessions of a Shopaholic (Sophie Kinsella, 2001). A London woman lives beyond her means in this funny tale of modern English life.
  • The Great Stink (Clare Clark, 2005). A Crimean War veteran seeks refuge working in the London sewer system, but is sucked into a murder mystery.
  • High Fidelity (Nick Hornby, 1995). This humorous novel traces the romantic misadventures and musical musings of a 30-something record-store owner. Another good read is Hornby's 1998 coming-of-age story, About a Boy. (Both books were also made into films.)
  • In the Presence of the Enemy (Elizabeth George, 1996). London's movers and shakers commit sins and scandals in this detective story.
  • The Jupiter Myth (Lindsey Davis, 2002). In A.D. 75, an investigator from Rome probes a murder in what was then known as Londinium.
  • London (Edward Rutherfurd, 1997). This big and sprawling historical novel begins in ancient times and continues through to the 20th century.
  • Mapp and Lucia (E. F. Benson, 1931). A rural village in the 1930s becomes a social battlefield. In Lucia in London (1927), the protagonist attempts social climbing in the big city.
  • The Paying Guests (Sarah Waters, 2014). This realistic and suspenseful tale of love, obsession, and murder plays out amid the shifting culture of post-WWII upper-class London.
  • Pygmalion (George Bernard Shaw, 1913). This stage play, on which the film My Fair Lady is based, tells the story of a young Cockney girl groomed for high society.
  • Rumpole of the Bailey (Sir John Mortimer, 1978). Mortimer's popular detective story about an aging London barrister spawned a series of books and TV shows.
  • Saturday (Ian McEwan, 2005). The protagonist endures a series of strange events in London during a day of protest over the invasion of Iraq.
  • SS-GB (Len Deighton, 1979). In Nazi-occupied Great Britain, a Scotland Yard detective finds there's more to a murder than meets the eye.
  • A Study in Scarlet (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1888). This mystery novel introduced the world to detective Sherlock Holmes and his trusty sidekick, Dr. Watson.
  • Thank You, Jeeves (P. G. Wodehouse, 1934). The author's first full-length novel is about the competent valet to a wealthy and foolish Londoner (also many short stories and sequels).
  • White Teeth (Zadie Smith, 2000). The postwar lives of two army buddies, a native Englishman and a Bengali Muslim, are chronicled in this acclaimed novel.

Movies and TV

  • Alfie (1966). In 1960s London, a womanizer (Michael Caine) eventually must face up to his boorish behavior (also a 2004 remake with Jude Law). Other "swinging London" films include Blow-up (1966) and Georgy Girl (1966).
  • Battle of Britain (1969). An all-star cast and marvelous aerial combat scenes tell the story of Britain's "finest hour" of World War II.
  • Blackadder (1983–1989). This wickedly funny BBC sitcom starring Rowan Atkinson skewers various periods of English history over the course of four series (also several TV specials).
  • Call the Midwife (2012–). London's poor East End comes to gritty, poignant life in this BBC drama tracing the lives of a team of nurse midwives in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
  • The Elephant Man (1980). A severely disfigured man reveals his sensitive soul in this stark portrayal of Victorian London.
  • GoldenEye (1995). This James Bond film features the first look at the iconic MI6 headquarters, located in the center of London.
  • A Hard Day's Night (1964). The Beatles star in their debut film, a comedy depicting several days in the life of the band.
  • Hope and Glory (1987). John Boorman directed this semi-autobiographical story of a boy growing up during World War II and the London Blitz.
  • The King's Speech (2010). Colin Firth stars as the stuttering King George VI on the eve of World War II.
  • My Beautiful Laundrette (1985). This gritty, compelling movie tells the story of two gay men in urban London.
  • My Fair Lady (1964). Audrey Hepburn stars as a poor, Cockney flower seller who is transformed into a lady of high society by an arrogant professor.
  • Notting Hill (1999). Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts star in this romantic comedy set in the London neighborhood of...you guessed it.
  • The Queen (2006). Helen Mirren expertly channels Elizabeth II in the days after Princess Diana's death. Its prequel, The Deal (2003), probes the relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
  • Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987). An unconventional middle-class couple's promiscuous adventures expose racial tensions in multiethnic London.
  • Shakespeare in Love (1999). Tudor-era London comes to life in this clever, romantic film set in the original Globe Theater.
  • Sherlock (2010–). Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Watson (Martin Freeman) are excellent in this BBC-TV update of the detective's story, set in present-day London.
  • To Sir, with Love (1967). Sidney Poitier grapples with social and racial issues in an East End inner-city school.
  • Upstairs, Downstairs (1971–1975). This TV series follows an aristocratic family and their servants in their new home at 165 Eaton Place.
  • Waterloo Bridge (1940). This Academy Award-nominated romantic drama recalls the lost love between a ballerina (Vivien Leigh) and a WWI army officer.

Kids

  • 101 Dalmatians (1961). In this Disney animation set in London, two Dalmatian dogs and their owners must save a group of puppies before the evil Cruella de Vil turns their fur into a coat.
  • A Bear Called Paddington (Michael Bond, 1958). A bear from Peru winds up in a London train station, where he's found and adopted by a human family.
  • Harry Potter books (J.K. Rowling, 1997–2007) and films (2001-2011). After discovering he's a wizard, a young boy in England gets whisked off to a magical world of witchcraft and wizardry. There, he finds great friendships as well as grave evils.
  • A Little Princess (1939). In this film adaptation of the classic novel, Shirley Temple plays a girl whose fortunes fall and rise again in a Victorian London boarding school.
  • The Chronicles of Narnia (C.S. Lewis, 1949–1954). The story of four siblings and their escape from WWII London into the magical world of Narnia unfolds in this classic of children's literature (also a BBC miniseries and three feature-length films).
  • The London Eye Mystery (Siobhan Dowd, 2007). Ted and Kat try to solve the mystery of their missing cousin, who disappeared after boarding the London Eye.
  • London Through Time (Angela McAllister, 2015). A boy and girl journey through time as they walk down one London street that folds out of this inventive book to reveal the past.
  • Mary Poppins (1964). Though filmed on a set in California, this beloved musical starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke is set in Edwardian London.
  • Mission London: A Scavenger Hunt Adventure (Catherine Aragon, 2014). Young explorers will have hands-on fun undertaking spy-themed challenges while discovering the city.
  • This Is London (Miroslav Sasek, 1959, updated 2004). Vivid illustrations bring the English capital to life in this classic picture book.
  • A Walk in London (Salvatore Rubbino, 2011). A mother and daughter experience the city — from the changing of the guard to Saint Paul's Cathedral — in this charming picture book.
  • Wallace & Gromit TV series and films (1990–2012). Absent-minded inventor Wallace and his dog Gromit may live in northwest England, but these uniquely British characters are beloved by children around the country and the world.
  • Young Sherlock Holmes (1985). In this film, young Sherlock and his sidekick, Watson, work to solve the mystery of a series of nonsensical suicides (some scenes may be frightening for younger children).

Gene Openshaw is the co-author of the Rick Steves London guidebook.