This image: Ely Cathedral doubling up as Westminster Abbey in Netflix’s The Crown
James Luxford looks at how Cambridge and the surrounding area has featured in some of cinema and TV’s greatest moments
The British film industry is booming thanks to a wealth of resources and talent coming from the UK. British directors, actors and studios are creating everything from the latest Star Wars adventures to low-budget indie gems. Part of this boom is thanks to the incredible array of locations available, and few places boast as impressive a CV as Cambridge, which has welcomed film crews for years.
Like any good actor, Cambridge and the surrounding areas have played many varied and interesting roles. Its prestige and architecture have seen it become a character in its own right, often retelling famous stories that happened on its very streets years earlier. What you may not know, however, is the number of different places Cambridge has ‘played’ over the years, both real and fictional. Whether you know it or not, chances are that the streets, buildings and vistas of Cambridge have featured in some of your favourite movies. So, what keeps Hollywood so interested in the area, and what qualities make it so perfect for silver screen magic?
This image: City centre back streets in The Theory of Everything
Many writers captured the history of Cambridge long before cinema was even invented, and now this most visual of art forms has been retelling the city’s stories. In 2015, The Theory of Everything became actor Eddie Redmayne’s golden moment, winning him an Oscar, Golden Globe, BAFTA, and pretty much every other acting award for his portrayal of Professor Stephen Hawking.
As many know, the origins of Hawking’s greatest work come from his association with the University of Cambridge. As such, much of the story of his early years was filmed around its buildings. Of these, the pivotal May Ball scene, where Stephen falls for Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), is arguably one of the film’s signature moments. It takes place on the lawn in front of the New Court Building by the River Cam, where the filming was watched by the real Hawking and Wilde.
An equally striking but sadder story is that of poet Sylvia Plath, portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow in the 2003 drama Sylvia. One of the very first shots in the film is the Oscar winner, on a bicycle, tearing through Trinity Lane before arriving at Clare College. King’s and St John’s Colleges also make an appearance in the film, which also starred soon-to-be 007 Daniel Craig as Ted Hughes.
This image: Gwyneth Paltrow aboard a punt as Slyvia Plath in Sylvia (2003)
Many other productions, such as period drama Maurice (1987), starring a young Hugh Grant, were filmed around the city, but surprisingly one of the most famous Cambridge-based films wasn’t actually allowed to be shot there. Chariots of Fire (1981) was refused permission to film its infamous Trinity Great Court Run scene on the grounds of Caius College, with Eton stepping in for the soon-to-be Oscar-winning film (some wide shots of the area did make it to the screen, however).
Aside from the obvious advantages of telling a story where it originally happened, these films all take advantage of Cambridge’s timeless quality. All the films mentioned above were filmed decades after the events they depict, yet aside from period dress (and making sure no one’s checking their phones) the history that covers these streets means cinema audiences can be transported back to the past in the most authentic way possible.
So, we’ve seen how a location can portray itself, but how many can stand in for the most famous landmarks in London, or even the battlefields of France? The county’s Ely Cathedral is one location that has stood in for a number of different parts of the country in several notable movies. It has ‘portrayed’ the court of King Henry VIII (Eric Bana) in the steamy 2008 drama The Other Boleyn Girl, co-starring Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman as sisters who are at separate times vying for the heart of the king.
“Ely Cathedral took a starring role in Netflix series The Crown”
It was a busy time for the cathedral, which a year earlier had brought to life the court of Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett) in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Several key sequences, such as an early meeting with romantic interest Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), are filmed in the building’s magnificent Lady Chapel. Most recently, Ely Cathedral took a starring role in big-budget Netflix series The Crown, in which it stood in for Westminster Abbey as the setting for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip’s wedding. It also masqueraded as Westminster Abbey for 2010’s The King’s Speech, starring Colin Firth.
Further afield, Nene Washes became Second World War France for weepie Atonement, starring James McAvoy and Keira Knightley as lovers torn apart by a sister’s jealousy. The RSPB-protected nature reserve was not quite so serene on film, as it appears during the part of the film where James McAvoy leaves to serve his country overseas.
The variety of all these projects show the versatile vistas on offer in Cambridgeshire, and how streets or buildings that we locals may take for granted can be seen in a new light through the magic of cinema. Indeed, sometimes it takes an outsider’s view to truly bring out the personality in a place, and a few great Hollywood directors have done just that. In the late 80s Tim Burton brought Batman to the big screen, in an epic Hollywood blockbuster that changed the way we looked at caped crusaders. The film’s influence can be felt almost 30 years later on the comic book movies of today, and Cambridgeshire had a hand in the birth of its greatest attraction. Early on in the film, an elaborate and grizzly fate awaits Jack Nicholson’s gangster, Jack Napier, who falls into a vat of toxic waste to emerge as the Joker. Little Barford Power Station near St Neots served as the exterior for the sequence, and can be seen exploding as the Batmobile speeds away.
This image: Bassingbourn Barracks was used to depict a US training base in Full Metal Jacket
Earlier on in that decade, the region also welcomed a true Hollywood legend, Charlton Heston, in the horror film The Awakening. Co-starring British actress Susannah York, Heston plays a Cambridge University professor forced to destroy an Egyptian spirit who has possessed his daughter. We’ll be honest with you, it’s not Mr Heston’s greatest work, but it may be a thrill for some to see the Planet of The Apes star at Lord’s Bridge, and around the University buildings.
Undoubtedly the biggest must-see for any film geek, however, is Bassingbourn Barracks, just ten miles southwest of Cambridge. Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 film Full Metal Jacket ripped up the rule book for war movies, and is regarded as the iconic film-maker’s last truly great film. The story follows a group of US marines as they are trained and then deployed during the Vietnam War.
“Bassingbourn Barracks was transformed for Full Metal Jacket”
The early part of the film is the most famous part, as star Matthew Modine and his fellow soldiers are put through their paces in a hellish boot camp in South Carolina. At least, on film they were in South Carolina. In reality Bassingbourn Barracks was completely transformed into a US military base, to the extent that palm trees were flown in to give it a more authentic look (and remained there for a while after when the production forgot to pick them up again!). Arguably a key part of the film, it meant the now-closed army training centre was forever etched in film history.
Whether it’s a sweeping romance, an inspiring and award-winning film or a popcorn extravaganza, Cambridge has played a part in many films we all know and love. We’re all used to seeing our favourite stars in faraway locations that look almost too perfect, but the on-screen presence of the streets, buildings and countryside right on our doorstep can give us a different perspective, and reveal just how magical a place Cambridge can be.
Small Screen Cambridge
Telly faves featuring our fair city
Despite having a population of under 1000, this small village has been immortalised in a Pink Floyd song, novels and now the hit TV show starring James Norton and Robson Green. The series films in Cambridge as well and has been described as the new Inspector Morse.
David Jason looked very different in this 80s mini-series, as the porter of a fictitious University College in Cambridge. The series was a huge hit in the States, winning an Emmy.
The cult series about a suave antiques dealer played by Ian McShane filmed episodes based in Cambridge, including one episode where our hero suspects a Cambridge don of forging a seemingly valuable bible.
Home Town Glory
The Cambridge natives who made it in la-la land
One of Britain’s greatest actors, the late Lord Attenborough was born and spent the early part of his life in Cambridge, where his father was based as an academic at Emmanuel College.
Incredible as it may seem, the star of Grease was born in Cambridge and spent the early part of her childhood there before she and her family emigrated to Australia.
From a legend of yesterday to a star of tomorrow, the young star of War Horse was born and raised in the area. His mother, Bridget Smith, is leader of the Cambridgeshire Liberal Democrats.