In Search of the "Critchley Hotel" - an Homage to "Blue Ice"
By Steve Ember
13 Apr 2014
Trains at night can often create a mysterious, often ominous and foreboding mood. Something about those lighted windows against the pitch black of the night sky, vivid sparks from interrupted contacts with third rail or overhead catenary. There is also the sound aspect -- the formidable crescendo of rumble and clatter and screech of wheels as the train approaches and flashes past.
And if that train happens to be on an overpass, hurtling past old buildings of dark brick illuminated by the occasional street lamp...
It's a challenging motif to photograph, as the lighting is almost always tricky, but the results can be quite rewarding when it all comes together right, as happened on a recent November night in London.
This "project" actually had its genesis in November 2012 when, during a visit to London, I discovered the motif-rich area around Borough Market (Image No.2) in the London Borough of Southwark.
The buildings in this part of London, just south of the Thames near London Bridge Station (if one excludes the soaring modern form of The Shard looming above them to the east) have that somewhat foreboding Dickensian appearance, consistent with that of the Market.
And rising just above Borough Market, between it and Southwark Cathedral (Image No.6), is the Station Approach overpass that carries trains into busy London Bridge Station.
I mentioned November 2012 as the genesis of this particular project. But it's more accurate to say that the real genesis went back some years to sometime in the 'nineties, when I purchased a VHS videotape of a 1992 film that had captured my interest and which had probably not yet been released on DVD.
"Blue Ice" was a crime thriller starring Michael Caine as a very interesting character named Harry Anders. Harry is a former intelligence operative who, after retiring from those shadowy activities, opens a jazz club in what looks to be an old industrial or warehouse building in London.
Harry, while definitely a romantic, can also be lethal when provoked. But who says those two traits need be mutually exclusive? His passion is jazz; and, one might imagine from his shiny black Jaguar XK-140 coupe, vintage motorcars with large cats leaping forth from their bonnets.
It is in that black Jaguar, with some energetic be-bop playing on the music system, that Harry is rear-ended at a stop light by a Mercedes roadster driven by Stacy Mansdorf (Sean Young), the provocatively attractive young wife of the American ambassador.
The unfolding plot leads Harry back into a world of intrigue, including the murders of two of his friends, as he tries to help Stacy, with whom he has fallen in love, resolve a difficult situation with an ex-lover.
The plot gets involved and I wouldn't want to spoil the suspense if you intend to watch it one evening (which I'd highly recommend), but I will tell you about the scene that so engaged my senses that I had to track it down, years later, with my cameras.
Harry and a London police detective friend whose help he has enlisted have tracked down Stacy's ex-lover at an Italian cafe in Southwark.
The Globe Tavern is a pub in Southwark, close by Borough Market. Above and behind looms one of the Station Approach overpasses that carry a heavy flow of passenger train traffic into nearby London Bridge Station.
In the film, the Globe Tavern became the run-down, sleazy, and rather ominous looking "Critchley Hotel." It's just across from the cafe, which is closing as Stacy's ex-lover leaves and walks into the hotel, under the surveillance of Harry and Ozzie, his friend, the copper. The scenes that followed made extremely effective use of those arcing blue sparks created by the electric railway above and behind the building.
I first discovered the area around Borough Market and the Station Approach overpasses during that 2012 visit and there was just this pervasive feeling of deja-vu -- engendered, of course, by vivid memories of that scene in "Blue Ice."
And while London has several railway embankments and overpasses running by old buildings (one of the reasons I find it so strongly appealing in terms of photography), I could not escape the feeling that I had to have been really close to where the "Critchley Hotel" sequences in "Blue Ice" were filmed. But, standing there in that space between Borough Market and Southwark Cathedral with trains rumbling overhead on the Station Approach, I had no idea how close I actually was!
But twilight was nigh, and I had some other motifs tugging away at my camera arm, so I did not further reconnoiter that evening.
However, when I returned to London a year later, I knew I had to find that building in Southwark with the railway overpass above and behind, and to shoot it - and the trains - by night.
So, camera pack and tripod in hand, I headed subterranean, boarding the Bakerloo train at Paddington station, changing at Baker Street (elementary, dear reader) to the Jubilee Line for the short trip that would lead under the Thames to London Bridge station, which I remembered from the previous year's visit had an exit on Borough High Street.
By the way, while in a very old section of Southeast London, close by Borough Market, the Jubilee Line station is impressively bright, clean, and modern, with those platform edge doors that sync with the doors of arriving trains (Image No.3), thus providing boarding and alighting passengers a more secure feeling, and less wind effects as trains blast out of tunnels.
Now, up on Borough High Street in search of that ominous looking "Critchley Hotel" with the Station Approach running behind and along its third floor.
The search had but one false start. As I spied the railway overpass, I thought I had hit pay dirt. But while I could hear the trains rumbling above, I could not see them! I did not know at the time that as part of the expansion of the London Bridge (railway) Station, a second, converging overpass had been built to the east of the one I was seeking, and from my position on Borough High Street, I was too close to it to actually see the trains, anyway.
Ah, but I was on a mission, and not about to admit defeat. So I tucked in my tripod and proceeded to walk up the street toward where the Station Approach crosses over on its way into London Bridge Station. That is also the direction of Borough Market...
Then, at the intersection of Bedale Street, I find myself, looking dead on (you should pardon the expression) at the scene of the cinematic murders and the vividly remembered night trains rumbling past the "Critchley Hotel."
I can now tell you the "hotel" was actually the popular Southwark pub, the Globe Tavern. Only the sign had been changed to protect the, err, innocent.
And the Globe Tavern is just a stone's throw from...Borough Market! So that deja-vu experienced the previous November was dead-on.
Actually, the sight lines had changed, however, since the film was shot. The original overpass was exactly where it should be, but that new converging overpass swoops over between Borough High Street and the Critchley, pardon, Globe.
Ahh, but that's when the wide angle lens yelled out "In here, mate -- I'm in your bag!"
So, it's now about 10:45 and I do some hand held shots just to make sure I had the scene covered, before getting down to serious tripod placement and testing various exposure settings to ensure the right amount of motion blur for those trains rumbling above and behind this somewhat forbidding Dickensian edifice.
Well, the building might look somewhat forbidding, but, after all, it is a busy London pub with lots of convivial activity, so the shot I was looking for would need to wait until The Globe closed, the last imbibers departed, and some of the outside lights got turned off.
About 45 minutes later, that requirement had been met. Fortunately those trains kept rolling overhead, just minutes apart. Perhaps the third rail and the pick-up shoes of the newer trains cause less arcing or maybe the director and cinematographer of Blue Ice called up some special effects to get all those spooky blue flashes from the trains passing overhead, but that was OK, as I'd found my filmic inspiration from almost twenty years earlier, still there for the taking.
It was fun, while waiting for some of the lights to go out, or between trains, talking to some local chaps who seemed quite entertained by the reasons I had sought out the "Critchley." I hope they'll seek out "Blue Ice" to fill in the blanks in my photo-interrupted bits of narrative!
Next year I shall return a bit earlier in the evening and raise a glass -- inside the Globe.
And, perhaps if I ask nicely, they'll let me go upstairs and look down at -- and shoot -- the night trains rumbling past on the Station Approach. Only, I promise not to jump down on the trestle and risk being electrocuted on the third rail or mowed down by a passing train as Harry Anders did in the film!
When I got back to my hotel late that night, first thing I did (after downloading my images to a portable hard drive, of course) was go on line and order up the DVD of "Blue Ice" to ensure I'd have a sharper copy to watch on my return.
Thank you, Michael Caine. Thank you, London (you too, Southwark). That shoot was a bloody hoot!
©2014 Steve Ember