As you watched Thor: The Dark World, one location may have looked familiar. Without giving away spoilers, the film prominently features the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, in south-east London, a World Heritage Site and general place of interest. For movie fans, it's more important as a location for approximately every big release shot in the UK recently, a site that can lay claim to over $4bn at the box office and a share of at least two Oscars.
Here are a few of the best films to shoot there, and some words from estate operations manager Ian Allchin on what it was like to work with the stars...
Remember that little dream that Alfred (Michael Caine) has in The Dark Knight Rises? The one about going to Florence and seeing Bruce Wayne in his favourite little cafe? Well, it looks like Christopher Nolan's not one to swan off to Italy just to shoot a quick wish / wish-fulfilment scene, even if that would have given him the chance to get some gelato and visit the Uffizi. Instead, the budget-conscious director just took over a corner in Greenwich, installed a few tables and a snooty waiter, and bob's your uncle. Or Florence is your aunt, anyway.
"We were in a café scene outside," says Greenwich's Ian Allchin, "and that was in the colonnades. Michael Caine and Christian Bale were on site. But they were only here for a day and filmed for half a day. "
Much of Tom Hooper's musical extravaganza was shot in a studio, but the best and most sweeping scenes were filmed in Greenwich. As part of the set, a gigantic elephant stood at the centre of the college for several weeks, much to the bemusement of passing tourists. That edifice actually came straight from Victor Hugo's book and represents a monumental elephant begun but abandoned in Napoleon's time, which in the novel is home to the urchin Gavroche. The huge barricades that marked the story's climactic riots were also placed here. Many were all of a piece and moved around on flatbed lorries, while the centre of the college was turned into something resembling a blasted battlefield as the film's stakes got higher, and for that final fantastical singalong.
Said Allchin of the shoot: "I’ll put in a good word for Russell Crowe, because he was on site for Les Mis��rables. He had a bit of a bad reputation, but he was pretty pleasant."
The first indication that Pirates might be filming at Greenwich was small unit production signs marked "P4" strung on lampposts on the roads around town, the better to guide crew members to the location (although we wonder if there are any British crew members who have yet to work there). Then there was the man in full Captain Jack uniform standing by the railings one morning as one Empire staffer went jogging, and the adorable stories about Depp visiting local schoolkids.
In the film itself, you get your best look at the Old Royal Naval College during the opening carriage chase, which saw Johnny Depp (and at one point Judi Dench) drive in circles around the square, occasionally going round the same corner twice or reversing direction to extend the road available. When Depp is dragged by guards through a huge hall with an impressive ceiling to see the King, that's the famous Painted Hall, which is also in Greenwich and which is not a royal palace (nor was that hall originally).
"They were here for well over a month," says Allchin. "It was huge - probably the biggest film we’ve had. Pirates took over the whole site; they even took over the car park. They bought another space further down in Greenwich for people to park their cars, then bused all the people in the morning and evening back and forwards to their cars."
In the first Sherlock Holmes film, Greenwich played a few different exteriors of Victorian London, notably the exterior of the Grand Hotel, where Downey Jr.'s Sherlock has his bondage-heavy but sex-light encounter with Rachel McAdams' Irene Adler, and where we see the Professor's carriage and the outside of Parliament when crowds are rioting around it. This is not the first or last time that Greenwich has played Parliament (see also, er, Amanda Bynes comedy What A Girl Wants), despite the fact that the two buildings could hardly have less similar architecture.
In Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows it was also pressed into use as the exterior of an auction house during pick-ups just three months before release. Of course, in the meantime Downey Jr. had gone from moderately-famous and much-loved acting talent to full-on phenomenon. Says Allchin: "We had Robert Downey Jr. with Sherlock Holmes, and when he came the first time he was dressed up in his gear and he was unrecognisable. He walked from one spot to another throughout the day and nobody recognised him. He’s quite nice."
Those who saw the Jack Black-starring adaptation of Jonathan Swift's masterpiece have generally done their best to wipe it from memory, but one thing you can't fault it on was in featuring quite a lot of Greenwich. The Old Royal Naval College doubled for the Lilliputian capital and is very recognisable in virtually every outdoor shot in the movie.
Says Allchin: "We had The Wolfman, which came and did reshoots here, and as they went out we had one day’s space before Gulliver came in. It was a nice film because all the stars were here. It was very hot, and in between scenes they just sat out on the grass and were reasonably approachable. People would walk through and say hello and they weren’t too bothered, unlike some of the people we get in."
The famously troubled, Benicio Del Toro-starring version of The Wolf Man used Greenwich exteriors extensively as the basis for a (CG-extended) chase around the rooftops and streets of Victorian London, after Del Toro's Lawrence Talbot, in his transformed werewolf form, escapes from a medical theatre where he's being displayed to doctors and researchers. That doesn't go well for them.
In the disappointing adaptation of Philip Pullman's brilliant book, the Painted Hall in Greenwich played the dining room at Jordan College, the Oxford establishment where our heroine, Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) had grown up. The exteriors of the Old Royal Naval College were then digitally expanded and enhanced to provide the base of the Magisterium, the untrustworthy politico-religious government of Lyra's home. It's all a bit sinister, really.
Well, of course Bond filmed there too. "Another film that you probably don’t know, or you might do, was the recent James Bond film," says Allchin. "They did one scene right at the start, the funeral scene when Judi Dench walks in and is walking amongst the coffins. That was done in our King William restaurant. We had to take down the chandeliers, they put down a wooden floor, they took all the paintings and everything off the walls to do it. It appeared in the film for about 30 seconds. Another big scene was outside, which was supposed to be the funeral scene, so in the middle where the Crown Square is, on the steps, Judi Dench out there with all the naval officers all dressed up in uniform all the way along, and then the coffin cars driving past slowly. That never appeared in the film."
Greenwich also played palace and parliamentary exteriors in The King's Speech and The Iron Lady; it doubled for 18th century Manhattan at the end of Sleepy Hollow; hosted the second wedding in Four Weddings And A Funeral and was the scene for a lecture by Jack Ryan in Patriot Games.
And we haven't even mentioned Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Sense And Sensibility, Shanghai Knights, The Young Victoria, Dorian Gray, Revolver, The Mummy Returns, Vanity Fair, Quills, Amazing Grace, The Four Feathers, Charlotte Gray, The Bounty, The Oxford Murders, Stage Beauty, The Madness Of King George, Garfield 2, The Wings Of The Dove, King Ralph, Anne Of The Thousand Days and more, all the way back to Stanley Donen's Indiscreet in 1958, with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman.