Meta-ornament: railway tracks

4 10 2012

Tracks on the southern approach to Manchester from Stockport

According to Walter Benjamin, railway tracks had a ‘peculiar and unmistakeable dream world’ attached to them, one that, for early railway travellers, was related to their unprecedented straightness in the landscape, their geometric alignment, or in their wider convergence into networks. Early railway prints in the 1830s and 1840s (1) emphasized the sharp linearity of railway tracks, cutting through the landscape with unprecedented geometric precision; while contemporaneous travellers were transfixed by the seemingly infinite recession of parallel tracks.

1. T. T Bury’s view of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway over Chat Moss, 1830


                                2. 1898 film from the front of a train in Barnstable

As recorded by Edward Stanley in 1830, when he witnessed a locomotive approaching from the far distance, train tracks seemed to compress space and time and usher in a new form of perception; Stanley thought the parallel tracks made the engine seem to increase in size ‘beyond all limit’ as it came nearer, eventually ‘absorbing everything within its vortex’. A similar fascination came at the end of nineteenth century, when railway tracks formed some of the earliest subjects for film: that is, in the ‘phantom ride’ (2), a term used to mean a film that looks from the front of a moving railway engine along the tracks themselves. Here, the novel view of the camera (one that was seldom experienced in ordinary life) combined its ‘subjective’ view with an inaccessible position that laid bare, through an unwavering emphasis on the endless perspective of the parallel tracks, the disembodied consciousness of the railway journey.

3. Railway maps of England in 1850 (left) and Britain in 1900 (right)

If railway tracks suggested a new kind of machine aesthetic, defined by extreme linearity and a corresponding overturning of ‘natural’ perception, then the conglomeration of tracks into networks seemed to produce revolutionary new patterns – or ‘meta-ornament’ in the landscape. In its early decades, the new railways spread at a seemingly exponential rate across Britain, from just under 100 miles of track in 1830 to over 6,000 by 1850 (3; left), rising to 19,000 by 1900 (3; right). Yet, their growth was far from ordered, the consequence of unregulated competition among private railway companies, and for some, the resulting network was perceived as alarmingly chaotic. Punch pictured its own ‘Railway map of England’ in 1845 (4), at the height of railway speculation in that decade, with the English landscape of the near future enmeshed ‘in irons’, with no ordering principle to the layout. Left unregulated, the railway companies would, Punch argued, eventually create so many tracks that ‘we shall soon be unable to go anywhere without crossing the line’.

4. Punch’s ‘Railway map of England’, 1845

For others, the speed at which the railway network spread across the country was nothing short of miraculous: The Builder arguing in 1852 that the railways were ‘preparing the world for a wondrous future’ when they would unite the whole of humanity ‘as one great family’. Later, when a new railway was constructed between Buxton and Bakewell in 1876, The Builder argued that the iron tracks enhanced the picturesque landscape through which they passed by adding a ‘new element of what may be called the mental or moral picturesque’. In contrast to John Ruskin, who bitterly opposed the building of the new line, The Builder perceived ‘a kind of mystery’ in the track’s ‘windings and burrowings’ through the soft landscape which, taken as a whole, were strongly suggestive of the ‘bond of civilization that connects us’. If Ruskin lamented the railway’s tendency to obliterate beloved landscapes and their traditional cultural forms in its gigantic network of lines, The Builder had the opposite reaction: railway tracks became picturesque precisely because of their connectivity, that is, the way in which they created, through ‘the triumph of science’, new geographic and social networks that had a high moral purpose.

Tallinn,Tarkovsky and Stalker

13 09 2011

1. The Flora chemical factory with the old city of Tallinn behind

Stalker, released in 1979, is a Russian science fiction film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. It’s an enigmatic film, almost devoid of special effects and characterised by long takes and even longer silences, punctuated by strange images and philosophical dialogue. It’s creation was a troubled affair – the original film was damaged beyond repair and it had to be reshot by Tarkovsky and his crew. In addition, the setting of the film – mainly abandoned but toxic industrial powerplants – was said to have contributed to the early deaths of many of the film’s creators, including Tarkovsky himself.

2. The entrance to the Zone in Stalker

3. The old Flora chemical factory, Tallinn

Much of the film was shot in and around Tallinn – today, the capital city of Estonia, but back then still part of the Soviet Union. The city is famous for its remarkably well-preserved medieval core; but Tarkovsky used another aspect of Tallinn for his film, that is, the effects of the Soviet policy of rapid urban industrialisation. Beyond the old city walls, the Soviet city remains – brutally modernist tower blocks infilled with countless brick and red-and-white striped chimneys. One of these – part of the Flora chemical factory – looms aggressively directly in front of the church towers of the old city (1 & 3). This was the site chosen by Tarkovsky for the heavily-fortified entrance to the Zone – a restricted area in Stalker where supernatural forces are at work (2). The factory has now been taken over by an artists’ collective, who use its decaying spaces for exhibitions, studio space and cultural events that draw on the iconography of Stalker in relation to contemporary life in Estonia.

4. The abandoned terraces near the harbour in Tallinn

5. The empty hall inside the terraces

I came into Tallinn on a high-speed ferry from Helsinki, landing at a makeshift harbour and walking into the old city via the chemical factory. Between these two spaces lies a vast, concrete wilderness – an enormous abandoned multi-level terrace that links the sea with the city centre, but which has long since been abandoned to the elements (4). Inside the concrete walls is an enormous empty hall without any obvious function (5). As enigmatic as any of the locations in Stalker, it is an inexplicable place: was it built long ago in preparation for a flood of visitors that never materialised? Or a relic of Soviet propaganda now left to rot? Whatever the explanation, it’s now a place where people wait to board the ferry back to Helsinki and viewing platforms have been recently constructed to mitigate this waiting time (6). In this space, the spirit of Stalker still resides – its meaning is incomplete, leading to reverie, which is only heightened by the activity of waiting.

6. Viewing platform on one of the terraces

The Vienna sewers

22 05 2011

1. The river Wien, Vienna

The prevailing image of Vienna is of a city of pleasure: the opera, waltzes, refined luxury etc. Yet, like all modern cities, it has an underside – real underground spaces that allow the city to function: from its bland yet smoothly efficient underground railway to its invisible system of sewers built at the end of the nineteenth century.

2. Scene from The Third Man (1949)

Vienna’s sewers transcend their everyday domain largely thanks to one defining representation: Carol Reed’s film The Third Man, made in 1949 and written by Graham Greene. Like all of Greene’s work, The Third Man explores human depths – unconscious motives, hidden political and personal treachery, and death – which are symbolised by, and return through, the ultra-rationalised spaces of the Vienna sewers just after the Second World War. It is here, in a celebrated sequence that the black marketer Harry Lime is cornered and finally shot by his one-time friend, Holly Martins (2). Throughout the film, the Vienna we know today is barely recognisable – here the city is battle-worn, barely more than a collection of ruins controlled by a disparate group of foreign occupiers.

3. Scenes from The Third Man projected on the sewer walls

Today, with the help of Vienna’s sewer authority, the Third Man tourist agency have cashed in on the film’s reputation and opened up – for paying visitors – the section of the city’s sewers that was actually used in the film. Descending the lotus-like manhole used by Harry Lime in his attempted escape, you enter the same murky world he inhabited. Here, montage from the film is literally projected onto the walls of the sewers (3), sounds from the film appear from unexpected crevices, and strategic lighting gives added drama to the spaces. It’s a themed excursion into the underworld that could be accused of hollowing out the originality of both film and sewer space.

4. Foul water meets clean water

5. Passages between the sewers

Yet, in reality, the raw brutalities of the sewers win out, with their grotesque stench, hostile spaces and foul rushing flows. In one space, chocolate-coloured water merges before one’s eyes into clean water in a mesmerising display of slowly-shifting eddies and whirlpools (4); in another, labyrinthine passages confuse in their topographical strangeness (5) (as they do so powerfully in the film); while, in the submerged river Wien – used by Lime to move swiftly and unnoticed between the city’s four occupied zones – is revealed as an astonishing, vaulted cavern, receding seemingly infinitely into the darkness (1 & 6). Here, with spectacularly appropriate lighting and ominous sounds, patches of graffiti can be made out along the walls of the tunnel: signs of the present-day successors of Harry Lime – those who yearn for freedom of movement and a brief respite from the oppressive rationality of the world above.

6. The river Wien under Vienna

The underground at war

5 01 2011

Corridor in Paddock, the alternative war rooms below Dollis Hill

Underground spaces take on heightened significance during times of crisis above-ground, particularly wartime. When cities are threatened by war, subterranean spaces are mobilised in new ways: as places of shelter, secrecy and production. During the Blitz in London in 1940-41, the normal associations of the city’s underground – darkness, danger and death – were dramatically reversed: the workaday Tube became immobilised by crowds of people sleeping on the platforms; new tunnels were dug to house munitions workers; the government built underground rooms to house their war operations; and church crypts, vaults and even coffins were used as places of shelter.

Sleeping in a coffin in a church crypt in wartime London

The Cabinet war rooms – now a popular tourist attraction – were built under the Treasury in Whitehall in 1939 and remained in operation throughout the Second World War. They were in fact the successors to another set of war rooms, constructed in Dollis Hill in north London and known as ‘Paddock’, which can still be visited by the public twice a year. The original war rooms were abandoned in 1939 in favour of a more central site but they remain today in their original state, albeit in the advanced stages of decay. In contrast to the comfortable experience of visiting the Cabinet war rooms, complete with underground cafe, visiting Paddock is disconcerting. Standing empty for 70 years, stalactites now hang from the ceilings and rise from the sodden floor; piles of rubbish and mud fill the rooms, while the furnishings rot and rust unchecked. Without the explanations given in the restored Cabinet war rooms, these spaces take on a nightmarish, uncanny quality: rooms meant for equipment recede into the darkness, their odd-shapes feeling alien and disorientating; and relics from the intervening years – 1970s Coca-Cola bottles and fire extinguishers – speak of other stories of illicit exploration.

The Cabinet war rooms under Whitehall

Paddock: the first Cabinet war rooms

The battery room at Paddock

Old drinks bottles and decaying doors at Paddock

In fact, the spaces at Paddock feel more akin to the countless post-apocalyptic film sets that have defined cinema since its early-20th century beginnings. They seem to speak of a disaster that is yet to happen, where even underground spaces are no longer safe from destruction. Post-apocalyptic films such as Day of the Dead (1985), Threads (1984) and The Road (2009) provide differing causes of annihilation – zombies, nuclear war and an unidentified cosmic strike – but they all use bunkers as an initial means of escaping apocalyptic destruction. However, in these pessimistic visions of the future, the underground is eventually overwhelmed by the apocalyptic forces above or, alternatively, by social breakdown below. Experiencing the decaying spaces at Paddock reminds us forcefully that it is impossible to escape the consequences of war, even if their sanitised counterparts under Whitehall continue to celebrate that very escape.

Art on the underground

28 10 2010

Greeting at Ludgate Circus

Last autumn in London, city slickers passing Ludgate Circus would have been forgiven for not responding to this salutation on the pavement. Barely noticeable and oddly phrased, this was a piece of graffiti that looked more like an official instruction from an unknown but benign authority. London is overcrowded with subterranean spaces, but on this particular day, I could not help but feel that pedestrians were being directed to the disused Kingsway tram tunnel, temporarily reopened at that time for tours of a work of installation art titled Chord. Conceived by the British artist Conrad Shawcross, Chord consisted of two giant, mechanical machines that wove a thick spiral of rope from innumerable spools of coloured string. Following the old tram tracks underground, these two machines moved very slowly away from each other in the Kingsway tunnel, connected by their woven rope until it was cut and the process begun again.

Chord, Kingsway tram tunnel, October 2009

Chord is one of a number of recent art projects that make use of disused underground spaces – in both London and other British cities. Yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, the underground spaces themselves have tended to be the bigger draw than the art which they house. The Kingsway tram tunnel is one of many of London’s ‘lost’ subterranean spaces. It opened in 1902 and was part of the redevelopment of Holborn that cleared away slum housing, replacing it with a broad, tree-lined avenue. Underground, the tram tunnel provided a north-south route that connected London’s tram lines and eased traffic congestion. Closed in 1952, its main use since has been for storage and for film and television sets.

Abandoned cars in the Kingsway tram tunnel

In fact, it is difficult to separate reality from fiction in the Kingsway tunnel. Is the 1970s Ford Cortina of its time or the remnant of a film set? Why are there old Tube maps on the walls? Much of what is there, including the boards full of fake-posters seen below, are the detritus of a more recent venture when this space was used  as a fictional Underground station ‘Union Street’ in the 2008 film The Escapist. But how can we explain the combination of Victorian and post-War print here? Are some of these real, others part of the film? Or are they part of several different films, each new one pasting over its forebear? Or are they even, perhaps, a realistic evocation of a tube station billboard when an old poster is removed, exposing the multiple layers of the past beneath?

Posters in the Kingsway tram tunnel

This mixing up of the real and fictional makes this a natural space for art installations: after all, they are only continuing an already established tradition. Of course, many other London locations have been used in cinema, but those underground maintain the traces of that interaction in a much more tangible, strangely uncanny, way.

Into the belly of the beast

4 10 2010

Peepshow of a Victorian sewer, Kew Bridge Steam Museum

Sewers remain a powerful site for mixed ideas about the city. They are both signifiers of a truly modern city, efficiently disposing of its wastes, but also places of imaginative horror: the literal as well as metaphorical bowels of the city; everyday yet alien spaces. Their imaginative power is enhanced by their very invisibility. In London, most people travel underground every day on the hundreds of miles of tube; London’s sewers cover thousands of miles and are all but unknown to the city’s populace because their acceptability depends on their invisibility. But even if we don’t see them, sewers are perhaps the only type of underground space that connects everyone to each other: in the ceaseless flows in the sewers we can’t escape the fact that excrement has no social distinction.

Perhaps because they are invisible, sewers invite illicit or secret journeys motivated by personal curiosity. In relation to London’s sewers, the most famous early modern explorer was Ben Johnson, whose mock-epic poem describing a tour of the Fleet river in 1610 describes all the strange horrors of what was even then a pre-modern sewer. In the Victorian period, perhaps the most obsessive engagement with London’s sewers occurred in the 1860s, with the journalist John Hollingshead’s book Underground London, published in 1862. These series of essays derive from the author’s self-confessed ‘appetite for the wonderful in connection with sewers’. Hollingshead’s collection of essays is remarkable for the sheer variety of viewpoints represented. Indeed, he sums up these multiple conceptions of sewers in his introductory chapter:

‘There are more ways than one of looking at sewers, especially old London sewers. There is a highly romantic point of view from which they are regarded as accessible, pleasant, and convivial hiding-places for criminals flying from justice, but black and dangerous labyrinths for the innocent stranger … [and] there is the scientific or half-scientific way, which is not always wanting in the imaginative element.’

Capturing all of these views in a wonderful moment during one of the sewer journeys described in his book, Hollingshead is told by his guide that he is now walking beneath Buckingham Palace, where he promptly sings the national anthem, whilst up to his knees in what was, presumably, royal excrement.

Hollingshead’s intrepid journeys are mirrored today in the practice of draining, an increasingly popular branch of urban exploration. For urban explorers, illicit sites – industrial ruins, abandoned buildings and underground spaces – are the hidden nexus of the city, places where the rules of progress and order are directly challenged. Visiting sewers presents an opportunity to discover a secret world under the city, one that might challenge existing certainties and provide liberating alternatives. Usually under the cover of night, sewer explorers descend into these spaces and explore them at will. This usually involves a degree of danger, which is part of the attraction: mobile phone networks cease to operate; the space is pitch black and slippery underfoot; and you quickly become highly disorientated.

Sewer under Brockwell Park, Brixton

My single exploration of this kind happened in a storm drain beneath Brockwell Park in Brixton earlier this year. With a more experienced guide, I descended an iron ladder into a large sewer. Using headlamps, we walked several hundred yards and then explored a unknown smaller side drain, down which we walked, or rather stooped, until we forced open a manhole with the help of a passer-by on the street above.

Entering the unknown sewer

What was striking about the experience was how extreme it was: my other senses were so engaged that actually thinking about things and talking was very difficult and very demanding. In this, it was quite different again from other types of urban space from which we are physically shut out from. Indeed, the whole spatial experience was very far removed from anything above ground: with these apparently infinitely receding spaces, you can never tell where you are. Because the sewers are designed in a grid-like network, they are easily comprehensible on a map of the city, but not so underground. In fact, in these spaces, the very things that are supposed to contribute to being able to understand things are working against you, because you’re not supposed to be there. It’s something that’s inherent in the London sewers, in their design – they’re not designed for people to be there, because originally they were supposed to be self-cleansing and no walkways or other helpful features were incorporated into their design.

The Third Man

In fact, this experience and the feelings associated with it relate more closely with imaginative uses of sewers in film and literature. One of the first, and most famous, Carol Reed’s 1949 film The Third Man, explores human depths – unconscious motives, hidden political and personal treachery, and death – which are symbolised by, and return through, the ultra-rationalised spaces of the Vienna sewers just after the Second World War. In a different vein, the smell of London’s sewers summons up childhood memories for the female protagonist of Margaret Drabble’s 1980 novel The Middle Ground: stooping to take a sniff at a grating to one of Bazalgette’s sewers, she cannot resist this ‘powerful odour of London’ that invites her to ‘escape the prison of the present into the past, where dark spirits swam in the fast-moving flood’.


Things that bubble up from the unconscious might be altogether more unpleasant and, in the world of film, sewers have provided popular locations for nightmarish monsters:  from giant ants in the storm drains of Los Angeles in the cold-war thriller Them! (1954); mutant alligators in the sewers of New York in Alligator (1980); to more recent incarnations such as human-like cockroaches in Guillermo Del Toro’s 1997 film Mimic. Throughout the post-War period the imaginative connotations of London’s sewers have tended to be displaced by those of other cities, in particular New York; yet recently they have resurfaced in both literature and film. In the final moments of Peter Carey’s 1997 novel Jack Maggs the eponymous hero witnesses the construction of the city’s Victorian sewers. Here, the ‘vertiginous unease’ induced by the sight of a deep trench being dug in the street mirrored the general anxiety Jack Magg’s felt about his own life and summoned up an apocalyptic vision of his own demise. Likewise Clare Clark’s 2005 novel The Great Stink sets most of its narrative in the London sewers, exploiting their dark associations to mirror the repressed yearnings of her central character, which are played out in the hidden spaces of the sewers before dramatically entering the life of the world above. More visceral still is the brutally feral monster inhabiting a self-made netherworld in Christopher Smith’s 2004 film Creep, who returns from the sewers through the tunnels of the Underground to enact vicious killings at night. Although crass and exploitative, the horrors in Creep seem to prefigure the much more tangible unease now associated with the city’s substructure since 7 July 2005. Engineers of the past and present might build sewers as rational spaces that bring wastes to order, but it seems they will always be open to other subversive interpretations and uses; clearly we are still fearful of what terrors might return to confront us from the darkness of the world below.

Mapping London’s subterranean nightmares

1 10 2010

‘The point of cinematic geography is that it is made up’

(Charlotte Brunsdon, London in Cinema)

‘A film, like a topographic projection, can be understood as an image that locates and patterns the imagination of its spectators. When it takes hold, a film encourages its public to think of the world in concert with its own articulation of space’

(Tom Conley, Cartographic Cinema)

I focus here on two films that use underground London as their theme: Death Line released in 1972; and Creep, a loose remake of Death Line, released in early 2005. Films that employ the underground, particularly spaces of travel such as the London Underground, create a distinct geographical world that has a close affinity with cinema itself: space is abolished on the London Underground and ‘turned into time, the time it takes for the tube to pass through the dark tunnels to the illuminated, but spatially abstract platforms of the stations.’ Yet, the cinematic underground uses this absence of panorama to make the space more immanent – it becomes a space in which something is going to happen. Indeed, the films I explore also turn the banal experience of the Underground – that of everyday travel – into a more spatially and temporally complex one, in which the spaces of the Underground return as spaces of horror. If these films, as films, abolish space and replace it by time, they also reinstate, imaginatively, a spatial experience of the Underground that is usually absent in the city.

Mapping time

In post-War British cinema, the London Underground has only featured sporadically. Both Death Line and Creep have their origins in the expansive horror genre, but, within its specific use of London’s underground spaces, one that goes against the grain of the traditional British horror subjects: vampires, ghosts, and haunted houses. When Death Line was released in 1972, British horror was still dominated by the Hammer production company, with its countless Draculas and gratuitous female nudity, and the film poster drew on this as a means of publicity (1), however misleading this was.


In fact, Death Line, the debut film of the American director Gary Sherman, used defiantly ordinary early-1970s locations in an area around Russell Square tube station. The basic premise of the film is that a forgotten people exist within the Underground network. These are cannibalistic survivors of an underground disaster. In 1892, the City and South London Railway were digging a new line when the tunnel collapsed, the company abandoning the injured workers in the collapsed tunnel after they went bankrupt. Only two survivors are left – the hideously disfigured couple known only as ‘The Man’ and ‘The Woman’. The Woman dies while the Man hunts for ‘raw meat’ (the American title of the film) late at night on the platforms of nearby stations at Russell Square and Holborn. The rest of the film is played out as a dark satire on the British class system: a VIP goes missing at the beginning of the film, drawing in a young student couple, Alex and Patricia; while two working-class policemen investigate the missing man. Patricia is eventually abducted by the Man, intended to replace his dead wife, while Alex descends into the tunnels to rescue her before finally fatally injuring the Man.


Creep (2) offers a similar narrative: a single woman, Kate, falls asleep on the platform of Charing Cross underground station late at night, then takes the last train and enters a fearsome underground labyrinth carved out by a viscous killer, also hideously deformed. Through a protracted series of chase sequences (3), punctuated by extremely bloody murders, she eventually kills the monster and re-emerges in the early hours to the same platform on which she began her journey. There is social comment in Creep, especially in its inclusion of two homeless characters as unseen victims; but the monster here is much more powerful than that in Death Line, striking without reason, living in a self-made environment that straddles the above and below ground worlds, and whose murderous impulse is seen as the consequence of a childhood trauma become monstrous in adulthood. Creep is the deformed result of a genetic experiment, doomed to live hidden from London’s normal world above ground. His revenge is only vaguely understood and, although, like the Man in Death Line, he is a social victim, but nevertheless remains as monstrous because we cannot empathise with his plight.


Some of the narrative differences between the films can be drawn out using time maps: here are ones that I made of both films (click on the images to enlarge them).

4 Death Line timeline

5 Creep timeline

In these maps, time runs down the page in the wide bar, divided into 10-minutes section, and also divided into white sections (above-ground spaces) and cross-hatched sections (below-ground spaces). Location changes are indicated to the left of this wide bar. To the right of the bar, different-coloured thin lines represent the ‘screen time’ of the seven leading characters in both films.  The major difference seen clearly in these timelines is the comparative amount of time spent underground in these films: bar a short sequence at a party and a street scene, all of Creep is set underground; while Death Line switches between above- and below-ground locations throughout the film until the final 20 minutes, which take place entirely underground. In addition, as seen in the coloured lines, the narrative of Death Line almost entirely revolves around character couples: Alex and Patricia, Inspector Calquorn and sergeant Rodgers, and the Man and the Woman; while Creep has a more fractured narrative of appearance and disappearance centred around the almost continuous screen presence of the lone female, Kate. In Death Line there are several direct cuts between one couple – Alex and Patricia, and another – the Man and the Woman, suggesting that a more direct comparison is being made between these two couples. In fact, as the timeline clearly shows, relationships between couples form the key strategy of the film’s narrative, which serves to heighten both our sympathy and disgust for the monstrous couple below ground. The very disconnection of couples in Creep perhaps reflects the alienation of 21st century London, where singleness and ambition dominate social life both above and below ground. Finally, in Death Line there is a distinct change in tempo in the scenes filmed above and below ground: above ground is characterised by a realist mode, the temporal unfolding dictated by character interaction; while below ground, time unfolds much more slowly with long tracking shots and indistinct lighting. In contrast, Creep maintains a hurried ‘documentary’ pace throughout, with often-shaky camerawork in the extended chase sequences. Only in the very depths of the underworld made by Creep does the camera remain static – the place where he has complete control over his surroundings.

Mapping space

Time-based maps like those I made for these two films obliterate spatial representation – in effect reducing the films to plans that look remarkably similar to the iconic London Underground map, with its coloured lines and lack of geographic specificity. This abstract space, comprising only movement in time, might correspond to our everyday experience of travelling underground but, in both films, this absence of spatial representation is turned on its head in their knitting together of both real and imagined underground spaces. These are perhaps best understood using others types of map, namely the plan and the section, more usually associated with the representation of buildings or other ‘static’ spaces. Removing the variable of time, we can map the spaces of these films in which the narrative is played out. However, unlike similar representations of buildings, the meaning of these spaces cannot be separated from time – and in fact, arguably all representations of ‘space’ cannot be thus separated even if they invariably are so in conventional map representations.

6 Death Line plan

The underground spaces in Death Line are relatively straightforward (6). Between Russell Square and Holborn tube stations, on the Piccadilly Line, is the hidden space of the abandoned line and platform. The platform is named ‘Museum’ and refers to one of the Underground’s 40 or so ‘lost’ stations, British Museum (7), opened in 1900 between Holborn and Tottenham Court road stations on the Central Line. It closed in 1933 and has remained so ever since.

7. 1913 Underground map

The use of this station in the film is topographically accurate, as the station is indeed situated between Russell Square and Holborn as it is in the film. However, the actual station used for filming is Aldwych, another abandoned station that was the terminus of a small stretch of line from Holborn to the Strand. The film obviously draws on the notion of a ‘lost’ underground that is like a ‘rabbit warren’, as is directly referred to in the film. Yet, from the plan of the film’s underground spaces (6), it is apparent that the spaces are more straightforward: a bit of abandoned line, a station, tunnels and the underground lair inhabited by the cannibals. Yet, this ‘closed’ space, with only one apparent entry and exit point, and coupled with the long tracking shots used in the film, contribute to a sense of claustrophobic closedness: this underground is more tomb than rabbit warren. As seen in the schematic section (8), spatial complexity, both horizontally and vertically, is more apparent in the relationship between the above-ground locations, from the ground-level shops, bookshop, café, pub and theatre, to the various vertical levels of Calqourn’s house, Alex’s attic flat and the Police station in the upper level of a tall building.

8. Death Line section

9. Creep plan

Creep’s underground spaces (9) conform much closer to the rabbit-warren description, also used in the film itself, with its labyrinthine quality. Starting at Charing Cross on the now abandoned Jubilee line platform, the film moves to another deeper level platform at Charing Cross, which is actually Aldwych platform, through tunnels to connect with the sewer system, which is both above and below the underground railway; to a long room full of boxes (actually Camden deep level tube shelter), and then a series of rooms in which Creep carries out his monstrous operations, to another ‘lost’ platform (Aldwych again but set up differently), and then finally back to Charing Cross. There are innumerable entry and exit points into Creep’s underground world, from both the sewers and the tube, ones that in the end can only be understood by the monster himself. The abandoned station is named ‘Down Street’ in the film: like ‘Museum’ in Death Line, this refers to an actual ‘lost’ station that lies between Hyde Park Corner and Green Park – Dover Street on the 1913 map (7) – which is again topographically accurate within the film itself. As seen in the sectional view (10), the spatial complexity of the film lies entirely underground, with its many horizontal and vertical movements between the spaces.

10. Creep section

Lost spaces

The maps I have made for these two films give visual confirmation of existing commentary on them. The constricted underground spaces of Death Line are a metaphor for the perceived stasis of the British class system and a fear of the results of such a lack of social mobility – the workers returning as monsters feeding on those above them. When the film was made Britain was experiencing its most sustained period of industrial unrest since the 1920s and this influenced the way in which the film’s spaces play out: movement above ground; stasis below ground. Thirty years later, Creep articulates the very opposite of this: a fear of too much mobility, or rather of a promiscuous mobility in the city by dark forces that transgress social boundaries, particularly the twin forces of globalisation and international terrorism, which in the months leading up the 7 July 2005, was very much centred on the London Underground. In this version of underground London social invisibility leads to indiscriminate violence, the loss of identity and personal trauma. As David Pike has observed, when the underground features in an imaginative context, it does so in the light of some fear in the world above: this is true none more so than in horror films, which do this explicitly and often exploitatively in is the case in Creep. It’s impossible to imagine a film like Creep being released after 7 July 2005, when those fears were actually realised.

There’s much more to be said about this, and also about the relationship between mapping and film, particularly further research on how to integrate maps of time and space to produce a narrative map. Yet,  I think that mapping filmic space is a useful tool in conjunction with conventional filmic analysis. It sheds light on the differing ways in which underground spaces articulate, in their narrative use of urban space, very different kinds of social commentary in the metropolis.


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