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Thursday 18 April 2019

Stanley Kubrick. Great British director

  • Not many Brits realise it, but Kubrick lived in their country for decades – and made most of his films there
  • Britain seeped into his movies, particularly his two 1970s masterpieces A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon
  • For reasons including a fear of flight, he went to great lengths to shoot even American-set movies, such as The Shining, in his adopted home

By Peter Hoskin

It’s a shame that I’m not given to ultra-violence, because this would be a good moment for some. I have travelled to Thamesmead, one of the outer parts of London that used to be marshland before it was developed in the 1960s, and I have done so for a purpose. There is an angular, concrete building here that served as Alex DeLarge’s home in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film of A Clockwork Orange. It stands beside the artificial lake where Alex, in one of the film’s most famous scenes, turns on his mutinous droogs and sends two of them flying into the water, before slicing the one called “Dim” across the hand. As a slavering fan of Kubrick’s work, I wanted to tread the same walkway. I wanted to see where the blood spilt.

Except civilisation had other plans. The Thamesmead estate is currently being levelled and built again, glassier and ritzier, as part of a £1.5bn regeneration scheme. The Clockwork Orange building is still there, but only just. Both it and the lakeside walk are shuttered behind wire barriers, accessible only to workpeople wearing the requisite hi-vis clothing. The closest I could get was about 50m away, on the other side of the lake, clutching my camera and suppressing my frustrations. Soon, this crumbling patch of film history will be gone.

A large portion of Kubrick’s Britain has disappeared or is disappearing. Just across the river from Thamesmead, the wasteland around the old Beckton Gas Works, which was transformed into Vietnam for Full Metal Jacket (1987), has been covered over by a dozen out-of-town superstores. Back in the centre of London, the Chelsea Drugstore, where Alex went looking for records and girls in A Clockwork Orange, is now a branch of McDonald’s.

The Thamesmead estate and its lake, used in ‘A Clockwork Orange’

The camera started to feel even heavier in my hands. The Thamesmead estate, I told myself, was symbolic of broader attitudes to cinema in Britain. Most French people seem to be more than just familiar – enraptured – with their own country’s film history; with Jean-Pierre Melville, François Truffaut and Agnès Varda. Whereas British directors who should be household names – Carol Reed, Powell and Pressburger, Andrea Arnold, and many more – are not. Stanley Kubrick, one of the greatest of all time, lived and worked over here for three decades. And yet, as Deyan Sudjic, the director of London’s Design Museum, put it to me a few days earlier: “It’s interesting that so few people know that Kubrick made most of his films in Britain.”

I tried to calm myself down. At least there is a Kubrick’s Britain to speak of – and some of it remains, even if only incidentally. On the wall of an apartment block in St Katharine Docks, by Tower Bridge, is a massive piece of clear acrylic that was the original monolith for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), before Kubrick decided that he wanted black monoliths instead. It was put there not to mark the fact that 2001 was mostly filmed at Shepperton Studios, in Surrey, but in celebration of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. The designer carved a crown into what was originally meant to be an unmarked, unfathomable alien intelligence.

The monolith planned for ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, now a monument to the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, in St Katharine Docks, London

Sometimes you don’t even need to look that hard. For years, a collection of Kubrick memorabilia – much of it supplied by the Stanley Kubrick Archive, which is held by the University of the Arts in Elephant and Castle – has been travelling around the world, from Frankfurt to Seoul to Barcelona. At the end of April, until the middle of September, it will finally reach the Design Museum in London, and will be bolstered by some extra attractions. As a preview of what is to come, the museum’s foyer currently hosts the Probe 16 sports car that Alex and his droogs stole during one of the night-time rampages. The full exhibition promises to be a glorious homecoming, even if few people will regard it as such.

Part of the problem is that, at first glance, Kubrick’s career reads as though it was USA all the way. He was born on Manhattan, grew up in the Bronx, and made a name for himself, at a young age, by snapping photographs around New York for Look magazine. His earliest films, such as the pulp-noirs Killer’s Kiss (1955) and The Killing (1956), were products of that time on the streets, as well as of Hollywood’s studio system. He would go on to direct a sword-and-sandal epic, make a Vietnam War movie, adapt a Stephen King book and work with Tom Cruise.

Yet The Killing was actually the last film that Kubrick made entirely on US soil. His first out-and-out masterpiece, the World War One movie Paths of Glory (1957), was shot in Germany. Parts of Spartacus (1960) were then made in Spain. But it was clear even before those films that Kubrick was looking towards Europe. In interviews from the 1950s, he would name directors such as Max Ophüls and Ingmar Bergman as his favourites.

Kubrick on the set of ‘Spartacus’, some of which was filmed in Spain

The poster for Kubrick’s next film after Spartacus famously asked: “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” The short and unsexy answer is: by moving to Britain. Kubrick and his producing partner, James B. Harris, had bought the rights to Vladimir Nabokov’s novel soon after it was first published by Olympia Press in Paris. It would have been difficult for them to make the film in America, not least because of the country’s outspoken and well-organised censorship groups, such as the Legion of Decency. But Britain was a different prospect. The film’s distributors, MGM, had money tied up in London that needed to be spent – and it would go further there than almost anywhere else. Thanks to a policy known as the Eady Levy, filmmakers working in Britain were effectively handed free cash.

Working in Britain was not an entirely happy process for Kubrick. According to his friend Michael Herr, who later helped with the screenplay for Full Metal Jacket: “The English work ethic drove him nuts. The crew would call him ‘squire’ on the set, and he got so pissed off at their endless tea breaks that he wanted to surreptitiously film them when he was shooting Lolita there in 1960.”

James Mason and Sue Lyon in ‘Lolita’, filmed by Kubrick in Britain to avoid American censorship

But Kubrick clearly enjoyed something about the experience. He was so taken with the performance by Peter Sellers as the manipulative playboy Clare Quilty that he used the actor for not one but three roles in 1964’s Dr Strangelove – and there might have been a fourth, had Sellers not damaged his ankle before he could occupy the cockpit of the unhinged bomber pilot Major Kong. Other Lolita alumni, including the cameraman Gilbert Taylor, were similarly re-employed. For all his complaints, Kubrick was working in a film industry that was – and still is – stuffed with talented artists and artisans.

What’s more, Kubrick stayed. During the shoots for Lolita and Dr Strangelove, the director lived in hotels and rented properties in England, while his young family occupied a series of ever-grander houses in New York. Around the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey, however, he bought a property called Abbots Mead in Elstree – only a dozen miles from central London and within walking distance of the studio where much of Lolita was filmed – and his wife and daughters moved over. Years later, one of those daughters, Vivian, would adopt the pseudonym Abigail Mead, in reference to the house’s name, for her composer’s credit on Full Metal Jacket. Years later still, another daughter, Katharina, would return there for the BBC, to discover that there is now a blue plaque on one of its gateposts.

This was not Kubrick’s only move. In 1980, he bought Childwickbury Manor, a 17th-century house in Hertfordshire that, from the outside at least, is as solid and imposing as a bunker complex. Again, it was close to a movie studio – in this case, Pinewood – as well as to other locations where Kubrick shot his final two films, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut (1999). His widow, Christiane, still lives and paints there.

Childwickbury Manor in Hertfordshire, bought by Kubrick in 1980

It is hard to know how naturalised Kubrick became during those decades, although there were signs of it. In an article from 1963, he was already writing about filmmaking in very British terms: “If the scene takes place after the England-Scotland rugby match or something and there’s pandemonium in Piccadilly Circus,” he says of shooting on location, “then the confusion may help and it’ll be good.” People who later visited him at Childwickbury would sometimes find him listening to Test Match Special.

But, whether or not Britain seeped into Kubrick, there is no doubt that it seeped into his films, and particularly into a pair which he made in the 1970s: A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon.

On the other side of London from Thamesmead is the Brunel University campus. Its Lecture Centre, which was built in the 1960s, is a stacked arrangement of concrete supports and protrusions. It was also one of the shooting locations for A Clockwork Orange, as the front of the Ludovico Medical Facility where, through drugs and videos of atrocities, Alex is conditioned to be a more peaceable member of society. Apparently, Kubrick and his team found such places by sifting through back issues of architectural magazines.

Britain’s Brutalist architecture was used to great effect in ‘A Clockwork Orange’

These locations add up to more than just a catalogue of mid-century, Brutalist London. A Clockwork Orange would not be nearly as powerful without them. Here is a film that took a new and exciting version of Britain, so distinct from the redbrick living of previous decades, and made it shabby and frightening. As Alex returns home from another night of crime, he walks across the Thamesmead estate all strewn with rubbish bags and other detritus. It is the dystopian future of Anthony Burgess’s original novel – but also now.

A similar effect could have been achieved elsewhere – perhaps in the banlieues of Paris – but Britain makes for some particularly wonderful juxtapositions. When Alex finally reaches his bedroom, he removes the black bowler hat that is part of his gang’s otherwise-white uniform. He then throws a roll of cash into a drawer containing lots of other stolen notes, all with Her Majesty’s face on them. Six years before the Sex Pistols released their single God Save the Queen, Kubrick was seizing and subverting the symbols of Old England.

The architecture reflected the droogs and the film’s dystopian future

If this makes Kubrick sound powerful, it’s because he was. One effect of his move to England, as well as of his growing reputation, was that he had more and more control over his productions, away from the interfering moneymen back in Hollywood. For A Clockwork Orange, he even managed to wrestle the publicity campaign from the Warner Bros marketing department – and he would do more besides. After the film was linked to several “copycat” crimes in the 1970s, leading to protests outside his home, Kubrick had it pulled from cinemas in Britain. It would be another quarter-century before his most British movie was again screened in the country.

A Clockwork Orange was one of only two films for which Kubrick wrote the whole screenplay. The other was Barry Lyndon. Again, this was based on a book by a British author – William Thackeray, in this case – but, at that point, the similarities start to break down. Where A Clockwork Orange is hyperactive, fluorescent and angry, Barry Lyndon is slow, classical and mournful. Or, as Deyan Sudjic puts it: “Barry Lyndon is a kind of love letter to English art. Almost all of the painters that Kubrick quotes are English. The way he made the landscape look so fantastic is very special.”

The sumptuous settings of ‘Barry Lyndon’ referenced the paintings of Gainsborough, Reynolds and Hogarth

Those painters include Thomas Gainsborough, William Hogarth and Joshua Reynolds, whose work was constantly referred to on set. The landscape is mostly that of 18th-century Britain, which Barry Redmond ranges across in search of money and position. We are, it barely needs to be said, no longer in Thamesmead or Brunel University, but in grand houses surrounded by green hills. “The house of Lady Lyndon was like a jigsaw puzzle,” the film’s genius of a production designer, Ken Adam, once explained, “a combination of about ten or 11 stately homes in England.” One of the best displays in the Design Museum’s forthcoming exhibition is a map that makes sense of it all.

After Barry Lyndon, Kubrick’s mind seemed to turn towards America – if it ever really left. Michael Herr once explained: “Stanley didn’t live in England because he disliked America, God knows; America was all he ever talking about … In the days before satellite TV, he’d had relatives and friends send him tapes of American television – NFL games, The Johnny Carson Show, news broadcasts and commercials, which he thought were, in their way, the most interesting films being made … He was crazy about The Simpsons and Seinfeld, and he loved Roseanne, because it was funny and, he believed, the most authentic view of the country you could get without living there.”

His next (and final) three films – The Shining (1980), Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut – were similar to Roseanne in this respect. They each offered a view of the United States, and all without Kubrick living there. Instead, he would bring American actors and American locations to Britain, often at great effort. The haunted Overlook Hotel in The Shining is a case in point. Kubrick sent a crew to Oregon to shoot footage of a real-life hotel, which would then be used for establishing shots in the finished film. Meanwhile, he and the cast did their own filming on detailed sets, recreating that hotel and other places, quite close to his Childwickbury Manor.

Kubrick on the set of his American horror ‘The Shining’, filmed in England

From celebrating the English landscape, Kubrick had gone to covering it up. But it was less an act of vandalism than of crazy ambition. When he made Full Metal Jacket, he wanted an entire area that he could dress up as war-era Vietnam and then systematically destroy. Creating a set in ‘Nam itself would have blown the movie’s budget, but there were other options. The industrial architecture of the Beckton Gas Works, in the eastern reaches of London, was surprisingly similar to the industrial architecture of Hue – and, even better, it was already scheduled to be demolished. Kubrick imported hundreds of palm trees and tropical plants, as well as a handful of tanks, to complete the image.

“I think even if we had gone to Hue, we couldn’t have created that look,” he said at the time. On screen, it is not quite so convincing as Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), which was shot in the Philippines, but it doesn’t look like part of the London sprawl, either.

There may have been other causes behind Kubrick’s immovability from Britain. In an interview with Rolling Stone, around the time of Full Metal Jacket’s release, he admitted that “I don’t like taking the plane”, although he did add that “travelling in itself doesn’t bother me if there’s a good reason for it.”

Kubrick created his Vietnam sets in Beckton Gas Works for ‘Full Metal Jacket’

And then there are the causes that can only be supposed: the attachments to family and to place; the unread books on the shelves; the rigours of ageing.  

Kubrick was 70 years old when he died in his sleep, almost exactly 20 years ago. His funeral and burial took place at Childwickbury. The film critic Alexander Walker, who was present for the occasion, described it as “almost like an English picnic”.

A few months later, Eyes Wide Shut was released into cinemas. Despite being set in New York, it strengthened the argument for claiming Kubrick as one of the great British directors. Its last scene was shot in Hamleys, the massive toyshop on London’s Regent Street. There, as their daughter runs around the aisles, the characters played by Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman grapple with the difficult emotions provoked by difficult confessions. “There is something very important that we need to do as soon as possible,” she concludes. “What’s that?” he asks. Her reply – the final word in Kubrick’s final film is four letters long. Give that man a statue in Trafalgar Square.

Other stars famously afraid of flying (aviophobia)


The Queen of soul Aretha Franklin refused to fly for over three decades, despite taking fear-of-flying classes with USAir.

Dutch footballer Dennis Bergkamp was nicknamed the “non-flying Dutchman” for his aviophobia. He would often drive to international games while the rest of his team flew.

David Bowie had a severe fear of flying, and between 1972 and 1977 he didn’t fly at all, making his touring unusual. Instead, Bowie used boats, trains, buses and cars, crossing both the Atlantic and the Pacific by ship as part of his world tour.

Whoopi Goldberg became scared of flying after witnessing a mid-air collision while standing on a balcony in San Diego. For decades Goldberg travelled between New York and Los Angeles in a private bus with two drivers, meaning she was able to arrive on the other coast in 23 hours.

I ain’t gettin’ on no plane… Mr T’s character in The A-Team, BA Baracus, was famously known for having an intense fear of flying called pteromechanophobia, despite being an ex-special forces soldier and mechanic.

Actress Kate Winslet refused to fly with her ex-husband Sam Mendes for fear of the plane crashing and their children being orphaned.

After being caught in an electric storm while flying from Toronto to New York, Jennifer Aniston became anxious about flying. In 2014 Aniston became a British Airways ambassador after wanting to ‘fly with confidence’.

Further reading

  • Taschen’s The Stanley Kubrick Archives is one of the best single resources for Kubrickolists; stuffed, as it is, with essays, stills and behind-the-scenes nuggets.
  • The company has since released a few excellent supplementary books: one of Kubrick’s photographs; one on his never-made Napoleon movie; and an extensive survey of 2001: A Space Odyssey, written by the great Sir Christopher Frayling.
  • Michael Herr’s extended essay about Kubrick is included in the back of the first Taschen book, and was even published as a book by itself, but can also be read on the Vanity Fair website.
  • Katharina Kubrick’s return to Abbots Mead, for the BBC’s One Show, can be watched here.
  • There are a number of good films about Kubrick films, although none of them top Room 237 (2012) – a documentary that’s technically about The Shining, but is more a study of obsession.

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