Friday, 17 May 2013

ABOUT A BOY: CLERKENWELL



In 1998 a book called 'About A Boy' by the popular British author Nick Hornby appeared on the shelves, and quickly turned into a bestseller.  The story was an unusual but heartwarming tale about an unlikely friendship which develops between a spoilt young man called Will (played by Hugh Grant), who lives a life of leisure courtesy of the royalties from a hit song by his father, and an awkward young boy called Marcus, whose mother, a suicidal hippy vegetarian, dresses him in strange clothes making him a magnet for the school bullies.  Will has a creative way of meeting women involving posing as the father of a ficticious two year old at a single parents' group, and it is this that leads to him meeting the boy of the title and his mother and reluctantly becoming  the lad's mentor in life. 

The film made use of a number of locations around London, but many of the crucial scenes were filmed in Clerkenwell in the London Borough of Islington.  The epicentre of Will's life - his hi-tech apartment - was located in St James Walk; for the purposes of the film a false entrance was specially added to the side entrance of numbers 16-18.  The meeting place for the single parents' group was filmed at Woodbridge Chapel.  Meanwhile, in one of the early scenes, Will briefly considers volunteering at a drop-in centre.  The building whose exterior was used to represent the centre in the film was St James's Church.  

St James Church ©
  2008 Colin Smith, via Wikimedia Commons


The name Clerkenwell derives from Clerk's Well: the term "clerk" dates from the Middle Ages, and means a literate person or clergyman.  The well in question is still visible today, albeit as part of a modern building called Well Court on Farringdon Lane.  The district's former existence as a village is evident in the presence of an area known as Clerkenwell Green, which survives to this day, although it is some time since the "Green" actually had any grass.  Clerkenwell has a long and varied history.  During the Crusades, the Knights Hospitallers used Clerkenwell Priory as their Headquarters.  Later, in the 17th century when Clerkenwell became a fashionable place to live, the area's distinguished residents included Oliver Cromwell, who owned a house on Clerkenwell Close.  Around this time, several spas opened up, turning Clerkenwell into something of a resort for the well-to-do.  Tea gardens and theatres provided additional diversion, including Sadler's Wells Theatre, which survives to this day, albeit in a much more modern form.  During the Industrial Revolution a number of breweries, distilleries and printing works sprang up in the area, in fact the oldest printing company in the world, Witherby's, is based in Clerkenwell.  During the post-war period the district's industry went into a decline, and the 1980s saw a period of "gentrification", with affluent professionals moving in, along with a number of upmarket restaurants.

As for the buildings used in About A Boy, Woodbridge Chapel was built in the 1830s for Independent Calvinists, then later in that century it was bought by John Groom, who provided employment for disabled girls making artificial flowers, and the chapel became known as the Watercress and Flower Girls Christian Mission.  Later the chapel was transformed into the Clerkenwell and Islington Medical Mission.  Now it is the Clerkenwell Christian Centre.  The site occupied by St James's Church was the location of the springs which gave Clerkenwell its name.  In the 12th century a nunnery was founded there, which fell victim to the dissolution under the reign of Henry VIII.  In the 16th century the nunnery's church became the Old Church of St James, and its existence proved somewhat precarious, with the steeple falling down twice in 1623.  The New Church of St James dates from 1792.  The interior includes some impressive rococo work, particulary the carved drapery over the organ pipes.  There is a wooden figure of St James over the west door of the Nave. 

Clerkenwell has been used in a number of other well-known films, with one building in particular proving popular with film-makers: the George Farmiloe building at 34 St John Street, dating from 1868 and formerly used as a warehouse for the George Farmiloe and Sons lead and glass company.  Three of the Batman films featured the building as the Gotham City Police Department: Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012).  The building also played a pharmacy in the 2010 Leonardo di Caprio film Inception.  Meanwhile, over on TV, the Farmiloe building was used as a safe house in an episode of Spooks.

The George Farmiloe Building ©
  2008 Nigel Cox, via Wikimedia Commons
 
 Map of the area.


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