Discussing Sheffield as an overtly ‘cinematic’ city could easily be mocked as daft, but this town really does feel like it’s brought to you in VistaVision. Close to the total population of Sheffield lives on a hill of some kind, and almost everyone can look out of their window, if not down their street, and see at least part of the city unfolding before them. Having the urban heart on your doorstep and the countryside beyond the end of your garden was a quality Victorian art critic John Ruskin rated in Sheffield, and while the post-war period poured a lot of concrete into the city, you’re still never too far from at least a small patch of green.
Despite this the city hasn’t been overly exploited on film, with only a few notable exceptions. A new British comedy, Four Lions is the latest to make the most of the city, and the politically charged satire has its own twist of being set in the shadow of both Western consumerism and two fallen towers. That those two towers happen to be the Tinsley towers is an irony perhaps not lost on the local audience, but more on that in due course.
The place of the city in film starts with its own filmmakers, The Sheffield Photo Company, who got in early on the action with their rather brilliant Daring Daylight Burglary of 1903. Shot in Banner Cross, and up/down/round/about the Whiteley Woods area, one view of smoggy Sheffield down Carter Knowle Road is an eerie backdrop to the lingering death of a policeman. Early silent films aren’t all just knock-about slapstick, straight actuality, or trick films, and regional filmmakers knew both the impact and the draw of shooting in recognisable locations.
A repeated panorama of smoggy Sheffield is at the heart of the propaganda film New Towns for Old from 1942, which can be found on the rather brilliant Yorkshire Film Archive Online. Scripted by Dylan Thomas, Sheffield assumes the role of the fictional Northern city ‘Smokedale’ in a bold treatise on the importance of separating housing from industry, and envisioning a city in the sky, away from the ‘muck and the grime’. The jewel in this massive restructuring would of course be the much feted Park Hill flats, and the allusion towards it in New Towns for Old is proof if any where needed of the optimism of the Sheffield Corporation going into the project.
The fate of the Park Hill estate is as tortured and convoluted as could possibly be conceived, and has busy bodies bickering on all sides of the divide. It has yet to feature prominently in any films to my knowledge, but is none the less regularly exploited by TV and documentary teams looking for a handy visual shorthand for anything broadly Grim, Northern, Deprived, or all of the above. The BBC documentary English Heritage – Romancing the Stone did a fine job charting the highs and lows facing the current redevelopment, and the absurd ins and outs of the politics of the funding surrounding the project. The team behind the documentary also had a whale of a time shooting the estate from every conceivable angle, often catching it in rather a stunning light. A case for the site’s listing if you ask me, but lord knows the jury’s still out on that one.
A trope which films of the city consistently return to is using an allotment or suburban park as a setting, always unfolding to the backdrop of either the distant city, if not the cities rural fringes. Post-apocalyptic classic Threads had more than a few scenes set in allotments, where anxieties about the escalating diplomatic tensions were punctuated by the roar of passing Harrier jets. Half of The Full Monty seems to be Robert Carlyle sitting on a park bench looking out over the city, brooding with son/colleague/self over the particularly vexing question of whether to strip or not to strip. Last year even served up an admirable short film called Boy, by local lad Joe Morris, where a tortured soul brushes with the mere notion paedophilia after a chance meeting in a Sheffield allotment.
The new comedy Four Lions continues with this same trope, with the tale of four would-be jihadists bumbling together a plot to bring justice to the Western world. The apartment headquarters for this tiny insurgent cell is set in a very real terrace flat in the Sheffield suburb Tinsley, a stones throw from the hulking Meadowhall shopping centre, a fine symbol for excessive Western consumerism were ever one needed. Again the warren of allotments, and the meeting of urban and rural found there acts as a strange, almost liminal space where the group’s inept technician Fessal can field-test the explosives he’s distilled. The key scene for these tests are shot on the fields not far from Bole Hill in Crookes, and these views out into what becomes the Peak District are the very same that Ruskin epitomised in his reflections on living in Sheffield.
There are no major plot spoilers in saying that the film is partly set in London as well, but the irony for the Sheffield audience is spotting that nigh all the filming was still done in Sheffield. The empty side streets of The Moor stand in for London’s back streets, and one particularly heated confrontation takes place in Kebabish on the Wicker in central Sheffield.
Being a massive geek, and proud to live in Sheffield, I’ve cooked up a Google map to illustrate all the locations I could spot. BE WARNED, there are SOME SPOILERS. Just glancing at it won’t give up the game, but there are some plot details written into the pinpoints. Unspoilt viewers who wish to remain so are advised NOT TO CLICK ON THE PINS.
To conclude, one final irony: When John Harris dragged a camera crew to Sheffield to film the blinkered and condescending documentary Time Shift: The North-South Divide for BBC4, the team needed shots to illustrate just how dilapidated Sheffield was relative to the bounteous South. Poor John couldn’t be bothered to actually explore Sheffield, so he took a cameraman and went for a drive in his Mini Cooper. A glimpse of Park Hill ticked the usual box, and the one way system seemed to get him back to the Wicker. Flickering, shuttered shops blaze by, John squeezes in a snide remark about the Malcolm X Islamic bookshop on Spital Hill, and then rolls back down to the Wicker. A very short tour of course, but John still manages to chime in with the remark that this is all ‘very Sheffield now’. So Sheffield that it’s the first place filmmakers turn to when they want to film Sheffield to stand in for London.
Thanks for the insight Mr Harris.