The hidden star of Luther, Paddington, and so much more: London

London! Image: Wikipedia Commons.

Having just finis­hed the latest season of Luther, I can’t help but feel that one of its stars didn’t get the praise they deserved. In many ways, it was this star that really made the show; the perfect addition to every episode. They added to the mood in every scene. Yet they went uncredited. I’m talking, of course, about London.

While it would be a stretch to brand what is the work of a good TV location scout a character in its own right, Luther is one of a long line of shows and films that portrays the city with a personality.

Shown through the eyes of the fanatical DCI John Luther, London is an accomplice to the murderers who prowl its streets. Behind every service door and construction board is the lair of a serial killer. No one is safe. The city offers nothing in terms of protection for innocent victims; not on the buses, not on the residential streets and not even in their own bedrooms. London is a character to fear.

But like all good actors, the city is capable of playing completely different roles.

Consider the London of the Paddington films. Just as Luther’s London is foreboding, Paddington’s is a city that welcomes an immigrant bear with open arms; full of colourful streets and even more colourful characters. Paddington was even christened by the station he arrived at, how’s that for generosity?


Or how about gangster London? The city of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Eastern Promises and Layer Cake. A wild place where criminals reign. Where illegal boxing matches and dodgy deals seem to be happening upstairs at every pub with charming cockneys ready to pull a fast one on you.

So which is it? Which one is real?

There’s one we can rule out: the very white, very middle-class city seen in films such as those made by the production company Working Title - Notting Hill, Bridget Jones and Four Weddings. It’s often only the odd shot of Big Ben and Hackney Cabs in these that remind you they’re in London and not some boring dystopia populated only by Hugh Grants. This one is bleak – far too from the multi-cultural London we know and love.

Yet Richard Curtis films aside, it’s a shame the Oscars doesn’t have a category for Best Supporting Urban Area because London would win every time. The city steps up to everything it stars in, whatever the genre, and is the character it needs to be, from fun to terrifying, edgy or embracing.

It’s true that London at its on-screen best needs a bit of work – much like that of the poor cameramen tasked with making Tom Cruise or Kit Harrington look taller in films. Lazy angles such as those seen in London has Fallen hardly do the city justice. Nobody wants the tourist tour of a few central London locations punctuated by gratuitous Underground scenes.

So keep an eye on the city in the next film. See what it gets up to and hope it’s some of its best work. Because, in the right hands, London is undeniably a star. Yet in the wrong film it’s just one of those movies that every actor does, and every actor regrets.

 
 
 
 

Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.

 

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).


Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.