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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Chris Tryhorn

Croydon facelift: 20 years after Peep Show, London’s biggest borough lands in the Oscars spotlight

Croydon’s St George's Walk shopping centre
‘Remarkably versatile’ … Croydon’s St George's Walk shopping centre. Photograph: Christopher Holt/Alamy

As well as the awards already won by Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers, it can lay claim to a less-obvious prize – the first feature film both set and filmed in Croydon.

Haigh shot much of the film in and around his old childhood home in Sanderstead, a pleasant leafy suburb to the south of Croydon, where I too grew up, eight doors down from Haigh. Andrew Scott’s character, Adam, and his parents (Claire Foy and Jamie Bell) are also shown visiting the shopping centre at the heart of the south London town.

Haigh has chosen to be explicit about his Croydon locations – we see Adam arriving at Sanderstead station, and the Whitgift Centre is specifically named, its sign featured in one shot. By contrast, we aren’t told the location of the eerie tower block with spectacular views where Adam lives (the building is actually in Stratford, east London, but the interior scenes were filmed on a set, with background plates of the windows showing the skyline).

Jamie Bell on Riddlesdown, to the south of Sanderstead, in South Croydon, in All of Us Strangers.
Jamie Bell in Sanderstead, South Croydon, in All of Us Strangers. Photograph: AP

Although this is Croydon’s big screen debut starring as itself, the town is often used for filming, not least because some of its postwar developments are easily adaptable for different settings. “Croydon is remarkably versatile as a location,” says Andrew Pavord at the Croydon Film Office, which coordinates location shooting in the borough. Earlier this year, Croydon stood in for eastern Europe in the Idris Elba film Heads of State, and will star as New York in a forthcoming Netflix drama. It even doubled for Istanbul in 2017 action film American Assassin.

When Croydon was once the setting for a film – 1991’s Let Him Have It, about the Bentley and Craig case – parts of Liverpool and Reading were used to re-create how the town looked in the early 1950s.

Croydon has cinematic pedigree. One of Britain’s greatest directors, David Lean, grew up there, and is commemorated by the town’s small independent cinema. But he never turned his camera on the area and its influence on him seems to have been negative: a dreary suburban place from which to seek escape, through cinema. “I had discovered life through the movies,” he once said. “Intercut that with Croydon and you have an idea of how exciting it was.”

Dylan O’Brien in American Assassin.
Dylan O’Brien in American Assassin. Photograph: Cbs Films/Christian Black/Allstar

In fact, Croydon’s screen presence has, until now, been limited to two TV comedies – Terry and June (BBC, 1979-87) and Peep Show (Channel 4, 2003-15) – that could hardly be more different, yet which neatly highlight contrasting aspects of the borough’s identity.

Terry and June is set in cosy Purley, in Croydon’s green southern half, whereas Peep Show inhabits the gritty districts to the north of the town centre. It is a divide that has long defined perceptions of the area.

Curiously, there is another connection between the two sitcoms: Rosemary Frankau, the mother of Peep Show co-writer Sam Bain, played June’s friend Beattie in Terry and June.

“You might be the first person to tell me that Terry and June was set in Croydon – I was very young when it was on and it was a studio sitcom for the most part,” says Bain. “I’m happy with the fact that I’m part of Croydon’s comedy lineage.”

Watch a trailer for Terry and June.

But why was Terry and June set in Croydon in the first place? Terry Scott and June Whitfield’s gentle middle-aged married couple act had previously been seen in Happy Ever After, which was set in Ealing, but because of a row with the show’s writers, a new vehicle had to be found for them – with a new surname and a new home.

“It was in Purley because Peter Whitmore, the director, lived in Purley, and it’s a lovely name,” recalls John Kane, Terry and June’s writer. “It’s a cosy, middle-class name, and all I wanted to do was create a cosy, middle-class situation comedy.”

The shift to south London meant Terry and June joined other 1970s suburban sitcoms The Good Life (Surbiton) and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (Norbiton) in the comfortable districts south of the river.

Although much of the show was filmed on sets, the specific Croydon setting was underlined by an early credits sequence showing Terry and June failing to find each other at various town centre landmarks, including the Whitgift Centre.

The Croydon of Peep Show is not truly suburban, but very much part of south London: urban and edgy, but a long way from being cool or trendy, the sort of place where two underachieving middle-class men like Mark and Jez might end up in a flatshare and could be menaced by local children. It was filmed on location in West Croydon, the first two series in a real flat in Zodiac Court, or Apollo House as it is named in the show. (In later series, the flat was reconstructed on a set.)

The Whitgift Centre in Croydon
Croydon landmark … the Whitgift Centre. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

The decision to film in Croydon was a product of practical concerns. “The crux of it was that the line producer Barry Read had good connections with estate agents in south London and Croydon,” says Jeremy Wooding, who directed the first series of Peep Show. “He got a whole bunch of ideas for the flat and one of them was this flat in West Croydon. It was really practical and for budgetary reasons we went there.”

But Bain says Croydon fitted with his and co-writer Jesse Armstrong’s long-held vision for the show. “Croydon wasn’t foisted upon us. Originally, going way back before we got the first series, we were hoping to set it in Telford – Jesse grew up in Shropshire. Without any denigration of Telford’s population, it was the feeling that you were in the middle of nowhere. Shooting in Telford was never going to happen – Croydon was the Telford of London.

Watch a video from Peep Show.

“Our characters very much felt they were missing out on whatever everyone else is doing. Fomo is a big theme of Peep Show. We could have picked anywhere as it was a flatshare sitcom but we didn’t want Notting Hill or somewhere exciting.

“It was the Croydon of the mind we were going for. You would like to live in Notting Hill, but you’re living in Croydon and having to deal with that.”

In fact, Wooding says Channel 4 at first didn’t want Peep Show to look like it had been filmed anywhere specific, because The Office, the big hit of the time, had been so associated with Slough. “The executives wanted the location of the series to be Anywheresville. The main concern was that it did not feel like The Office.”

Tom Courtenay, Eileen Atkins and Paul Reynolds in Let Him Have It (1991)
Set in Croydon … Tom Courtenay, Eileen Atkins and Paul Reynolds in Let Him Have It (1991). Photograph: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

This meant he was vetoed from filming Croydon’s then new and “visually interesting” tram system; and so the early scene where Sophie sits on Mark’s hand took place on a bus. (Croydon’s early 20th-century trams fascinated the young David Lean and inspired a shot in Doctor Zhivago, he told his biographer Kevin Brownlow.)

Nevertheless, Wooding says the show “grew into its West Croydon identity” and in later series there are occasional mentions of the area (“We’re the Croydon Bullingdon,” Mark tells a neighbour when flatmate Jerry is being bundled out in a sleeping bag).

All of Us Strangers revisits the suburban landscape of sitcomland but evokes something mysterious and even mystical, perhaps tapping into Croydon’s deeper history as a part of an ancient Surrey drawn into London’s force field.

Despite its urban image, the borough of Croydon is on the edge of London, and at its southern fringe the suburbs start to meet the countryside, with pockets of ancient woodland and commons surviving among the avenues of mock Tudor houses. The house where Adam visits his parents is high up on the North Downs, and in a scene featured in the trailer we see him looking across at an ethereally lit Mitchley Wood, part of the extensive green space of Riddlesdown.

Croydon’s Saffron Tower and surrounding area
A town transformed … Croydon’s Saffron Tower and surrounding area. Photograph: Steve Teare/Alamy

Adam and his parents visit the Whitgift Centre in a scene towards the end of the film; Adam has spoken of how he wished he had gone there more in his childhood. To anyone who knows Croydon today, the idea of visiting the Whitgift Centre being a great treat will probably come across as rueful joke – the shopping centre is a shadow of its former self, with many shops closed and its future uncertain. But Adam’s veneration makes sense as the cherished desire of a child whose connection to the area was broken in the 1980s.

Haigh’s film feels like a deeply personal statement, with his decision to shoot in and namecheck Croydon underlining his own connection to the area. And yet Adam’s return to the lost world of his youth resonates with the mixed emotions we all feel about our pasts. Somehow Haigh makes Croydon – with its wistful suburbs and its declining town centre – a character in creating this mood.

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