Monday, 15 December 2008

Blasts from the past and present

While Claire and I were on our honeymoon in Malta (really must get round to saying something about that!), a rather random conversation led to discussion of Israeli nuclear whistleblower Mordecai Vanunu, so after we got back I dug out my off-air VHS of Secret Weapon, TVS's 23/12/90 dramatisation of his pursuit, kidnapping, and trial. It had probably been at least seven years since I'd watched it (certainly not since I moved to London), so I was a bit surprised at the appearance of a segment involving the London Underground that I'd not previously documented.

In the sequence, Vanunu's associate Felix Romero (Joe Petruzzi) is followed by MOSSAD agents into the real Russell Square Piccadilly line station, and is then seen descending some escalators, which is rather remarkable, given that the station does not have any (rather it is served by lifts)! Felix is then followed onto the platform, actually shot on the one at Aldwych. He boards a train, inadvertently tries to chat up the female MOSSAD agent who has been tailing him, and then follows her off at Liverpool Street, although it's actually the platform at Aldwych again. There then follows a scene shot outside the real Liverpool Street. Overall, a fairly effective sequence, but for the gross error with the escalators.

A recent fictional spy story, however, took an even more liberal view of London's subterranean architecture. I don't usually watch Spooks, but Claire's sister tipped me off about the last episode of the latest series (08/12/08), and I managed to initially catch it again on BBC iPlayer, and then last night's repeat. In the episode, two MI5 officers and a traitor are being pursued by Russian assassins, so they decide to make an underground detour. Coincidentally this involves Liverpool Street again, where it seems that there is a disused branch that can take them all the way to London bridge without coming to the surface again!

Following scenes shot on the real Liverpool Street mainline station concourse, those set underground were actually shot in non-public areas at Holborn, including the disused Platform 5, formerly serving the short branch to Aldwych. In certain shots filmed from inside the tunnel at the Aldwych end of the platform, trains could be seen at the opposite end crossing the junction with the main Piccadilly line, heading north/east towards Cockfosters.

A trackside line diagram was briefly visible, showing a vertical line from which a loop branches off to the left, before rejoining in a reverse direction. The number and arrangement of the visible station names exactly matches the eastern end of the Central line, but "this station" at the top would be Chancery Lane, not Liverpool Street (which would actually be the third one down).

As the chase continues, the MI5 agents find an train abandoned in the tunnel, complete with resident aggressive female tramp (who later gets shot by the Russians - a rather extreme answer to the problem of homelessness). Subsequently, the pursuit leads to what clearly there had been no attempt to disguise as the disused Jubilee line platforms at Charing Cross, as well as some of its associated cross-passageways, before eventually ending up at London Bridge. An exceptionally circuitous route!

Other London Underground-connected scenes in the episode were senior MI5 officer Harry Pearce (Peter Firth) disposing of a Russian agent in one of the Hyde Park Corner subways, and a former KGB sleeper agent going into the Underground entrance on the Waterloo mainline station concourse, en route to detonating a briefcase nuclear bomb in front of the American embassy in Grosvenor Square. Stretching credibility even further was the latter's device - after he is killed - being brought to London Bridge in time for it to be defused in less than 20 minutes!

Slightly more convincing have been a few random Tube scenes in some of our other recent vintage viewing. St James's Park and Hammersmith turned up in separate episodes of the firstseries of Between the Lines (1992 BBC1), while an as-yet-unidentified station was briefly seen in the background of one sketch in the second series of the wonderful Smack the Pony (2000 Channel 4).

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