The Wilton’s Music Hall Film History Tour

12 February 2020

Wilton’s Music Hall has appeared regularly on my social media pages during the past year. It caught my attention because it touches on several interests: performing arts, history and the East End of London. Wilton’s is tucked away in a busy but untouristy enclave of East London, hiding in plain sight, with Whitechapel proper to the north, Wapping to the south, Canary Wharf to the east and Tower Hill and St Katharine’s docks to its west. The working docks would have provided customers for the Victorian music hall in its heyday. And the landscape of nearby Cable Street is a microcosm of the best of London, with the old sitting alongside the new: rows of handsome Victorian terraced houses in varying degrees of decrepitude or gentrification; the mural commemorating the Cable Street riots of 1936; 1960s council estates; the blue lanes of the cycle superhighway filled with cyclists speeding past in both directions; the raised railway tracks pointing toward the new sky scrapers on the horizon.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Wilton’s for one of their film history tours, led by Graham, who clearly loves the venue and its film and music legacy. He began with a brief history of the building itself. Wilton’s was founded in 1853 by John Wilton, who joined together five 17th century terrace houses in Graces Alley, off Wellclose Square. Behind the houses—which now function as the box office, bars and offices—a hall was constructed, which is now the world’s oldest surviving grand Victorian music hall.

More of the building’s history emerged over the course of the tour, but further detail can be found on the Wilton’s and the Victoria & Albert Museum websites. The V&A house Wilton’s archives in their National Collection of Performing Arts. The story of Wilton’s is that of a very resilient building that has survived the ravages of time, the Blitz, periods of neglect and impending demolition. The fact that it is now a thriving performing arts venue is due to the efforts of campaigners who worked to achieve its Grade II listed status and to raise the funds necessary to return the building to a good state of repair. Graham made special mention of Spike Milligan, whose The Great McGonagall (1974) was filmed entirely at Wilton’s, and who became a passionate supporter of the venue.

The building refurbishments were finally carried out between 2012 and 2015, and in 2016 the architects involved in the restoration won prizes for London Building Conservation. They undertook the works with a policy of ‘conservative repair’ so that the building would retain its ‘genuine historic fabric and avoid misleading restoration’. This is important in relation to its use as a film and video location because it is Wilton’s visible age that makes it both appealing and useful to filmmakers. It’s what one notices when walking throughout the building—the layers of materials, textures and colours dating from 1690 to the present, creating a unique architectural collage.

The tour of the building includes the truly magnificent music hall, but also the front of house spaces on the ground and first floor because all of them have been used as film settings. At least 20 films have used Wilton’s as a location between 1968 and today, with some films more well-known than others. The largest grossing among them is Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), starring Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law. But there will be something for everyone—in my tour group, for example, one young woman’s favourite childhood movie was Penelope (2006), starring Christina Ricci and a then-little-known James McAvoy. Seeing the film location was important to her, which was nice for the whole group to experience.

There are also three noted (in one case notorious) music videos filmed at Wilton’s: Kate Bush’s Wow (1978), Annie Lennox’s No More I Love Yous (1995), and Frankie Goes to Hollywood with Relax (1983). This version of the Relax video was banned from the BBC and MTV, but when the song became a worldwide hit, a new, tamer video was made. The Wilton’s version might be unfamiliar to some but can now be seen on YouTube. Its banishment will seem surprising until reaching minute 3:25, when the explanatory moment arrives. Aha…

Graham has a collection of film and video stills printed on large cards which he used to great effect as he took us around to the corresponding sites, enabling us to see how Wilton’s was used by the filmmakers to achieve certain shots.  In addition to the films and videos already mentioned, he focussed particularly on The Krays (1990), Cassandra’s Dream (2007), The Counselor (2013), The Muppets Most Wanted (2014), Suffragette (2015), The Infiltrator (2016), and Final Portrait (2017). Seeing how all the nooks and crannies of the building were utilised and transformed gave us a lesson in the magic of cinema and, in particular, of film editing, where scenes were seamlessly spliced together to create believable settings. The range of transformations was surprising: in The Infiltrator, Wilton’s is a Miami nightclub; in Muppets Most Wanted, it is a Berlin cabaret club; in The Counselor, a Mexican apartment building.

Some of the transformations that Wilton’s has undergone for films have now become part of the fabric of the building itself. In The Krays, for example, the music hall was used as a pool hall. For this, the filmmakers were allowed to paint the hall deep red, and bits of this red still remain on the walls thirty years later. Combined with the other colours and textures this gives a beautiful patina effect. In Final Portrait, the ground floor bar was turned into a French bistro, so new windows were installed and a coat rack was hung. These are still in place, and blend in with the other features of the room. Indeed, the Wilton’s signs that hang outside the venue’s front door were made for Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream, even though the scene in which they featured ended up on the cutting room floor. These additions allow us to see the ingenuity and artistry of the craftspeople of cinema up close.  

Despite the many transformations that Wilton’s has undergone for filmmakers, there is one iconic feature of the building that stands out and helps identify it beyond doubt: the graceful ‘barley twist’ columns which support the balcony in the music hall and which have endured for more than 160 years. The Wilton’s Film History tour, like all good tours, left me wanting to know more about the films and videos whose creation was intertwined with the building’s own rich history. Now, many of the works discussed can be seen online or purchased for under a fiver and it is a pleasure to revisit the spaces and to spot those barley twists.

Published by londonbelletrist

Writer, scholar and artist

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