diamond geezer

 Thursday, March 24, 2005

Who's London
An Unearthly Child
(November 1963)


The very first Doctor Who episode was set in London, supposedly somewhere around Shoreditch, which just goes to show how before-its-time the show was even then. The show opened with an atmospheric shot of a dimly-lit junkyard. What was that mysterious looking police box doing there in Totters Lane, and why was it humming? The scene then switched to a nearby secondary school where we were introduced to the Doctor's granddaughter, Susan, and to her teachers Ian and Barbara. Two key Doctor Who locations... or they would have been if only the first episode hadn't been filmed entirely in the studio. There is no such London street as Totters Lane, let alone a Foreman's junkyard at number 76, neither is there a Coal Hill School anywhere in the Ofsted database. But I still managed to find them both, within a mile of each other in west London, thanks to two stories that revisited these locations more than 20 years later.

76 Totters Lane
The Doctor returned to Foreman's junkyard in 1985, as part of the two-part story Attack of the Cybermen (UK Gold, Saturday, 3:10pm). Colin Baker and assistant Peri parked the Tardis here before setting off to tackle a gang of diamond thieves in the London sewers, like you do. The junkyard scene was only brief, but it provided a geographical location for the original 1963 series, and nowhere near Shoreditch. This is Becklow Road in Acton, London W12, at the crossroads with Cobbold Road and Gayford Road. It's a quiet residential backwater surrounded by old Victorian terraces. All old, that is, except for the one glaringly new block of flats you can see in my photo. Closer inspection confirms that these redbrick apartments have been built (at some time during the last 20 years) on the precise site where the filming of 76 Totters Lane took place. Residents do normal things here now, oblivious of the site's former history, things like watching television, doing the hoovering and not running away from Cybermen. The old junkyard has vanished forever... unless you've got a time machine, of course.

Coal Hill School
This old school building, by contrast, looks just the same as it did when Sylvester McCoy screeched to a halt outside in the search for renegade Daleks. It's a big old Victorian school building, just off the main shopping street in Hammersmith, with separate entrances for "Boys", "Girls" and "Infants". In 1988 this was the home of St John's School, dressed up for the series as Coal Hill School (1963). The headteacher was the actor who played Mr Bronson, the playground had alien scorchmarks on the tarmac and, most importantly of all, this was the place where Daleks first demonstated they could travel up stairs. But in 2005 there's no school here any more. The northern half of the building is now the Macbeth Centre, the local Adult Education base where you can do courses in feng shui, pilates, welding and web design (but not time travel). And the southern half of the building is now a key stage 4 pupil referral unit for excluded pupils. Exactly the sort of place where troublesome Ace might have ended up... as indeed she did, smashing the chemistry lab to smithereens with her baseball bat before the whole room exploded. Evidence suggests that today's troubled teenagers are rather more well behaved.

Episode guide
An Unearthly Child
Attack of the Cybermen
Remembrance of the Daleks


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