Having recently returned from London I was struck by the fact that three new posters on the main page of iTunes Trailers last week all featured that evergreen symbol of Britishness, Big Ben.
Big Ben, or, to be more precise, the Clock Tower that houses the Great Bell that was nicknamed Big Ben, has long been used as a shorthand cliché in movie posters to announce that a film is set in London, or, even more lazily, in England. Usually, as in many of the examples below, it is snuck into the background as a simple tip of the hat. However, two new posters—for The Iron Lady and Garbo: The Spy—feature it much more prominently. Of course, if ever a film had reason to feature of the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, it would be a biopic of a British Prime Minister. But its useage in the poster for The Iron Lady, where the Palace of Westminster (which houses both the Clock Tower and the Houses of Parliament) appears to grow awkwardly out of the side of Margaret Thatcher’s head, is disconcerting, makes no real thematic sense (is it trying to say that Mrs T. and Parliament were inseparable? That her power was all in her mind?) and is hardly visually pleasing. (It terms of symbolic transmogrification it has nothing on Ollie Moss’s recent revival poster for An American Werewolf in London which plays cleverly with the outline of the British Isles.)
The poster for the Spanish documentary Garbo: The Spy, a 2009 film opening in the US today, manages to conflate two popular movie poster signifiers in one image, slapping a couple of swastikas onto Big Ben’s clock faces. Though the film is about a double agent who fooled the Nazis into thinking that the Normandy invasion was only a diversion, the poster hints more at an alternative universe in which London has already been invaded. (Such is actually the plot of Kevin Brownlow’s 1966 film It Happened Here, the poster for which superimposes Big Ben onto a swastika rather than the other way around.)
Two posters for two new films about transatlantic transplants both use the Big-Ben-in-the-background device to signify location. In Like Crazy, in which an English girl falls in love with an American boy in L.A. but is forced to return to London once her visa expires, it looks as if the Houses of Parliament are sitting on the beach at Santa Monica. While in an early poster for My Week with Marilyn—a film in which, reversing Like Crazy, a girl from L.A. goes to work in London and falls for an English boy—a stock photo of Big Ben is slapped behind a stock photo of Kevin Branagh (looking nothing like his incarnation as Laurence Olivier in the film).
That panel with Branagh and Big Ben looks remarkably like one of the posters for The Kings Speech which inevitably features a Big Ben background. Colin Firth is such a signifier of Britishness himself (as is Branagh) that it hardly seems necessary to embellish him with a giant clock, but he has certainly come a long way from when he was upstaged by an even larger one seven years earlier in the French poster for What a Girl Wants.
The marketing team for Robert Zemeckis’s A Christmas Carol obviously wanted to signify not only their London setting, but also a sense of vertiginous height for their airborne Scrooge, and thus Big Ben was their best bet. But since the foundation stone for the Clock Tower was laid on 28th September 1843, only two months before the publication of Dickens’ novella, and the Tower wasn't completed until 1859, sixteen years later, they pre-empted criticism of their anachronism by covering the Tower in scaffolding. But, according to the official British Parliament website, “the Clock Tower was built from the inside outwards, meaning that no scaffolding was visible to the outside world.”
In a 2007 poll, Big Ben was voted London’s most iconic film location, pipping Mary Poppins at St. Paul’s Cathedral to the post, for the scene in the 1978 remake of The Thirty Nine Steps in which Robert Powell dangles from the giant hands of the clock. (The scene appears in the mid-morning section of Christian Marclay’s 24-hour synchronous mash-up The Clock, making me wonder how many other times Big Ben appears in that film.)
Two of the loveliest Big Ben images in movie posters are the impressionistic renditions, one barely visible in the rain and one glowing at night, in these two very different posters, one American, one German, for Neil Jordan’s London-set romance The End of the Affair.
I also like its usage in two of the stylized posters for V for Vendetta, a film which ends (spoiler alert) with Big Ben’s destruction.
And talking of destruction, Big Ben has seen fire and it’s seen rain...
It’s also seen war and zombie apocalypse...
...and has watched over various other horrors from 1935’s Werewolf of London to 1971’s Jack the Ripper update Seven Murders for Scotland Yard.
Sometimes Big Ben is nothing more than an afterthought: a tiny illustration in the title treatment of Sidney Poitier’s American-doctor-in-London romance A Warm December and popping out of an Edgar Wallace mystery in Dead Eyes of London.
Though a handy signifier, which is probably more often than not demanded by the film’s marketing team (“nice photo of Sidney Poitier in the park, but how will anyone know the film is set in London?”), Big Ben is sometimes used in movie posters with subtlety, and sometimes with wit. And sometimes with neither...