Brompton Cemetery is the third of London’s so-called Magnificent Seven Cemeteries that I’ve visited. I’ve previously been to Norwood and Kensal Green (twice), but Brompton has been the most enjoyable of the three.
Brompton was built in 1840, and it’s as much a nature reserve as a cemetery. Because it’s surrounded by a wall, a distinct area of Victorian flora has been preserved virtually intact. There are over 60 species of trees, of which the limes date back to 1838. Snow drops and bluebells are amongst the flora that appear seasonally, and because the land was once used as a market garden, it’s not unusual to find wild cabbages, asparagus, and garlic sprouting amongst the graves. There’s loads of animals too. Foxes, bats, and some incredibly tame and Instagram friendly squirrels.
Nikon F100 / Kodak Tmax 100 / Developed in D76 1+1
Most people tend to view Brompton Cemetery as park that just happens to have some gravestones. And in fact it’s actually maintained and managed by The Royal Parks. I came across sunbathers and picnickers, cyclists and joggers, dog-walkers and scooter riders. Even a teenage dance troupe having a practice session. Because, as nobody will ever hear me say, jazz hands always make the world better place.
Brompton Cemetery has been an attractive place for filmakers over the years. Indeed, there’s a bit of a James Bond thing going on. The chapel was used in GoldenEye, the outside standing in for the church in St Petersburg where Izabella Scorupco hides from the evil Janus
And the colonnades above the catacombs are used in the far more realistic spoof-Bond film Johnny English, where Rowan Atkinson plays a twit.
Of the many famous residents of Brompton Cemetery, in my mind the most significant is British Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. Time magazine clearly agree, because in 1999 they named her as one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century, stating “she shaped an idea of women for our time; she shook society into a new pattern from which there could be no going back”. Unfortunately her gravestone was in deep shade, shrouded by numerous trees, so I didn’t take a photo. However, below is the rather grand memorial of boxer John “Gentlemen” Jackson, winner of “Champion of England” in 1795. I believe this went untelevised.
Lead an empty life with far too much time on your hands? Then why not check out my other Magnificent Seven photos?
When the Jews return to Zion And a comet rips the sky And the Holy Roman Empire rises, Then you and I must die. From the eternal sea he rises, Creating armies on either shore, Turning man against his brother ‘Til man exists no more.
Question: What do 1960s anthropomorphic pop group The Banana Splits and the Antichrist have in common?
Answer: They were both directed by filmmaker Richard Donner.
All photos shot with Mamiya 645 Pro TL on Ilford FP4. Developed in Rodinal 1+99 for 60 minutes
Donner would go on to have great success with action blockbusters such as Superman (1978) and Lethal Weapon (1987). However, back in the early 70s he was known as a safe pair of hands with a solid body of TV work under his belt. He started his career in the late 1950s, gaining a reputation as a reliable TV director. Get Smart and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. were a couple of the shows he worked on. Possibly most memorable, at least to those of us that grew up watching (reruns of) The Twilight Zone, was Nightmare At 20,000 Feet (watch). William Shatner, flying home after recovering from a mental breakdown, is the only person on the flight who can see a terrifying creature on the wing. Fearing the monster will bring the plane down, and realising everyone else thinks he’s crazy, he starts to wonder if he’s having a relapse. Air travel definitely hasn’t got any less stressful in the intervening years.
Although Donner directed a few features in his early career, it was the release of The Omen in 1976 that, in his own words, changed his life. David Seltzer was approached to write the screenplay in 1973. The Exorcist had been a huge commercial hit that year, and other studios were looking for their own supernatural horror to be The Next Big Thing. But although The Omen purported to be based on biblical prophecy, you’ll struggle to find verses like the one at the top of the page in the Bible. Seltzer made them all up.
American diplomat Robert Thorn is in Rome where his wife Katherine gives birth to a boy. Tragically, unknown to Katherine, the boy dies shortly afterwards. The hospital chaplain comes up with a cunning plan for Thorn to secretly adopt an orphan whose mother died giving birth to him. Thorn’s up for it, but thinks it’s best not to mention it to his wife. They name the child – insert thunder roll and lightning strike here – Damien. Thorn is later appointed U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, and moves to London with Katherine and Damien. After a series of grisly events, Thorn comes to believe his son is the Antichrist. Something I’m sure most parents can sympathise with.
There were a number of notable actors up for the part of Robert Thorn. William Holden turned it down, saying he didn’t want to be in a film about the Devil. Ironically, he went on to play Thorn’s brother in the 1978 sequel. Charlton Heston didn’t want to spend the winter in Europe. Roy Schneider was in the frame at one point, as was Dick Van Dyke. Van Dyke didn’t accept, undoubtedly fearing reprisals due to his appalling cockney accent in Mary Poppins. However, I was pleased to note his apology in 2017. Presumably there’s now an amnesty and it’s safe for him to set foot in London once again. Charles Bronson was another contender, although that would have made it a very different movie. “Charles Bronson would have made it a joke”, reflected screenwriter David Seltzer in 2014. No, what was needed was someone serious. An actor with gravitas and dignity, someone that could make this admittedly far-fetched script believable.
Gregory Peck wasn’t initially that keen. He didn’t like the idea of a horror film. Besides, he was battling his own demons at that point. His eldest son, Jonathan, was found dead in his home earlier that year, in what authorities believed was a suicide. But his friends, and particularly his agent, were worried about him and keen to get him working again. Donner pitched it to him as more a kind of suspense picture than a horror. There are no explicitly supernatural events in the movie. Everything that happens could just as easily be the result of tragic coincidence and religious mania. Thorn, driven mad by the horrific deaths of people around him, is convinced by some religious nutters that his adopted son is the Antichrist. We’ve all been there.
Peck loved it, and filming began in England in October 1975.
There are some striking scenes in the movie. David Warner’s character getting a permanent cure for headaches, for one (watch). But like all the best movies, it’s the final scenes that’s are some of the most memorable.
In the penultimate scene, Thorn is confronted by armed police as he attempts to kill Damien on a church altar with a set of sacrificial knives. He raises the dagger, plagued with self-doubt, unclear if he’s looking at an innocent child or the Devil.
“Please Daddy, no”, pleads the boy.
“Stop, or I’ll fire”, yells the cop.
With final resolve, Thorn grits his teeth. He plunges the dagger down. A shot rings out. The bullet leaves the gun barrel in slow motion. Fade to black.
The final scene was shot in Brookwood Military Cemetery, but the initial version is not what made it to the final cut.
The US president is presiding over a burial ceremony with three coffins. One each for Robert, Damien, and Katherine. When Alan Ladd Jnr, President of Twentieth Century Fox, saw the footage he asked if there was any to do it and keep the boy alive. No problem, said Donner. This required a pickup 1 shot that was filmed on the green at Shepperton Studios. In this final shot we see just two coffins. The camera pulls away from the backs of the President and his wife, revealing Damien standing between them. He turns to look directly to camera, before smiling and creating one of the creepiest moments in cinema history. Good call, Mr Ladd.
Watch the final scene with Donner’s commentary here.
Here is wisdom, let him that hath understanding, count the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man and his number is 666.
– Revelation 13:18
1. A pick-up is a small, relatively minor shot filmed or recorded after the fact to augment footage already shot. When entire scenes are redone, it is referred to as a re-shoot. Both types of shots usually occur after continuity, logic, or quality issues are identified during the film editing process. In other words, such shots occur months after the sets have been struck, the costumes and props have been stored, and all the cast and most of the crew have moved on to other projects. If the issues had been identified during principal photography, the director would simply have asked for another take.↶
The US Embassy, London, applying for a visa. It’s a brutalist slab of architecture that’s says ‘Do not come in, you are not welcome’. On the plus side, it was used in the filming of the 1976 classic The Omen, where it doubled as….. er… the US Embassy. Gregory Peck played Robert Thorn, US Ambassador to the UK and adoptive father to the Antichrist. I believe that was actually the official job description.