Thursday, October 25, 2012

Educating Rita

Location Spotting Andrew Brennan Shortly after the last blog was published, my brother disabused me of the notion that Hibernian Way was the ‘wide, dirty laneway’ we see Rita on as she makes her way home from Frank’s college (and not to the party at his house, as also erroneously reported. So much for any ideas I had of heading Forensics at the Yard - and here we're talking about Educating Rita!) However, as we’ll see, the challenge of identifying some of the Dublin streets of the movie - especially when efforts are made to bury their histories behind new, ‘respectable‘ facades, may have proven formidable even to the ladies and gentlemen of that celebrated establishment.
Misery Hill, Dublin. Educating Rita 1983 David, the (spoiler) brother in question, remembers the area as it was before its massive regeneration - passing through it many times on his way from one end of the city to another - and particularly remembers the ironically named Hibernian Way for the fact that it was always closed. (In its current metamorphosis, it’s pedestrian only and divided into two streets).
Cardiff Lane from Misery Hill. Radio Telefis Eireann (Radio TV Ireland) So, back to the referenced RTE photo (titled Cardiff Lane from Misery Hill) and another look at the section of uniquely shaped wall and coal yard at the beginning of the latter street, identical to what we see in the Rita shot. I had been labouring under the misapprehension that the only gasometer in the area was the iconic giant (captured by others in dozens of later images, in colour and from every conceivable angle, but none having that indispensable Misery Hill information contained in the RTE picture) that straddled Cardiff Lane and Hibernian Way. (I’ve since learned the place was riddled with gasometers - an example of the educational (and eye-opening) side benefit of doing research for Reelstreets). The fact that the huge structure was silver, while the movie shows red, was an inconvenience that could be explained away as a new paint job. (Why am I having visions of an exasperated man reaching for a violin and a syringe with a seven percent solution!?) Off, then, with the blinkers, and on with a search for evidence of such a utility ever being located on Misery Hill (so named, according to Turtle Bunbury’s Dublin Docklands - An Urban Voyage, for being the medieval site of a refuge for lepers hopeful of passage to a shrine in Spain. The official Dublin Docklands site adds that these unfortunates would be preceded by a man carrying a lamp while another, taking up the rear, was equipped with a pole forty feet in length to keep others at a distance - hence the expression. In later centuries, it was a place where the bodies of those hanged for piracy and other nefarious deeds were strung up with chains - their rotting corpses displayed for as long as a year as a chilling example to others. No wonder the city planners or landlords of the fancy hotel, theatre and office buildings lining the street today have scuttled the name or, at least, consigned the plaque to the attic. As will be seen later, the name remains part of official city records, but the powers that be may have considered it expedient to deflect attention from the terrible history it represents. (There may be few places in the world, particularly Europe, that haven’t witnessed their share of violence, but not many are burdened with the word ‘misery‘ in their names to frighten people off - for reasons real or imagined).
Google Streetview. Image dated September 2009. The current Google Streetview image shows the plaque in use as late as September 2009, the date the image was captured. It is seen attached to the construction hoarding surrounding its northwest corner with Cardiff Lane.
Misery Hill looking east from Cardiff Lane. Google. September 2009 Anyway, any hopes I had for information on what was, as seen in Rita, nothing more than the previously described wide, dirty alley (a continuation of Hanover Quay to the east), were tempered by my failure at that point to find anything much on the docklands beyond that massive, silver tower. Then the miracle - in the shape of a painting, of all things! A 1943 depiction of Misery Hill, looking west towards Cardiff Lane, by Harry Aaron Kernoff. Here were the distinctive walls, coal yard and, in the upper right of the frame, a section of a gasometer - in red - on the north side of the laneway. Exactly as seen in the movie!
Misery Hill west toward Cardiff. Harry Aron Kernoff 1943 Copyright I may not have struck gold, but I doubt if Howard Carter’s sense of discovery was much greater than mine at that moment (he says, tongue in cheek!). This ‘triumph’ was followed by another eureka moment - the identity of the streets Rita excitedly runs through on her way from the hair salon to Frank’s college chambers. Rewatching the film on a TV monitor, I stopped Rita in her tracks andframe-stepped through the scene. Beyond the dressed dummies in the large windows informing us of its purpose, nothing was discernible as to the name or location of the store she passes. Then, just as she rounds the corner, I noticed a small, illegible sign at the bottom of a window, missed on the much smaller computer screen (and hidden, by the body of an unhelpful Rita, in the snapshot taken at the time). Due to the fast tracking camera, and presumably the limitations of DVD - or my player - the letters appeared blurred and crushed one into another. Then, literally on the last frame, they straightened out to form themselves into ’URTON’ (sic). I vaguely remembered the name ‘Burton’ - from the time I was living in Dublin - as a brand of men’s suits, so assumed the sign was merely an identification card for those in the window. Nevertheless, a search was undertaken for the name, yielding a blog that not only had images of a purpose built store with a distinctive architectural style (the kind whose first floor, one imagines, invariably held an all-purpose temperance/billiards/snooker hall) but, as no address was furnished, the valuable intelligence that a supermarket named Spar was then occupying the space. The latter company’s Dame Street building proved, not only to be the one custom built for Burton, but to lie within the vicinity of the restaurant, pubs and college used for the film. For decades, I’ve been championing films, not only for their entertainment value, but as an astonishing resource for images of places past and, sometimes, even forgotten - especially if they‘ve been gentrified into oblivion and had their names consigned to the dustbin of history. Neither Misery Hill nor Hibernian Road appear on Google’s maps and, even though both are included in a city list of road closures for last July’s international tall ships event, postal workers in nearby Cardiff Lane were unaware of the latter street’s existence when David inquired about it. This may be because it’s been divided into two streets, with only the southern half retaining its original name (the northern half, facing the quay, has been renamed ‘Admiral Brown Walk‘, in honour of the Irish-born founder of the Argentine Navy) and the buildings lining it actually front Misery Hill. However, unlike the latter - and even in its attenuated state - Hibernian Road at least boasts a name plaque. I’m sure most cities have archive centres of one kind or another that one can visit and browse in, but any in Dublin are no help to those living in distant parts - in my case California! So, the dearth of images for the ghosts of Dublin’s docklands available on the internet makes films like Rita and The Face of Fu Manchu priceless (and literal) moving records of an area - and era - now vanished. The same, of course, applies to London. Having lived in the city for six years until 1975, I was familiar enough with its docklands and wharves to be shocked to realize that the stylish areas lining the Thames that Mr. Bond chases the baddies through at the beginning of The World Is Not Enough were what I had last seen populated with warehouses that had known better days. Which brings me to Reelstreets, with its invaluable - and growing - secondary role as an online archive of period images captured, by the pioneers listed on its banner and many other excellent contributors, from these films. Apologies if I’m wrong, but I presume this amazing resource is an unintended bonus to what the owners’ originally imagined for the site - a fun way to disseminate information as to the locations used by the filmmakers, with corresponding photos of how they appeared at the time they were taken (I use the past tense because, in the case of films like Rita, some areas, unchanged from the time the movie was made to when the ’now’ shots were taken, may since have fallen to the bulldozer - or will inevitably, considering their age, condition and large footprint relative to the number of residents occupying it. Squeezing thousands more into the same space is the order of the day, from governments under pressure to provide more housing, businesses looking to establish a presence in a central Dublin of ever diminishing available land, and builders salivating at the prospect of providing them. It’s nothing short of a miracle (for the movie‘s fans) that the few rows of houses that include Rita’s ‘home’ have survived. A Google Map or Google Earth satellite image of Hogan Avenue in Ringsend, Dublin, shows them surviving in only the eastern half of the pocket bounded by rail tracks to the north, Macken Street to the east, Brunswick to the west, and Grand Canal Street to the south. The western half, like the greater surrounding area, now claimed by massive business and apartment buildings. However, the value of Reelstreets doesn’t end with being an archive. It’s also a means by which conscientious citizens can expose the stratagems perpetrated, for a century or more, on a gullible public by cunning, disingenuous writers, producers, directors and production designers - all guilty of collusion in a massive conspiracy to lead the unwitting and credulous down the proverbial garden path. But, thanks to the detective work undertaken by my photographer brother, David (whose old-fashioned gumshoe methods have resulted in information that all the resources of the world wide web couldn‘t produce), Reelstreets Irregulars and those credited on the dedicated pages for the movie, fans of Educating Rita will know that what they are expected to believe to be an unspecified city in the north of England (cited as Liverpool in the play) is actually Dublin, Ireland, and that the ‘French’ location for Frank’s vacation is ostensible, with Maynooth College and Castletown House, both in Kildare, complicit in that little piece of subterfuge. It’s bad enough that we observe Rita running down the ‘Liverpool’ street of Dublin’s South Great George’s towards Frank’s ‘Northern England’ College at Dublin’s Trinity, but sophisticated Reelstreeters will know better when they see that, as she rounds the corner of the ‘Burton’ building into Dame Street, she’s actually heading in the wrong direction! Trinity is behind her at that point. Then, for reasons known only to the filmmakers (presumably to make use of the beautiful little hotel seen immediately before the cut to Trinity) she’s suddenly on the other side of Dame Street, albeit facing the right way. (Finding that little hotel was a complete stroke of luck. I happened on it accidentally as I was browsing Google Streetview to capture the view of the Burton building I wanted my brother to photograph). Though we at least now have her going in the right direction, Rita would have saved herself a few yards if she’d stuck with the side of Dame Street she was on when she made that turn around Burton‘s. Unless, of course, she intended to visit the Bank of Ireland building - across from Trinity - to check out the location used for The First Great Train Robbery, and see in stone what she previously only knew as ‘then’ and ‘now’ shots on this site (this last assumes Rita was clairvoyant!), in which case she actually did know her Dublin (sorry…Liverpool!) All jokes aside, Rita is obviously a huge favourite, so the accidental opportunity (during a visit to the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California) to meet its marvelous director, Lewis Gilbert, was one I cherish. Andrew Paul Brennan 2012