Quatermass II in Piccadilly Circus

Occasionally you get side-tracked down a tangential path when researching. The document equivalent of the wikipedia hole. I can recall occasions where a curious piece of information leapt out at me from the page, and prompted a diversion into another ream of files to see if anything else could be elicited.

I collect postcards among other things, and in amongst them are a small selection of Hammer related images – mostly of landmarks long forgotten. But among my favourites are those in which the Hammer element has crept in and isn’t actually the main focus of the picture.

Take for example this picture postcard of London. Its split into two via the diagonal line – in one half Westminster Bridge, the other the bustle and lights of Piccadilly Circus:

Picture postcard of London c. 1955

What grabs the attention for me, isn’t the fairly standard view of Piccadilly, but the poster in the bottom right hand corner. Adorning part of the Trocadero is, well let’s see if a close-up helps…

Close-up of the London postcard

Yes, that’s a huge billboard for nothing less than the Exclusive / Hammer production Quatermass II.

The postcard itself has been colourised by the looks of it, but its still a wonderful glimpse of the famous Hammer films as part of the everyday London landscape, pocketed and sent across the world in picture form by tourists.

I managed to find another colourised postcard snap which includes nearly all the billboard:

Piccadilly Circus with Quatermass II billboard

What’s made abundantly clear in this image, is just how big a deal Hammer was making of their X certificate – a category that just a year before was perceived as a kiss of death for a film’s commercial chances. The X is worn as a badge of honour.

There are black and white versions of this view, but I’ve chosen to show the colour images because they help the imagery stand out.

The building is today part of the Trocadero centre (possibly soon to be turned into a hotel), but was from 1934 under the control of United Artists as the London Pavilion. Opened as a music hall in 1885 and used for cinema exhibition from 1908 until 1981, and is sited at 1 Piccadilly Circus. It has over the years been used to house a number of Exclusive and Hammer titles. [I was in it a few years ago when it played host to the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not exhibition, blissfully ignorant of its Hammer connections].

In 1961 as part of the popular Ladybird books series for children, The Ladybird Book of London was published, with text by John Lewesden and art by John Berry. The book contains a rather lovely painting of Piccadilly at Night featuring a familiar billboard:

‘Piccadilly Circus at Night’ by John Berry (1961)
from The Ladybird Book of London
Picture sourced via Gail Thomas on Flickr

This wouldn’t be the last time that a Hammer horror title would make its presence felt in a book primarily aimed at children, but it is a rather lovely portrait of the city and the impact that the illuminated advert outside the Pavilion had in the evening during late May and into June 1957.

Historians deal with prime sources of a number of kinds, including oral histories, newspapers, archival records, and photographs. Its easy to forget that sketches and illustrations can be just as informative and telling primary sources as any of these. There’s as much fuzziness as some oral reminiscence, but the ‘truth’ is very much on display.

I love that with both the postcards and the book, the Quatermass branding is subtly shared with thousands of unsuspecting members of the public. How many people who saw that banner had their curiosity piqued? In the days before home video, this might well have been a tease that would take years to be sated…

I’ll share more of these sorts of images in future blog posts, and in the book. I’m always interested in seeing the marquees and displays of our favourite films – marketing is a hugely important part of the film process.