Great British Drives: Classic Rolls-Royce tours cult film locations of Swinging London

1965 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III Convertible Coupé - with Daniel Pembrey 
The protagonist of the 1966 cult film 'Blow-Up' had a photography studio in Pottery Lane in west London. The former Earl of Zetland pub at the end of the lane is recognisable

Think of the Rolls-Royce Enthusiasts’ Club and stately homes or posh picnics spring to mind. The club’s head office is The Hunt House, a listed former stable house in Northamptonshire built for the Duke of Grafton. Yet membership of this club, established in 1957, now exceeds 8,000, and interest in older models can run in unusual directions.

Take, for example, the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III Convertible Coupé from the mid-Sixties. This was one of the stars of Michelangelo Antonioni’s cult film Blow-Up – alongside David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Birkin.

The 1966 film is an enduring mystery story, showing us 24 hours in the life of Thomas, a fashion photographer played by the young Hemmings, who sails around town in his distinctive open-top Rolls-Royce with its angled headlamps and sweeping body lines.  

There were only 50 right-hand-drive Silver Cloud III Convertible Coupés made, explains Howard Cox, a member of the Rolls-Royce Enthusiasts’ Club since 2005 and owner of a superb Ming Blue example. Cox is a retired engineer who is writing a book about the car. He reels off former owners of the model, including Debbie Reynolds, Peter Sellers and Lucille Ball. But it was Blow-Up that confirmed the car’s status as the apex of Sixties automotive cool.

Cox and I meet one Sunday morning to drive around the film’s locations. They are all in Greater London, and what a variety they are. Thomas, the film’s protagonist, starts off in a Peckham doss house, where he has spent the night taking moody photos. The street sign for Consort Road, in a railway arch, is clearly recognisable.

Pembrey glides the suitably grand Rolls-Royce along Holland Park Avenue

Looking out over the Spirit of Ecstasy bonnet mascot is a vivid experience, and not one for the self-conscious. The mascot was inspired by an artist’s model, Eleanor Thornton, who was born in Stockwell – also in south London, and through which Thomas drives. He is on a circuitous mission to check out an antiques shop in Woolwich, where he buys a vast wooden propeller blade for his studio that won’t fit in the back of his car.

There, he notices neighbouring Maryon Park. It still contains a large amphitheatre-like, grassy area with tennis courts. On higher ground, protected by mature trees, is the stretch of grass where Thomas witnesses Vanessa Redgrave’s elegant character in an assignation with an older man. It is a perfect photo opportunity. She confronts Thomas for taking pictures. Meanwhile the older man vanishes, and herein lies the central mystery of the film: what did Thomas witness? Was the older man shot by someone hiding in the bushes?

On the soft spring day I visit, “the light is very beautiful in the park”, to paraphrase Thomas. Squirrels bound; there is birdsong. But in the film, there is a hissing of wind in grass and leaves, conveying a restless stasis. Hardly anything happens; everything has changed.

Vanessa Redgrave and David Hemmings shooting 'Blow-Up' in Maryon Park, south-east London Credit: Everett Collection/Alamy

With the wind in my hair, I take the car into central London. The power steering and soft suspension provide supremely easy driving. In the light Sunday traffic, we’re soon gliding up Park Lane towards Lancaster Gate, visible in the film. The Rolls-Royce is in its element here. It is an “establishment” car, yet the flamboyance of the Mulliner Park Ward design divided opinion upon its launch. Arguably the London depicted in Blow-Up ushered in a new establishment of music, fashion and film tastemakers, whose influence remains with us.   

Interrupted by liaisons with beautiful women, Thomas develops the photos from the park at his studio in Pottery Lane, off Holland Park Avenue in west London. The Earl of Zetland pub at the end of the lane – now the office of an asset management company – is recognisable. The sequence in which this former pub appears has Jane Birkin running after Thomas in his car. “And get rid of that bag,” he tells her, “it’s diabolical.”

The classical pediment of the old pub mimics the grille of the Rolls-Royce, which is itself an illusion, for it contains not a single straight line. Flat shiny surfaces tend to look concave to the naked eye, so Rolls-Royce workers hand-shaped the shell, giving the appearance of straight lines when, in reality, each one was imperceptibly convex.

Just off the Kings Road in Chelsea, the restaurant used as a location in the 1966 film 'Blow-Up' is still an eatery

On to Chelsea, where Thomas meets his agent, played by Peter Bowles. They discuss the photos Thomas has taken and which of them to use for a new book. The restaurant on Blacklands Terrace, just off the King’s Road, was called El Blason. It is now the Five Fields, with a Michelin Star and fresh ingredients from its garden in East Sussex. The food in the film appeared to be pie, chips and a pint.

Back at Thomas’s studio, the dark room has been ransacked. He’s convinced that he has witnessed a murder in the park. With the car’s top still down, he returns to the park at night, to try to find the body of the older man. Next he seeks out his agent, back in Chelsea, this time at a house on Cheyne Walk. The exterior of the house used for the film is virtually unchanged. Neighbours include Mick Jagger.

Inside, Thomas finds a party, and his agent barely coherent, but Bowles’s character manages to ask the key question concerning our protagonist’s uncertain relationship with reality: “What did you see in that park?” Thomas pauses and replies: “Nothing.” He returns to the park the following morning and the body has gone.

Cheyne Walk, by the Thames in Chelsea Credit:  Paul Street /Alamy

This Mulliner Park Ward model was the last Rolls-Royce car of its kind. The free association of hand-crafted aluminium bodies with a separate steel chassis, which created both fabulous looks and a stately ride, would soon be replaced by the modern unitary construction method of the Silver Shadow. Similarly, various realities were about to intrude on the “Swinging London” depicted in Blow-Up.

An indefinable quality of “presence”, a set of vivid impressions that may occasionally trick the eye – we could be talking about either the car or the film, both of which deserve their cult status.

Rolls-Royce Enthusiasts’ Club: rrec.org.uk

THE FACTS

1965 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III Convertible Coupé  

PRICE NEW £7,861 (standard steel body £5,384)

PRICE NOW £250,000 approx

ENGINE 6.2-litre V8

TOP SPEED 116mph

ACCELERATION 0-60mph in 10.8sec

FUEL ECONOMY 14mpg  

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