Underground movies

Explore • Pulse #1 • 6 min
By Robert Jack

The Tube, London’s iconic underground railway network, has been the backdrop to many box office blockbusters. From The Bourne Ultimatum, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and V for Vendetta, to popular television programmes.

Have you seen the dramatic chase scene in Skyfall where James Bond (Daniel Craig) chases Silva (Javier Bardem) through London Underground?

Kate Reston, Manager of Transport for London’s Film Office, did. It’s even one of the scenes that she enjoyed the most. But this short, action-packed section of the film was the product of a lot of detailed behind the scenes work. She worked on the project for 14 months, culminating in three weeks of filming on-site.

Released in 2012, this box office blockbuster is one of many cinema and TV productions that brought London’s world-famous ‘Tube’ network to worldwide audiences. The Bourne Ultimatum, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and V for Vendetta are among the major movies that have filmed on the Underground, along with television productions like Sherlock and Sense8.

London, a genuine playground for movie directors

Reston has been assisting filming on the London Underground since 1992. It used to be a function of the Press Office but a dedicated Film Office was later created to deal with enquires, oversee filming, liaise with front-line and operational staff and ensure that shooting is done safely. This year, Reston and her team have also taken on responsibility for filming on other parts of Transport for London (TfL) network, such as the Docklands Light Railway and London Overground. Filming on London’s buses is overseen by individual bus operators. The world’s oldest metro system offers an abundance of choice to filmmakers, from the grandeur of the 1930s art deco stations to the futuristic stations on the Jubilee line – Canary Wharf was transformed into a space station for the latest Star Wars movie, Rogue One.

Protecting the brand

“There is only one London Underground,” says Reston. “And one of the reasons it has such positive international recognition is because we’ve worked hard over the years to protect the integrity of the brand and how it’s used.”

Every year there are around 500 requests to film on the Tube, from students through to major television and film production companies. A location permit costs from €680 per hour (for a crew of up to five people). Larger feature films can involve larger crews and entail a lot more work. TfL’s Film Office accommodates approximately 6-12 feature films each year.

Scripts must be approved before a permit is granted. TfL won’t permit the filming of scenes that include vandalism or graffiti, assaults on passengers or staff, fare evasion or suicides.

“You never see an airline put their name to a plane disaster movie,” Reston explains. “It’s our brand, it’s our company – and so if we are going to lend that out to a production company then we’ll have some say on what people can film.”

Filming locations

Skyfall was partly filmed on the Jubilee line platforms at Charing Cross, which have been partly redundant since the line was extended eastwards in 1999. They are also used for training purposes and on occasion, as a handy avenue, to re-regulate the Jubilee line service, if required, and therefore provide a fantastic, passenger-free location for filming. Other self-contained options include the 2.4 km Waterloo & City Line, which is closed on Sundays and Aldwych (disused) Underground station.

Filming also takes place out on the live network during off-peak hours and occasionally during evenings and weekends, where there are over 400 Underground, Overground, Docklands Light Railway (DLR), TfL Rail and Emirates Airline locations to choose from. Reston’s “track trained” team accompanies all film crews to make sure that everything is done safely and that the travelling public is not inconvenienced.

Last year, commuters travelling to Woolwich Arsenal on the DLR were surprised to find themselves in Athens. Signs at the station were written in Greek and English for the filming of action thriller Jason Bourne. While this required closing some areas of the station, the DLR kept commuters moving, and many were able to catch a glimpse of the A-lister Matt Damon.

Big benefits

Currently, access to film with TfL generates €570,000 annually which is invested back into the transport network, depending on where it needs it the most. This non-fare revenue is increasingly important as from next year TfL will no longer receive Government funding for the day-to-day running of its transport services.

There’s also a dividend for the UK economy. According to VisitBritain, Great Britain’s tourist authority, more than a third of all potential visitors to Britain want to visit places they have seen on screen.

And it’s obviously rewarding for the teams working on the networks. “I am very loyal to the Underground. It’s an amazing transport network and it’s fantastic that people want to use it in their films,” says Reston. “We encourage anyone thinking about filming on the Underground or anywhere on the TfL network to get in touch with us.”

« Whether it’s filming dancers in tunnels, Spiderman riding the Tube, an astronaut at the ticket machine or Stormtroopers travelling down the escalator, there’s never a dull moment in my role. Every job we do is different. The job has taught me to always be prepared for the unexpected. It can create some interesting contrasts when the movie world meets the world of public transport, especially when there are hair stylists and makeup artists preparing the actors for their scene beside TfL Film Office staff in hi-vis (looking far from glamorous) giving instructions to the crew. On one occasion, when a very well-known actor was filming inside a station for a day, a fully-carpeted gazebo was installed, with an easy chair, footstool, dressing table and air conditioning unit! Most of the movie stars I meet are very interested in the transport network and the surroundings. They often don’t realise all of the work that goes on behind the scenes at TfL and the amazing assets that are available for filming. »

Karen Pegram

Support Manager for Transport for London’s Film Office


Un tube au box-office

During the shooting of Skyfall, Javier Bardem and director Sam Mendes slid down the escalators of Charing Cross station. What we don’t see in the movie is that they had to use special equipements to avoid hitting the “Stand on the right” signs.

Un tube au box-office

The shooting of a scene for the film Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix took place at Westminster Tube station one Sunday in 2006. In the film, Arthur Weasley is impressed as he enters the station. “Trains! Underground! Ingenious, these muggles,” he extols.

Un tube au box-office

The filming of the 2016 action thriller London Has Fallen required a bomb crater at Charing Cross station. It was actually a 3D picture drawn on the ground, but Kate Reston, manager of Transport for London’s Film Office, says it was very realistic. “It’s one of those things that you can walk over, but people walked around it.”


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