The stately chimes of Big Ben fell silent as of midday, August 21 last year, with much-needed repairs to the 13.7-tonne Great Bell (its real name), and Elizabeth Tower that houses it, due for completion in 2021.
Big Ben: The World's Most Famous Clock, coming to SBS Australia (8.30pm Saturday August 4, and available at SBS On Demand after broadcast), sees architectural historian Anna Keay explore its storied history and the passion of the people who set out to save its four iron-framed, gilt-edged, opal glass clock faces.
Built in 1859, the 315-foot northern belfry of the Houses of Parliament was originally called the Clock Tower. It was renamed in 2012 to mark the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and has watched over six monarchs, 29 Prime Ministers and two World Wars.
Predating cinema itself, the instantly recognisable London landmark has made countless unforgettable movie cameos. Here’s one for every missing chime.
The Thirty Nine Steps
Though Alfred Hitchcock’s sterling adaptation of the John Buchan novel is inarguably the most famous, Don Sharp’s 1978 take starring Robert Powell as accidental hero Richard Hannay added the unforgettably perilous clock face race.
Walt Disney’s 1953 animated adaption of the beloved J.M Barrie kids’ adventure story sees the boy who wouldn’t grow make a stop-over on the hour hand on the way to Neverland with Wendy and her Darling brothers.
Disney sure does love Big Ben (see also the hectic climax of The Great Mouse Detective), with the inimitable Julie Andrews floating past on her brolly in Robert Stevenson’s 1964 live-action take. No doubt it will pop up again when Poppins returns in the form of Emily Blunt later this year.
V for Vendetta
If hanging out on a clock hand is a recurring theme, then blowing the tower sky high is another. Alan Moore’s Thatcher-era graphic novel predicting a future fascist state Britain was brought to underrated life by director James McTeigue. Starring Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving as freedom fighters, they succeed where Guy Fawkes infamously failed. (Spoiler below)
It’s not just home-grown ‘terrorists’ who have it in for the famous tower. Tim Burton’s also under-appreciated B-movie sci-fi satire – with a ridiculously starry cast including Portman, Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Michael J. Fox and Pam Grier – sees alien invaders annihilate the British icon alongside Mount Rushmore, the Taj Mahal and Easter Island’s mysterious faces.
G.I. Joe: Retaliation
Speaking of space, when Cobra baddie Zartan, disguised as Jonathan Pryce’s US President, drops a mammoth bomb on the British capital from orbit, Big Ben gets obliterated along with the vast majority of the city centre. Bye bye London Eye, ta ta Tate Modern, good golly Gherkin.
Reign of Fire
Long before Game of Thrones captured imaginations worldwide, dragons were a major problem for Big Ben too. Christian Bale’s unfeasibly named monster-hunter Quinn Abercromby flies into London via helicopter near the start of Rob Bowman’s post-apocalyptic genre gem to find the Palace of Westminster a ruined perch for a worrying weyr of the big scaly beasts.
28 Days Later
Big Ben escapes entirely unscathed in Danny Boyle’s cult favourite update on the zombie apocalypse genre, but the population of London (and, indeed, the world) is less lucky. Nevertheless, the tower forms a startling backdrop to an abandoned city as Cillian Murphy stumbles, dazed, across Westminster Bridge in a hospital gown, having slept through the fall of humanity.
Mr Bond is somewhat fond of Big Ben, with the tower most recently appearing in the climactic boat-chases-helicopter scene in Spectre. Incumbent Daniel Craig – with the help of Léa Seydoux – thwarts the escape of classic villain Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), downing him on Westminster Bridge. See also the coded chimes in Thunderball, starring Sean Connery and also featuring SPECTRE.
Far from marvellous, Connery returned to the spy genre in this mangled reboot of the treasured British TV series. Playing weather-manipulating megalomaniac Sir August De Wynter, Ralph Fiennes’ John Steed and Uma Thurman’s Emma Peel manage to bring him down, but not before Big Ben bites the dust again.
In a stunning feat of never-seen-this-before originality, this British King Kong knock-off with frankly hilarious dialogue/special effects swaps out the climactic Empire State Building climb for, you guessed it… See also Godzilla’s lawyers for the tower-smashing rampage in Gorgo.
Army of Darkness
Horror fans will get a kick from this UK-only alternative ending to Sam Raimi’s schlocky Ash (Bruce Campbell) against the armies of the dead time-travelling hit. Upon awakening from thousands of years slumber, instead of returning to a current day US also under assault from zombies, it goes all Planet of the Apes with you know what.
Follow the author here.
Big Ben: The World's Most Famous Clock screens on SBS Australia, 8.30pm Saturday August 4 (and will be available at SBS On Demand after broadcast).