Johnny English – Britain's craziest secret agent
by Bob Barton
Britain has always had something of a reputation as home to the world’s favourite secret agents and now their popularity in books and films is to be increased this year in a new action comedy from Universal Pictures. “Johnny English” stars one of Britain’s most popular comedians, Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) in the title role as an incompetent MI7 operative. He is “the agent even the Secret Service keep secret”, to quote the film’s trailer.
VisitBritain (formerly called British Tourist Authority) – aware of the pulling power of film through its popular Movie Map website (www.visitbritain.com/moviemap) and recent promotion of Harry Potter and ‘Magical Britain’ – is now using Johnny English to entice visitors.
Rather than simply suggesting they visit the locations – filmgoers will recognise many landmarks, mainly in London but also outside the capital – VisitBritain is also persuading visitors to become agents themselves. Their mission: to explore Britain, discover its traditions, gadgets and indulgences – and take on some action packed challenges!
For example, adventurous types could see the countryside from a parachute (www.parachuting-uk.co.uk); go skiing across some of Scotland’s mountainous landscapes (www.ski.visitscotland.com); or try water-skiing, canoeing and kayaking in England’s beautiful Lake District (www.lakedistrictletsgo.co.uk).
Those with fantasies about becoming a secret agent may feel their dreams coming true at places such as Silverstone, the Grand Prix motor-race track near Northampton, 60 miles north-west of London, where you can power around the track in a classic sports car (www.firstplace4.com) without any speed limit worries. Or at romantic locations such as the ‘hidden’ Italianate village of Portmeirion on the North Wales coast. Built by an eccentric architect, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, it has often been used as a mysterious film and TV set by camera crews.
Britain – for long a shopper’s dream destination, where
shopping malls are open seven days a week -- even has an appropriate
chain of stores called Gadget Shops. Found in many towns and cities,
they offer some surprising gifts of interest to amateur agents:
from spyscopes and spycams to a £225 working model helicopter
For those interested in getting as close as possible to the world of secret agents, there are other things to see. Among its collection of aircraft, armoured vehicles and guns, London’s Imperial War Museum has a permanent “Secret War” exhibition, which studies the factual world of espionage.
The capital has several stores which sell listening devices, miniature
cameras, and so on, for modern spies: Spymaster at 3 Portman Square,
London W1, claims to be the largest (www.spymaster.co.uk).
Tourists cruising the Thames near Vauxhall Bridge often remark on a distinctive modern building on the south bank: few realise this is the real-life headquarters of MI6, the British Government’s Secret Intelligence Service (not open to the public).
Outside London, highlights include a selection of fast and stylish
cars, from Aston Martins to Lotuses, at Cars of the Stars in Keswick,
Cumbria (www.carsofthestars.com). An exhibition of boats used in
the Bond films are on show until the end of 2003 at the National
Motor Museum, Beaulieu, Hampshire, not far from the South Coast
“Johnny English” director Peter Howitt, who also made the romantic comedy “Sliding Doors”, chose an impressive list of locations in which to shoot Atkinson and his co-stars, Australian singer Natalie Imbruglia and John Malkovich (who plays the arch-villain Pascal Sauvage).
In London, viewers see the Tower of London, from where the priceless Crown Jewels are stolen; 10 Downing Street, home of the Prime Minister; Buckingham Palace (the Queen has been forced to abdicate!); Canary Wharf Tower, Europe’s highest building; ornate Brompton Cemetery – and more.
Among the rural locations in the film is Hughenden Manor in the Chiltern Hills – home of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli from 1847-1881 – and one of many historic places open to the public courtesy of conservation charity the National Trust.
Britain boasts a wide range of locations – from heritage attractions and contemporary buildings to haunting moors rugged hillsides – that have been used for exterior and interior shots in hundreds of films, making it a popular choice for directors from around the world and showcasing it to millions of potential visitors.