I have a feeling we’re not in Crouch End any more.

Wednesday 9 January 2008

Soon after arriving home from Australia I caught a few minutes of a TV show on one of the more obscure digital TV channels available in London. An American couple were walking lost around some empty streets in – a town. (I’m tempted to say an inner suburb, but even that statement is too revealing.)
According to the story, the couple had just been married in America and had come over to London to spend their honeymoon in Crouch End – you know, the same way tourists flock to New York to go sightseeing in Queens. Even though this was one of those cheap TV programs which always frames the actors’ heads as tightly as possible, and even though I’ve only been to Crouch End once, and then at nighttime, I instantly recognised where these two were; and it wasn’t Crouch End.
They were in Melbourne. North Carlton, to be precise. My girlfriend’s from south of the river and so thinks it was Middle Park, but I’m feeling cocky and reckon it was around Station, Fenwick, and Canning Streets. Something about the houses, the light, the width of the streets, immediately made the place unmistakable, even when partially glimpsed in the background.
I wonder if anyone in Britain would have been fooled by the substitution? No Londoner would have, even if they had never been near Crouch End. It’s possible, however, that they might assume it was filmed somewhere else in England. An American wouldn’t have a chance in picking this deception.
In time you come to know a city the way you come to know a face. It’s not just in the skylines, or the streetscapes, but in the way the people inhabit their space. On another TV show years ago, an Australian documentary, a friend and I watching immediately called out “Melbourne” when the film cut to a brief shot of a group of people walking down a street. The narration later proved us right: it was something about the way they were casually drifting off the pavement onto the street itself that couldn’t happen in any other large Australian city (except Adelaide, but that city always gives itself away.)
With the increase of Hollywood-funded filmmaking in Australia, these places have been turning up more and more often, the streets and buildings as actors, playing a fictional role. Sometimes they play disguised under heavy make-up – I once watched a corner of the University of Adelaide transformed into a Parisian street for a TV commercial – but often they appear as they are, expecting the viewer to mentally substitute the fictional location for the real (or is it the other way around?)
For the non-Australian majority, these urban locations act effectively as generic Western cities, shot without any readily identifiable landmarks in sight. Their acting function is less as a supporting role, and more as an extra, faceless and interchangeable. If Peter Jackson made New Zealand a stand-in for the otherworldly, then Australian cities have been made a stand-in for the real world.

(Crossposted at Sarsaparilla.)