This website is all about the historic landscape. It’s about how the landscape shapes what happens in the city, and it’s about the landscapes that we invent by living in it. Just think of the ‘Knowledge Quarter’ and the ‘Cavern Quarter’. Though they’re sickly marketing-gimmick names they do acknowledge some of the character that certain areas have built naturally, unconsciously over time. And so it was with great excitement that I found that The City and the City, a brilliant book by China Mieville, had been adapted for the small screen by the BBC.
Note: I’m not intending to have too many spoilers in this post, but I will be talking about the big plot concepts which permeate the whole story. If you’d rather come to the story fresh, go and read the book, or watch the show, first, and come back to this later.
Book: The City and the City, by China Mieville (Amazon UK)
TV version: The City and the City, BBC iPlayer
The City in the City and the City
This post isn’t going to be a review of the programme. Suffice to say I loved the book when I first read it, and I loved this adaptation. I recommend both.
My article is about how Liverpool is a star of the show, and the city features centrally. Hell, the main character is played by Liverpool’s own David Morrissey. But he’s not the only Merseyside star of the show. The City and the City is a veritable I Spy of Liverpool locations.
The main concept of the book, on the face of it a police procedural, surrounds the two rival cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma. Besźel is the down-at-heel city where Inspector Tyador Borlú (Morrissey) polices the streets. Ul Qoma is the shiny, high-rise, Shanghai-alike sibling that split from Besźel some years ago. The crucial fact is that the two cities occupy the same space on the map.
Citizens of one must not look at (in fact, must learn to ‘unsee’) the buildings and people in the other city, on pain of apprehension by Breach, the government unit who monitor the invisible and intertwined border.
Suffice to say that when Borlú starts the investigation of a woman murdered in Ul Qoma but dumped on his home turf of Besźel, the Kafka-esque complications of the invisible barrier complicate things enormously.
Tale of Two Cities
How do you film such a high-concept story? The characters have been brainwashed into fearing even accidental interaction with the other side. They almost literally cannot see what they are not allowed to. ‘When in Besźel, see Besźel’, as the propaganda posters remind the good citizens.
Well, of course you need a city with shiny high rises, an ageing red-brick airport, a smattering of Brutalist towers, and some ornate Victorian architecture to give a sense of faded glamour. And you need all this on top of each other, preferably over a network of strange underground arched caverns.
Oh, and of course you need a colossal columned building to act as the central bureaucratic Soviet edifice.
While watching it, what started out as an exciting game of spot-the-landmark soon became an interesting thought process: why was Liverpool a good place to film this programme?
Two cities in one
Liverpool is a complex arrangement of buildings which have grown up over the years. The same goes for the streets of the city.
There are wide boulevards and open plazas. There are narrow streets, Art Deco tunnel entrances on both sides of the river.
There are glass-fronted towers and there are concrete monstrosities (that we love all the same). There are older, sturdier bright white stone office buildings. There are mysterious obelisk-like monuments standing proud, but of uncertain origin.
Liverpool, city of contrasts
Water Street typifies the potential that those working on The City and the City saw for portraying two different cities in the same place.
The north side of the street is a hotch-potch collection of different architectural styles. The groundbreaking Victorian Oriel Chambers sit next to some 1960s egg-box building which is clearly inspired by it. The Town Hall peers round the corner, sticking out beyond the general street line.
The south side of the street, by contrast, is a catalogue of massive yet clean Neolclassical lines. The square bulks of India Buildings and 7 Water Street (an old bank) make a imposing business face that doubles as the wealthy Ul Qoma landscape.
Liverpool Heritage, old and new
What’s often lost in discussion of ‘heritage vs progress’ is this wonderful variety. We can argue til we’re blue in the face whether the old Midland Bank on Dale Street is in keeping with the other offices, or if the Echo really did complain about the ugly pile of stones – the Liver Building – when it was built blocking their view of the Mersey.
But any true heritage campaigner fights for all types of quality building. The idea is that additions to the landscape should improve it, not just boost the ego of the architect. Even more importantly, removals should not be to the detriment of the urban environment, and certainly shouldn’t be pointless demolition.
The City and the City reminds us of this variety by deliberately separating it out. In the story, Tyador Borlú can only see the old and higgledy piggledly world of Besźel, while Ul Qoma is modern and foreign. But the plot inevitably leads him to break that barrier, and discover how the other half live. In his world, the two sides can never be reconciled, but in our world, in our city, they are.
Filming in Liverpool
Using Liverpool as a film set is nothing new. We’ve seen Harry Potter and Captain America gracing the streets of the city, because it can fill in for 1920s-40s New York. Foyles War used it to depict London, Poland, Southampton and France.
But the case of The City and the City is even more impressive. Liverpool stands in for two cities at the same time, in the same place, a city uniquely conceived and arguably unfilmable, except for in this, the City of Cities.
I hear that the interior (bar and club) shots were all filmed in Manchester. But I’d be interested in knowing where other exteriors were filmed. There are a few bonus screenshots below, where I’ve noticed a Merseyside building or streetscape. But let me know if you’ve watched this programme and have noticed any more.