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The City and the City and the Liverpool Landscape

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.

Photo of Water Street, Liverpool

Water Street, Liverpool, part of Besźel in The City and the City (note 8 Water Street in top left – the fuzzy right hand side is ‘unseen’ city of Ul Qoma)

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.

Photo of St George's Hall, Liverpool, with CGI enhancements

The distinctive front of St George’s Hall, CGI-enhanced with domes for extra threat, is ‘Cupola Hall’ in The City and the City.

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.

Photo of disused Queensway Tunnel entrance, Rendel Street, Birkenhead

The disused Rendel Street Queensway tunnel as entrance to Cupola Hall

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.

Screenshot from The City and the City

The Victoria Tower at Brunswick Dock – an isolated upstanding monument to contrast with the flat dock landscape

Screen shot of scene from The City and the City

The Kingsway Tunnel ventilator tower provides a suitably oppressive backdrop to dystopian Besźel. The two shots above appear seconds apart in episode 1

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.

Photo of Water Street as Ul Qoma

Water Street, Liverpool, as Beszel

Photo of Water Street as Beszel

Water Street, Liverpool, as Ul Qoma

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.

Other locations

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.

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Yeoman’s House, West Derby Village

The ‘Yeoman’s House’ (as it is known locally) dates from the 1580s, so is a cherished historical feature in the village of West Derby. Others include the similarly-aged courthouse across the road.

The stocks to one side, and the beautiful red brick cottages around the entrance to Croxteth Park add to the historic landscape. That’s not to mention the other monuments dotted around the area too, and the great history of West Derby in general.

Yeoman’s House photo gallery

The building was put up for sale in 2017, so new photos were taken by estate agents. The photos below are all from the estate agents who put the property on the market:

 

Further Reading

Liverpool’s 400-year-old courthouse where you could be put in the stocks for not having a pig-ring – Liverpool Echo (accessed 18th Nov 2017)

Refurbishing old buildings in the historic landscape

English Heritage have released a new volume of their ‘Constructive Conservation’ series, this one entitled Sustainable Growth for Historic Places. It’s all about the benefits of re-using historic buildings for new purposes, and the effects not only on the bottom line of the developer, but also the ability of these buildings to attract customers and tourists, and the benefits of creating an attractive and enjoyable place to work in. Read more

Mapping the History of Liverpool

Interactive old maps of Liverpool's suburbs, old maps of Merseyside, and details of our protected, listed heritage.

And don't forget the book, Liverpool: a Landscape History

Recommended Reading

These are some of my favourite books on Liverpool history. They're what I'd recommend to someone who wants great coverage of the whole history of the port and city.

All these books are available via Amazon UK, and buying from through the links above will help fund the web hosting costs of Historic Liverpool.

Old maps from Cassini

Buy old maps from Cassini

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