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SCREEN TIME

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AS SHE LIKES IT

Elaine Stabler is a contributing editor of this magazine

Its traditional interiors make the Library a much-desired film and TV location – but as a full-time literary institution, making time and space for shoots isn’t as simple as it might seem

For as long as it has been in operation, The London Library has been a working lending library. Wander through any of the atmospheric reading rooms or Back Stacks, and you will find members browsing the shelves, curled over desks or snoozing conspicuously in an armchair.

But sometimes, after the doors have closed and the sun has set on Mason’s Yard, the Library serves a different purpose. Throughout the years, it has featured in a number of films, television programmes, and even music videos. You may have seen it providing handsome backdrops in the BBC’s New Tricks and Killing Eve, or even ITV’s Love Island (yes, really).

Fiona Shaw as Carolyn Martens and Adeel Akhtar as Martin in the second series of Killing Eve (BBC).

Fiona Shaw as Carolyn Martens and Adeel Akhtar as Martin in the second series of Killing Eve (BBC).

Photo: Parise Taghizadeh / BBC America

Filming requests are considered on a case-by-case basis. For instance, does the crew wish to film during core hours (which might disrupt the Library’s day-to-day operations)? Laura Anderson, the former Events and Venue Hire Manager at The London Library, fielded many such enquiries and says they sometimes felt ridiculous: “We are still a working library, which means, no, we can’t close the Reading Room for two days.”

During one late-night shoot for the Bollywood black comedy Judgementall Hai Kya ('Are You Judgemental', 2019), however, an entire section of grill flooring was removed to achieve a bird’s-eye view shot of the obsessional main character, Bobby, running through the Back Stacks after researching a potential serial killer. “We just had to make sure the grills were put back before the Library opened to members in the morning,” says Anderson.

The London Library has received a flow of enquiries from production companies since the late 1970s, but it is particularly special when a request relates to an adaptation of a work written by a former or current Library member – such as AS Byatt’s Possession, released as a film in 2002. The opening scene of Byatt’s Booker Prize-winning novel famously takes place in the Library’s Reading Room, where it was also shot for the film.

In the lead-up to filming, Alan Bell, the Librarian at the time, was able to review the screenplay and Byatt’s feedback on it. In a postcard to Bell, Byatt says that she “objected most forcibly to the new American Roland” and his “insulting attack on a London Librarian for mis-shelving”. In an earlier letter to the script editor, Byatt had asked: “If [Roland] must insult librarians, I’d be glad if you could change the library, since The London Library is full of splendid people who have been nothing but helpful.” The script was changed, and copies of this correspondence are preserved in the Library’s archives.

A selection of correspondence relating to filming in the Library, including a postcard from AS Byatt to the Librarian at the time, Alan Bell.

A selection of correspondence relating to filming in the Library, including a postcard from AS Byatt to the Librarian at the time, Alan Bell.

Photo: Ameena Rojee

While the Library isn’t always involved in the creative process, much preparation is required for a film crew’s visit. There are certain “quirks” to the building, Anderson explains. For example, attempting to balance a tripod in the Back Stacks is a challenge. Considerations must be made for collection care, too. Using equipment such as smoke machines and hot lights near books is strictly forbidden. And filming is famously time-consuming. When the Library was used as a setting for a modern-day retelling of Dickens’ Oliver Twist (Twist, Sky, 2021), a 40-strong crew arrived to set up at 4pm and stayed in the building until midnight. The resulting shot was 20 seconds long.

Actors often come with their own requirements and requests, too. In 2020, when the building was closed to members due to Covid-19 lockdowns, filming took place in the Art Room for the satirical Netflix mockumentary Death to 2020, starring Hugh Grant and created by Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones. (During the pandemic, filming became a revenue-generating lifeline for the Library and requests were much easier to facilitate.) “At the time, Grant was also working nights,” says Anderson. “So we put a mattress in The Study so that he could nap between takes.” A still from the show hangs on the wall of the Red Stairs leading up to the Reading Room.

Over the years, the Library’s stacks have been used as backdrops, its books and desks as props, and its archival artefacts and rare materials referenced in documentaries. Films shot here have been nominated for awards in set design, including both Judgementall Hai Kya and Death to 2020. But when it comes to the Academy Award for Best Production Design, the Library’s win is yet to come. •