Sherlockians, Whovians, Woodies: Summer is the Season for Cinematic Tourists

Each summer they descend upon London en masse. Who are these cinematic tourists, and why do they travel thousands of miles to see where real or fictitious people enacted the stories that captured fans’ imagination?

Ever wonder what Sherlock Holmes’ flat at 221B Baker Street really looked like? Or where his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, got the inspiration for the location of those rented rooms long before 221B became a real Baker Street address? Or, if you’re a fan of the BBC television series Sherlock, where the exterior shots of what stands in for 221B really are filmed?

If Sherlock Holmes doesn’t pique your interest, how about Harry Potter, James Bond, or perhaps Gavin & Stacey? Want to know where the Cybermen once marched near St. Paul’s or Rose Tyler shared lunch with boyfriend Mickey on that fateful day she met the Doctor? Like other movies and television series at least partially filmed in London, Doctor Who incorporates many locations into stories of adventure and intrigue, whether they are meant to take place in the city or someplace far distant.

Cinematic tourists frequently build their travel itinerary around a favorite film or television series. Although London and Cardiff are often filming hot spots in the UK, many cities around the world now cater to such tourists. As a cinematic tourist, in the past decade I have followed the Lord of the Rings from Auckland to the tip of New Zealand’s South Island as a guest of Red Carpet Tours, visited LOST’s mysterious island (also known as Oahu), courtesy of Ed Kos’ Hummer Tours, and walked through the Garden of Good and Evil (although not at Midnight) in Savannah, Georgia. These and other well-established filming locations provide tour companies with plenty of places to visit—and plenty of tourists eager to make the trip, whether to exotic settings used as backdrops for films or ordinary streets where literary characters (and the actors who played them on screen) once walked.

Because so many literary and cinematic characters (past or present) live or work in London, Brit Movie Tours does a booming business with its variety of tours ranging from a few hours to several days. Visitors might choose a walking tour to explore the city through the eyes of their favorite character or ride in air conditioned comfort from location to location all around London. Tourists who truly want to be travelers might even ride from London to Cardiff to visit Doctor Who, Torchwood, or Sherlock filming locations or take a full vacation to see more of Harry Potter’s or the Doctor’s UK.

Lewis Swan, director of Brit Movie Tours, estimates that he and his guides have taken 6,000 people on tours in the past 15 months of operation, and the business continues to expand. Although the Harry Potter tour is by far the most popular and should continue to generate interest long after this summer’s final blockbuster is but a memory, other tours benefit from events related to the television or film industry. Swan anticipates that the opening of the Warner Bros. Studio Tour next year and the interactive Doctor Who Experience’s move from London to a permanent home in Cardiff also will increase fans’ interest in cinematic tourism.

A few years ago, VisitBritain and the Tourism Alliance commissioned a report about the impact of cinematic tourism on the British economy. The 2008 report estimated that the British tourism industry was worth £114 billion, an astounding amount equal to eight percent of the GDP. A late-2010 article in The Telegraph reported that specifically film-related tourism is responsible for £1.9 billion dollars annually, and high-profile films attract an international clientele. ("Film locations in Britain: Tamara Drewe and the lure and illusion of cinema tourism" by Max Davidson, 04 September 2010) Television fans follow a similar pattern, with international interest in UK-filmed series attracting more tourists to London and Cardiff. In his business alone, Swan notes that “overseas Doctor Who fans form the core of our Doctor Who tour business. Domestic fans can access the locations more easily although we do offer value add-ons to our tours.”

The Cinematic Tourist

Who are these cinematic tourists, and why do they travel thousands of miles to see where real or fictitious people enacted the stories that captured fans’ imagination? Swan believes that the tours provide “an escape from reality and a way to see places [fans] are familiar with on screen.”

There's also the thrill of potentially seeing a scene being filmed. Brit Movie Tours guide Helen Thomas happily recalls a day when she came across the filming of an action sequence for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. She had to look carefully to discern whether Johnny Depp or his stunt double was actually riding atop the runaway carriage.

On a morning walk along the Thames’ south bank in May, I happened to see signs requesting silence during filming. For nearly an hour I huddled with other passersby watching the cast and crew of BBC drama Spooks film several takes of a scene. Whether cinematic tourists watch a scene being shot or simply analyze how and where filming took place, they learn just what it takes to turn an ordinary location into the perfect film or television setting. The location must have character because, in effect, it becomes a character in the story. Marble faces peering down from facades, neighborhood streets that capture the flavor of a culture, a sliver of beach along the tidal Thames, or cobblestone alleyways from an earlier era all have their own personality.

Practically speaking, a good location also is one that can be isolated long enough for a scene to be filmed, a difficult criterion for busy public spaces. Cinematic tourists might follow Sherlock's steps across a public square (and learn just how daunting filming in front of the National Gallery can be) or visit a Cardiff museum or even the steps of St. Paul's, former sites of intergalactic invasions. A good location can be dressed up for a close-up without losing its uniqueness.

Val Sturgess, who leads Sherlock Holmes tours that incorporate locations from the original stories plus the 2009 Sherlock Holmes movie and current BBC television series Sherlock, distinguishes among three categories of Holmes’ fans, each with a specific reason for taking the tour. The majority “are looking for something to do in London and pick the tour because it provides a common interest. For many people who don't know London, these books and films are all they know about London, and they enjoy comparing their knowledge with the real locations. They are also interested exploring the same places that their literary and on-screen heroes would have known.”

A much smaller percentage are avid Sherlock Holmes fans, called Sherlockians, who take great pride in knowing details about the great detective’s exploits. Then there are those with little prior knowledge of Holmes but who tag along with friends who do know the stories and adaptations. What they know may start at the “elementary” level, but by the end of the tour they have had a good time and learned at least a few facts about London and Sherlock Holmes. Sturgess adds that “essentially the whole point of the tour is to create a link with something that means something to the people on the tour and help bring Sherlock Holmes off the screen and pages and into London as it is today.”

Like Sherlockians, Whovians often know just about everything about the Doctor. Thomas, who specializes in Doctor Who tours and is a fan herself, not only quizzes other fans on their knowledge of the almost 50-year-old series but leads re-enactments of famous scenes. Many Doctor Who fans can easily quote dialogue, and group tours to places like Amy’s English village of Leadworth (aka Llandaff, Wales) might allow a lucky cinematic tourist briefly to play Amy Pond on an adventure with the Doctor.

Thomas believes that fans find that much-longed-for connection with a beloved television series when they take a tour. “Doctor Who location tours are popular because people get to see behind the scenes of their favorite show. They can see how a regular street in Cardiff or London is turned into an alien world [or] another country or how it’s made to look how it was hundreds of years ago. Doctor Who fans get together at conventions all the time to discuss the show and share their love of it. Going on a tour of locations is a great way of seeing places with other fans and is kind of a Doctor Who convention on the go.

“For fans that are visiting the UK it’s an excellent way to see London and Cardiff, or England and Wales, depending on what tour they take, and see some really interesting places that might not be on the normal tourist trail. Regardless of their Doctor Who connection, they get to see some fantastic and unusual places.”

Guiding Fans to the Perfect Holiday

Being a tour guide may sound like a cushy job. After all, what could be better than spending the day talking to fans who share the same interests? Although enthusiasm is indeed part of a successful guide’s job, it requires more than familiarity with books or films and a good pair of walking shoes. Sturgess recommends that guides have expert knowledge of their subject area, such as an appropriate degree, as well as knowledge about a specific film or television series. A Sherlock Holmes tour, for example, requires knowledge about London’s history, Conan Doyle’s stories, and cinematography.

Surprisingly, my guide also provided illustrations of Horace Vernet’s paintings (in one story, Holmes claims to be related to the artist) and commented upon fashion trends resulting from the Victorian influence on Sherlock’s modern style. In addition to this wide range of knowledge, guides need to be comfortable not only presenting information to groups but interacting graciously with every guest. Research is a key component of the guide’s job, and lots of homework is required, but effective communication skills and a genial personality are equally important.

On every Brit Movie Tour, guides carry a notebook with scripted information about each location, as well as photographs of the location within a television episode or film scene. On some tours, guides play clips that show the location about to be visited. Although familiarity with the material makes this part of the tour go more smoothly, guides also have to be prepared to answer questions that can range from minutiae requiring an expert’s knowledge to the amusing but sincere (e.g., Does Conan Doyle still live here?). Being able to bite one’s tongue can be as valuable a skill as make tongue-in-cheek asides.

Thomas agrees with Sturgess’s assessment. “To be an effective Doctor Who tour guide, you really need to know your stuff. Some people who come on the tours have been fans all of their lives and know the show back to front. I think it’s important to know as much as they do in terms of knowledge of the show, but also to be able give them a new perspective on it, for example, showing how scenes were shot and telling stories from filming that they might not have heard before.

“You also need to be able to keep up to date with any filming taking place and make changes to the tour accordingly. Most importantly, I think, is enthusiasm for the show. Tours are always going to be much more enjoyable for the customers if they have guides who love what they are doing.”

Over the years much has been made of the distinction between a traveler and a tourist. Cinematic tourists can be both simultaneously without embarrassment. Because they take tours, by definition those seeking literary or cinematic experiences are cinematic tourists, but the places where they travel surpass commonplace tourist destinations. Cinematic tourists might role play their favorite characters at a pivotal moment in their history or see a city street or a castle from the perspective of a camera lens. They can travel geographically to beautiful settings while using their imagination to explore new planets and dimensions—and they just might bump into their favorite actor along the way.

Additional Sources

Davidson, Max. “Film Locations in Britain: Tamara Drewe and the Lure and Illusion of Cinematic Tourism.” The Telegraph. September 4, 2010.

Kuhn, Kerstin. “UK Tourism Industry Worth £114b.” CatererSearch.com. November 11, 2008.


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