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The African Queen 1951 - the Brentford connection

Still from 'African Queen' showing a glowing Bogart and Hepburn

Count Otto Black (decd): Did you know that the 1951 movie The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, although entirely set in Africa, was actually shot partly in Brentford? On and around Lot's Ait, to be precise. About half the film was, unusually for the time, genuinely filmed on location in Africa. However, for various reasons, mostly involving health and safety, substantial footage was filmed in the Thames at Brentford, which even in those days was fairly wholesome compared with any river in Africa, and of course crocodiles were considerably less of a problem.

Which scenes were shot where? It's hard to say, since a fair bit of cinematic trickery was used to alter foregrounds and backgrounds, and even nowadays you can frame a shot of certain stretches of the Thames in such a way that on a sunny day it might be Uganda. But we can rule out all the scenes of Bogart and Hepburn in the water, since those were done in a studio tank, and and any scenes showing large amounts of clearly African scenery, botany or wildlife in the same shot as the cast or the boat. However, in many scenes involving animals, the actors simply point off-screen and pretend to be reacting to stock footage, so a lot of that stuff could have been shot anywhere.

Therefore the charming image above may show Brentford Ait and Lot's Ait in the background. And if it doesn't, there are many similar shots which do, if you can spot 'em. It is also alleged, with a fair degree of plausibility, that the feral population of ring-necked parakeets that inhabit certain parts of London to this day are descended from birds which escaped while being used as living scenery in this film. If so, it doesn't say much for Bogie's bird management skills, seeing as he couldn't find the Maltese Falcon either. Maybe he should have looked for it in Brentford? After all, a Brentford Griffin is near-as-dammit a Maltese Falcon with yet another coat of enamel applied to bamboozle Sydney Greenstreet.


Some links about local aits:

A map from 1925 shows Brentford Ait, an elongated island in the Thames in two parts. To its west, and not named, is the island Lot's Ait.

In the 1910 Lloyd George Survey, 'Lot's Eyot' was described as osier beds of about 1.75 acres, owned by the Thames Steam Tug & Lighterage Co.Ltd., rateable value of buildings £6. The same noted a former sale in 1900, for £600, and subsequent expenditure of £51 0s 2d on Enfranchisement.

Jim Storrar sent a history of The Swan, Brentford Ait and Colin Carter sent a photo looking towards the eastern end of Brentford Ait dating from the 1960s.

A 1906 postcard shows a view from Kew across to Brentford, the image above may have looked from Brentford towards Kew?

Published October 2021