A lot of filming for Red Joan, starring Judi Dench, took place in Cambridge thanks to director Trevor Nunn’s personal connection to the city.
The film was adapted by screenwriter Lindsay Shapero from Jennie Rooney’s 2013 novel, which was inspired by the true story of Melita Norwood, the 87-year-old former spy, who stood in her front garden to face down reporters and TV crews when it finally emerged she had been leaking national secrets to the Soviets. Norwood had handed over top secret details regarding the atomic bomb during the war, betraying her country. She had got away with it for 40 years.
Norwood was the most important British female agent in the whole of the KGB’s history as well as the longest-serving of all the Soviet spies in Britain. Red Joan changes the story slightly, Melita becomes Joan, a Cambridge physics graduate, (Sophie Cookson) who is drawn into the spy world by her lover. In real life, Norwood was a drop out and a Communist from an early age.
The film is largely set around Cambridge university, the town and London. We spoke to Tom Howard, location manager for Cambridge on Red Joan about exactly where they shot the true story and why they picked certain spots. Howard has worked on a wealth of British TV and film including The Night Manager, A Monster Calls and How I Live Now.
Where did Red Joan film in Cambridge?
The University of Cambridge crops up a lot in the movie and, according to Howard, that was Trevor Nunn’s choice thanks to his personal connection to the place.
“Much of our location finding was led by the director, Sir Trevor Nunn, who knew Cambridge well while studying at Cambridge,” explains Howard. “The two colleges which star in the film were in the original book by Jennie Rooney and we asked both if they would like to be featured, luckily both did which saved on us having to find other colleges to stand in.”
The crew didn’t just film in the colleges. Quite a few exteriors scenes were filmed around the city – the student digs for example – but all the interiors were found in an empty London house. “We also filmed a big complicated scene outside the Senate House with 100 extras, cyclists and period cars but it never made it into the film,” Howard adds.
Howard says the scenes set in the colleges were “relatively simple”, but the crew had to get permission from the busy and private colleges. They reached out to them early on in the process to make sure they could make it work.
“We wanted to make sure the Cambridge locations looked like we had filmed in Cambridge and not made them up from other locations scattered around London,” he adds. “So we took the lead from the story and used the places Jennie knew from her time in Cambridge, I also had grown up in the city and so it was exciting to bring a film production to my home town.”
Red Joan filming locations used in Cambridge:
• St. Johns College
• Newnham Collage
• Downing Site
• Cavendish Labs
• All Saints Garden
St. Johns College
It was the college of the writer Jennie Rooney and she had written many scenes set here, from the visit to the top of the Chapel tower to a picnic by the Cam. We approached St John’s College directly in the autumn term and our only option was to film in the last week before Christmas. We had to use as small a crew as possible, so we managed to reduce our crew to 15 people, with the rest of the crew remaining outside the college grounds within viewing distance of the filming.
Newnham College was the home college of our fictional Joan, famous for being the first women college, so I also approached them directly asking if they would like to feature in the film to which the college kindly agreed. We filmed numerous scenes here including inside one of the accommodation buildings and including a night scene which required us to place a cherry picker with lamps on it in their gardens.
I grew up near Cambridge and knew the layout of the colleges and where departments were situated. I knew that natural sciences are taught at the Downing site and in the story Joan was studying within this facility. I suggested to Sir Trevor we featured the frontage of this iconic building, to film these shots we had to stop traffic on the busy road outside and remove hundreds of modern bikes from the portico. The site also has two museums (Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences) open to the public which we had to work with.
Using my local knowledge again, I knew these labs played a real role in the British Nuclear Weapons Programs so again we looked at them from the street and Sir Trevor was keen to feature them in the film. We could not film the interiors as they are now modernised so not to our requirement but we built own ‘Cavendish labs‘ in a disused hospital.
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All Saints Garden
In the book, Joan meets a group of friends concerned about the Spanish Civil War and we wanted an iconic and recognisable place in Cambridge to stage a student rally but set in 1939. Sir Trevor and I walked around the city looking at the Market Square and some of the college forecourts but these were not available to us but the small gravelled garden of All Saints Church opposite Trinity and St. Johns Colleges worked perfectly. Controllable with a great 360 period looking city around it.
Red Joan is available on digital download on 12th August and on Blu-Ray and DVD on August 19th.