Adventures In England 3: Portsmouth and "Tommy"

by AnomalousArtist

This southern port of England is not only a pleasant travel destination, it was the location of several scenes from the 70's rock film "Tommy!"

I first discovered Ken Russell's infamous, beguiling rock film "Tommy," based on the album by The Who, when I was in high school. I saw the film on TV and was instantly obsessed with it.

A few years ago, before a trip to England, I found a book of movie locations and decided to track down some of the locales of this film I'd loved for so long.

In this article I'll share a little information about Portsmouth and some of the things I found out about the area while I was taking my "Tommy tour." While copyright laws forbid me to show the insets of actual frames from the film that line up with the pictures I took on location, you can still get a feel for the area. If you'd like to see my "inset" pictures, please check the link to my Facebook album below.

The Who - Pinball Wizard
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1) The city of Portsmouth

Portsmouth, in the county of Hampshire, is actually an island city, connected to the mainland by bridges.  It was once an important naval base and, while smaller in scale and importance, is still a base and dockyard for the Royal Navy.  Tourists can visit the HMS "Victory," which sailed for Britain in the mid 1700s, and also the Southsea Castle/museum for information and items of interest concerning the history of this now-quiet port city. 

Today Portsmouth is mostly known for its tourist attractions (the naval base, "Victory,"  a small permanent amusement park "Clarence Pier," theaters and pubs) the university and  professional football team Portsmouth F. C. 

There are plenty of hotels, convenience stores and busy shopping areas with small, unique eateries and things to see.  If you plan to visit from Heathrow be aware you'll have to take a couple of bus/train rides to hook up with the train that goes straight to Portsmouth, and the ride takes around two hours depending on the amount of stops made.  One word of advice:  do NOT take the train right after you get off the plane from overseas; it's an incredibly relaxing trip and watching all the greenery go by you are bound to be lulled to sleep, as I was!

Pin Ball #12
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2) My first day

I wasn't just in Portsmouth to take pictures from an old movie, I'd been there before briefly and wanted to get to know the area a bit; I was also going to meet the DIRECTOR of "Tommy!" 

Through a wonderful series of fortuitous events, Ken Russell was going to be at a screening of another film he'd made in Portsmouth,  one of my all-time favorite films in the world, "The Boyfriend," and as my trip coincided with this screening I was happy to go; further, the person who had set up the screening decided if I was going to come all this way I might as well MEET Mr. Russell too! 

I spent my first day in town getting acclimated to the area.  I walked to the Clarence Pier amusement park located just off the ocean.  Created in the 1800s originally, the park consists of some small casinos, rides and restaurants. It was also the location for the "Amazing Journey" scene early in "Tommy."  There's only one ride left that was at the park when the movie was filmed in 1975 but it looks the same, and I got a picture of it.

3) The "big tour," stop 1

On my second day I rented a rusty, clanking bike from a rather nasty local vendor (there were no bike rental shops so I had to basically buy the thing) and started riding.  My "Tommy locations" guidebook in hand, I eventually rode the route pictured above. 

 The first stop was the South Parade Pier.  This second pier on the shore of Portsmouth has had a troubled history and actually caught on fire during the making of "Tommy."  It was rebuilt in part and a fan can still recognize it but it's nothing like what it once was.  Last I heard the decks of the pier were closed pending new ownership and safety inspections.  The buildings housed food and souvenir vendors and a small dance hall when they were active. 

One of the more iconic locales in the movie "Tommy," it was exciting to see the South Parade Pier "for real," even in its more humble condition. 


There's a long walking/driving path along this southern end of Portsmouth called the Esplanade and it made for a great bike ride on a breezy spring day.  My second destination in this area was a row of dressing "chalets" featured memorably in the beginning of the film.  They depict "Bernie's Holiday Camp," where wicked Oliver Reed meets and woos Ann-Margret and her son, played by Barry Winch.

On my way back I toured Southsea Castle, a small keep rich with history, exhibits and spooky tunnels kids would love to explore.  These tunnels were featured in the film briefly in the "Amazing Journey" sequence and I got some snaps not worth sharing. 

4) Stop 2

Heading north I cruised through the area of the naval shipyards.  The ending of "Tommy" with the memorable images of silver pinballs (actually great round shells) was shot here but I knew in advance any signs of it were long gone.  It was actually just interesting to be in the location, like a whale's graveyard of sorts. 

Next I rode north to the Hilsea Lido nearby, a pool/recreation area that may or may not still be in use but was seated comfortably on the bike route I was on! 

It was spooky and wonderful to see this location, used early in the film when Oliver Reed is teaching Ann-Margret to swim.  Aside from being closed and, of course, rather run-down, the location looked exactly as it did in the movie. 

5) Stop 3

The next stop was a lot further than I had figured but the ride was just great, the scenery was lush and the weather was perfect. 

North and up a steep hill was Fort Purbook, used as the façade for "Tommy's Holiday Camp" at the end of the movie.  Built in the 1850s to defend against Napoleon's armies, the forts that exist were part of an extended plan to create a circle of fortresses.  They were never completed and never actually needed for their original use but became handy during WWII. 

The location offers stunning views of Portsmouth below the hills on which it is perched as well as being a unique structure visually in and of itself.  I took a "selfie" standing where Keith Moon once played "Uncle Ernie" seated on a great theater organ/cashier on wheels in Mr. Russell's film.

6) Stop 4

The last stop on my bike tour was "Warblington Castle," where Roger Daltrey is perched with a hang glider during the song "Sensation" in the movie. 

The castle, or the last turret left of it, dates as far back as the 1300s and has a long history of turmoil before most of it was finally destroyed.  It now sits on private property as a monument, but I got close enough for a nice picture. 

7) My last day in Portsmouth: Meeting Ken Russell!

Everyone was friendly and open to me at the screening I attended of "The Boyfriend" at the New Theatre Royal on Guildhall, downtown.  Mr. Russell, who wasn't in the best of health at the time, was very kind to let me have a picture with him, a benchmark moment in my life I will never forget or top.  I was able to tell him that I was very grateful for the body of work he'd gifted us fans with and he thanked me with a subtle, noble wink. 

Later I attended a live production of  the 1970s classic "The Rocky Horror Show" at The King's Theater (on Albert Road) where the famous "Pinball Wizard" sequence with Elton John was shot. The loud, standing-room-only event brought my visit to Portsmouth to a rousing close!

Whether you're interested in "Tommy" or not, if you are in England and have some time on your hands and want to go someplace a little off the beaten path that's quiet and beautiful, check out "Portsmouth," you won't be sorry!

This photo album on Facebook has insets from the actual movie

"Tommy" locations in Portsmouth
(There are also more pictures in this album than in the article above)

A video showing locations mentioned in this article


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Updated: 05/16/2013, AnomalousArtist
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