On a crisp autumn day in 1986, a small army of cast, crew and extras gathered to film a scene for the then-in-the-making Superman IV: The Quest For Peace. There were a couple of huge American cars parked in the background. There were distinctive cast-iron fire hydrants. There was a hotdog seller and a NYPD cop on horseback.
The scene’s supposed to take place in New York, just outside the UN Headquarters. Except this isn’t New York. It’s Milton Keynes.
If you’re outside the UK, it’s likely you’ve never heard of Milton Keynes unless you’ve previously been reading articles about Superman IV. If you’re within the UK, you probably know Milton Keynes as the place with the concrete cows and the big shopping centre.
Milton Keynes has an awful lot going for it: decent rail links, a logical road system laid out in a grid system, that big shopping centre. The only problem with Milton Keynes, at least if you’re a film director like Sidney J Furie, is that it looks absolutely nothing like New York.
By the mid-1980s, the Superman franchise was already in an uncertain position. Superman III came out in 1983 to largely hostile reviews, partly because director Richard Lester insisted on shooting a series of slapstick comedy scenes with co-star Richard Pryor, who skied down the side of a building while wearing a pink tablecloth as a cape, and engaged in a lengthy drinking session while wearing a gigantic novelty cowboy hat.
In its wake, even the indefatigable Superman seemed weary; Christopher Reeve said quite pointedly in interviews that he wouldn’t return to the role, while Lois Lane actress Margot Kidder’s outspoken statements about Lester (who took over from Richard Donner during the filming of Superman II) left her sidelined for much of Superman III, and less than excited about the possibility of doing a sequel.
Ilya and Alexander Salkind, the hotshot producers of the three Superman movies up to that point, therefore decided that the son of Jor-El had run his course, and put the rights up for sale.
Enter Cannon Films, a production company whose fast-and-loose approach to making movies made them a subject of bemused fascination in Hollywood. Having surfed to prominence on a wave of B-movies, some violent, some salacious, Cannon decided it was time to break into the big-time, and in the middle part of the 80s, started buying the rights to such characters as He-Man, Spider-Man, and, of course, Superman. The makers of such video shop favourites as American Ninja and Invasion USA was going to storm the summer box-office.
Or so it hoped. Cannon had the ambition and the passion, but as the decade of excess rolled on, it was sorely lacking the cash. This is why, when production on Superman IV: The Quest For Peace got underway in 1986, its filmmakers were forced to abandon all hopes of filming in Manhattan, as previous Superman films had done, and make do with a large town in England instead. The result would be an unforgettable comic book movie – though not for the reasons Cannon Films might have hoped.
On a crisp autumn day in 2014, two sullen men decided to go on a pilgrimage to the Milton Keynes filming locations used in Superman IV. Those sullen men were: one, your humble writer, and two, Cambridge News sports journalist and Superman IV enthusiast Marc Bazeley.
Strangely, the weather that day was slightly better than it was when poor Christopher Reeve was hoisted on a crane high above Milton Keynes Central train station. We can only imagine what he must have thought as the chilly British air whistled around his skin-tight Superman outfit, looking down on the expanse of concrete below. Where the original Superman would have brought hundreds of extras for a grand street scene such as this, The Quest For Peace could only muster a handful. Even the horse ridden by the NYPD cop looked bored.
As Reeve himself put it in his autobiography Still Me, “[Richard] Donner would have choreographed hundreds of pedestrians and vehicles and cut to people gawking out of office windows at the sight of Superman walking down the street like the Pied Piper. Instead, we had to shoot at an industrial park in England in the rain with about a hundred extras, not a car in sight, and a dozen pigeons thrown in for atmosphere…”
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Clearly, a trip like this needed careful planning. So before we set off, we scanned various sites (such as British Filming Locations), Google Maps and other sources for details of where we’d need to go. We packed the car with cameras and recording equipment. We donned waterproof jackets.
Our first port of call, having found somewhere to park, was what’s known in the film as the Metropolis Hyatt Hotel – it’s here that we see the scene where Clark Kent and Superman somehow manage to arrange a double date with Lois Lane and Lacy Warfield (Mariel Hemingway). The same location was also used for the interiors of The Daily Planet newspaper, and also a scene where Clark Kent goes to the gym.
In reality, this was the Avebury Building, which now belongs to a company called Home Retail Group. Today, the building has a gigantic Argos sign stuck on the side, though if you mentally edit that out, you can just about imagine that it would look like a modern hotel.
While we took a few pictures, it suddenly dawned on us that we were standing in front of the same revolving doors Clark Kent would have bumbled though in the 1980s. Better still, we were standing on the spot where Kent got into a car and changed into his Superman outfit:
What we realised, as we began exploring the area, is that the locations the crew of Superman IV used are all huddled closely together. The exterior of the Hyatt Hotel and its lobby scenes were all filmed here, at the place with the Argos sign looming up outside. But just a few feet away we found the location for the Daily Planet’s lobby.
Today, the building is now a branch of Bannatyne Health Club – a chain of British gyms owned by Scottish millionaire Duncan Bannatyne, of Dragons’ Den fame. As we wander into the building’s foyer, we realise that the place has barely changed since the 1980s.
Sure, the twin escalators are gone from the Superman IV days, but just compare the photos below to the stills from the film – the marble on the walls remains unchanged, and the distinctive blue fire hazard sticker on the door’s still intact.
When we realised that we were standing on the actual spot where Margot Kidder, Christopher Reeve (here in his Clark Kent guise) and Marc McClure (Jimmy Olsen) once stood, a shiver of excitement ran down our spines. This was true movie history.
“This is amazing,” Marc said. I couldn’t agree more.
Just behind the gym lies a place called the Winter Gardens. Essentially a huge greenhouse full of exotic flora, it’s now part of the Bannatyne gym, and doesn’t appear to be open to the public.
At any rate, this was dressed up to be the Metropolis Museum in the film; the place where the dastardly Lex Luthor (a returning Gene Hackman) stole a lock of Superman’s hair.
Luthor would later use those locks to create Nuclear Man: a supervillain with the power of Superman and the looks of a Chippendale stripper – a character played by actor Mark Pillow and, bizarrely, dubbed by Gene Hackman.
Less than a mile from Argos and Bannatyne’s gym lay the true object of our pilgrimage: the location which stood in for the UN Plaza.
We walked through blinding sunshine and a brisk October breeze, through a flyover decorated with some lively graffiti (“Beware of raptors disguised as human beings,” ran one cryptic statement), past a skate park that looked like something from a Death Wish sequel, and through an entrance of glass and concrete which led to the hallowed Milton Keynes Central complex.
From the moment we arrived, we could see where the scenes in Superman IV took place. Again, nothing much has changed since the 1980s. Except the building that was once dressed as the Daily Planet exterior is now a “Sizzling Grillz” restaurant, and the railway station is now surrounded by a range of coffee shops and newsagents. There are bicycle stands dotted around now. The once pristine paving slabs are uneven and fringed with moss.
Within minutes, we’d found the spot where the awkward-looking hotdog seller once stood, and where the NYPD cop trotted around on the back of his bored horse. We tried to imagine what Christopher Reeve and the rest of the cast must have thought when they pulled up here. Even with a few fake New York fire hydrants and the odd hotdog stand dotted around, it didn’t really look like Manhattan – the buildings are only about six storeys high. It looked like a large town in Buckinghamshire.
Just outside the Milton Keynes Central complex stands a building with a sign that reads “Thrift Store”. “That could be taken as a metaphor for the whole film,” Marc observes.
Having taken a few shots of the surrounding buildings, we decided to find a spot of lunch. And where better to eat than on the very spot – or close to it – where Christopher Reeve would have swooped in as Superman? Heading to the left of the train station, we found a branch of Gregg’s – British purveyor pastry goods – and settled down for a cup of builder’s tea and a pie.
We sat outside on cold metal chairs, sipping our tea and observing the fluttering flags outside the bus stop.
Marc decided to quote the song Pocketful Of Kryptonite by 90s alternative rock band Spin Doctors. “I don’t think I can handle this cloudy day in Metropolis,” he murmured, as a woman nearby lit a roll-up cigarette.
Somewhere to the right of us, 27 years ago, a crane would have sat just out of shot, lowering Reeve down some 150 feet for his grand entrance. Superman made his final, hope-filled speech in front of the distinctive lamp posts standing nearby.
“There will be peace,” Superman said as the British wind nibbled at his pristine hair, “there will be peace when the people of this world want it so badly that their governments will have no choice but to give it to them…”
The crowd were no doubt nodding along, eating their baked goods and drinking their builder’s tea.
“Don’t kick the pigeons”
Before filming began, Sidney J Furie tried to convince Cannon producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus to give him the money to film outside the real UN Plaza. Desperate to keep costs down, they flatly refused.
Choosing locations so closely grouped together was clearly another cost-cutting exercise. A sequence at an American school was shot at an academy in Milton Keynes, which has since been closed down. An old airfield in St Albans – now a housing development – was used as an American Air Force base. The production even shut down a section of nearby Buckinghamshire road to film a concluding scene where Lex Luthor’s car is picked up by Superman.
The penny-pinching extended to the special effects. In a later interview, visual effects supervisor Harrison Ellenshaw revealed, “This was going to be done on the cheap, which didn’t surprise me because I knew that Cannon Films were financing it […] But as soon as I read the script, I realised that there were more effects on this film than there were in the first three films combined.”
The shots taken at Milton Keynes Central were supposed to be augmented with some matte paintings, designed to extend the low-lying buildings into Manhattan-style skyscrapers. As time and money ran out, that all fell by the wayside.
Despite the evident cost-saving, Christopher Reeve kept up a chipper facade for journalists visiting the Milton Keynes shoot. “Don’t kick the pigeons!” Reeve was heard to joke between takes.
According to a report in Weekend magazine, Reeve had even warmed to the British location shoots – something he’d initially resisted. Cannon had, apparently, “persuaded him that Milton Keynes, with its up-to-date architecture and tower blocks, would be ideal.”
“I was afraid that after hiring all the people I wanted on the film, it was going to be shot on the cheap,” Reeve said, but added: “I have been amazed at the results. They are the best yet.”
Privately, Christopher Reeve clearly knew he had a stinker on his hands. After filming wrapped, he met co-star Jon Cryer (who played Lex Luthor’s nephew Lenny) for lunch. “You need to know: it’s an absolute mess,” Reeve confided. “We had six months of flying work that we were supposed to shoot; they cut five months of it. They’ve thrown together an edit that barely makes sense.”
When Superman IV came out in July 1987, it had not only been compromised by its budget constraints, but had its middle chopped out. After a dismal screening for executives, Warner commented that the film needed to be cut down. With time running out before release, the middle two reels were hastily discarded, thus turning what was once a 132 minute film into a conspicuously brief 87 minute film.
As a result of all this, the majestic quality of the first two Superman films was gone. The story was disjointed and weird – a result not only of the harsh editing, but the sheer speed at which it had all been shot. You can spot the exact same extras (including that horse we keep going on about) in a scene at the start of the film and another one at the end.
The fight scenes are staggeringly inept. There’s a sequence where Superman flies up into space with Mariel Hemingway cradled in his arms, and she’s clearly breathing.
Reviews for Superman IV were merciless, and the box office receipts were dismal. The film was one of several high-profile flops for Cannon Films – that summer’s Masters Of The Universe was another – which would eventually contribute to its collapse at the end of the decade. Plans for a fifth Superman film were quietly shelved.
Infamous though Superman IV is, we can’t help but harbour a sneaking affection for it. We also wonder whether, if the production had been given a bit more money, it could have been quite a good film instead of an inept one. It’s not uncommon for movies to use cheaper locations as stand-ins for other cities – World War Z used Glasgow as a replacement for Philadelphia, while Skyfall used buildings in London for Shanghai, for example, and few cinemagoers seemed to notice.
With some decent matte paintings and better set dressing, it’s possible that Milton Keynes could have done a decent impression of Manhattan.
Sadly, we’ll never know. But as we walked back to the car park, past the train station, through the underpass with its cryptic graffiti, past Bannatyne’s gym and past the brassy Argos sign, we feel a pang of gratitude for Superman IV’s existence.
For better or worse, it’s our local slice of cinema history.
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