I’ve got an enduring love for London. I’ve never actually lived there but in the 12 years I’ve lived back in Oxford, I don’t think a week has passed that hasn’t found me there at least once. It’s one of the greatest cities in the world and historically one of the most fascinating. I’ve always felt London was a little unrepresented on film. I know that’s a ridiculous thing to say as, since the first film camera rolled, London has been captured every day and whole waves of filmmaking have always emanated from it. Currently, you only have to dip in to Sainsbury’s to see that we’re in a golden age of shitty London gangster films and shitty comedy horror which seems to be an entire economy built around keeping Danny Dyer and Noel Clarke in bountiful employment.
I love seeing London on film but have never really appreciated the touristy approach – the shots of Big Ben and Beefeaters and the charming appeal of the South Bank on a Sunday morning (and it is charming of a Sunday!) I recently watched the Dustin Hoffman vehicle Last Chance Harvey and it seemed to be entirely composed of charming walking conversations between him and Emma Thompson up and down between Waterloo Bridge and the Oxo Tower. This in itself felt very ripped off from Truly, Madly, Deeply – the only pretentious film that I will defend to the death. I guess what rankled was that it was a film set in London that, to me, had none of the actual flavour of London. So, inspired by that, I decided to identify the films which scream London to me and chart the changes that have kept the city amazing through cinema’s short history.
WONDERFUL LONDON (1924)
OK, so I’m starting with a little cheat as this isn’t a fiction film. I’ll always take any opportunity I can to plug the BFI DVD label, my favourite label by far. Wonderful London is a collection of, essentially, travelogue films. Back in the day, before our cinema ‘program’ consisted of car ads, trailers for upcoming films which leave you wondering if they’re very clever satires or very very bad ideas (always the latter) and some baffling crap filmed at a premiere hosted by an animated M&M, cinemagoers would be treated to short films, comedies, news reels and even supporting features. These short documentaries were fun slices of life. This is a beautiful collection of pre-sound short looks at different areas of London. All shot at 18 frames per second, with a gorgeous sepia tint and endearing title cards. I doubt this DVD sold many copies and I can see how it might not sound exciting and appealing but it’s a magical watch. Precisely because it is filmed merely to capture sights rather than construct drama, we’re transported back in time. Streets filled with people and pets long gone. Films of ghosts. Particularly great is that the filmmakers explore all of London – the backstreets, the rough parts of town, the markets, the canals. Occasionally you see a street you recognise but free of modern cars, neon and advertising, nobody’s on a mobile phone, not a Primark bag in sight. Perhaps because it is unstaged, it really just takes you there.
HOPE AND GLORY (1987)
I should probably have chosen one made at the time but Hope and Glory has always stood out to me as the great Blitz film. World War 2’s impact on London has been explored a lot but it tends to veer between heavy drama or rambunctious comedy, all infused with the good old British spirit that hardens the cock of even the most impotent BNP voter. Hope and Glory does something very different. It’s an autobiographical film from John Boorman who tells his story from the point of view of a 10 year old boy. The Blitz is presented neither as tragedy or adventure but as a force which tears through the boredom and monotony of suburban London. Even when the bombing gets scary, there is an inherent excitement in it that you feel the main character would choose without hesitation over dull routine. It’s such a spirited and off-kilter film. its poignancy comes through its sense of humour and pathos but it also paints a picture of the end of childhood in this country. You get the feeling that this was the generation whose seen-but-not-heard shackles were cut as the middle class kids were left to run wild whilst their parents focused on more important matters. We follow Bill through the bombed out houses, his interaction with gangs of kids and their early sexual awakenings. There’s a Lord of the Flies quality to it all and life turns on him in an unexpected way. A lot of the film takes place away from London but what interests me in the context of this blog is how insightful it is into the psychology of the city. It shows you what the Blitz wiped away and the seeds it sowed for the London that would follow.
UP THE JUNCTION (1968)
I love this film, it feels like the key to the Baby Boom generation. It examines the ugliness of London in the sixties. It tells the story of a wealthy Chelsea girl who wants to taste life so decides to slum it, getting a factory job and a tiny flat in Battersea. Suzy Kendall plays Polly, the lead, with compassion rather than naivete but is dwarfed by brooding, hungry Dennis Waterman as her boyfriend Pete. I know. As much as Polly craves for a real life away from the vacuous bigots of her own social scene, Pete is disgusted by his working class background and their lack of sophistication or ambition. It’s an ugly world of pub fights and backstreet abortions but it also captures a rich mix of colourful London characters which seem to have been marginalised or eradicated by modern life. The casting is incredibly good, the performances are very real, haunting and devastating. The director Peter Collinson went on to make The Italian Job. Although Up the Junction opts for depth and social commentary over the humour and bombast of his more famous offering, it’s an incredible dissection of the social forces at play in London in a time more often captured on film as bright and carefree.
SITTING TARGET (1972)
Sitting Target is a strange film. You spend most of it wondering what the director is hoping to make you feel. Oliver Reed plays Harry Lomart. A bastard. Harry breaks out of a high security prison to kill his wife, who has just reasonably revealed to him that she is pregnant by another man and not prepared to wait for Harry – who isn’t due for release any time in the next few decades. So, a convicted killer on a bloody mission to kill his pregnant wife. Somewhat beyond the label of even anti-hero. But, Reed being Reed, he plays it with such smouldering wide-eyed charisma, we find ourselves somewhat, troublingly, on his side. The reason this stands out to me as a London film is its depiction of a modern city. Much of the action takes place in and out of the high rise tower blocks which have now replaced the slums which haunt Up The Junction. It’s an age where modernism is accepted and good. The buildings are crisp, clean and white, filled with habitat furniture but also breeding anonymity and vulnerability. When Reed prepares for his assassination attempt, we see how one small rifle sight can observe any window, how all of these peoples lives have been contained in one simple, easy to maintain and observe fish tank. It’s actually a great film, Ian McShane plays Reed’s wingman and an unexpected third act revelation provides a wallop of moral fibre which leaves us in no doubt how we should actually feel about Harry.
MADE IN BRITAIN (1982)
Ten years later and how far society has changed. The tower blocks, once new and optimistic have become lawless and wretched. The true underclass have had their communities taken away along with their jobs, dignity and hope. This generation of teenagers is nihilistic and angry. There were plenty of skinhead/hooligan films that sprung up around this time but Made in Britain remains the most scathing indictment of Thatcher’s Britain. In one of the great screen debuts, Tim Roth plays Trevor, a skinhead with a difference. He’s violent, deeply anarchistic and racist, despite having a black best friend. The difference is that we grow to see Trevor’s intelligence. His curse isn’t his social status it’s understanding that status and what it means for his future. Nobody wants him, nobody is going to help him, he lives in a world designed to keep him quiet and, more importantly, keep him out. His rage is the fury of a worthwhile person considered utterly worthless. By the time redemption is offered, he’s too far gone and pursues a course of action to pointlessly martyr himself as a representation for his kind. It’s the work of Alan Clarke, the director of Scum and The Firm, who probably had the greatest political and social eye in British cinema. This film shows a bleak London. It doesn’t glorify or justify the mayhem, it just presents a view of a failed system where the divide between rich and poor, that seemed in the 60s vaguely possible to heal, was only to get worse.
LONDON RIVER (2009)
London River is the kind of film which should have been made decades ago. An important portrayal of London as it really is – an immigrant city steeped in a multitude of cultures. It’s the film that should be screened at UKIP conferences (rallies?) to explain the capital city to people. This notion of Britishness we seem to be endlessly confronted with – fish & chips (brought over by the Eastern European Jews, thank you), Winston Churchill, Spitfires and cricket greens – exists mainly in the eyes of the confused. I’m sure if your only experience of London was a citybreak twice a decade which extended to a boat down the Thames, a look at Big Ben, Phantom of the Opera and a slap-up dinner in an Angus Steak House, then it would be easy to see London as a bastion of colonialism. But it isn’t. It never has been. It has always been an immigrant city, a port town. London River is the first film I’m aware of to embrace this in a significant manner. To begin with, it’s a French film. From a French writer/director with most of the dialogue being French with English subtitles. Brenda Blethyn stars as a Guernesy-based mother drawn to London by a complete and worrying lack of contact from her daughter following the 7/7 bombings. She quickly finds her fate entangled with a man from Africa, played by Sotigui Kouyaté on a similar mission to find his son. As it becomes clear that their children were a couple, both find themselves wondering not only if they died but whether they might have been a part of the attacks. It’s a great film played with fantastic gravitas by its leads. Kouyaté is a film actor of the highest order, his entire performance being incredibly visual and played out through his eyes, silence and stillness. The film takes place amongst the Muslim community, there is barely a white face in the film and rarely a London accent. Not that this is, in any way, a point the filmmaker is trying to make. In telling this important story, he opens up the real London, the London so rarely seen on film. The non-white, non-English speaking London which represents a large part of the true culture of the city.
So what do you think? Have you seen these films? What have I missed out?