Outsiders & Eccentrics: London On Film

London

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After finishing ‘Film Freak’ I realised that the book was more or less a requiem for popular British film, and that the only future for a national cinema seemed to lay in arthouse independents or films selling ‘Englishness’ to overseas audiences. Since then, all that has come to pass, with even the delightful ‘Paddington’ films falling into the category of Selling Englishness abroad.

But on film we’ve always presented an alt.London that never existed in real life. In its earliest incarnation it was a city of cute gaslit backstreets, jolly bobbies, top-hatted ninnies in clubs, uniformed nannies in parks and a cheery proletariat tumbling out of boozers. It always struck me as perverse that Hollywood, a city with absolutely nothing but sunshine, films mainly exteriors, while London, extraordinarily photogenic, shoots interiors. Despite the mass despoliation of streets with glass towers, there are still parts of London that look incredibly atmospheric; go to St John’s Wood, Maida Vale, Chelsea or Hampstead and many of the roads feel like film sets. Visit Dalston or Borough and you get a grittier version of the same.

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We like to idealise London, ghost-mapping it into different versions that can be placed over each other. In the 1950s and 1960s this other London got star billing in serious dramas like ‘Victim’ and ‘Performance’, but also in dozens of crime capers from ‘Too Many Crooks’ to ‘The Wrong Arm Of The Law’. In these films London was populated by outsiders and eccentrics. Even Norman Wisdom got to play a prisoner who lets himself out of jail at night to tend the governor’s garden in ‘There Was A Crooked Man’.

As much as we might think of London’s outsiders as being the ultimately London guides and therefore the ultimate insiders, we also seemed endlessly fascinated by institutions like Scotland Yard and parliament. While America filmed the wild west, we filmed boardroom tables and bureaucracy. Virtually every film that features a local situation escalating into trouble ends up with civil servants or corporate heads arguing in a boardroom. This reveals the kind of films we favoured; ones with a lot of London chatter about doing the right thing, class and rules. London may have been presented as bustling or louche, upright or seedy, but it always had an army of office workers ready to do battle with paper and carbons.

The Paddington films are to be welcomed as ones that restore London as a dream city, a place where make-believe can exist as part of reality. Harry Potter has left a permanent mark on the city with its monument at King’s Cross Station. These are children’s films, but perhaps they’ll encourage writers and directors to explore London in more depth on film. Because right now, there are no serious films being made that reflect the newly corporate city – perhaps that’s too depressing to consider showing.

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Looking at the timeline of London-shot films you can see how the city is gradually treated differently on film. The cheery tone darkens considerably over the decades. Here are a few highlights:

‘This Happy Breed’ (1944) chronicles the fortunes of one South London household between the wars, through tragedy and domesticity.

‘No Place For Jennifer’ (1949) featured a little girl walking beneath the extraordinary Euston Arch before it was torn down and replaced with retail chain outlets.

‘Seven Days To Noon’ (1950) and ’28 Days Later’ (2002) both showed a London devoid of human beings, the former because of a bomb scare, the latter because of a virus.

‘I Believe In You’ (1952) and ‘Entertaining Mr Sloane’ (1970) both featured Central London’s only open-air swimming pool, The Oasis. The former had Joan Collins leering at Harry Fowler, the latter had virtually the same scene with Harry Andrews and Peter McEnery.

‘The Yellow Balloon’ (1953) reflects a darkness that surfaces in London films of this period. It concerns two boys playing on a bomb site, one of whom falls to his death. Guilt and recriminations follow.

‘The Ladykillers’ (1955), equally dark but played as a noir comedy, constructed Mrs Wilberforce’s house in a dead end street in King’s Cross. The same area, showing its iconic gas-holders, was used for ‘Chaplin’ and ‘Richard III’.

‘Sparrows Can’t Sing’ (1963) shows London in transition with James Booth returning to the East End after two years at sea to find his house demolished and wife gone. New flats replace the slums, and East Enders can’t wait to live in them.

In the same year ‘The Small World of Sammy Lee’ had Anthony Newley playing a the compère of a seedy strip club struggling to keep one step ahead of the bookies to avoid being slashed with a razor. Running through Soho, we get a perfect idea of what the old quarter used to look like; jazzy, seedy, not a bubble tea bar in sight.

In ‘Ladies Who Do’ (also 1963) we have Peggy Mount and Miriam Karlin as charladies invading the male-dominated business world crying ‘The blood of the bourgeoisie will run in the gutters of the Charing Cross Road!’ Here the captains of industry are undermined by an invisible brigade of women, to great comic effect.

‘Blow-Up’ (1966) starts to show London in deeper turmoil and confusion as a place of deceptive appearances, as photographer David Hemmings thinks he has filmed a murder, but can’t decide if what he’s seen is real.

By the time we get to ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1971) a new level of cynicism and darkness has swept in. The Droogs gathered in tunnels under the new South-East London town of Thamesmead (which looked more appealing later in ‘Beautiful Thing’). Causing outrage at the time, the film’s setting now seems almost quaint.

Frenzy’ (1972) was Hitchcock’s memory of Covent Garden, sinister, claustrophobic and dirty, full of grim little flats and a serial killer. His film was followed by those of Peter Walker, whose grindhouse killer flicks capture areas of London never normally seen on film.

‘The Long Good Friday’ (1980) has London in freefall, carved up by thuggish property developers and organised crime. Symbolically, a beautiful Victorian pub is blown apart.

‘Nil By Mouth’ (1997) is director Gary Oldman’s brilliant, highly personal rendition of South London life on a council estate, glittering darkly at night, destroying its residents with addiction, violence and the surprising ability to survive.

‘Franklyn’ (2008) features a London fully catapulted into an alternate hellish version of itself as Meanwhile City, reimagined as a religious dystopia.

In other words, London always acts as a litmus test of the times.

 

11 comments on “Outsiders & Eccentrics: London On Film”

  1. Ken Mann says:

    Always interests me to hear the old lost London accent as well – in between the RADA cockneys you sometimes get hints of that accent recorded in the phonetic spellings of old music hall songs, where beer has two syllables and won’t you is pronounce wontyer.

  2. admin says:

    Peggy Mount managed to squeeze two syllables out of ‘floor’ – ‘flaw-er’.

  3. diana says:

    Wishing you well after your surgery. I am about half way through listening to Strange Tide on audiobook, oh my, what a pleasure! I so look forward ,as I do with all the Bryant and May tales to entering that special world. I enjoy the story, the language, the humour and of course the city in all its manifestations. Thank you.

  4. Brian Evans says:

    Admin-You’ve brought back wonderful memories of that comedy great-Peggy Mount. A one off!

  5. Ian Luck says:

    It’s odd that American movies would always portray their cities, quite correctly, as huge and sprawling, but whenever they depict London, like a dream, it becomes ‘telescoped’. Buckingham Palace, of course, is just round the corner from Tower Bridge, which is next to Westminster Abbey, and Trafalgar Square. As ane fule kno. The very best, and most extreme piece of cinematic location ‘telescoping’, has to appear on ‘Robin Hood; Prince Of Thieves’. Robin Hood comes ashore at a very pebbly south coast beach – somewhere like Pevensey, in Sussex, I would guess, and the next shot has him (presumably heading for Nottingham), climbing part of Hadrian’s Wall. A tad too far north, mate.

  6. Debra Matheney says:

    See that Forgotten Authors is included in my Slightly Foxed catalog. Good for them. What a fun read it is.

    Take care of yourself. We need your take on life and letters as well as more Bryant and May.

    Deb

  7. Martin Tolley says:

    Ian, I guess that Tardis-like surgery of geography happens everywhere in film land.
    Anyone who knows Glasgow will be astonished/amused in the old TV series Taggart by the folk leaving a bar in one end of the city, turning the corner and finding themselves a good five miles away south of the Clyde. I remember one episode when a couple left a relatively famous curry house in the west end of the city and emerged on a street in Edinburgh. And don’t get me started on the Lake District re-imagined through the quirky looking glass of BBC’s The A Word….

  8. Ian Luck says:

    I’m sure that you’re correct, Martin. The Robin Hood one stands out simply because it was on TV, and my dad burst out laughing at how very wrong it was. I did some security work at Bawdsey Manor in the late 1990’s, when it was being used as a set for one of PD James’ ‘Inspector Dalgliesh’ stories, ‘A Mind To Murder’, which was an eye-opener, I can tell you. There is a scene where someone is killed with an arrow, and the killer escapes through a door into the garden. Only the door he seemingly exits through didn’t lead to the garden. That door was at the other end of the building. There was a file room, seen briefly, but every filing cabinet was full of files. The Police incident room was dressed wonderfully, and full of tiny details that would never be seen on old CRT TV sets – notepads full of names and telephone numbers, post-it notes on computers with the password on, Sandwich lists, post-it notes saying things like ‘It’s your turn to get the teas in’. In the editing room, I watched them digitally compositing a scene which showed the entrance to Ipswich docks with Tower Bridge in the background, turning Ipswich into part of Shad Thames, proving, at least to me, that everything you know can be wrong.

  9. Ian Luck says:

    The last time I saw Peggy Mount, was on the late 1980’s Doctor Who story, ‘The Greatest Show In The Galaxy’. If you hate clowns, this isn’t the story for you. It also ends with The Doctor’s seventh incarnation (Sylvester McCoy) nonchalently sauntering away from a huge, real explosion, without flinching, jumping, or changing the speed of his stride. Peggy Mount used to play the sort of female character my late father used to refer to, amusingly (to my youthful ears), as ‘a battle-axe’. A large woman with a stentorian voice. I’m sure, in real life, she was lovely, but she only played fearsome roles in comedy shows. She was namechecked several times on ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’, my favourite being a mock continuity announcement:
    “And now on BBC, a choice of viewing. On BBC 2, it’s the second semi-final of Kierkegaard’s journals, starring Peggy Mount, and Billy Bremner, and on BBC 1: Me telling you this.”

  10. Helen Martin says:

    I think the geographical distortion happens in all films. Those of us who grew up where The Beachcombers spent a number of mostly happy years filming were forever chopping out bits of scenery mostly because in a tv series you have only so many seconds available for “driving down the road” so you just show them starting and two seconds later they’re turning into a side road. If you have two perfect houses that are two blocks apart rather than the next to each other you want then the answer is to cut from one to the other so they seem to be next door. Fiction isn’t documentary and the area is used as background.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Rats! following “happy years filming” there should be “noticed the filmers” since we certainly weren’t doing any scenery chopping.

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