Outsiders & Eccentrics: London On Film
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.
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.
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.