BFI Puts London On Film

Christopher Fowler
The British Film Institute is doing a great job of cleaning up, restoring and reissuing some overlooked British films at the moment, and it's hard to watch them without mixed emotions - this is the world in which I grew up, now unimaginable and alien. In these films London is a character, overbearing and inescapable, but like an endearing old relative. In 'The Party's Over', beatnik Oliver Reed and his friends exhaustedly head home over Chelsea Bridge after a night of debauchery that has ended in what appears to be necrophilia, in an ending restored from censored footage. But these beatniks, and London itself, seem so crisp and clean against our modern landscape of ethnic gang stabbings that we might be watching 'Last Year at Marianbad'. Their ennui is the boredom of middle class dropouts who believe in nothing and yet they are erudite, charming, spoiled. They're well-educated and smart but cynical and unable to offer postwar solutions beyond holding the next party. The remastered widescreen BFI version of 'The Day The Earth Caught Fire' is even more revealing, showing us a lost world of newsprint and deadlines as Fleet Street's Daily Express, not so eye-swivellingly rabid back in 1961, tries to keep up with cataclysmic events occurring around the world. Rather like John Wyndham's 'The Kraken Wakes', we see the apocalypse unfold at ground level, as distant events are reported by hacks, barmaids, switchboard operators. There's a nice use of London locations too, from the old Battersea funfair to Fleet Streets offices, printing presses and wine bars, although the overhead shots, especially a fog rolling up the Thames, now look cheap. Still, it's a thoughtful SF film that boasts an award-winning screenplay, gritty characters and a vision of end-of-days London that really burns. It's also
extraordinarily prescient, foreseeing global warming, floods, food riots and societal breakdown. But it's also hard not to notice alcoholic reporter Edward Judd's condescending attitude to stunning Janet Munro, whom he calls 'dear', 'sweetie' and 'darling' before pestering her into bed. Luckily Wolf Mankowitz's screenplay allows her to get him back; she slaps him until he shapes up. It's worth going back to the noughties gangster movie boom to see Daniel Craig in the Greenwich-set 'Layer Cake'. By this time cocaine dealers had become heroes instead of crusading reporters. But London has always had anti-heroes, from 'Hell Is A City' to 'Taboo'. It's hard to imagine that in 40 years' time there might be a film that catches the mood of London in the early 21st century as well as Martin Scorsese caught New York in 1974's 'Taxi Driver'. 'Nil By Mouth' and 'The Long Good Friday' remain benchmarks for specific London time periods. The BFI has an excellent film subscription service here, with quite a lot of free ephemera available.  


Patrick Kilgallon (not verified) Fri, 08/03/2019 - 09:22

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

You're very fortunate to have had so many films set in London to remind you of the world you grew up in. Other UK cities have so few. I can only watch Get Carter and Payroll to remind me of the Newcastle of my younger days, though one day I will catch up with Clouded Yellow and On the night of Fire that show the City before I was born.

Paul Graham (not verified) Fri, 08/03/2019 - 09:57

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Tut tut Admin, Hell is a city, set and filmed in Manchester not London.

Christopher Fowler Fri, 08/03/2019 - 20:00

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I meant 'Night and the City', sorry! The one with Richard Widmark, shot partly in Goodwins Court...

'Get Carter' is a great film, though. There must be other Newcastle and Manchester films. Anyone?

snowy (not verified) Fri, 08/03/2019 - 20:32

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

24 Hour Party People and Peterloo are both about Manchester.

<del>The Full Monty</del> Sheffield
<del>Formula 51</del> Liverpool

[My skill at accents is apparently excelled only by Sean Connery. :-( ]

Paul Graham (not verified) Fri, 08/03/2019 - 22:04

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Personally, I find the film version of Jack Rosenthal's sitcom "the Lovers" and at least the opening titles of George Grau's "Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue" to show the Manchester of my 1970s childhood,which frankly seem as distant and different as Peterloo

Peter Tromans (not verified) Sat, 09/03/2019 - 01:45

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I tried to remember a film with scenes in the Black Country or nearby. Zero. Resort to Google and find something very odd. There weren't any and very few in Birmingham, but over the last couple of years the Black Country Museum has been in close to continuous use for film and TV. Nostalgia celebrates, where decades of reality passed unnoticed.

Adam (not verified) Sat, 09/03/2019 - 14:16

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Pete - I don't suppose Pebble Mill at One counts. What we lacked in filmic history, we made up for in musical heritage!

Ian Luck (not verified) Sat, 09/03/2019 - 20:27

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Shelagh Delaney's 'A Taste Of Honey' was filmed in a now mostly vanished Manchester - I watched it again the other day, and enjoyed it immensely. Watching it, you're all too easily going to think, as the KLF told us: "It's grim up north." The phrase 'Gritty Northern Realist' came to mind too - it's a phrase that I liked when I saw it on one of the surreal cut-up cartoons made by someone called 'Biff', and that often appeared in 'Viz' comic in the early 1980's. I made a t-shirt for a friend, whose favourite band, bar none, was the mighty Fall. I found a picture of the late, great Mark E. Smith, looking particularly truculent (or pissed, I don't judge), and, in a nice font, added the words: "Gritty Northern Realist.", and then by ingenious use of a case of beer, got a friend of my brother's to screen print it on to a shirt. My friend loved it. Oh, and in the movie 'Layer Cake', Daniel Craig's character is never referred to by his name in the entire film. 'Layer Cake' is one of several movies I'm very fond of from about the same time period. Another is '51st State', which I've watched many times, and still enjoy. It was filmed mainly in Liverpool, and features one of my favourite expressions of surprise of all time: "Well, shit in a bag, and punch it!" And an exploding Meat Loaf, which is nasty, but funny. I also love the barking mad 'Shoot 'Em Up', starring the best actor never to be James Bond, Clive Owen, as a hitman who can kill bad guys with anything he picks up, including carrots, to the point of telling a bad guy to: "Eat your carrots!", as he bangs one into his opponent's head through his eye. It is rather similar to the comicbook 'Hard Boiled', by Frank Miller and Geof Darrow, in tone. It also stars, as the main bad guy, the superb Paul Giamatti, as a constantly frustrated gang boss.

Vivienne (not verified) Sat, 09/03/2019 - 23:51

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Some of A Taste of Honey was filmed in London, in particular the beginning where Beryl Reid and Rita Tushingham climb out of theirt window to avoid paying rent. This was Elm Park Gardens in Chelsea: my Dad was the builder supervising the renovations and the film crew moved in when everywhere was empty. We had a script of the film, which I wish I'd kept.

Ian Luck (not verified) Sun, 10/03/2019 - 00:52

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Amusingly, your header picture, which is a still from 'The Day The Earth Caught Fire', and which you posted on Women's Day, has an advert for the Sunday Telegraph, which proudly proclaims on it: '3 Pages For Women!' Such generosity!

Helen Martin (not verified) Sun, 10/03/2019 - 20:34

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I wondered if Admin had done that on purpose, Ian.

Christopher Fowler Mon, 11/03/2019 - 07:03

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I wish I had, Helen - i was quite hard finding good still from the film.

Jan (not verified) Wed, 13/03/2019 - 20:41

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

wasn't "Taste of Honey " Salford rather than Manchester? These cities are next door neighbours but distinct from each other.