BFI Puts London On Film
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.