What’s Your Background?
[I’ve rewritten one of my favourite pieces on London, of which you’ll notice there are a great many on this little site. I thought it was worth revisiting. Coming later this week, a Christmas quiz.
I love to watch old London-set films as much for what’s going on in the background as the story, from ‘The Ladykillers’ (1955), which features my neighbourhood back when it was a sooty industrial wasteland bisected by railway lines (all still there), to the delightful ‘Genevieve’ (1953), which shows the tramlines still set in the cobbled roads south of the Thames, to ‘Smashing Time’ (1967), which roams from Fitzrovia to a very lilac Belsize Park to psychedelic Chelsea, via misty canals and mod streets of fashion.
The layouts of the twisting streets never change and the quirky, individual shops have largely been replaced by coffee chains but some locations still feel the same. This corner of Belsize Park is drabber but still recognisable.
‘The Elephant Man’ (1980) was the last film to be shot in the wharves of Shad Thames before they were torn down, and many of us recall the smell of cinnamon and pepper lingering in the brick alleyways years after demolition was carried out.
Some films cheated in their depiction of London; Antonioni famously painted a terrace of houses in pastel shades for ‘Blow Up’ (1966), and others show characters travelling from Burlington Arcade to Tower Bridge via Wimbledon in order to take in as many sights as possible. In ‘Blow Up’ there’s an extraordinary street of shiny red tiles, which someone here may know the history of – I don’t.
The biggest shock was watching ‘The Optimists of Nine Elms’ (1973), in which Peter Sellers plays a busker befriended by two scruffy children. Set in Nine Elms, next to Vauxhall, which is not much more than diagonally opposite the Houses of Parliament, it appears in the film as it was then in reality, looking gruesomely Victorian.
The Thames is shown as filthy and beset with literally thousands of gulls, and demolition is laying waste to great swathes of its industrial landscape. The Nine Elms cold-store was a vast crumbling industrial block filled with junkies. No wonder the children in the film look longingly at the new blocks of flats in which they hope to be housed! (These, in turn, were condemned and pulled down, to be replaced by millionaires’ apartments). I pulled this unretouched screen grab from the movie. It was the seventies, for God’s sake!
The more you look at old films, the more you realise that London passes through distinct cycles, from sumptuous cleanliness to appalling filth. In ‘Night and the City’ (1950) London appears elegant and European. In the terrific film ‘The Small World of Sammy Lee’ (1963), Anthony Newley plans a fast-talking wheeler-dealer racing around Soho trying to raise money before he gets his face razored, and Soho has never looked better. In ‘The Fallen Idol’ Belgravia looks like it always has; full of the wealthy entitled, but there are also signs of life in the film that aren’t there now (chimney sweeps! Charladies!)
By this time, black characters are appearing on street corners, always in natty suits. Although they tended to play slightly ‘other’ characters, accompanied by calypso music because West Indies, they were usually treated as a curiosity rather than meanly. In ‘The Sandwich Man’, a great film for London background-watching, a Caribbean family is teased for having a lot of children. In ‘Sparrows Can’t Sing’ (also 1963) East London is shown in full transition, and lonely tower blocks are replacing homes whether the locals like it or not. Many East Enders, resentful of finding their streets demographically changing again, moved to Essex, true home of the Cockney.
Certain views, such as Thames bankside or anywhere rich don’t change much. ‘The Killing of Sister George’ (1968) is shot around the backstreets of Hampstead and might have been filmed yesterday, while this shot of a very young Michael Caine on the South Bank is timeless – but look at the utter lack of tall buildings in the city behind him!
From here London moves on to Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) in ‘The Long Good Friday’ (1980) – ‘I’m a Londoner (‘Lunduna’) but I’m also a businessman’, from the iconic speech he delivers on his boat to American gangsters. He’s investing in the future, not realising that the future has no use for him, and the film features the final end of Docklands, on the cusp of being replaced by Canary Wharf – and the financial utopia envisioned by Maggie Thatcher.
And so we come to the present day, with the multi-cultural London of ‘Paddington’ and Daniel Craig surveying the city in ‘Spectre’, by which time it has become a peculiar hybrid of working city and tourist mecca, scrubbed up for selfies but still messy and disreputable. If I had to pick a favourite time for it in my lifetime it would be around 1968, before the disastrous governance of the seventies, while so-called swinging London was still bathing the buildings in dazzling colours. I managed to miss it, but then we always hanker for the period immediately before our own.