'Underground' to 'Wonderland': BFI's 'London on Film' Season Celebrates the Nation's Capital

Alex Ramon
Wonderland (1999)

From Asquith’s Underground (1928) to Winterbottom’s Wonderland (1999), BFI celebrates cinematic representations of the English capital with an ambitious summer season that highlights the city’s continuities and changes.

Michael Winterbottom, Basil Dearden, Antony Asquith, John Mackenzie, David Eady, Anthony Simmons

London on Film

City: London
Venue: BFI Southbank
Date: 2015-07 to 2015-10

"Behold! From afar it gleams like a jewel. But walk within the shadow of her walls and what do you find? Filth! Squalor! Misery!" So proclaims Trotter (James Robertson Justice), the Engine Room Officer of the HMS Dunbar merchant liner, as he surveys the city from the sanctuary of his ship in Basil Dearden’s Pool of London (1951). Even when the Dunbar comes into port, Trotter stays aboard, preferring the safety of the vessel (and copious quantities of booze) to risking the seductions and perils of the capital that his crew clearly craves.

The character’s assessment of London as a city best experienced in long-shot is variously endorsed and subverted by the movies that make up the British Film Institute’s (BFI) hugely ambitious "London on Film" season. Presenting the city and its denizens both up-close and at a distance, the films featured in this summer-long celebration of London's representation in cinema show the capital to be by turns squalid and splendid, queer and quotidian, enduring and ever-evolving.

Divided into three sections ("The Changing Face of the City", "Londoners", and "The City Re-imagined"), "London on Film" is part of the larger "Britain on Film" project: a vast new online archive that offers free access to previously unseen filmed footage of the nation. Surprisingly enough, though, it’s the first full season that the BFI has dedicated to cinematic representations of the English capital. This may be due to the fact that, as a cinematic space, London can seem to some to be an also-ran, lacking the allure and romance of Paris, or the mythic grandeur of New York. BFI curator Byrony Dixon extrapolates a wider point here. "We’re profoundly insecure about our own cinema," Dixon claims. "Each generation has to be told [that] it’s OK to like British films."

As a season, "London on Film" radically subverts such a perspective. Indeed, the variety and richness of the features and documentaries screened reveal "London on Film" to be a multifarious concept in which it makes more sense to speak about various cinematic "Londons" than one over-arching totality, as Paul O’Callaghan and Michael Brooke have shown in their taxonomies of films set in the East and West of the city. Still, the recurrence of several spaces and locales in the films -- the river and the Docks, Soho, the Tube -- allows for the tracing of threads and patterns in cinematic representations of the capital, and constitute a vibrant way of mapping some of the city’s continuities and changes over 100 years.

While even a season as broad as this has inevitable omissions, curator Robin Baker has been judicious in his selection of films, mixing established classics with works that are ripe for rediscovery. Indeed, one of the great pleasures of the season is precisely the opportunity that it offers for the reappraisal of lesser-known movies as forming an important part of the "London on Film" narrative. First among these must be Antony Asquith’s great 1928 silent Underground, lovingly restored in 2009 and now boasting a dynamic new score by Neil Brand. Reflecting Asquith’s assimilation of contemporaneous influences, the film bears the mark of Soviet montage and German Expressionist techniques, with a barroom brawl sequence brilliantly utilising a subjective viewpoint. The film is valuable for its showcasing of a range of locales (pubs, parks, and buses) that convey the texture of 1920s London, testifying to what Charlotte Brunsdon has termed "the inadvertent documentary role of feature films" (Charlotte Brunsdon, London in Cinema: The Cinematic City Since 1945. London: British Film Institute, 2007: 9).

As the title indicates, the movie’s key location is one of the most everyday yet iconic of London spaces: the Tube. Just as he used a barber shop and a cinema auditorium as sites of transgressive interaction in his following film, A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929), Asquith here presents the London Underground as such a democratic social space. Cheeky flirtations (including a memorable meeting on a Waterloo station escalator) and everyday irritations (to surrender that hard-won seat or not?) give way to duplicity and danger as the narrative hones in on a lovers’ tangle involving a shop-girl, Nell (Elissa Landi); an Underground porter, Bill (Brian Aherne); a seamstress, Kate (Norah Baring); and an electrician, Bert (Cyril McLagen). Commencing in deceptively light rom-com mode, the film gradually turns wilder, building to a thrillingly powerful chase climax that makes terrific use of Chelsea’s (now defunct) Lots Road Power Station, which supplied electricity to the Tube network.

The Long Good Friday (1979)

As Colin Sorensen points out, one of the joys of engaging with such early films is that "a vanished London can be revisited" (Colin Sorensen, London on Film: 100 Years of Filmmaking in London. London: Museum of London, 1996: 11). The use of locations such as the Lots Road Power Station in Underground highlight cinema as a sort of time capsule, capable of transporting the viewer back to elements of the capital now lost or transformed. A recurrent site in many of the featured films is the Thames, and, in particular, the Docklands area, a space that’s especially key to John Mackenzie’s much acclaimed The Long Good Friday (1979), "perhaps the quintessential London film", in Luke McKernan’s appraisal (Luke McKernan, “London on Film", in Brian McFarlane [ed.] The Encyclopaedia of British Film. London: Methuen-BFI, 2003: 403-4).

In Mackenzie’s crime thriller, Bob Hoskins’s Harry Shand plots to redevelop the Docks into a thriving centre of commerce with investment from the American mafia. Shand’s plan foreshadows the Conservative government’s controversial renovation of the Docks in a way that justifies Lou Thomas’s description of the character as “the first truly Thatcherite anti-hero of British cinema.” The Long Good Friday’s prescience about the transformation of the Docks, its savvy account of Britain’s uneasy position "between" Europe and the US, and its terrific performances from Hoskins and Helen Mirren as Shand’s classy, shrewd "moll" (a role that Mirren extensively developed from its apparently weak original conception), emerge as the film’s most compelling features, helping to transcend its muddled, misshapen plot, and mediocre visuals.

Made before the advent of pervasive gentrification of the city, and much lesser known, is David Eady’s The Heart Within (1957), a modest drama that fits snugly into the kid-and-criminal sub-genre of British cinema (think Tiger Bay [1959] and Whistle Down the Wind [1961]). Earl Cameron plays Victor, a Jamaican dockyard worker who goes into hiding after a false accusation of murder and is aided by a teenager (David Hemmings, shortly after to be a face of "Swinging London" thanks to his role as the photographer in Antonioni’s Blow Up [1966]).

Less interesting than the crime element, however, is The Heart Within’s engagement with issues of race, racism, and the experiences of the Windrush generation. The film’s perspective may be optimistic verging on utopian: having united to overcome injustice, its white and black characters are finally seen grooving merrily alongside each other at a party at the Caribbean Centre. But Eady doesn’t shy away from documenting the prejudice and disillusionment experienced by the migrants, whether expressed in a policeman’s casual comments -- "If I had my way I’d send the lot of them packing" -- or in the self-aware Victor’s rueful realisation that "a coloured man’s guilty until he’s proven innocent." "I came here with big hopes," Victor notes, "and end up in a junkyard."

Pool of London (1951)

Along with Cy Grant, the Bermuda-born Cameron was very much the face of Black experience on the British screen during this period. (Now 98, and still sprightly, the actor appeared at a Q & A following the screen of The Heart Within, fielding with grace and good humour some rather stupid questions from the audience.) Six years before The Heart Within, Cameron made his film debut as the sailor Johnny in Dearden’s aforementioned Pool of London. Produced shortly after the establishment of the 1948 Nationality Act, which granted UK citizenship to citizens of Britain’s current and former colonies, Pool of London uses the Docks and other city locations as the context for the interactions of a large-ish group of characters, including Bonar Colleano’s Canadian sailor Dan and Susan Shaw’s ticket seller Pat, with whom Cameron’s Johnny forms a romantic bond over a single weekend.

Andrew Higson has commented on the generic hybridity of Pool, classifying the film as "a noirish crime thriller embedded in an Ealing story documentary-cum-soap-opera, saturated with picturesque location photography of London’s streets and docklands, with a storyline about race relations thrown in for good measure" (Andrew Higson, “Pool of London”, in Alan Burton, Tim O’Sullivan, and Paul Wells [eds], Liberal Directions. Trowbridge: Flicks Books, 1997: 162). Higson may be correct to suggest that there’s too much going on in the movie, but the surfeit of modes and storylines is also key to the film’s richness, as is its featuring of the first interracial relationship in British cinema.

The film’s centrepiece sequence takes place at Greenwich, with Johnny and Pat at the Observatory. The scene finds Johnny opening up about his feelings for London ("It’s the first time that I’ve been ashore … that I haven’t been glad to get back to sea. [The city] always seemed before to be such a big, lonesome kind of place…") and gently correcting Pat’s assertion that skin colour "doesn’t matter": "It does, you know. Maybe one day it won’t anymore. But it still does." More mature and melancholic than The Heart Within, Pool of London is tender and astute in its attention both to the city’s diverse spaces and the possibilities and limitations of the cross-cultural interactions developed therein. As Brunsdon comments, "The London of the film is both laid out for [Johnny], as a series of spectacles and views, and -- perhaps inadvertently -- shown as a London that he cannot inhabit" (Brunsdon, 188).

Four in the Morning (1965)

Another under-sung addition to the mid-century trend of socially-conscious London-set cinema Is Anthony Simmons’s superb Four in the Morning (1965) which explores the ways in which city space colludes in female oppression. Originally conceived as a documentary about the Thames, Simmons’s film was gradually developed into a narrative feature, its three separate strands each gesturing towards a particular genre: the mystery-thriller, the "kitchen sink" domestic drama, and an Antonioni-influenced disquisition on male/female malaise. The film begins with the discovery of a woman’s body in the Thames, harking back to Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend and anticipating Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972). However, what Pauline Kael rightly described as the “rancid, mechanical” qualities of the Hitchcock film are entirely absent here (Pauline Kael, “Hyperbole and Narcissus”, in Reeling. Boston: Atlantic-Little, Brow, 1976: 47). Rather, Four in the Morning proves both sensitive and insightful as it juxtaposes the progress of the corpse to the mortuary with the experiences of two other women (one a housewife, the other a nightclub singer), intimating, through the tripartite structure, that either character may be in store for the dead woman’s unfortunate fate.

In addition to its formal confidence (a speedboat river trip sequence is startling) and its sure sense of location, the movie’s importance also lies in its showcasing of a rare early screen role for Judi Dench, who is heart-wrenching here as a young mother being driven crazy by the demands of her ever-wailing baby and the fecklessness of a spouse more keen on continual carousing than facing up to marital duties. In its sympathetic attention to the everyday reality of women’s lives, and its depiction of a 1960s London that’s definitely not "swinging", Four in the Morning deserves classic status. The movie is, in Sue Harper’s terms, "feminist art… a film which evokes a gasp of emotional pain as it enunciates the traps in which women are caught" (Sue Harper, Women in British Cinema: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know. London: Continuum, 2000: 122).

Also painful but ultimately much more redemptive in its portrait of three women’s lives is Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland (1999), which distinctively and dynamically captures London on the cusp of the new millennium. Like a notable number of the films discussed above (The Long Good Friday, Pool of London, Four in the Morning), which seek narrative strategies to contain and manage the multiplicity of the metropolis, Wonderland also takes place in a highly condensed time frame. The movie unfolds over a November weekend in which the lives of three sisters -- the lovelorn Nadia (Gina McKee), the raucous single mother Debbie (Shirley Henderson), and the fretful, pregnant Molly (Molly Parker) -- are shown in the wider context of their network of family, friends, lovers, acquaintances, and neighbours.

In terms of locations, Wonderland takes place in a recognisable working-class, multicultural South London of estates and social housing, with excursions into other locales including Soho (where Nadia works in a café). Southwark Bridge, Selhurst Park football stadium, and Lewisham Hospital are memorably featured. Shot by Sean Bobbitt using a hand-held super 16-mm camera, the grainy images (often capturing passers-by who didn’t know they were being filmed) aspire to documentary, and have both grit and grace.

Indeed, Wonderland would seem to fit unproblematically into the tradition of British screen realism, were it not for some of the exciting formal elements that Winterbottom incorporates. These include a swooning, rhapsodic score by Michael Nyman that brilliantly contrasts and counterpoints the characters’ less-than-romantic journeys through the city, and the use of time-lapse and slow-motion photography in certain scenes. The emblematic sequence finds Nadia on a bus, heading home alone after a miserable sexual encounter, surrounded by Saturday night revelers. As such, the movie "moves in and out of particular characters’ stories to a more abstract account of city life in general" (Brunsdon, 219). The style is as democratic as the structure: OK, Winterbottom and screenwriter Laurence Coriat seem to be saying, we’re looking at this particular family, but there are all these stories, all this life, surrounding them, too.

It’s surprising to find that, on its original release, Wonderland was commonly viewed as a downer. Graham Fuller in The New York Times, defines the film’s London as "a locus of alienation, loneliness and despair", while Stuart Jeffries, in a dumbfounding Guardian piece, laments the movie’s "sour vision of the world". Such appraisals are way off: the pervasiveness of sadness and loneliness in the city are certainly among Wonderland’s concerns, but the movie is equally alert to possibilities of connection and pleasure, too. The title, at once ironic and sincere, is perfect: Winterbottom shows that, for all its cruelty and coldness, London can, at times, become a wonderland, whether in the thrill and excitement experienced by a child watching Bonfire Night fireworks or the prospect of chance connection that provides the film’s perfectly judged, tentatively hopeful climax.

One commentator at the screening noted that Wonderland now seems like “a period piece” (no mobile phones; no Shard in the cityscape). I’d argue, in contrast, that the film feels particularly vibrant and fresh 16 years on. Wonderland clearly delineates significant social changes in relation to gender and race when compared to Pool of London or Four in the Morning. Yet the movie's humanism, its bracing but unsentimental compassion for its characters, results in a work that feels timeless. Few films, of any era, have conveyed London’s bleakness and beauty better than Winterbottom and his collaborators manage here.

"London on Film" continues throughout August and September at BFI Southbank.





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