Lights, camera, London!

London Essays – Issue 4: Culture

Lights, camera, London!

London’s recent history has been told on film, influencing our perceptions of the city.

By Tony Travers

London is a theatre city. The ‘West End’ is a synonym for a massive agglomeration of glittering nightlife, acted out nightly on 50 or more of the world’s most creative stages. Off-West End theatre prospers mightily in the suburbs. Hollywood movie stars take pay cuts to see their names in lights over Shaftesbury Avenue or, indeed, at the Almeida.

Yet the same stars also appear in films made in the capital. New York may be the definitive celluloid city but London has a distinctive place in filmmaking, both as a location and as one of the world’s leading centres of production and post-production. Like New York and Paris, London’s image is affected by the way it is portrayed in the cinema. Equally, feature films often capture the city’s zeitgeist in a way that make it accessible forever as an historical record of the appearance, political concerns and social attitudes of the time.

Documentaries are intended to have a message and often carry the imprint of their ‘auteur’ directors. Feature films, by contrast, are made to appeal to an audience at a particular time – which is not to say they cannot have longer-term appeal or, like the theatre, capture the essence of human experience. But the very fact that Hollywood is a multi-billion-dollar industry has long ensured that the mass audience for films has expected its entertainment to represent its own world, albeit in dramatised form. As a result, some films capture the mood of a time or place. There are too many London films to consider more than a few representative examples: these here must stand for a much wider number of representations of the capital and its modern development.

Historical fiction, even when made in a heavily stylised form, can still influence our impression of what London was like in 1850 or 1900. Interpretations of Charles Dickens novels have provided images of Victorian London that seep into wider consciousness. Hollywood musicals made on lots at Burbank Studios, notably My Fair Lady and Mary Poppins, have left us with images of Covent Garden or London’s skyline which, in turn, create a powerful imprint on the mind’s eye.

More seriously, a number of feature films set in London make it possible to experience the look and feel not only of the city in the past but also of contemporary public opinion. In Basil Dearden’s 1951 film Pool of London, it is possible to witness the area near City Hall as part of a functioning port, but also to follow a black sailor on his adventures in the city. Pool of London touches on, for probably the first time in British film, Londoners’ attitudes to race and racism. Dearden made another film about race (Sapphire, 1959) immediately after the 1957 Notting Hill riots and a more famous one about the persecution faced at the time by gay men (Victim, 1961). Sapphire explores not only attitudes to race, but also glimpses Peter Rachman’s privately rented London at its worst. These films were liberal in intent, but also beautifully shot to capture the damaged, noirish, foggy London of the time.

The impact of slum clearance and the construction of concrete tower blocks on the working class residents of the East End can be seen in Sparrows Can’t Sing (Joan Littlewood, 1963). The film, which was partly improvised, is an example of Littlewood’s politically-radical work at the Theatre Royal, Stratford. Like the Small World of Sammy Lee (Ken Hughes, 1963), which was partly located in the East End, but mostly in Soho, these productions show cramped old London in transition from post-war austerity to the more liberated later sixties.

London in the mid-to-late 1960s is heavily represented in film. Innumerable zany and/or psychedelic movies celebrated the birth of Swinging London. Stanley Donen’s Bedazzled (1967) was a Peter Cook and Dudley Moore comedy about good and evil, but it roamed the capital with scenes filmed in locations such as abandoned areas of Paddington and on the top of a newly-constructed icon of Modernity, the Post Office Tower. Richard Lester’s Hard Day’s Night (1964) took the Beatles through the streets of London to introduce the country to pop culture, while Lewis Gilbert’s Alfie touched the darker side of the sexual revolution, particularly the issue of abortion, which was still illegal at the time.

Indeed, it is surprising how many 1960s films examined the seedier edge of the 60s and early 70s. Blow Up (Michaelangelo Antonioni, 1966) is, according to the Guardian, ‘a film about a particular moment in the capital’s history’, featuring a David Bailey-type fashion photographer and his wanderings through the city’s amoral, beautiful, people. Performance (Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg, 1971) is a master­piece of druggy decadence (set in North Kensington), an area that is also glimpsed tragi-comically in Bruce Robinson’s 1987 cult film Withnail And I and more alarmingly in 10, Rillington Place (Richard Fleischer, 1971). Made in London towards the end of the sixties, Performance takes us deep into the grubby, chaotic, dark side of Britain’s early moves towards being a country where sex and drugs were a more normal way of life.

Another ‘film about a particular moment’ is The Long Good Friday (John Mackenzie, 1980), a gangster movie set in Docklands at the pivotal moment just before the LDDC and Canary Wharf happened. The script is so prescient, it is worth quoting one part in full. The film’s leading character, a London gangster attempting to impress an American visitor, gives a speech to party guests on a boat trip moving down-river from Tower Bridge towards the (then closed) docks. He says: ‘I believe this is a decade in which London will become Europe’s capital. Having cleared away the outdated, we’ve got mile after mile, acre after acre, of land for our prosperity […] No other city has got right in its centre such an opportunity for profitable progress, so it’s important the right people mastermind the new London’. All the consultants and urban forecasters in the world could not have done better in assessing the city’s future.

The Big Bang and the deregulation of the City of London, part of the world predicted by the Long Good Friday, were neatly captured by Dealers (Colin Bucksey, 1989). Partly set in one of the original City dealing rooms, this real-time fable about the increasingly hazy boundary between banking and gambling not only captures another particular moment in London’s life, but also predicts the dangers of turning an important industry into a casino. Rogue Trader (James Dearden, 1999) returned to the same theme following the 1995 collapse of Barings Bank. At a dinner in the early 1990s, the chairman of the bank captures the spirit of the age by drily observing: ‘To be frank, l’ve discovered it’s not actually terribly difficult… to make money in the securities business!’

By the 1990s, London was beginning to recover from its long post-1945 period of decline. The social revolution of the late 1960s, coupled with the Thatcherite market reforms of the 1980s, began to have a substantive impact on the city. The decade saw the release of comedy dramas such as Four Weddings and a Funeral (Mike Newell, 1994), Sliding Doors (Peter Howitt, 1998), and Notting Hill (Roger Mitchell, 1999), which portray an increasingly global London, involving smart restaurants, Clerkenwell-type offices and glossy loft apartments. Love Actually (Richard Curtis, 2003) marks the zenith of what might be termed ‘New Labour metropolitanism’.

Breaking and Entering (Anthony Minghella, 2006) uses the reconstruction of St Pancras and King’s Cross as the backdrop for a more sober review of the stresses of life for the ambitious (and, indeed for migrants) in contemporary London. A character describes a restorative justice programme to a sceptical listener by saying: ‘it’s a Camden thing’ (even observations about the character of individual boroughs can be found in film). By the end of the 2000s, Boogie Woogie (Duncan Ward, 2009) provided a glittering, post-Hogarth take on the Britpop and contemporary art excesses of the 2000s.

Other films made in the late 1990s and 2000s examined a less affluent section of city life, while a number considered dystopian futures for London, reflecting fears about security and the environment. Dirty Pretty Things (Stephen Frears, 2002), Brick Lane (Sarah Gavron, 2008) and Somers Town (Shane Meadows, 2008) revealed the challenges facing immigrants to the capital. 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002), V for Vendetta (James McTeigue, 2005), Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006) and Incendiary (Sharon Mcguire, 2008) use London as a backdrop to explore urban fear about disease, dictatorship, environmental threat and terrorism. London’s dark soul seems particularly appropriate for explorations of bleak misery.

There are other productions and, indeed, genres not discussed here. Ealing Studios films, Black British cinema, James Bond, gangster movies (especially about the Krays) and dozens of police procedural dramas have been revealing about the physical, social and economic development of London at different times since the 1940s. And they are in almost all cases now available on DVDs, so they can be viewed again and again.

The theatre may be London’s most powerful art form, but it has the disadvantage of transience. Its greatest stars can now only be seen on film or television. London in the cinema lives on, allowing us a form of time travel to a place with different worries, prejudices, pleasures and lifestyles. Films are a powerful and accessible art form, on which London has left an indelible image on almost a century of output, allowing us to imagine the city and see it as others have done.