Wonderful London: London Film Festival review

Cosmopolitan London (1924)
Cosmopolitan London (1924)

This review is a guest post for Silent London by Ewan Munro of the Pubology blog.

Among the many wonderful restorations in the Treasures from the Archives strand at the London Film Festival this year was a programme of silent short films, nine- to 12-minute long travelogues from a series made in the early 1920s by film producer Harry B Parkinson, and entitled Wonderful London. The BFI National Archive chose six of these films to restore and present at what turned out to be a packed-out screening (attributed by silent film curator Bryony Dixon to a resurgence of interest in historic London).

The subject of these quirky little screen-fillers is, of course, London. And while there are certainly occasional shots of the tourist London we’re all familiar with, perhaps more interesting is the time spent looking around the corners, into the back streets and out into the suburbs of the working-class city. Street markets and grimy housing, docks, shops, scenes of daily life, and even a few pubs all show up in these films. The East, the North, the West End and the City all show up, though the South is represented by only a few shots of streets around the site of the Globe.

There’s Petticoat Lane market (still bustling today) and Club Row market (no longer), where live animals of all kinds are traded under the still-familiar railway arches down by Sclater Street (arches which now hold the lines leading to Shoreditch High Street station). There are grand West End theatres alongside street performers and Punch & Judy shows. There’s Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub, just off Fleet Street, one of the few views that hasn’t changed at all, even as we briefly spot the drays of long-defunct brewers such as Truman Hanbury Buxton and Mann Crossman’s. There are the flower sellers usually at work underneath Eros on Piccadilly Circus, but moved from this attractive spot due to London Underground construction works (little change there, though back then it was for the station’s grand booking hall). There are the canals around Mile End, Islington and Hackney (with a brief cutaway to show Broadway Market), mules working along their towpaths to pull the barges. This is just one example of perhaps the greatest change since these films were made: the extent to which the London shown is a city of industry and manufacturing, where the canals are still busy with freight and the docklands still bustling with ships.

Flowers of London (1924)
Flowers of London (1924)

This “unofficial” view of London is matched by the narration, with the intertitles frequently offering humorous asides and boundless sarcasm, especially in the Barging Through London film (any given intertitle card makes reference to dizzying speeds, as the film cuts to, say, a barge moving languorously under a bridge alongside Regent’s Park, while befrocked and behatted tourists on the way to London Zoo stop to watch). A personal favourite is the introduction of Southwark Bridge, newly constructed at a cost of £3 million and “sometimes it gets VERY busy”, cutting to show a few hackney carriages trundling across while a handful of people walk along the outside.

The titles remain fairly light-hearted, but this only exposes some of the period’s unpleasant attitudes, communicated with an at times disarming frankness, especially in the Cosmopolitan London short. In what must be a staged scene, the film’s “white trash” are swiftly kicked out of a “negro club” on Whitcomb Street, while the film is unsparing in its negative judgment on the poverty and unfriendliness of the Chinese population of Limehouse. When the film returns pointedly to scenes on Horse Guards Parade, it expresses greater relief at their comforting Englishness than perhaps the modern audience can muster. Nevertheless, the scenes of Limehouse provide interest when compared to similar ones staged for the roughly contemporaneous Piccadilly (1929).

Through it all, piano accompaniment is sensitively provided by Neil Brand, an accomplished master of the art. The tone is largely jaunty as befits the films, though he sensibly opts for a quieter register at key points towards the end of the Cosmopolitan London short, and a briefly uncomfortable silence within the auditorium at one point further brings into focus the discomfort engendered by the film itself (not to mention highlighting the very rarity of silence at screenings of silent films).

The restoration has been handled magnificently, and Scott Starck from the restoration team speaks before the film, rattling off a quick account of the process, along with dizzying statistics on the number of frames that needed repair. Colour tinting has been retained as per the original films, and this is used to good effect to depict the passing of the day in London’s Sunday, or the colours of the flowers in Flowers of London. One can only hope that the success of this screening leads to further such archival restorations and that the Wonderful London series may one day be available in its entirety.

Ewan Munro

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