Saturday, 5 September 2009

Films #1 & 2: Les Bicyclettes de Belsize (1968) / The London Nobody Knows (1967)

'Keep off
Mind how you go - oh oh
Don't you know the green grass is not for you
Oh no!

And all the flowers ain't for picking
They're just for standing in line'
(Episode Six, 'Gentlemen of the Park', 1968)

'YEAH – 1892 – lines are still on you – Hilly Fields'
(Nick Nicely, 'Hilly Fields (1892)', 1982)

An irregular series begins with a consideration of a pair of films recently issued on DVD for the first time, which form an eerie prelude to the sort of London psychogeography of Iain Sinclair and Patrick Keiller. I first read about the Cohen film, based on Geoffrey S. Fletcher's book, in Bracewell's England is Mine; I first caught glimpses of it during a 'workshop' computer session for my DTLLS teacher-training course late last year, when a fellow student, ex-Londoner and Art Lecturer watched a clip on You Tube of the Bedford Theatre part (now taken down), and told me how great a film it was.

The thing that strikes you about Cohen's semi-documentary is its sheer distance from the cliches of 1960s London, repeated to obsolescence by the media and associated heritage mongers: as here in the brainless shorthand given by the female presenter here: (yawn yawn YAWN)

Its companion film on the DVD release, Les Bicyclettes de Belsize (dir. Douglas Hickox, 1968), complements it well; it is a love-poem to Hampstead, presenting a delirious vision of the experiences of those more fortunate in society, those without financial hardship and in love. Even then, there is the sublimely queasy sequence backed by the song 'Gentlemen of the Park' by Episode Six (a forerunner of Deep Purple apparently). Supported by weightless, shimmering Beach Boys bass and harmonies, the singer infers about streamlining and conformity in ominous tones - inferences all the more chilling for how beautifully they are rendered.

The 'men in blue' in the lyric seem to be the authoritarian forces of public order; in the film, they are photographers gathered on Belsize Park - ambiguous, ambivalent, disturbingly impersonal. Packaging and trapping the miraculously gorgeous Judy Huxtable in a way vaguely analogous to Paul Jones in the similarly woozy, but infinitely bleaker Privilege (dir. Peter Watkins, 1968). The sharp editing cuts from her in various costumes, poses and hairdos, refracted infinitely, dizzying, untouchable - Anthony May uncertain, tremulous, on his bike in a quest to find her. The Episode Six song should be highlighted as it is magnificent, up there with the great things being done by the Pink Floyd, the Beatles and Mark Wirtz around this time. The idealised nature of this particular London reminds me of Van Der Graaf Generator's 'Refugees' (1970), wherein Peter Hammill laments the end of his flatsharing in 1968/9 in the West of London with Mike McLean and Susan Penhaligon - an actress who incidentally was in similar types of films to Huxtable:

'West is Mike and Susie,

West is where I love'

Les Bicyclettes de Belsize is one of the more European visions of an English city I have seen; it forms something of a bridge between Jacques Demy's Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964) and Saint Etienne's Euro-inflected urban aesthetic. The effect is as if filtered through the wildest dreams of a Margo Guryan protagonist and the blurred gauze of her Take a Picture LP of 1968:

The London Nobody Knows forms the bleaker flipside to the bohemian languor of Belsize, showing the grisly Victoriana and war damage that lingered so long. It is an eccentric film, helped immeasurably by James Mason's role as a patrician guide and compere, complete with cap and wielding cane; his occasional interactions with Londoners are bizarrely amusing, and gradually take on a tragic aspect when he mingles with people boarding at a Salvation Army Hostel. These halfway houses to nowhere actually form a modicum of stability and luxury compared with the lives of those who, as Mason says, "can't and won't communicate with their fellow men":

Things reach a rather eerie, harrowing climax when Mason visits the crumbling 29 Hanbury Street in Spitalfields, Tower Hamlets - a Jack the Ripper murder scene - remarking that several residents of the street are old enough to recall those events. The film establishes the reasons that people tend to forget were behind the building of modern social housing: that many of the previous houses were horrific places to live, no more than slums breeding criminality and destitution. Along with Housing Problems (dir. Edgar Anstey & Arthur Elton, 1935), it is the finest indictment I have seen of the Victorian class and housing systems.

Mason addresses the likely passing of the Bedford Theatre in rather more melancholy terms, as befits a film actor of his theatrical style, yet there is no sentimentality. The theatre is an eerie, dead place; he makes sure we are under no illusions that the people have no use for it anymore. The music-hall entertainment - as detailed in its absolute twilight by John Osborne with The Entertainer - was no longer what people wanted; the theatre could not sustain itself. It had long been a tamed beast, anyway, after the royal patronage it received in 1912 (see my more detailed thoughts on music-hall at my old home, here: Better to demolish it and build something new than for it to undergo the undignified adaptation for the spurious purposes of 'regeneration', one might argue. An old Marie Lloyd song - with ghostly reverb applied - is played over details of crumbling decoration in close-up and the utter desolation of the entirety in panorama.

Another very old music-hall song is used in the graveyard scene, conveying a bleak gallows humour about death that reminds me of Steptoe and Son - the singer sings about what it is like to be 'blooming well dead!' Whilst music-hall may have been tamed and entombed even, working-class spirit still existed in 1967 - as shown in the remarkable market scenes that Mason mingles within. One has to take both parts of the picture; the vibrancy and the bleakness; today we see vibrancy in our cities generally replaced by blandness and corporate smugness and the bleakness is merely masked, disguised: moved to the outskirts.

Some would roll things back to the Victorian era, by way of the worst excesses of the last 30 years, represented here in unfettered selfishness and sod-the-environment-and-anyone-else consumerism:

These people must be opposed at every turn, as they are against the limited advances that this country has made. Who do we reckon is likely to suffer from the cutbacks that will ensue if Cameron pursues this on a larger scale? I think we know it won't be hard-done-by Kensington or Beaconsfield 'taxpayers', but those who rely on local authority services. Libraries will be shut, jobs lost, support will not be provided where there is a need. It increasingly seems to me that Hannon, Johnson and these Barnet Tories represent the true face of the party straining at the leash to get going; the Thatcherite attack-dog has always been dominant - there simply aren't many, if any, 'decent' Macmillan / Heath consensus Tories left. Cameron is likely to go along with all this, but simply try and sell it with the typical Carlton Man duplicity.

The London Nobody Knows shows things at a very much more promising moment, at least for the young. In line with Owen Hatherley's Militant Modernism tract, Darren Hayman & The Secondary Modern's contemporaneous album Pram Town*, recent TV documentaries on Park Hill, the new tower blocks are put in context: as necessary to replace what was for most a miserable existence. It was only bad local government and maintenance that necessarily condemned the utopian dream to its apparent failure.

Cohen's film has its moments of futurism; the haunting, Cyril Ornadel-meets-Basil Kirchin strings and brass gives way in this sequence to a startlingly Radiophonic composition - - indicating the accommodation of locality and futurism that marked this era.

These two late-1960s films are superb, and I strongly urge anyone with an interest at all in London, history, music-hall, modernist architecture, Victoriana, the sixties, James Mason, Judy Huxtable or Jack the Ripper, to buy the DVD - which you can get for an exceptionally generous fiver.

* Capturing the urban civic sentiment of the initial New Town dwellers, this is a rare musical release that one could feasibly compare with Sudden Sway's East Anglian 'soap-opera musical', '76 Kids Forever (1988), with Peterborough's current-day banal provincialism contrasted with the post-war dream in a movingly off-centre manner. Both albums contain a storyline and progression critical of what came from the 50s and 60s optimism. Obviously, the former Hefner singer's work doesn't quite have the musical experimentation or surreal academic wordplay of Sway, yet it forms a valid 'urban folk' counterpoint. Oh, and one cannot deny the glorious 'Compilation Cassette', with its winning, nerdy romanticism, conveyed with the aid of a ukelele, no less.

A meeting point is - not for the first time - the Star and Shadow Cinema in Ouseburn, which showed The London Nobody Knows in early 2008, in the same Saint Etienne-curated season as This is Tomorrow, which I went to see. It also played host to Hayman earlier this year -pictured here looking strangely like George Formby: - and I am now sad that I didn't go.

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