Old Father Thames on Film


I haven’t been listening to my audiobook of Peter Ackroyd’s ‘Thames’. It was sitting down to watch the ‘Fantastic 4’ (2007) with my kids that prompted me to think our glorious river. There is an incredible (or should that be ‘fantastic’) scene where the Silver Surfer drains the Thames dry. One of the finest apocalyptic visions of London I’ve seen on film and actually one of the finest visions of London.
The Thames is a key image for establishing London as the setting of a film so pretty much any London-set movie will have its ‘Thames shot’.

I started to have a quick rummage amongst my dvds for other key images of the river that gave us the city, shots that show us a how its representation has evolved.


This scene from the Lavender Hill Mob (1951) really struck me when I first saw it (along with Blitzed views from Holborn Viaduct) just for how accessible the working river of the 1950’s was. I’m guessing that this scene was shot somewhere between Waterloo and Blackfriars Bridges, judging from the city spires in the background, now a moribund stretch of managed footpath.

 The Sandwich Man (1966) surely has one of the best sequences ever shot on the Thames starting with lead actor Michael Bentine joining a queue for the river taxi (somewhere up west past Westminster) and then witnessing as a fashionable party set out on a punt which is set into a vortex by a careering water-skier sending them into the path of a practising rowing team coxed by Eric Idle who are then sunk, which causes the team’s coach to fling himself off a bridge with a life-belt around his waist resulting on the water-skier being splayed across the front of a pleasure cruiser. It is rounded off by Bentine cadging a lift in a car that converts to a boat and carries him home along the river to a pre-yuppified docklands.

The stills from The Flipside of Dominick Hide (1980) are not so much in for the distinctiveness but the fact that they are the views from a time-travelling flying saucer – the only such scenario I can think of involving an aerial view of the Thames.

And Keiller’s opening image of Tower Bridge from London (1994) with Paul Schofield’s dryly camp narration is one of the river’s definitive cinematic appearances.
That was as far as I got as I then got drawn into re-watching ‘The Flipside of Dominick Hide’.

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Kino Derive Report

The aim of this exercise was to see how a person could discover or re-imagine a townscape by being led by archive film clips transferred to their mobile phones.
Flickering on the town hall debating chamber plasma screens the archive films appear romantic, distant, beguiling. Bulletins from another world. The challenge is to find their locations and shoot a response on the 21st century technology of the mobile phone. The graininess and jump cuts should make the formats oddly compatible.
The clips are transferred by bluetooth onto my mobile and off I go aided by a series of cryptic clues. As unfamiliar as I am with Maidstone the first isn’t much of a challenge as it clearly shows the Fremlins Brewery from 1938 and Maidstone is very proud of its new shopping precinct Fremlin Walk. Finding the location was one thing, but finding the spirit was quite a bit harder. I log a shot of the one existing part of the old brewery building – a clock arch leading to steps up to the shops. But another viewing of the clip from Sonny Hanson’s film about the Medway, ‘The Watery Trail’, clearly shows the brewery’s relationship to the river and as I wander around the shops the river is nowhere to be seen. Gavin points out that the Medway should be somewhere behind Debenhams, a brick rebuke to the river that gave birth to the town. In we go wondering whether the waterfront heritage of the site has been incorporated into the design. In the end I am forced to nudge aside re-enforced bras in the lingerie section and pull back a heavy net curtain to find a glimpse of the ‘Watery Trail’ depicted in the archive clip. I record my response as quickly as I can fearful of being nabbed as a pervert by store security.
Searching for the Fancy Dress Parade clip from 1930 I’ll confess to inside knowledge. It’s Brenchley Gardens, that much I know, and I’d wandered that way of my own accord on my first proper look round town. But how can the archive clip stimulate a renewed vision of the site. How to capture the spirit of a line-up of local craftspeople in fancy dress out for the day?
After indulging in the interesting geometry of one of the fallen spires of the Houses of Parliament that found its way here following the Blitz I become aware of the teenage tribes lounging on the grass and in the bandstand. Fancy dress of a kind – the EMOs, the Goths and (I hate the word but what else do you say) the Chavs. That’s my clip – we move on quickly before they turn on us like in some B horror movie.
The shots of the bridge being built over the Maidstone Bypass in 1960 are brilliant for their capturing of the sublime beauty of iron girders. The bypass is a way up the river, but just along from Brenchley Gardens an older iron bridge provides a more than adequate response. It takes several clips to do justice to its form and relationship to the river running below but after a train trundles past into Maidstone East I feel I’ve found my Medway bridge.
I now have to climb a steep hill heading away from the town to find the vantage point depicted in the archive clip showing a fleet of buses on their way to Madrid. The titles on the original 1922 film, ‘From Maidstone to Madrid’ read, ” Spanish Authorities order – in face of keen world competition – a fleet of British built Buses, for first Bus Service in the Capital”. I’m some way up before I get to the vantage point from where my 10-second clip was shot 85 years ago, but find what I think is the exact spot. In an odd reversal there appear to be more trees now than in 1922, only one building from the original view remains.
With my circuit complete I slope back into town collecting a waterside shot of my own on the way.
I send one clip to the hub by MMS which greets my on the Maidstone Video Map as I enter the Council Chambers before ‘toothing’ my remaining video-phone topographical film to a laptop for upload into the map.
‘Reframing Maidstone’ was a project by Cathy and John Rogers
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Self-authorship of the landscape: from the Phantom Ride to the Mobile Phone

“The modern avenue served as laboratory for the flâneur, while the contemporary street finds the neo- flâneur manipulating the mediating filters of technology in pursuit of new connections to the landscape.” Glenn Bach. Atlas Peripatetic (MFA Project Report).

Film-maker Patrick Keiller has identified that a common feature of the early city films of late 19th and early 20th Century was that they tended to be “one to three minutes long, and consisted of one or very few unedited takes”. This format is again becoming popular with the using of online video-sharing, self-broadcasting websites such as YouTube and Google Video. The development of portable devices such as mobile phones presents new opportunities for topographical film-makers as short clips can be shot on the move and sent directly from the location to a website, or another device, where they can be simultaneously viewed and commented upon.

This also has implications for the time-space compression (David Harvey) as people can broadcast to a potentially large audience images of the landscape as they pass through it in real-time and experience moving image bulletins from the past in-situ. Like the early city films these clips or bulletins will necessarily be short and unedited.

Our visions of the landscape can now be filtered through a digital interface. Collectively these visions form a snapshot of the townscape and the personal topographies of the auteurs. The exchange that takes place on a kino dérive between author and instigator/ provocateur transforms the personal into the shared experience of space and place, spanning past and present.
A video map is created, logging the journeys undertaken. This then enables us to explore the changes and tensions, highlight historic symmetries and developments.

By viewing archive film images in situ what historical tensions emerge? When standing in Fremlin Walk looking at Sonny Hanson’s film showing Fremlins Brewery in 1938 it’s difficult not to become aware of the economic and cultural transformation that has occurred as we have moved from distinctive local industries to a homogenised shopping mall culture.

Can this simple act of authoring our own representation of our environment somehow give us a link to collective sense of place beyond that defined by urban planning, the privatisation of public space and received notions of localness and belonging? Somehow enable access to what Nick Papadimitriou calls a kind of “regional memory” locked in the landscape. A route to a sense and spirit of place which is inclusive.

With the traditional psychogeographical dérive or drift we seek to strip the city or town bare, to reveal its secrets, its mechanisms and motors. The motivations for engaging in such an activity vary as much as the outcomes. For the Situationists it was a reconnaisance mission for the revolution of everyday life that they sought to bring about. The fact that they moved on from drinking absinthe in Montmatre to being at the heart of the revolt of May ’68 that brought the French government to the brink of collapse suggests some use came from these “journeys outside the timetable.”

With a kino dérive we don’t anticipate a revolution in the traditional sense to occur, although it would be nice. It is an experiencing of place through a simultaneous active engagement with moving image and the landscape.

‘Reframing Maidstone’ was a project by Cathy and John Rogers

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Leytonstone Fest Film Night


The film night was a great success. The thrill I felt seeing the Black Tower flickering on the screen in the upstairs room of the Heathcote then looking over my shoulder at the same E11 roofline, the room packed the audience enthralled. The Q&A with Ian Bourn and John Smith lasted over half and hour and could have gone on longer if we all hadn’t been in bad need of a pint (at some point I’ll transcribe the recording and post it here). What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? seemed to really strike a chord and it was satisfying to test my thesis that you can draw a line through from Black Tower, Lenny’s Documentary, Keiller to Mervyn Day. It was interesting to discuss this with Ian and John. I even managed to find an audience for my propaganda film about Marsh Lane Fields in an effort to drum up some support to save this corner of the Lammas Lands before it’s too late.

It was great to meet some of the readers of this blog – John Heron and Inspector Juve and members of the L&LHS (sorry John for missing your call on Tuesday – I’m not sure what happened there). It looks like we may have the momentum to build this into a regular event and form a Leytonstone Film Club, if anybody is interested please get in touch email:jmrogersit@yahoo.com
Thanks to John, Ian and the Mervyn Day team (Paul, Andrew, Bob, Pete), and big thanks to Philip Wray of Leytonstone Festival – a gent.

Film Night Celebrating Leytonstone and the Lower Lea Valley – Sunday 8th July

I’m organising a film night this Sunday for the Leytonstone Festival. I had the idea not long after I moved here when I became aware of the great film references connected to the area. Wouldn’t be great to show some John Smith, Paul Kelly/St Etienne and Ian Bourn in a pub in Leytonstone, I thought. Well this Sunday it’s going to happen and what’s even better, the film-makers themselves will be in attendance to do a Q&A afterwards.
It’s this Sunday 8th July at The Heathcote Arms, 344 Grove Green Road, Leytonstone E11, 8pm till late (the bar at the Heathcote closes at midnight), and it’s an incredible bargain at £2.
I think I’ve written about all these films before on the blog and I wrote an article on this theme for Rising East, but the programme includes:

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The Black Tower: John Smith (1985-7, 24mins). In The Black Tower we enter the world of a man haunted by a tower in Langthorne Road which, he believes, is following him around Leytonstone.

Blight (1994-96): John Smith captures the dying days of Colville Road, with a soundtrack of residents’ reminiscences composed by fellow Leytonstonian Jocelyn Pook.

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Black, White & Green – the way of pie (2003): Ian Bourn
In this world of marble tables, etched glass and tiles the humble London dish of pie, mashed potato and thick green liquor acts as a catalyst for excursions into memory, fantasy or to places best forgotten. Filmed in the pie and mash shop at Harrow Green, Leytonstone.
Black White & Green is a meditation on the pie and mash aesthetic – an exploration of the terrain and a revelation of what wriggles just below the surface.

What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? (2006): Paul Kelly & Saint Etienne. Mervyn Day’ is set in the Lower Lea Valley on the day after the announcement that London would host the 2012 Olympics. Kelly has described the film as being like an obituary to the birthplace of the 20th Century. The film follows a paper boy doing his rounds who allows his sense of curiosity lead him on a journey through the ruination of an area that gave the world plastic and petrol.

Reframing Maidstone

I’ve just started working on a new project with Cathy, my sister, down in Maidstone. Reframing Maidstone (Video Mapping) is a event that is part of Architecture Week 2007. We’ve been commissioned to produce a project that highlights hidden aspects of the town. The project will use film and video images to instigate an exploration of the town centre – a kind of cinematic psychogeography, a kino-derive.

It’s very interesting what is happening in Maidstone. Louise Francis and Laura Knight (Art at the Centre Project Officers) are researching the feasibility of establishing an ‘Artists Quarter’ within the Maidstone town centre by: identifying potential artist studio space; raising the profile of the area through temporary art installations, street entertainment and a creative marketing campaign. It’s a really bold and ambitious plan in town that isn’t really looking for arts-led regeneration (in the way that Folkstone is) but seems to be doing it for arts’ sake and the potential benefits for the feel of the place, the genus loci.

We’ll be instigating a number of derives with local people and will mixing up the methods: algorithmic, constrained walks, “sauntering as Charles II, Richard Jefferies, W.H. Hudson, and Edward Thomas sauntered” etc. Then the central event will take place on 16th and 23rd June.

email reframingmaidstone@googlemail.com for updates and information.

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Farewell NFT…..hiya BFI South Bank

So today one of London’s most venerable institutions disappears from the cultural map of the capital. What was the National Film Theatre opens its doors as BFI South Bank, after 50-odd years the concrete bunker under Waterloo Bridge that has been the world’s leading cinematheque morphs into this new entity.

Should we be sad? Maybe a little. The new name is a meaningless, bland Blairite re-brand, designed to pander to the whims of the grey-suits at the DCMS and the London Destruction Agency.

On the other hand, for cineastes the new centre could well prove to be a Mecca and for lovers of London on film the Mediatheque’s London Calling collection will become a second home (John Krish’s film of the last day of the London trams, the Thames circa 1935 in colour, Sparrows Can’t Sing, the Ealing Tram Panorama circa 1901, John Smith’s ‘Blight’ etc. etc.) – book your spot now you’ll love it I’m sure (call 020 7928 3535).
None of this required the ditching of this much-loved name and it’s an interesting example of how a slightly obscure geographical location has taken on the symbolic weight of meaning ‘culture’. Another entry in the catalogue of disappearance (and emergence).

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