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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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.

Finisterre

I eventually caught St. Etienne’s psychogeographical film about London ‘Finisterre’ at the ICA the other week. The band and directors Paul Kelly and Kieran Evans openly acknowledge that their project was a response to Patrick Keiller’s classic, ‘London’. In the year that Patrick Keiller was shooting his seminal film ‘London’, Saint Etienne recorded their second album ‘So Strong’. Both film and album captured a raw slice of the capital in 1992. Keiller’s film set against the backdrop of John Major’s election triumph, IRA bombs and Black Wednesday, just as St Etienne’s album was an audio tour of Greasy Spoon cafes and cold Kentish Town pavements.

Keiller’s influence is immediately apparent in the opening sequences of Finisterre. We see static establishing shots that are ‘London’s’ signature and hear the voice of an unseen, un-named narrator as with Paul Schofield’s perfect dry delivery of his account of excursions taken with his former lover Robinson. In Finisterre it is never obvious who the ‘flaneurs’ of the piece are, we merely see a train arriving from Croydon at 06:01. Suburban boys out to explore the capital. It is implicit that this is the story of the band’s journey through London.

The other key inspiration is the James Mason fronted film of Geoffrey Fletcher’s book ‘The London Nobody Knows’ with it’s celebration of the forgotten and neglected city of the sixties; Chapel Market, Percy Circus, Gin Palaces, public loos. We see Bob Stanley in a café flicking through its pages.

As the film unfolds these influences recede as other characters are introduced delivering their meditations on London. Artist Julian Opie, who designed one of St Etienne’s album covers, the guy at the record pressing plant where their first single was committed to vinyl, Vic Godard punk hero and postman.

The London we see is invariably the one inhabited by the band their collaborators, Hackney, Islington, Highgate, Soho. In this sense it represents more of personal topography than a ‘state of the city’ film essay that Keiller achieved. The references here are more towards the films of John Smith, particularly ‘Girl Chewing Gum’ and ‘Black Tower’.

The personal element to the film becomes its most compelling aspect rather than its stylistic homage to Keiller. The voice-over delivering lists of observations and associations reminiscent of the hypnotic prose of Hackney writer Iain Sinclair’s dérive reports from the unseen city. Fused with the visuals it constructs a palimpsest of the capital in 2003 much as Keiller’s film captured ’92.

Islington gets good coverage in the film: Percy Circus, the old dairy on Amwell Street, the world’s most uninviting dentist’s on Copenhagen Street (with a hand-painted sign in shaky letters), Packington Estate, Barbican, the Water Rats on Grays Inn Road, and Lubetkin’s Bevin Court with its famous stairwell.

The new St. Etienne album is named after a block of flats on the City Road, Turnpike House, and their follow-up film to ‘Finisterre’, ‘Caff’ featured the Golden Fish Bar on Farringdon Road, the recently deceased Alfredo’s on Essex Road (now S&M), and the Rheidol Rooms in Rheidhol Street.

I showed Bob, Pete, and Paul (another Wycombe boy and onetime member of Heavenly Records band East Village) my battered copy of Maxwell’s ‘The Fringe of London’ which they hadn’t seen and earned me a copy of the DVD (which is on sale now) – well worth its place next to my copies of ‘London’, ‘Galivant’, and ‘London Orbital’.

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