London In The Raw Review

One of two Arnold Louis Miller documentaries on the BFI’s new Flipside strand looking at the seaminer side of London in the swinging sixties. Noel Megahey reviews.

Although being inspired by and heavily publicised as an example of exploitational ‘Mondo’ documentary filmmaking, there is something of a legitimate purpose behind Arnold Miller’s London In The Raw. Behind the rather colourful look at swinging life in 1960’s London that lies somewhere between public information film and sensationalised documentary, the film not inadvertently captures the contradiction between the reserved nature of the English people and their conflicted attitudes towards the growing permissive society that was changing rapidly in the post-war years. It’s also an opportunity to legitimately show naked women on the screen.

The documentary sets out this contrast and conflict of ideals right from the outset, showing the respect for tradition and propriety that is ingrained in the national character and considering whether in this post-Profumo scandal society attitudes on traditional values, class boundaries and those all-important keeping up of appearances persist. Inevitably, London In The Raw discovers and takes pains to point out that hypocrisy is rife, looking at the new betting laws and discovering that “it’s the same race, the same horses, but at least now it’s respectable”, and looking at a typical London street corner and finding that an old man can be prosecuted for playing a tin-whistle on the street under the 1959 Street Offenses Act, while the immoral actions of prostitutes, whose trade the Act was designed to clean-up, can continue to ply for trade from the windows of their rented rooms by calling out to “friends” on the street.

But what is that lurking behind the appearances of this seemingly innocent and educational documentary itself? Hypocrisy perhaps? Well, the manner in which the latter example is handled provides a clue as do other similar strongly contrasted, sensationalised and opportunistic examples (“we happened to look in on ladies day” on a visit to one of those new-fangled gyms where the women use implements that “would have delighted the Marquis de Sade”), the film elsewhere similarly delights in showing the hypocrisy in what is permissible in society by pushing those boundaries itself, setting itself out as a serious study of the evolution in English attitudes, but delighting in being able to show nudity, immoral and anti-social behaviour and drug dealing in a way that would otherwise be unacceptable on the screen at this time.

Louis Miller and collaborator Stanley Long are well used to this bending of the rules by this point, having worked together on films that extolled the virtues of naturism as an opportunity to show as much naked flesh as possible, and exploiting the public’s fascination with the behind-closed-doors prostitution by exploring the “step into degradation and eventual self-disgust” of this “sickness” in West End Jungle (1961). One can’t help noticing in London In The Raw the same bright, mildly chiding, insincere semi-moralistic tone adopted by the narrator and the up-beat jazzy soundtrack that seem rather at odds from the impartiality we have come to expect of documentary filmmaking (one very different from the other examples of short documentary work from this period included in the extra features by way of comparison).

And yet, London In The Raw remains a fascinating historical document, not in spite of its more outré elements, but because of them, showing a side of London and changing English attitudes – staged though some of them undoubtedly are – that might then have been regarded as trivial, frivolous and unworthy of coverage by more serious documentary makers. With time however, London In The Raw proves to be a valuable record of a rapidly changing society, one that sees England moving away from post-war austerity into a modern world closer to the one we recognise today. At this point in time however there is a fascinating juxtaposition in the placing of old English faces alongside this new exotic, glamorous and multicultural setting, showing a permissive and liberal lifestyle to aspire to, but one that is at odds with the powerful pull of tradition and the keeping-up of appearances – contradictions in the English character, law and attitudes towards filmmaking that London In The Raw delights in exploiting to the fullest.


London In The Raw is released on Blu-ray in the UK by the BFI alongside Primitive London as part of their ‘BFI Flipside’ strand of films. The film is held on a BD50 disc and comes with a 1080/24p encode. Extra features are all also presented in full HD. The disc is not Region coded.

Derived from the original 35mm negative, London In The Raw looks terrific in High-Definition. It’s a wonderful, boldly coloured film, the tones reflecting the period and presumably the colour processing of the film stock of that period. Detail is excellent and the variety of skin tones shows fine definition. Much of the film takes place in dark nightclubs, lounges, smoky bars and casinos, which are colourfully stage-lit, but even the shadow detail is handled extremely well, blacks remaining solid and more stable than they would look on a regular Standard Definition transfer. A few fleeting flecks remain, but are rarely noticeable, and the occasional scene displays a faint brightness flicker. The grain structure of the source materials is evident in freeze-frame, but invisible in motion, showing how well the transfer is encoded.

The film’s original mono audio track is presented in PCM 2.0 (48k/24-bit). It’s a little bit rough around the edges, probably on account of the limitations of the documentary footage and locations, but sound and dialogue are clear throughout and the music score has an effective punch.

English Hard of Hearing subtitles are provided for the main feature and all extra features. There are in a clear white font and are optional.

The BFI excel in providing extra features that are valuable works in themselves, while also supporting and illuminating the main features. That’s very much the case here.

London In The Raw: Alternative Cut (46:52)
Much shorter than the main feature, the alternative cut – its raison d’être remaining a mystery – does indeed tighten-up the film without losing the focus of its purpose. Some musical routines are dropped, the whole working-class pub entertainment scene is excised and in its place there are a few extended and some entirely new scenes. One curiosity is that of a posing show, where naked women can be shown but are not allowed to move, changing their poses when a curtain is drawn. It comes with the interesting observation that “the English are notorious for taking their pleasures sadly” that certainly applies to the content of the main feature. The quality of the HD transfer here is as good as the full-length version. Adopting the same tone as the film, the Trailer (1:53) promises “life in all its variety”, but warns that you will “be shocked by the evil that lurks in the shadows”.

Three other documentary films from the same period show different and sometimes supporting views of life in 1960’s London. Pub (1962) (15:52), directed by Peter Davis is a slice-of-life view of a working-class pub, rather Terence Davies in character with its mournful sing-a-longs, but rather more authentic and less idealised, with faces and locations that are impossible to recreate. Chelsea Bridge Boys (1965) (31:13) by Peter Davis and Staffan Lamm similarly captures the character of the period well. Mainly built around candid interviews, the young bike-enthusiast boys and girls may demonstrate a lack of awareness of politics and society but have more to say about how they seek their freedom and independence through their hobby. Strip (1966) (26:12) by Peter Davis, Staffan Lamm and Don de Fina, is filmed mostly backstage in the dingy, crowded dressing room of a strip joint, the few comments from the girls revealing that they do it for the money, but an interesting mix of foreign, working class and posh suburban accents can be detected in the make-up of the strippers.
All the 16mm films are given fine 1080/24p HD encoded transfers and, despite some warnings about the quality of the original elements, these all look and sound exceptionally good and are diligently subtitled for hard of hearing.

A 40-page high-quality booklet is included, lavishly illustrated with period advertisements, production stills and posters. It contains a detailed essay by Stewart Home, setting the social context of the film, providing further background detail on the ownership and reputations of the nightclubs and casinos seen here. He also takes into account the work of the other documentaries included on the disc. Among the other notes, credits, essays and technical details on the transfers, there is a look at the differences between the long and short versions of London In The Raw, a distinctly unimpressed review of the film from Monthly Film Bulletin, biographies of Arnold Miller and Stanley Long, and reflections on Pub, Chelsea Bridge Boys and Strip by the filmmakers.

Much like Miller’s West End Jungle, neither the somewhat ambivalent, insincere and mocking tone adopted by the filmmakers, nor the obvious and sensationalised staging of some scenes invalidate the documentarian aspects of the subject, but rather fit in well with the period, making this a fascinating historical document. One of the first batch of titles from the BFI’s new ‘Flipside’ strand (the director’s Primitive London is also included among these initial releases), Arnold Miller’s uncategorisable Mondo-docu-drama London In The Raw certainly sets an interesting tone and a high standard in terms of quality and supplements for similar curiosities to follow.


Updated: May 25, 2009

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