London: The Modern Babylon Review

Raiding the archives has become something of a British documentary mainstay of late. In 2008 Terence Davies made his heartfelt ode to Liverpool, Of Time and the City, through newsreel and documentary footage overlaid with a carefully selected soundtrack and his own, deeply personal commentary. Three years later Bill Morrison premiered The Miners’ Hymns, reconstructing the output of the National Coal Board Film Unit in his own unmistakable style and to the accompaniment of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s blend of brass, percussion and electronica. More recently Penny Woolcock has tackled the British coastline via the BFI National Archive for From the Sea to the Land Beyond, whilst another, Stuart Baker’s Mirror to the Soul: British Pathé Films in the Caribbean 1922-1970, is on its way. And then there is Julien Temple’s London: The Modern Babylon, with arguably the highest profile of them all thanks to its BBC2 screening just as the 2012 Summer Olympics were coming to a close.

Temple was an interesting choice for director. Having made his name with the Sex Pistols movie The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, he soon became associated with the music video, working with the likes of the Kinks, Sade, David Bowie and Neil Young throughout the eighties and early nineties. Various attempts at moving properly into features generally failed (though Absolute Beginners is far more interesting than its reputation allows), but the past decade or so have seen Temple reinvent himself as a fine maker of documentary films. He’d done concert movies in the past (including At the Max, which brought the Rolling Stones to IMAX) and famously recorded the Sex Pistols’ Jubilee riverboat gig for prosperity, though it was 2000’s The Filth and the Fury which triggered the switch. Yet another of his directorial credits devoted to the Sex Pistols (and there would still be one more to come), it was soon followed by films dedicated to Joe Strummer (The Future is Unwritten, 2007), Dr. Feelgood (Oil City Confidential, 2009), Paul Weller (Find the Torch, 2010) and Ray Davies (Imaginary Man, 2010). In-between times there were also short films for Greenpeace, performance film hybrids like Madness’ The Liberty of Norton Folgate (2009) and even a filmed opera for Channel Four on Christmas Day, The Eternity Man (2008). The major project – and the most widely-seen – was 2006’s Glastonbury which set out to tell the history of the festival almost entirely through archive footage.

Needless to say, the connecting tissue between Glastonbury and London: The Modern Babylon is hard to miss. Temple’s latest documentary offers up another slice of history, albeit on a much broader and wide-ranging scale. Indeed, whereas Glastonbury need only cover the years between 1970 and 2005, London: The Modern Babylon has more than a century of material at its disposal thanks to the archives of, primarily, the BFI and the BBC. Beginning in the 1890s, it moves ever closer to the present day taking in wars, riots, acts of terrorism, race relations, booms and busts, coronations, jubilees, and sundry highs and lows over the past century-and-a-bit. As our guide we not only have the onslaught of images both fresh and familiar, but also an array of popular tunes (from Tommy Trinder to Underworld) and a host of talking heads. Some are quite famous – politician Tony Benn, musician Ray Davies, artist Michael Landy, and so forth. Other less so – as with the 106-year-old lifelong Londoner Hetty Bower. Literary voices, through poems, novels and memoirs, also intervene on the soundtrack, read by the likes of Michael Gambon, Imelda Staunton and Juno Temple.

Such a mix is deftly handled by Temple. The choice of music has a tendency to bring the images alive whilst Foley work on the silent footage (footsteps, foghorns, gunshots and so on) similarly adds an air of immediacy. He also throws in clips from feature films, much as he did with Oil City Confidential, to up the sense of drama: Carl Boehm prowling with his camera in Peeping Tom; Barbara Windsor having a fierce row in Sparrows Can’t Sing; Oliver Reed looking imperiously nasty in The Party’s Over. More importantly London: The Modern Babylon strives to find the continuities in its history, whether that be waves of immigration (those fleeing the Nazis or Idi Amin; arrivals on Windrush, etc.) or waves of civil disobedience (Notting Hill riots, Brixton riots, Poll Tax riots, the Summer riots of 2011). Such constants allow Temple to slip the strict chronology and shift backwards and forwards through time within the same ‘scene’ thus emphasising the bridges between them. The music also helps immeasurably in this respect too, whether it be punk outfit X-Ray Spex atop images of the suffragettes or David Bowie amidst scenes of a burgeoning youth scene. Admittedly, some of the combinations are a little over-egged (Pet Shops Boys and yuppies, the Stones’ Street Fighting Man and anti-war protesters, Hong Kong Garden and Limehouse), but Temple’s music video past generally serves him well. The Hyde Park sequence scored to T. Rex’s Children of the Revolution is a wonderfully playful piece of editing.

Yet for all this flash and bluster, the heart of London: The Modern Babylon resides in its present day interviewees. In centenarian Hetty Bower (still lucid after all these years) or beat poet Michael Horovitz we find a genuinely personal touch, their recollections ensuring that this particular history of the capital belongs to its people. And, of course, Temple brings his own personal touch too. It soon becomes clear that he identifies with the underclass – the immigrants, outcasts and outsiders – and has placed them dead centre; as John Wyver notes in his booklet contribution, “there is little place for culture with a capital ‘C’, for the theatre, classical music, museums and galleries.” Thus London: The Modern Babylon could never be argued to be a definitive record, but when placed alongside the likes of Patrick Keiller’s London, Paul Kelly’s Finisterre and What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day?, and Asif Kapadia’s The Odyssey, it reveals just how rich and cinematic our capital can be to the modern documentary filmmaker.


Despite screening this summer on the BBC HD channel, London: The Modern Babylon arrives on disc in the DVD format only. Nevertheless we find an excellent presentation with the newly-filmed materials looking pin-sharp and the archive footage looking as good as could be expected (understandably the quality wavers somewhat, especially some of the early silent era inclusions). Impressively, Temple adheres to aspect ratios, allowing much of his archive to appear in its original Academy format without cropping or stretching (as is generally commonplace nowadays). The talking heads footage is all presented in 1.78:1, anamorphically enhanced. The soundtrack, meanwhile, is exceptional. A DD5.1 mix copes ably with the musical selections and the interviewees without a single issue. Optional subtitles for the hard-of-hearing are also available.

On-disc extras consist of a brisk seven-minute interview with Temple (in the back of London cab, naturally) and the original theatrical trailer. The real meat is in the accompanying booklet where we find essays from Jonathan Romney and John Wyver, a director’s note from Temple, plus smaller pieces on the soundtrack selection process (Temple again) and the archive footage (by Miriam Walsh). Handily we also get a complete list of all the songs featured within the documentary and all of the feature film snippets. (I imagine a list of all of the short films, news items et al would have easily doubled the booklet’s size!)

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