Wonderful London Review
With London 2012 on the horizon, the BFI are getting in on the act with a series of themed tie-in releases for the latter half of the year. In late July they’ll be kickstarting their Children’s Film Foundation Collection with a trio of capital-set tales, whilst September brings London on the Move, the tenth entry in the British Transport Films series. They’ve also delved a little into the National Archive and come up a collection of travelogues produced in 1924. Wonderful London, as the parent series was known, has been spruced up by the restoration team and now looks utterly gorgeous. Following its sell-out screening at last year’s London Film Festival, a selection of highlights now comes to disc in the hope of astounding new audiences.
Wonderful London was the creation of filmmakers Harry B. Parkinson and Frank Miller. Both had been in the entertainment industry since their teens, turning their attentions to all manner of genres and approaches. There had been slapstick comedies, adaptations of Charles Dickens and H.G. Wells, ‘white slave trade’ movies such as Trapped by the Mormons, and equally salacious tales such as Cocaine - “How Girls Became ‘Dope Fiends’ !!” screamed the poster. The latter was advertised as “the biggest money-maker which has been offered to exhibitors this year” suggesting that Parkinson and Miller knew a thing or two about what audiences wanted to see. Indeed, Wonderful London, prior to becoming a series of films, was a popular fortnightly magazine and therefore a success to be capitalised on.
Accusations of opportunism are probably justified, yet any such reservations swiftly disappear as soon as we set eyes on these films. Parkinson and Miller put together just over 20 entries in the series during 1924, each with an average length of around 10 minutes. With the exception of Known London - a look at the most popular tourist destinations in the capital - the focus was on the lesser documented areas: the nooks, the crannies, those areas and aspects neglected by the average day-tripper. You need only read some of the titles - London Off the Track, London’s Outer Ring, Barging Through London - to recognise that Parkinson and Miller weren’t going for the easy option here. Their decision perhaps resonates all the more today; there is always a fascination to documentary footage this old, but that element is considerably upped when faced with something other than the typical view.
Not that the age of these films should conjure up mental images of worn and scratchy records of the past. Six of the Wonderful London series were chosen for the main programme - a divergent mix that adds up to a very satisfying whole - and each has been restored with the utmost care and respect. Original release prints dating from 1924 have been held in the National Archive since the 1940s, thus allowing their original tints and tones to be faithfully represented and also ensuring that these films have been kept in best possible conditions. Of course, extensive work was still required by the restoration team (some 30,000 broken perforations had be repaired per title according to the booklet notes!) and the end results are suitably outstanding.
Furthermore, the Wonderful London series really does deserve this kind of attention. No mere reportage, all of the films possess a superb visual eye. In his booklet essay Iain Sinclair draws a comparison with Patrick Keiller’s work, specifically “its steady-star gaze on the marvels of the city”, and he has a point. Had these shorts been replicated today, shot-for-shot and edit-for-edit, then they’d be labelled as art films. There’s a precision to the framing and a delicacy to the rhythms - particularly those involving waterways - that makes for wonderfully enticing cinema. London is shot so that it dwarfs its populace, whilst the depth of field is such that it seems to go on forever. Fading slightly as it heads off into the distance, perhaps, but always present. The temptation to just stop and stare is immense, and Parkinson and Miller have understood that completely. They’re in no great rush to dash through the city nor are they particularly keen to dress it up with gimmicks.
With that said, the intertitles do their very best to date these films. The casual racism on display is really quite something, especially in Cosmopolitan London, which takes a tour around Limehouse, Soho and the ‘Little Italy’ of Clerkenwell. Here ‘foreign’ is forever equated with ‘strange’ and ‘sinister’. The intertitles warn the viewer away from a “Negro café” on Whitcombe Street and expend a considerable amount of venom towards the Chinese before heading off to the “reassuring” safety of a Trooping the Colour ceremony. The occasional lapses into broad ‘mockney’ in some of the other shorts are considerably less offensive, but still come with a strong sense of condescension.
The intertitles do have their place, however, thanks to their attention to detail. All of the onscreen locations and destinations are dutifully named and I suspect this will be particularly pleasing to modern viewers. Who can resist not having Google Street View on their laptop as they watch? Or perhaps be tempted into organising a daytrip to sample the ‘after’ first hand? Such an attraction had led photographers to do exactly this with the original Wonderful London magazines (whose pictures were compiled in book form in 1926) and there was also a 1979 re-edit of Barging Through London incorporating contemporary footage captured at the very same locations some 55 years later. Unfortunately that film isn’t held by the National Archive and so doesn’t find a place on this disc, but there’s nothing stopping viewers - other than the effects of almost a century of change - from enacting their own 2012 version.
Wonderful London arrives onto region-free DVD on July 23rd courtesy of the BFI. A single disc is more than enough to accommodate the six shorts which make up the main programme (total running time: 57 minutes) and the six which account for the extras (66 minutes). I’ve already mentioned the quality of the restorations in the main review so all I need add is that the transfers absolutely do them justice. I suspect these titles were too niche to justify a Blu-ray release, but there’s no need to feel short changed - the detail in these films is superb. John Sweeney, a regular accompanist at silent film screenings for the past two decades, is on hand with his piano to supply to the calm and unfussy musical accompaniment. This is presented in DD2.0, which proves more than adequate.
Do be aware, however, that the accompanying six shorts did not receive a similar treatment to the main programme. These titles (contents are listed below) were sourced from black and white prints that were made a number of years back by the BFI. They’re in a much rougher state - all are damaged, some are missing their opening frames - though never less than watchable. They too are treated to accompaniment from Sweeney.
The other addition is yet another typically weighty booklet from the BFI, this one extending to 24 pages. As well as notes on each of the twelve shorts we are find essays from Curator of Silent Film at the BFI, Bryony Dixon, essayist Iain Sinclair, the co-editor of Smoke: A London Peculiar, Jude Rogers, and film critic for the Telegraph, Sukhdev Sandhu. Dixon also provides brief bios for Harry B. Parkinson and Frank Miller, plus there are the expected illustrations and notes on the transfers.
CONTENTS (all films were produced in 1924)
Barging Through London (11 mins)
Cosmopolitan London (10 mins)
London’s Sunday (8 mins)
Flowers of London (10 mins)
London’s Free Shows (8 mins)
London Off the Track (10 mins)
Dickens’ London (12 mins)
London’s Outer Ring (12 mins)
London Old and New (8 mins)
London’s Contrasts (12 mins)
Known London (11 mins)
Along Father Thames to Shepperton (11 mins)