(Originally posted at CineVue)
At a time when all eyes across the globe are glued to the already bustling city of London in the run up to the capital’s third stint at hosting the Olympics, BFI’s scrupulous and beautifully restored Wonderful London takes a prescient step in the opposite direction, ruminating and exploring a London long embedded in the past.
Following a sold out screening at the 2011 BFI London Film Festival, this release comprises a collection of six films (from over 20) from directors Harry B. Parkinson and Frank Miller, who created travelogues of various aspects of city life and offered fascinating glimpses of London during the silent-era of the mid-1920s. Combining fresh new piano accompaniments from renowned silent film pianist John Sweeney, these short films – which each run between 8 to 12 minutes– depict London at its most memorable as well as unfamiliar, focusing on such recognisable landmarks as Big Ben and St. Paul’s Cathedral whilst simultaneously perusing through the hidden nooks and clandestine crannies of this diverse city.
Seen through the sepia-toned eyes of Parkinson and Miller – perhaps Britain’s answer to Auguste and Louis Lumière through their focus on the seeming mundanity of everyday life – the six individual films here are blissful dedications to a city the filmmakers were evidently enamoured with, taking meticulous pride in exploiting the secret beauty consistently taken for granted. Pinpointing and lending historical context to places one hears signposted when riding on the underground yet rarely takes the time to actually visit, each film (subtitled as “Pictorial sidelights on the world’s greatest city”) takes an intriguing fragment of a London in the throes of a burgeoning modernity, guiding the viewer through the numerous intricacies that build upon its character as a diverse and multitudinous location. Donning a light-hearted, witty and charmingly kitsch mode of address, perforated by Parkinson and Miller’s joyously affable intertitles, each film pools together gorgeous camerawork with the director’s deft compositions, delving into the vertiginous nature of central London as well as its flat, rural outskirts, all the while capturing a time when civilisation marvelled at the numerous forms of vehicular innovation that paraded across the rivers and stammered through the streets.
Starting the collection is ‘Barging Through London’, a sprightly excursion that takes you on a trip through working-class London on a barge, starting at the Regent Canal Dock in Limehouse and ending at the Paddington Basin just off Edgware Road, alighting at Camden and King’s Cross along the way. Similarly exploratory is ‘Cosmopolitan London’, which observes the cultural vastness of London by travelling through its foreign underbelly, taking in the culinary presence of France, Spain, Portugal and Greece that, as Parkinson and Miller advise, are easily found if the casual Londoner chooses to transcend the sameness of his surroundings and invest in a “two-penny bus ride” around the corner. The ethnic boundaries of the city are also hinted at, as, stumbling upon “a notorious café bar in the unsavoury Whitcomb Street district”, we glimpse at an establishment, “famous for its negro clientele”, as it actively refuses white customers. It is intriguing moments like this that make this series of films so evocative and captivating, instantly transporting viewers to a London of the past that is both scarcely recognisable and occasionally reminiscent of today. Perhaps the best of the bunch is ‘London’s Sunday’s’, which examines the endless possibilities of the weekday worker escaping “that sardine feeling” and enjoying their day off over the weekend, which culminates in one of the most melancholic of the filmmaker’s shots, depicting two lovers atop London Bridge. “Evening falls, and the London Lovers come into their own … Even Fleet Street becomes love lane … While London Bridge is paradise enow”, says the lyrically worded intertitles.
Illustrating its lively culture, the bustle of commuters and the air of frenzy one feels when wondering around the city, watching this collection of films makes you wonder how Parkinson and Miller would both fathom and go about capturing such contemporary landmarks as The London Eye and the gherkin, sites that have become so accustomed within the fabric of the cityscape. Their films are minutely extensive, and the BFI – dutifully working under the caption “the ever-transforming city through the lens of time” – have created a lovingly restored collection that, coupled with an insightful and lavishly collated booklet that matches high quality imagery with thoughtful essays by London-based academics such as Iain Sinclair, Jude Rogers and Sukhdev Sandhu (as well as The BFI National Archive’s silent film curator Bryony Dixon), represents a timeless artefact of British cinema, and is as much a joy to watch as a treasure to behold.