Wonderful London… hmm. While I suspect the vast majority of the country might have a different description of our capital, there’s no doubting the value of this collection of mini documentaries from the 1920s. Originally made as slice-of-life programmers by Harry B. Parkinson and Frank Miller, they now stand as a rare archive of life and attitudes from almost 100 years ago.
The feel of these films is summed up in the opener, Barging Through London, 11 minutes of charming, almost pastoral quaintness as a horse-drawn barge journeys across the waterways of the city. It’s the sign of a world in the midst of change (as the film visits Whitechapel, it’s sobering to realise that Jack the Ripper was plying his trade less than thirty years earlier), with cars and buses competing with a still Victorian world.
And so these films reflect a city, a country and a world that was rapidly moving, between the wars, towards one that we might recognise today. There is, of course, the quaintness of yesteryear – London’s Free Shows has street corner Punch and Judy shows, men doing headstands in the middle of the road and lollygaggers staring at a film shoot, while Flowers of London manages to squeeze ten minutes out of florist shops and flower sellers. We shouldn’t scoff – the BBC still broadcasts The Chelsea Flower Show, after all.
Most contentious, and therefore most interesting, of these films is Cosmopolitan London, where we are taken on a tour of what would now be called ‘multicultural London’. Some of these – Australians and New Zealanders, wine and ice cream making Italians – get the nod of approval from the intertitles, but others are treated with remarkable, jaw-dropping racism. When not condescending to Lascars, the film is warning us to stay away from “a certain notorious café bar” in Whitcomb Street, where the “negro clientele” have no time for “white trash”. A clearly staged shot of a white woman being sent packing reinforces the warning. Meanwhile, Limehouse is discussed with all the melodrama of a Fu Manchu novel, with much talk of opium dens and fiendish “Chinks”, while Whitechapel is “a swarming hive of Jewish humanity”.
Astounding stuff, and the BFI are to be applauded for including the film. Shocking as it might be to modern sensibilities, it’s very much of its time and to deny it would be to deny a part of our past. And despite the overt racism of the text, the visuals remain a fascinating glimpse into a multicultural past.
The six films that make up the main body of this DVD have been lovingly restored, with the original tinting and toning intact, and are accompanied by an excellent, sympathetic score by John Sweeney, which does what a music score should do on a silent film, enhancing the narrative and creating an atmosphere. There are six additional films here too, not restored but equally essential. And the 26-page booklet acts as both a guide to, and critique of, the films.
If you enjoy nostalgic documentary shorts like Time to Remember and Look at Life, then Wonderful London will be right up your street.