Now here’s something I never knew. In the early 1920s, a tank was stationed on public display outside the British Museum.
The image comes from one of the short films in the 1924 Wonderful London series, now restored by the BFI and published on DVD.
There are twelve films on the disc, each about ten minutes long, and each offering glimpses of a London that is tantalisingly both like and unlike the city we know. Watch it with friends and you’ll be punctuating the show with cries of ‘But that’s still there!’ or ‘Where could that have been?’
The films are simply constructed. A caption – sometimes annoyingly facetious – is followed by a (usually static) shot of a scene. The attitudes are of their time, and ‘Cosmopolitan London’, a study of ethnic minorities, will annoy many by its reference to ‘the Chink’ and ‘the negro’. The film shots, though, are precious, showing us Italians in Clerkenwell, Jews in Berwick Street and Whitechapel, and Lascars and Chinese in dockland. Is there any other film footage of London’s Lascar community?
Clerkenwell’s ‘Little Italy’ round about the time that Arnold Bennett was describing it in Riceyman Steps.
I was interested by the way that the War is represented in these films. That tank, a caption tells us, is ‘a grim reminder of the Great War’, but it is also a sign of how much the public wanted to be reminded of the war, so that the war-winning weapon was a tourist attraction. A dullish film on ‘The Flowers of London’ (lots of sepia-and white static shots of flowers, but with glimpses of Covent Garden market) ends by showing us the place in London where there are always flowers – the Cenotaph.
Most interesting of all, I thought, are some shots of the Guards marching in the Mall; a title draws attention to the fact that a large crowd is marching beside them, and keeping smartly in step – ex-officers and ex-privates allowing themselves a brief refresher-course in military pride .
Considered just as films, the the two best are probably the water-borne ones. ‘Barging through London’ follows a coal-barge along the Regent’s Canal. Next time I’m in London, I’ll try to look at some of the places shown. Another film takes a boat journey up the Thames (which reminds me that it’s a long time since I read ‘Three Men in a Boat’).
Shots of the City show it populated by bowler-hatted T.S.Eliot lookalikes. Shots of the docks and building sites remind us how very hard some people had to work, back in the day.
One sequence is rather topical. We are given some short glimpses of what the title calls ‘poor old White City’ – the legacy of the 1908 Olympic Games, now (some sixteen years later) fallen into disrepair.
The films are least successful when they try to be clever or artistic, but as records of the city ninety years ago, they are indeed rather wonderful.