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Parky at the Pictures (DVD 26/7/2012)
It was a racing certainty that numerous DVDs would be released to coincide with the Games of the XXX Olympiad. The majority are shameless cash-ins concentrating on sporting highlights or London tourist traps. But a handful seek to focus on more unusual aspects of the Olympic ideal and the 2012 host city. Christopher Miles's Fire From Olympia (2004), for example, attempts to reveal the connections between the Ancient Games and those of the modern era, while also exploring the role played by two unsung Englishmen in their revival. In truth, this is a bit of a muddle. But it's a fascinating one that combines Olympic archaeology, archive footage and coverage of events staged in Greece, Chipping Camden and Much Wenlock.
This is a classic case of a documentary trying to do too much. It opens solidly with the fire ceremony at the Temple of Zeus in Olympia and an explanation of how this provides a crucial link between the Games first held in 776 BC and those that have taken place every four years (excluding wartime) since 1896. Miles also reveals that the torch relay was an invention of the Nazi propaganda machine before the Berlin Olympics of 1936. But he then starts leaping around between things ancient and modern, with the result that intriguing pieces of information risk getting lost in the mix.
A particularly compelling section deals with women and the fact that the Heraean Games, which were held in honour of the goddess Hera, predated the Olympics that later forbade female participation. Although no statues of the victors have survived, it is known that women initially competed with their left breasts exposed before they adopted the total nudity that became fashionable in male competitions after Orsippos of Megara improved his time after being forced to run without shorts.
Some women did manage to circumvent their prohibition, however. As the owners of chariot horses were presented with the spoils of victory, Spartan princess Cynisca followed the advice of her brother King Agesilaus II and became the first woman to appear on the Olympic roll of honour. Similarly, Fereniki, who was the daughter of the fabled athlete Diagoras, disguised herself as a man to coach her son in the boxing tournament. However, when he won, she accidentally tore her garments in celebration and nakedness became de rigueur for coaches as a consequence.
Following these anecdotes from Professor Theo Antikas at Mount Olympus, Professor Stephen Miller takes us to Nemea to explain how truces were agreed during the Games so that athletes could travel across Europe in safety - although Alexander the Great once had to pay a fine after some of his mercenaries mugged a competitor. Miller is then joined by Spaniard Juan Carlos Ollana and decathlete Stephen Garland for a discussion of the Pentathlon and its component events, the 200m stadion race, the long jump, the discus, the javelin and wrestling.
Miller reconstructs the hisplex gate that was used to prevent false starts and footage from the 1980s is used to show decathlon champion Daley Thompson and discus thrower Richard Slaney visiting Isthmia with Dr Otto Szymiczek to see a variation on the hisplex mechanism and to attempt the ancient techniques of discus and javelin throwing, as well as the method of long-jumping that allowed athletes to use halteres hand weights to boost their forward propulsion. Miller also explains how only the winner received a prize and how many were treated to lavish parties to celebrate their success.
At this juncture, he takes Ollana and Garland to the Nemea stadion and shows them graffiti in the tunnel leading into the arena proclaiming the beauty of Acrotatos of Sparta. Professor Eva Kleus also explains how Greek youths had to be sexual chameleons, as they started out as the adolescent lovers of mentors who sponsored their physical and intellectual development before being invited to soirées in their early twenties to amuse the ladies. At 25, they would be expected to find their own prodigy before settling down to marriage and fatherhood around 30.
However, Miles selects this point to leave Greece and introduce Athenian Panos Vrachiotis and Robert Sidonio (whose father is from Rome) from the Shropshire village of Homer, who have been respectively entered in the shin-kicking and 100m events at Robert Dover's Olympicks in the Cotswolds and William Penny Brookes's Olympian Games at Much Wenlock.
As Dr Francis Burns reveals, Robert Dover established his Games in 1612 and based them on the Greek model. However, the tone nowadays seems closer to a village fayre variation on It's a Knockout, as teams compete in hay bale wheelbarrow races and slip and slide on plastic sheeting coated with washing-up liquid. However, shin-kicking retains a connection to wrestling and Vrachiotis tussles bravely before going down to defeat.
If passing time caused Dover to become a footnote in Olympic history, Penny Brookes was deliberately written out of the story by Baron Pierre de Coubertin. As Helen Cromarty explains, the founder of the Modern Games omitted all mention from his 1931 autobiography of the doctor who had launched an athletic competition in the 1850s to improve the health of local workers. What makes this slight all the more dismaying is that De Coubertin had so evidently drawn inspiration from the 1890 staging and had not only planted an oak tree to mark his visit, but had also claimed the 85 year-old Penny Brookes as his oldest friend.
Sidonio comes second in his race, which leaves Ollana (from the Graeco-Spanish town of Italica) to take his chances in the hoplite armour race at the 2002 reconstruction of the Pamviota Athla at Levadia. The authenticity of this celebration is made clear by the monochrome clips that Miles uses from the 1923 recreation of the ancient Pythian Games at Delphi. Following 200m races for women and men, the programme includes the javelin, discus, long jump and wrestling, as well as the hoplite, which Ollana wins and he receives his laurel wreath in the climactic awards ceremony.
There is much to learn and enjoy here. But Miles's organisation is as haphazard as his narration is flat. Moreover, it scarcely helps that few of the on-screen contributors seem even vaguely at ease before the camera. Yet such flaws can be excused in light of the wealth of riveting information presented on the conduct of the Ancient Games, their mythologisation and the manner in which they have been (mis)appropriated by the hosts of their modern equivalents.
Undoubtedly the most fetishised Games of the 20th century were those held in Berlin. Indeed, such is the controversy surrounding the 1936 event that Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia (1938) is still denounced for its political undertones as often as it is praised for its pioneering approach to sports coverage.
Divided into two parts - Festival of the Nations and Festival of Beauty - this epic record attempts to combine reportage with a celebration of physical pulchritude and the spectacle involved in this uniquely unifying event. It's still disputed exactly who commissioned Riefenstahl to produce the film or who provided the funding (although Hitler himself seems to have intervened to ensure that the lengthy editing process was completed). Moreover, the debate will also continue as to whether this is an exceptional documentary or a piece of pernicious propaganda. What is clear, however, is that this would not be open to such conjecture had it been made by a Soviet icon like Sergei Eisenstein or, rather, had it not been made by the director of The Triumph of the Will (1935).
If it's nothing else, Olympia is an object lesson in the making of a motion picture. In collaboration with production designer Walter Traut and her directors of cinematography, Riefenstahl spent months analysing film stock in varying lighting conditions and attending sports meets to ascertain the optimum angle, distance and exposure required to capture the aestheticism and athleticism of the different events. She was also involved in the design of the twin camera towers constructed within the stadium infield and the pits and tracks that were excavated and laid to allow her crews to keep up with speeding athletes on the track. Moreover, she precisely instructed camera operators Hans Ertl, Walter Frentz, Hans Scheib, Gustav Lantschner and Dorothy Poynton-Hill how they were to film the diving, yachting, rowing, gymnastic and equestrian events.
Circumventing restrictions imposed by the International Olympic Committee, Riefenstahl made pioneering use of telephoto lenses and occasionally restaged action to secure the exact image she required (eg strapping Kinamo cameras to training marathon runners to gain a subjective insight into the race's gruelling nature). But Riefenstahl retained a fierce independence throughout the entire process, resisting in particular the envious snipes of Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, who was keen to turn the occasion into a Party showcase and exploit it to give the world a more positive impression of National Socialism.
Making calculated use of slow-motion, Riefenstahl captured the grace, strength and power of the competitors in the high and long jumps, the discus and hammer throws, the pole vault and the relay races. Yet, she also refused to shy away from the significance of German Luz Long's long jump duel with Jessie Owens, India's victory over Germany in the hockey final and the gold and bronze medal-winning feats of black athletes John Woodruff and Phil Edwards (from the US and Canada respectively) in the 800m.
But it was her pseudo-Expressionist presentation of the marathon that proved most striking, as she distorted shadows and cross-cut between close-ups of straining body parts to convey the energy sapping ordeal of negotiating 26 unyielding miles. Equally worthy of note, however, is the focus on decathlete Glenn Morris, who enjoyed a brief fling with his director in Berlin before going on to play Tarzan and various other action roles in Hollywood. Seemingly, Riefenstahl was not alone in recognising his Adonis-like perfection.
Having worked tirelessly during the 16 days of competition, personally supervising the crews whenever possible, Riefenstahl spent the next 18 months editing the 1.3 million feet of footage down to 18,000 feet. She also travelled to Greece to oversee Willy Zielke's prologue, which recreated the aforementioned ritual at the Temple of Zeus.
Sub-dividing the two parts into 13 and 11 segments respectively, Riefenstahl gave the opening ceremony a mythical feel and turned the climactic diving sequence into a magisterial study of human poetry in motion. She also risked Nazi ire by emphasising the victories of African-Americans Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalf, and regardless of the critical fraternity's mixed response, the IOC was sufficiently impressed with her homage to the Olympic spirit to award her with a gold medal at London in 1948 and make her an honoured guest at all subsequent Games.
Inevitably reflecting the time and place of its making, this is a remarkable personal vision and it remains among the finest examples of documentary film art. The debates over Riefenstahl's artistic and moral integrity will continue to rage, especially as she often employed stylisation, juxtaposition and the synchronisation of visual rhythms with Herbert Windt's score to emphasise incidents like the mass gymnastic demonstration that strike us now as unsettlingly dehumanising. Yet, but for the coincidence of Kristallnacht with Olympia's New York premiere, the film might well have landed Riefenstahl a Hollywood contract. As it was, only Walt Disney agreed to meet her and she was forced to return to Germany, where her opportunities were limited by conflict and the besmirched reputation that her infamous masterpieces had earned her, even though she was never charged by the postwar de-Nazification tribunals that investigated every aspect of life in the Third Reich.
Markedly less contentious in its discussion of athletic sacrifice and brilliance is Leslie Woodhead's Endurance (1998), a profile of the Ethiopian distance runner Haile Gebrselassie, who took gold in the 10,000m at Atlanta in 1996. Co-produced by Terrence Malick, this is less a docudrama than a cine-poem akin to the odes composed during the Ancient Games. With Gebrselassie appearing as himself and his cousin Yonas Zergaw playing the athlete as a boy, this has little in common with such traditional sporting actualities as Salute, Matt Norman's recently revived tribute to his uncle Peter Norman, who joined Tommie Smith and John Carlos in the rostrum protest against racial prejudice that followed the 200m in Mexico City in 1968. However, it not only conveys the humility and tenacity of its subject, but also the sheer magnitude of his remarkable achievement.
One of 10 siblings born into a poor farming family in Asella in Arsi Province, Gebrselassie was raised in a single room and had to do his share of chores while also running 12 miles each day to attend school. Indeed, many claim that these daily barefoot shuttles shaped his distinctive running style, as he left arm was always angled as though he was still carrying his books.
Following the death of his beloved mother, Haile frequently found himself at odds with his father, who valued education but felt that his son's dream of emulating compatriot Miruts Yifter (who had earned the nickname `Yifter the Shifter' after winning the 10,000m in Moscow in 1980) was nothing more than folly. He was furious, therefore, when the 17 year-old left home to join a training camp in Addis Ababa.
Gebrselassie must have doubted his decision after he came 99th in his first marathon. But his Christian faith and the support of his future wife Alem convinced him to train harder and he was rewarded with victories in the five and 10,000m at the Junior World Championships in 1992. The following year, he announced himself on the big stage by taking the 10,000m at the World Championships in Stuttgart.
In all, he would go on to retain his title three times, as well as defend his Olympic crown in Sydney in 2000 and set 27 different world records. But Woodhead is less concerned with Gebrselassie's talent than with his personality. Thus, while he incorporates extracts from Bob Greenspan's footage of the record-breaking win in the Atlanta heat, Woodhead prefers to concentrate on lyrical images of Gebrselassie's physical and psychological preparation, which acquire additional inspirational eloquence through John Powell's rousing score.
Making a fine companion piece, Jerry Rothwell's Town of Runners provides a timely reminder of the sacrifices required of athletes if they are to make the grade. Once again demonstrating Rothwell's laudable versatility, this is a far cry from his studies of an unconventional punk band (Heavy Load, 2008), doomed yachtsman Donald Crowhurst (Deep Water, 2008) and the sperm bank kids attempting to trace their father (Donor Unknown, 2010). But, while it brims with compassion for its young subjects, this is perhaps the least cogent or coherent of Rothwell's pictures to date.
Considering it only has a population of 16,000, the remote Ethiopian town of Bekoji in Oromia province (which lies some 10,000ft above sea level) has a remarkable record for producing world-beating distance runners, such as Olympic champions Derartu Tula, Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba, as well as such potent competitors as Tariku Bekele, Mestawet Tufa, Genzebe Dibaba, Ejigayehu Dibaba and Mestawot Tadesse. However, veteran coach Sentayehu Eshetu knows that his newest crop of hopefuls need to land places in one of the newly established, government-sponsored academies if they are to have even an outside chance of fulfilling their dreams.
As 13 year-old narrator Biruk Fikadu takes up the story, he is less concerned with his running form than the incursion of a Chinese road gang building a new highway that will skirt the town and divert traffic away from the tiny kiosk he manages for his ailing grandmother. However, improving her speed and endurance is all that matters to their 15 year-old tenant Alemi Tsegaye, whose family live in the country and have invested in her future, even though mother Bekelech Debele isn't particularly bothered about her sporting achievements and tends, like 14 year-old Hawii Megersa's mother, Werkiyye Guddeta, to think she would be better off finding a husband and start having the children who will support her in old age.
When Rothwell first arrives in Bekoji in the ploughing season of 2009, Hawii and Alemi are training hard for the Regional Youth Championships in Asella. The meet is appallingly organised, however, and video evidence is required to convince the judges that Hawii ran in the 1500m heats and has fairly earned her place in the final. She takes bronze and wins further medals in the 800m and the relay. But Alemi comes in a disappointing ninth and has much to think about as the townsfolk rally together to clear weeds from the athletics ground as the dry season sets in.
Hawii is rewarded for her efforts with a place in the Oromia squad for the National Youth Championships in Addis Ababa. But her fifth place in the 800m final leads to her being replaced by an older girl using her name in the 1500 (even though she had earlier failed to qualify) and Hawii takes little pleasure in the team victory, as she knows results are what matters to catching the eyes of the national selectors.
As it happens, both Alema and Hawii secure places in one of the 18 state training camps. However, while Alema finds excellent facilities at the Holeta site (as they have been sponsored by the local flower industry), Hawii and teammates Betty and Freya discover Wolis (100 miles west of Holeta, which is itself two days from Bekoji) to be a half-constructed shambles and, with food often as scarce as decent training sessions, they quickly become disillusioned. Even a reunion with Alema at a launch rally in Addis fails to raise their spirits and they are dismayed to notice the sums lavished on entertaining the assembled dignitaries while they are living in near poverty.
As the 2010 wet season arrives and Alemi's father, Tsegaye Degefa, fears that the crops will be ruined, the girls remain at their respective camps, while Biruk takes the matriculation exam he needs to pass if he is to continue his education. When Hawii comes home for Easter, she fails to complete a training run and tells Coach Sentayehu that she has sand in her kidneys and has been idle for four months. She complains that the Wolis authorities have offered her negligible medical assistance and begs not to be sent back.
By the time the harvest comes round, Hawii has transferred to the Asella Athletic Club and is much happier. However, Betty and Freya feel somewhat betrayed at being left behind and things are scarcely better for Biruk, who failed his exam and had to help his grandmother make provision for renting out the kiosk, as he no longer had sufficient time to run it. He decides his best option is to concentrate on his running. But there are no guarantees, as Alema and Hawii discover when Holeta and Asella (after a team mutiny) meet at the Oromia Club Championships in Nazret in April 2011. Neither makes it out of the 1500m heats for their age group, but Alema takes silver in the 800m and Coach Sentayehu insists that both still have a decent chance of following their illustrious predecessors as the film ends.
Despite the fascinating subject of kids being forced to compete on what seems to be an increasingly unlevel playing field, this is a deeply frustrating documentary. Rothwell ably conveys the importance of sport in escaping rural poverty and exposes the chaos and corruption endemic at all levels of the system. But the storylines are fragmentary and too many intriguing issues are left undeveloped, including the genuine athletic potential of Alema, Hawii and Biruk (and what the future has in stall if they fail), the role of women in Ethiopian society, the ominous economic presence of Chinese agencies, the dismal state of the Wolis unit and the extent to which Bekoji's superstars pay their dues to their hometown. Thus, while this couldn't have better intentions, it too often settles for edited highlights instead of in-depth analysis.
Switching attention from the sport to the venue, the remainder of this week's offerings concentrate on the capital and the ever-changing nature of its landscape and people.
Among the most fascinating titles released by the BFI in many a year, Wonderful London presents the surviving entries in a 1924 travelogue series that was produced by Harry B. Parkinson and Frank Miller and inspired by a magazine of the same name published by the poet Arthur St John Adcock. Photographed just two years before the Queen was born and running just a few minutes each, these tantalising shorts show how little British street scenes had changed since the pioneering views captured by the Lumière agent Alexandre Promio and by Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon around the turn of the century. Ironically, Parkinson hailed from Blackburn, where Mitchell & Kenyon was based, and he brings an outsider's eye to locations that would not just have intrigued domestic audiences, but also those in dominions and colonies across the globe who were keen to catch a glimpse of the great imperial metropolis.
Given the times, one shouldn't be too surprised by some of the racially insensitive comments contained in the intertitles of Cosmopolitan London, which opens by celebrating the European exoticism of Soho and Clerkenwell's Little Italy before passing more sinister comment on an East End Jewish community, the Bengali `Lascars' working on the Limehouse docks, the Chinese living in cramped squalor in Pennyfields and the black men terrifying the white woman who inadvertently strays into their Whitcombe Street café. But, at least, Parkinson and Miller had the nous to recognise that these immigrant residents were now a permanent part of the London scene and the historical value of their imagery is immense.
This tour ends with the reassuring sight of Trooping the Colour and the emphasis is once more on the familiar and quaint in Flowers of London, London's Sunday and London's Free Shows, which use atmospheric tints to convey the sights of the bloom markets, the parks, the bridges and the river, as Londoners ride off on motorbikes for dates that might entail encounters with pavement artists, buskers, Punch & Judy men and road menders. But, if this trio somewhat anticipate Humphrey Jennings's Spare Time (1939), Barging Through London and London Off the Track suggest how audiences were keen to see their own neighbourhoods on screen long before the British Documentary Movement supposedly rescued the actuality and repackaged it as the People's Cinema.
Gliding along the Regent's Canal, the former calls in on Whitechapel, Hackney, King's Cross, Kentish Town and Camden before coming to rest in Paddington Basin, while the latter ventures out to Dr Johnson's House, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, Bankside and Smithfield. But, as if to reinforce the Good Doctor's maxim about those tiring of London having little appetite for life, the six non-series offerings included on the disc reveal many more nooks and byways.
Locations familiar from The Old Curiosity Shop and Oliver Twist are visited in Dickens' London, while the suburbs are shown in all their leafy finery in Along Father Thames to Shepperton. The central landmarks have their moment in Known London and London Old and New, while alternating scenes of grime and grandeur are presented in London's Contrasts. But the real treats come in The Outer Ring, which not only provides a rare view of the Crystal Palace, but also footage of the rundown White City stadium that was built for the 1908 Olympics and few will fail to notice the irony that while this is now the site of the Westfield Shopping Centre, its Stratford equivalent is already up and running alongside the facilities constructed for 2012.
Each film contains places and faces that fix the gaze and it's tempting to compare them with Michael Smith and Wojciech Duczmal's Lost in London, Paul Kelly's Seven Summers and Eva Weber's Night, Peace, which have recently been commissioned by CREATE to celebrate the modern relationship between London and its people. But what most captivates about these casually composed snapshots is the invaluable record they provide of buildings and entire streets that would be wiped off the map during the Blitz.
The impact that the Luftwaffe had on the capital can be assessed in the estimable Panamint collection London Pride, which chronicles the indomitability of ordinary citizens to the nightly air raids that started on 7 September 1940 and the efforts made to rebuild the shattered city in the aftermath of what, at times in the depth of austerity, must have felt like a hollow victory.
The pick of the quintet is undoubtedly Humphrey Jennings and Harry Watt's London Can Take It (1940), which was made to convince American isolationists that the Royal Family was prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder with Eastenders in order to protect residential street and commercial premises, as well as landmarks like the Houses of Parliament and St Paul's Cathedral. Indeed, it proved so successful that the Ministry of Information commissioned a shorter version, Britain Can Take It!, for domestic consumption to reaffirm that every man, woman and child from Land's End to John o' Groats was braced for battle.
The action opens with Londoners returning from school and work and readying themselves to spend another night in a shelter. Everyone moves calmly and the queues soon disappear as the sky watchers take their positions alongside those manning the searchlights and anti-aircraft guns. As they engage with the planes overhead, air-raid wardens, policemen, ambulance drivers and firemen go about their duties with courage that is not only extolled by American journalist Quentin Reynolds in his admiringly intimate narration, but which is made to seem all the more heroic by the assertion that the noises of battle on the soundtrack are genuine and have not been created by a Hollywood special effects team.
As dawn breaks, the populace emerges from the Underground and returns to its streets hoping to find houses still standing and loved ones safe. Not everyone will be lucky and the sight of the devastation remains chilling seven decades on. Yet such is the stoicism of London that people set off to work knowing they are making a vital contribution to the war effort by simply keeping calm and carrying on. Thus, Jennings and Watt show shopkeepers sweeping up broken glass to open for business, just as teams desperately search the bombsites in anticipation of being able to pull more than the odd cat out of the rubble alive.
Piecing together images shot by Jonah Jones and Chick Fowle, Jennings and Watt (in conjunction with uncredited editor Stewart McAllister) achieve what can only be described as a work of poetic resistance. But the tone is markedly more pragmatic in Ralph Keene's Proud City: A Plan for London (1945), which features architects Sir Patrick Abercrombie and JH Forshaw explaining their vision for the restoration of the capital to its former glory and the addition of projects designed to improve the standard of life for all its residents.
Sponsored by London County Council and boasting Edgar Anstey as its associate producer and William Alwyn as its composer, this intimation of a return to normalcy finds echo in London Airport (1949), which traces the development of Heathrow from April 1944, and Journey on a Bus (1950), which appears to have been produced to help African visitors cope with the problem of getting around the city. Made for the Crown Film Unit and London Transport, Noel Arthur's Moving Millions (1947) similarly promises a combination of renovation and amelioration, as Lords Latham and Ashfield are shown chairing meetings at 55 Broadway to ensure that bus, tube and overground rail services will be able to cope with the pressures placed upon them by commuters intent on resuming their old routines.
Clement Attlee's landslide Labour government recognised that the public needed a reward for its efforts in rebuilding the nation and sanctioned the Festival of Britain to boost morale and prove to an international community increasingly cowed by the Cold War that, while the empire might have gone, the United Kingdom still had a key role to play in a rapidly changing world. Three of the films made to mark this 1951 jamboree are presented in Panamint's London in Festival Year.
Philip Leacock's Festival in London (1951), which offers a brief tour of the South Bank campus and Battersea Pleasure Park in the company of narrator James McKechnie. The stirring music is William Alwyn's `Festival March', but this was an event designed to demonstrate resilience and recovery as much as national might. Consequently, there is less of the swagger that characterised the 1851 Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace. Instead, there is a mood of inclusivity, modesty and fun that celebrates the present and the future much more than the past.
This sense of perspective carries over into Maurice Harvey and Jacques Brunius's Brief City (1952), in which architect Hugh Casson joins Observer reporter Patrick O'Donovan on a tour of the riverside site that devotes as much time to state-of-the-art construction techniques as it does to nostalgic wallows or pipe dreams. Thus, pride and optimism are tempered by pragmatism and prudence, although the pair still manage to marvel at such items as the Dome of Discovey and the Skylon, which became something of a totem and a joke before it was demolished on Winston Churchill's orders in 1952.
Sadly, by this time, Humphrey Jennings had been killed while scouting locations in Greece. His last completed film, Family Portrait, was commissioned by the Festival organisers and it makes for fascinating comparison with the lyrical, but trenchant works that had proved so valuable in wartime. Narrated by Michael Goodliffe and centred primarily on English traditions and achievements, it summed up Archbishop of Canterbury Geoffrey Fisher's hope that the Festival would `declare our belief and trust in the British way of life, not with any boastful self-confidence nor with any aggressive self-advertisement, but with sober and humble trust that by holding fast to that which is good and rejecting from our midst that which is evil we may continue to be a nation at unity in itself and of service to the world'.
Somewhat dismissed in its day as a compliant piece of propaganda, this may lack the intensity of Jennings's earlier work. But it demonstrates a remarkable grasp of social, cultural, industrial and commercial history and echoes the familiar theme that the country only truly thrives when everybody has a stake in the enterprise. This was an easy concept to put across during the war when victory was the sole design. But, with class lines having been redrawn following the 1945 election, it was harder to state with genuine conviction that all Britons were equal partners in the process of recovery.
In comparing James Watt to an iron worker, Jennings adroitly suggests that genius would be nothing without the labour force to put theory into practice. He similarly uses the Festival symbols of the Lion and the Unicorn to remind viewers that while strength and power are key to the nation's future prosperity, imagination and beauty are just as crucial to the nourishment of the collective soul and, in juxtaposing familiar scenes of bucolic bliss and urban bustle, Jennings reaffirms that the customs, principles and values that had united the nation in conflict were just as important in facing the very different challenges of the peace.
A very different side of the capital is exposed in Arnold L. Miller's West End Jungle (1961), which marked the first foray into film of one of the future kings of the softcore porn industry. Stanley A. Long produced and wrote the screenplay of this unflinching study of prostitution in London following the 1957 Wolfenden Report of the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution and the passage, two years later, of the Street Offences Act that outlawed streetwalking. Such was its frankness that this pseudo-documentary was banned by the censor. Yet, while it scarcely delivers on its salacious promises of titillation, this still serves as a sobering insight into life in Soho before the sixties started swinging and the attitude of the male-dominated establishment to women of a certain age and class.
Since the heyday of Cecil B. De Mille, film-makers have delighted in lecturing audiences about the sins of the flesh by displaying forbidden fruits in all their tempting glory before punishing the protagonists led astray and wagging an admonishing finger at those viewers whose gaze had not been entirely disapproving. Miller cleaves to this tactic here, as he revels in the fact that a city with a population of eight million could be home to some 10,000 prostitutes and explores the wicked ways employed by these ladies of the night to part fools from their money. The patrons of the seedy hostess bars, strip clubs and massage parlours are dismissed as suckers rather than slaves to base urges that degrade the women whose favours they purchase and jeopardise the health of any unsuspecting wives and girlfriends back home.
What is most disconcerting about Miller's approach in his often awkward dramatic re-enactments is the refusal to blame the amateur photographer who leers at the `model' he is usually hoping will offer something a little extra in addition to posing. Similarly, the businessman who is treated to an encounter by a generous client is seen as someone deserving of a little pampering after a hard day's work. Indeed, Miller and Long seem to be complaining that the changes in legislation have disadvantaged lusty males who have every right to exploit women who have resorted to the oldest profession because they can't find alternative employment or are in thrall to a vicious pimp.
Labour peer Lord Morrison of Lambeth, who had been a key figure in Attlee's administration, used his position as President of the British Board of Film Censors to quash a film he felt brought London into disrepute. But several MPs and religious leaders felt that the film should be shown to dissuade young provincial girls from heading south in search of fame and fortune and they found an unlikely ally in The News of the World. Ultimately, the ban was ignored by several local councils outside the capital, where no one would know that Andrea Lawrence, Mavis Hoffman and Pamela Rees were not prostitutes, but girls accepting a few pounds to cavort on camera while their on-screen voices were provided by Heather Russell with a caricaturistic cynicism that is more than matched by David Gell's sneeringly patronising narration.
However, there is something compelling about the monochrome views of the neon-lit pavements and the noirish sense of an underworld operating outside the law. The chauvinism is unpardonable, but the scenes of toffs buying over-priced cuddly toys after being sold a sob story and likely lads being turfed out of drinking clubs after being fleeced of their cash have a distinctive whiff of sour authenticity.
Miller and Long would also team on London in the Raw (1964) and Primitive London (1965), which have been reissued as part of the BFI Flipside series. Released in the wake of the Profumo Affair, this titillating twosome was promoted as a homegrown take on the tabloid Mondo flicks that were then all the rage on the continent. But rather than simply providing a snapshot of Swinging London, they also revealed a good deal about a nation daunted by the prospect of a permissive society.
There is plenty of peek-a-boo nudity on offer in the course of what is occasionally a salacious tour of a smutty city. But if Miller has a habit of dropping in on ladies in various states of dishabillé, he is also acutely aware of the dual standards involved in combining softcore thrills with sociological didacticism. Indeed, hypocrisy is one of his major themes. So, while David Gell's narration often drips with tutting insincerity, Miller still has the gumption to question why busking was prohibited under the 1959 Street Offences Act, while a blind eye was turned to prostitutes soliciting for trade from upper-storey Soho windows.
All of this suggests that the capital at the time of The Beatles vehicle A Hard Day's Night had more in common with Coronation than Carnaby Street. But what a difference a year makes, because it's possible to see the braver, yet more venal world portrayed in John Schlesinger's Oscar-winning Darling (1965) in Primitive London, which apes the format of the postwar classic A Diary for Timothy (1945) to explore the options open to a newborn baby in this age of Mods, Rockers, unisex judo, false eyelashes, shrink-wash jeans, topless swimsuits and goldfish surgery. There are as many staged episodes as observed curios here, with the wife-swapping party being as scripted as the radio commercial interlude featuring Barry Cryer. But Miller does succeed in showing how quickly attitudes to keeping up appearances have changed and how aggressive the sell has become, whether its chicken meat or female flesh that's being peddled. And it's this loss of innocence that makes these rather amateurish doses of seedy sensationalism worth watching.
Fast forwarding to 1967, Norman Cohen's The London Nobody Knows reveals how much the city and its society had changed in the intervening six years. Adapted from his own by Geoffrey Fletcher - the founding father of psychogeography who was famed for his Daily Telegraph column, `London Day by Day' - this guided tour of often shocking contrasts is conducted by actor James Mason and is very much an elegy for bygone places and times. However, it is also an admonition to the establishment and audience alike for allowing themselves to be distracted by the swinging happenings on Carnaby Street when the homeless were killing themselves with meths just a few streets away.
At one point, Mason confides that `all these things meant something once upon a time' and this excruciating reminder of the transience of life confirms Cohen and Fletcher's resolute eschewal of
nostalgia. Indeed, the mood is more one of melancholy, as Mason treads the broken boards of the Bedford Theatre in Camden High Street and recalls how this was once a thriving music hall, where
Marie Lloyd performed and Walter Sickert sketched while listening to Dr Crippen's second wife Cora Turner sing under her stage name of Belle Elmore.
Recalling John Betjeman on one of his small-screen perambulations, Mason visits Kensal Green cemetery, Chapel Market, the Roundhouse (that was just about to become the temple of the emerging psychedelic scene) and a public convenience in Holburn, where he recounts the story of an attendant who kept goldfish in a cistern. Averring that `all men are equal in the eyes of a lavatory attendant', Mason drops into a Salvation Army hostel to commiserate with `the brotherhood of the leaky boot'. He even visits a house in Spitalfields that was the scene of one of Jack the Ripper's murders.
But the footage between these set-pieces has its own revelatory charm, as Cohen catches the bustle and diversity of street life, from trendy young things going about their day to those down on their luck scrapping to retain their status and what is left of their dignity. The contrast could not be starker with the other film on this BFI disc, as Douglas Hickox's Les Bicyclettes de Belsize (1968) is a musical chronicle of Hampstead trendy Anthony May's passion for billboard model Judy Huxtable, which boasts enchanting images by Wolfgang Suschitzky (who celebrates his centenary next month) and a title track by Engelbert Humperdinck. But Cohen's idiosyncratic odyssey has more in common with Patrick Keiller's 1994 opus, London.
Taking its inspiration from Charles Baudelaire's concept of the flâneur, a stroller who reaches an epiphany thanks to the landscape around him, Keiller sets the unseen duo of Robinson and his unnamed narrator friend (voiced by Paul Scofield) on a year-long journey through a city that would attempt to adopt a business as usual attitude despite being assaulted by the IRA and threatened with ruin by `Black Wednesday' and the consequent European monetary crisis. But, while Keiller pauses to vent his frustration at the election of John Major in April 1992 and the prospect that London would suffer from a further period of Tory indifference to its governance and well-being, he is equally intent on placing the capital in its historical and cultural context.
Thus, he has Robinson and his photographer friend reunite for the first time in several years at Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, where Horace Walpole wrote his Gothic masterpiece, The Castle of Otranto, in 1764. Combining long, static takes with narration festooned with literary references and intellectual allusions, Keiller speculates whether London missed its chance in failing to respond positively to the Glorious Revolution and the French revolt of 1789. He also draws comparisons with Paris and juxtaposes verses by such poets as Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine and Guillaume Apollinaire with the wry prose observations of Walpole, Laurence Sterne and HG Wells, as well as the Russian Alexander Herzen.
The result is a compelling diatribe, which, like the subsequent Robinson in Space (1997) and Robinson in Ruins (2010), challenges the viewer to reject accepted versions of events and see the familiar and the unfamiliar with a fresh insight. In calling at Canary Wharf, the Embankment, Brixton Market, Wembley and Vauxhall, the off-screen duo celebrate the people who have provided the city's heartbeat. But Keiller also has a keen eye for the absurd image, whose potency he frequently enhances with a sly use of subversive sound. Yet, for all the erudition and scholarship, the film contains as much affection for London as it does frustration at the ineptitude of its administration and the manner in which it has been hijacked by those seeking personal power and profit rather than the greater good.
Finally, a change of pace and tone is provided by London Tales, the first title in a BFI tribute to the Children's Film Foundation, which produced some 400 low-budget featurettes for family and matinee audiences between its inception in 1951 and its closure in 1987. Over the years, directors of the calibre of Michael Powell, Lewis Gilbert, Alberto Cavalcanti and John Krish made sprightly adventures for the Foundation under CEO Mary Field, whose reputation for nurturing young talent is proven by the fact that Michael Crawford, Susan George, Dennis Waterman, Francesca Annis, Leslie Ash, Phil Collins and Sadie Frost all got their big break in CFF movies. And where would the 1970s children's television quiz Screen Test have been without clips from the CFF vaults?
Kicking off this wholly entertaining trilogy is John Krish's The Salvage Gang (1958), which opens with the splendidly wholesome sight of Christopher Warbey, Alimani Allen and Frazer Hines helping friend Amanda Coxwell build a new hutch for her rabbit, Kim. Unfortunately, Hines bends the teeth on her father Charles Ross's new saw and they decide to do some odd jobs to raise the money to buy a new one.
Unfortunately, this proves easier said than done, as a barge owner lands in the water after they set his craft adrift and he slips on the varnish they inadvertently use to paint his craft while he dozes in the cabin, while their bid to launch a dog-washing service goes predictably wrong when the sole client (Coxwell's Labrador Sally) scarpers. Things seem to take an upswing when they hit upon the idea of going door to door for scrap metal and come across an iron bed frame in the street. However, it turns out to be Warbey's own bed (which had been placed on the pavement during a house move) and the gang have to bundle on to the top deck of a bus to keep track of its progress. The only problem then is how to get it back home before anyone notices it's missing.
With a cameo by Wilfrid Bramble in the proto-Steptoe guise as a tramp who fancies a kip and a wildly over-the-top turn as an Italian café owner by Richard Molinas, this often feels like a story gleaned from a kids comic like the Dandy or Beano. But Krish, who was one of the finest documentarists of the postwar era, captures the London locations with as keen eye that recalls Charles Crichton's in the classic Ealing caper, Hue and Cry (1947). The performances are solid enough, although only Hines would go on to better things in Doctor Who and Emmerdale Farm. But, what is most noteworthy about this jovial outing is the fact that Ali Allen's colour is never an issue with either the kids or the grown-ups.
Enid Blyton had taught a generation of children to expect adventure in their entertainment and David Eady supplies plenty of Famous Five-style action in Operation Third Form (1966). Once again photographed in crisp black and white, this is a classic `meddling kids' scenario that features a splendid display of villainy from Derren Nesbitt that clearly served him in good stead for playing SS Major von Hapen in Brian G. Hutton's spectacular Alistair MacLean adaptation, Where Eagles Dare (1968). Then again, playing a lad with a talent for being in the wrong place at the wrong time also prepared John Moulder-Brown for his role as Mike, the hapless teenage bathhouse attendant in Jerzy Skolimowski's Deep End (1970).
Already in trouble with the headmaster for accidentally breaking a window, Moulder-Brown has to return to school after hours to retrieve his forgotten homework. However, as he wanders through the deserted building, he runs into rag-and-bone man Sydney Bromley, who is so certain he has seen a ghost that he crashes his truck and inadvertently speeds off with the bell from HMS Dolphin, which was donated to the school by Admiral William Sherwood.
On spotting the bell, wideboy Derren Nesbitt realises he could make a few quick quid by flogging it to crook George Roderick. But, while Moulder-Brown sees him hide it under the floorboards of his office, nobody believes his story, especially when the caretaker claims he saw the boy mooching around the school the previous evening. Determined to prove his innocence, Moulder-Brown enlists the help of buddies Kevin Bennett, Michael Crockett and Ronnie Caryl, as well as younger sister Roberta Tovey, and they not only follow Nesbitt everywhere he goes, but also learn that he plans to steal Sherwood's valuable Goya painting of an ancestor who served with Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar.
Providing a link between comics like The Boy's Own Paper and such TV shows as Here Come the Double Deckers, this is a lively caper that also riffs on the vogue for all things espionage following the success of the James Bond movies by having the gang use Tovey's dolls pram to bug Nesbitt and Roderick plotting their schemes. Much of the remaining action is charmingly lo-tec, however, as Nesbitt doesn't have a car and the kids are able to keep tabs on him simply by walking or catching the bus.
Eight years might have passed, but David Eady clearly retained his faith in the `kids v crooks' format, as he recycled it for Night Ferry (1976), the only title in this set in colour. He was fortunate, however, in being able to call on Bernard Cribbins to play a villain who just happened to be a master of disguise. But this enjoyable romp also had a message as serious as any of the Public Information films that were then staple fillers in the daytime television schedule.
While playing beside a railway line, young Graham Fletcher ignores a sign warning about the dangers of trespassing to recover his toy glider, which had floated over a fence. Already afraid of being caught by the men urging him to get off a track where rolling stock is being shunted, Fletcher panics when one of them breaks his leg in a fall and he seeks out a hiding place. As he waits for the fuss to die down, however, he spots undertakers Bernard Cribbins and Aubrey Morris transferring an Egyptian sarcophagus from an armoured truck into the back of a hearse and he grows increasingly suspicious when the pair give a pursuing police vehicle some spurious directions.
When pal Engin Eshref tells him that the mummy of the boy Pharaoh Nematut has been stolen from a local museum, Fletcher realises what he witnessed. But he is too scared to go to the police in case he gets into trouble for causing an injury to a railwayman who turns out to be classmate Jayne Trottman's father. However, when Cribbins and Morris set up a stall close to the one owned by Eshref's father under Clapham arches, the friends learn that the dastardly duo have made contact with French go-between Carolle Rousseau, who will help them smuggle the artefact out of the country on the boat train from Victoria Station.
Cashing in somewhat belatedly on the 1972 British Museum exhibition of items from the tomb of Tutankhamun, this breezy crime comedy has a decided end of an era feel about it. Saturday matinees had largely been replaced in adolescent affections by TV programmes like Tiswas and Multi-Coloured Swap Shop, while punk was also beginning to make itself heard for the first time. But Eady keeps the action moving and, if the juvenile cast isn't particularly accomplished, Cribbins (who had just finished a two-year stint narrating The Wombles on the BBC) rises to the occasion whether posing as an undertaker, a stallholder, a Catholic priest or a French doctor.
In this section
- Parky at the Pictures (In Cinemas 16/5/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (DVD 16/5/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (DVD 9/5/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (In Cinemas 9/5/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (In Cinemas 2/5/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (DVD 2/5/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (DVD 25/4/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (In Cinemas 25/4/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (In Cinemas 18/4/2013)
- Parky at the Pictures (DVD 18/4/2013)