Roundabout 1963: A Year in Colour Dir. various; (BFI DVD release, 2013)
Watched today, the eleven cine-magazines collected in Roundabout 1963: A Year in Colour have been divested of their original purpose. Once quasi-news features, now time capsules, they evoke an England that, while not exactly consigned to ancient history, is largely shrouded in mist, such have been the cultural and economic changes since 1963. It is easy to regard them as nothing more than a jolly nostalgia-fest in glorious Technicolor, and while Roundabout does work on that level, it should be recognised that the BFI's efforts in releasing them signify much more than that. Without organisations like the BFI, these historical documents would eventually disappear, along with the telling insights that they afford. What we see, of course, is a Government-approved England, its achievements clearly pointed out to the viewer in the clipped tones of BBC RP, sounding ever-so-slightly pleased with itself in this propaganda-tinged context. The Roundabout films were made specifically for overseas distribution, in this case the Asian market, with the primary aim to "promote British industry and values abroad." The remit, therefore, is hardly one of social realism and tough self-examination, rather to depict the Commonwealth's motherland in the most flattering light possible.
It is bemoaned to the point of cliché that the country doesn't make things any more--a complaint not quite backed up, in fact, by the statistics on manufacturing output when we compare the 1960s with modern times. The difference was not in productivity so much as in the numbers employed: traditional factory production was certainly a more tangible part of English society in those days, and because of this one can imagine that England felt as if it made a great deal, and was rightly proud of the fact. The function of Roundabout was to trumpet this, and demonstrate to foreign viewers how their own raw materials ended up in English manufacturing plants. Presumably the Central Office for Information thought that this would help engender a sense of fruitful partnership, and so a nine or ten minute 'issue' was commissioned for each month of the year (excepting, in the case of 1963, the unexplained absence of September's film), taking in such diverse topics as the modern architectural differences between London, Jakarta and Saigon; Canadian Mounties on parade; the origins of rubber; and the links between pine kernel harvesting in Malaya and a factory in the North West of England. When, in June's issue, the focus turns to cigarette-making in Cambodia (a system of production using British machinery), the products themselves are praised for their 'relaxing' qualities. (The calorific qualities of sugar, we see, were also considered to be A Good Thing.) As the films go on, the fostering of trade links sometimes gives way to an out-and-out promotion of the English way of life: the training regime of the London Fire Brigade; a new stand at Ascot; the Ideal Homes exhibition; the redecoration of historic Windsor. Later months regain an international flavour but the year ends (fittingly, somehow, in its randomness) with a trip around an English doll factory.
Unlike the England of 1963, a place very much in analogue mode and firmly entrenched in machinery and labour, the modern era is awash with increasingly sophisticated and widely available technology. England now documents itself endlessly and unflinchingly, with the results published daily for all to see on hosting sites and social networks. Our approach to this development is properly free, but it does mean that England cannot present a convenient image of its own choosing to the rest of the world any more. Coupled with the massively increased television and media output both here and abroad, this means that there is now little need for England to produce the cine-magazines of yesteryear. It would be interesting to know how many documentary films actually were commissioned by the government in 2012, but future enthusiasts and students will probably find a sharp contrast between the tone of their subject matter and that of Roundabout 1963. They are, perhaps, more likely to happen across a short film portraying the country in a negative light in order to deter immigration (as has recently been mooted) than the latest in plastic kitchenware rolling off a production line.--Neil Jackson
Review of Julien Temple's London: A Modern Babylon
London: The Modern Babylon Dir. Julien Temple, 2012 (BFI DVD)
Julien Temple's decision to kick off his documentary London: The Modern Babylon with a breakneck Tube journey feels appropriate in retrospect; the watching experience is akin to a rattling, century-spanning blast through the capital's history. With only an occasional pause for breath (or indeed thought), images flash by in a relentless stream of footage, sourced from an evidently massive repository. Temple also decided to partner that initial Tube journey with the familiar stomp of The Clash's London Calling, before going on to soundtrack those images of braying City traders to Opportunities by the Pet Shop Boys. Choices like these prompt questions. In the name of accessibility, is the viewer being served up too much in the way of predictable clips and cliché? Will an awkwardly large number of us have seen, or at least feel that we have seen, a great deal of this before? London has been examined via the medium of documentary a great deal in recent years, particularly in the mainstream - and Temple's film is in this respect a latecomer. Conversely, the favourable view (arguably the view that should be taken, given the spirit of the 2012 Olympics and also the fact that BBC money is involved) is that London: The Modern Babylon presents an unapologetically inclusive invitation to sit down, quickly hook in, and get involved with the message that Temple wants to put across. Regardless of any views about creative success, that message is clearly defined and relevant.
The entire project hangs on the footage, and the footage is almost exclusively concerned with the people of London themselves, rather than the city as a constructed entity. As if to mirror the evolution of London’s population, all of it is set to a wide-ranging soundtrack, punctuated by selected monologues (literary readings or short interviews). One of those interviewed is Tony Benn, who grew up in Millbank by the river and recalls from his schooldays the overriding doctrine that there were “two types of person in the world, British people and foreigners.” Another, Hetty Bower, born in 1905, speaks of the Battle of Cable Street, the violent local protest in 1936 against a proposed march by Oswald Moseley and his fascist supporters through the heart of East London’s Jewish community. These two eloquent contributions encapsulate what are, by far, the standout themes of London: The Modern Babylon: people, immigration and disorder through the years, or, as Malcolm McLaren laconically puts it, the story of “the mob.” A line is drawn from events such as Cable Street, the Brixton riots of the 1980’s, Poll Tax, and anti-capitalism, to the London riots of 2011 that originated in Tottenham and went on to spread through many of the country’s towns and cities. These acts are portrayed, it must be said, in a favourable light. Temple chooses to show them as expressions of the necessity of protest, or as some kind of periodical cleansing. The alumni of Brixton 1981 might well agree (in fact, there is a telling clip in which a white man expresses his wholehearted support for the black community, though he suffered loss in the riot) but one doubts that similar sentiments would be found amongst many of the shopkeepers of 2011.
Post-Windrush, Temple excels in contrasting the initial optimism of those alighting from the jet planes, which is expressed both visually and musically, with the widespread sense of disillusionment that all too quickly followed for many. He also touches upon a growing, general unease amongst a section who regarded themselves as the native priority. "When you walk through Southall you can hear them talking,” says an unnamed (and rather unnerving) interviewee. “You think, what are they on about? Are they talking about me?” On the other hand, Suggs takes an altogether more worldly view, a standpoint that is clearly also that of the film itself: to him, London is an ever changing, cosmopolitan area that belongs to “whoever’s on the go.” This is the message, and could it really be anything else? It seems wrong-headed, futile and narrow for anyone to try and lay claim to such a barely controllable, shifting mass as London. Meanwhile, a homeless man pours harsh scorn on the place for the unfortunate and poignant reason that “it’s full of people like me.”
Temple is not known for being obscure. From the off-go, we can see that London: The Modern Babylon will eschew forays into 'psychogeographical' territory, and will not inspect the capital's nooks with the detachment of, say, Patrick Keiller's London or Robinson in Space, neither will it employ the poetic lilt of Saint Etienne's Finisterre. This is a loud, straightforward celebration, basically in chronological order, of the recorded history of the people in a constantly developing city. What becomes very clear is that this constant development is founded on a base of shared characteristics, exhibited by Londoners whatever their era or status in life.
Those drawn to London's underbelly will find a number of signposts throughout-- enough to placate viewers expecting the likes of Gerald Kersh, Roland Camberton, Colin McInnes, Norman Lee et al, but, as with some of the selected music, these references are well worn, if not downright long in the tooth. We could have done with an injection of Iain Sinclair, particularly given his committed naysaying stance with regard to the London Olympics, its effect on those swept aside, the sinister restrictions during construction, and the touted future legacy. Similarly, a short reading from Chris Petit's novel Robinson would have been an interesting and lesser-spotted accompaniment to the Soho scenes, instead of, or alongside, Tambimuttu's definition of the disease 'Soho-itis' ("...you will stay there always, day and night, and get no work done ever. You have been warned"). These are minor quibbles, but the presence of, say, Sinclair would have added a different, modernist layer for enthusiasts, without at all compromising the mainstream viewer's experience.
What Temple's film cannot do is show us what London will be like in the future. Towards its end, as events such as the Occupy protest and the Olympics whizz past with inordinate haste (compared to the time spent on more 'fire-laden' or sepia-tinted items), the film begins to float the idea of London as a kind of template for an ideal modern capital. Whether there is enough evidence (inside or outside the film) to support this is open to debate, but Temple's footage at least proves what an addictive, edgy and simply alive place London has always been. Along with the inevitables (bin bags in the 1970s; Diana in a car with Charles; mayhem at the stock exchange; Windrush; the Pistols on a boat) come moments of real poignancy: the image of a tattered number 30 bus in Tavistock Square, July 2007, segues within the blink of an eye into a near-identical scene from the Blitz. Sporadically, London: The Modern Babylon delivers this kind of moment. Too many of them would be mawkish, of course, but they do afford glimpses of the more reflective alternative that might have been. Bluntly, these are the things that save the film from looking a little too by-the-numbers. One critic suggested that Temple's documentary could have been a student project were it not for the name attached, but the authorship of London: The Modern Babylon smacks unmistakably of a certain personal background. While the film's multicultural message is impossible to refute, there is a tendency towards the obvious, and the rapidity of it all leaves us lacking space for contemplation. We emerge bludgeoned, having witnessed a fascinating compilation of footage, music and references, but not quite enough of the affecting and definitive document that would have hit the bull's eye full-on.--Neil Jackson