Charlotte Brunsdon is author of London in Cinema (London : BFI, 2007) and editor, with Jon Burrows, of a special issue of the Journal of British Cinema and Television (6.2, 2009) on ‘Screen Londons’. Her most recent book is a study of G. F. Newman’s 1978 series, Law and Order (2011). She is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Warwick.
Your book deals with cinematic London after World War II. How did the city change immediately after 1945?
I chose to begin the book at the end of the Second World War partly because the imagery of that war, and particularly the bombing of London, is so very resonant in the representation of the city. It could be argued that, as the 1940s as a whole is such a rich period for British cinema, the book should start with the war. However, given the strong existing scholarship, such as the work of Charles Barr and Robert Murphy, on 1940s British cinema, and my ambition to reach into the twenty-first century, I thought it more interesting to start with the political challenge of peace and the imagining of the post-war world. My book is partly a history of the making and then the unravelling of the post-war settlement. What is most noticeable about London in the immediate post-war period is that it didn’t change very much. The country was bankrupt, people were exhausted, and everywhere there were traces and scars of destruction. Bomb-sites often provide a shocking reversal of private and public, with formerly interior bedroom walls standing naked to the streets, and the shape of roads, or blocks of flats abruptly transformed by gaping absences. The bombsites of London dominated the cityscape long after the war, recurring in cinema, literature, letters and painting. However, in contrast to the way in which these desolate ruins are figured in the cinema of continental Europe – most famously, perhaps, in Rossellini’s Germania Anno Zero (1948) – in British cinema, these ruins can symbolise optimism and the possibility of a better world for the children who play there. This is the inheritance of victory, and is seen in many post-war films, such as Waterloo Road (1945), Passport to Pimlico (1949) and Mandy (1952). With the bomb-sites, and the destruction of the fabric of the city, comes the dream of planning, and this too is found in films and enterprises of the 1940s: the fantasy of rebuilding London as a rational city. While I respect the egalitarian aspirations of these planners, I am glad that some of the old city in many ways defeated them – at least then.
In your opinion, what are the most specific and unique qualities of London? (when compared to other European capitals for example)
A quick answer to this question is to say that there are two particular locations for cinematic London which are both specific and endlessly generative. The first is Soho, the site of London’s sex industry, of gambling, of drinking, of cosmopolitan and continental communities and of a ‘naughty’ night out for most of the 19th and 20th centuries. Miracle in Soho (1957), Mona Lisa (1986), Peeping Tom (1960) and many other London films show Soho as both alluring and depraved, a site for leisure and labour, exploitation and pleasure. The second is the East End of London, best known now in English-speaking contexts for the BBC soap opera EastEnders (1985–), but historically, the impoverished area to the East of the city where Jews had to live outside the City Wall, and which has subsequently been home to many waves of immigrants. It is in the East End of London that one of London’s great myths, that of Jack the Ripper, is set, and so this is a London location which is represented in films made all over the world.
The longer answer is to say that while great London landmarks, such as St. Paul’s and the River Thames, precede industrialisation, it is Britain’s early industrialisation, and the enormous growth of London in the 19th century which shapes so much about the city. London was, for a period, the greatest city on earth, and its trade, empire and institutions determine our images of it. The Thames would look like any river without the iconic views of the 19th century Houses of Parliament or Tower Bridge to frame it for our recognition. The enormous global trade of the port of London transformed everyday life in London through the flows of both peoples and commodities. Key tropes of London, such as the contrast between the wealthy West End and the poor East, predate the cinema. Core institutions – the Monarchy, the Law Courts, the City – are associated with long historical rituals. Cinematically, this means that London is, to some extent, already richly imagined and imaged before the cinema, and I think has a different relation to the modernity that we find figured in some other European cinemas. The historic failure of large scale planning – there was no Haussmannisation here – means that there is still a mixture of buildings and house types all muddled up together, and there is a resonant heritage in the work of film-makers as varied as John Kush, Lorenza Mazzetti, Karel Reisz, Reece Auguiste, William Raban and Anthony Simmonds who have documented the changing city. Although the current government is doing their best to change this, it is also important to understand that working class people have always lived in central London, and that this capital city has a strong vernacular culture. This too affects the types of stories that can be told in London films, and the characters that can be found in them.
When studying cinematic London, did you find any interesting analogies or affinities in literature or painting?
The novels of Charles Dickens have made London as we understand it today. Without his extraordinary engagement with the city and his fascination with all manner of its inhabitants, we would not see the nineteenth century London which structures our 21th century realities. His apprehension of the city’s incessant change is one of the qualities that any scholar of the city comes to appreciate, for to love the city is also to understand that the city you love can never lie still. Whistler and Sickert, in different ways capture something of 19th and early 20th century London, giving a visual embodiment to the gloom and grime of the city, allowing one to apprehend it as beautiful, desperate and dirty. It is very interesting to see how Victorian London lingers for so long in the twentieth century – well into the 1950s, in my view. It is this dark dark Victorian London which is challenged post-war in the work of the Independent Group in the 1950s and 1960s. This involved artists such as Richard Hamilton, the photographer Nigel Henderson, and the architects the Smithsons, and gives a sense of the texture of mid-century London, and there is other wonderful photographic work from this period, such as the Notting Hill photographs of Roger Mayne, and then the move into the ‘swinging London’ in the work of people like David Bailey and Terence Donovan which is referenced in Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966). There is also at this time a significant literature of the ‘end of Empire’, which encompasses West Indian writers like Samuel Selvon (The Lonely Londoners),those who are British with family roots in the Indian sub-continent, such as Hanif Kureishi, and writers like Colin MacInnes (Absolute Beginners) who are responding the post-imperial immigration of the 1950s and 60s. It is through these cultural challenges to an older order that the London of the late 20th century is born.
One would think that weather (rain, fog etc.) must be an important element in films set in London. Is it really the case?
You sound a bit sceptical about this, but let me convince you of the importance of the weather to London-set films by talking about one use of fog and two types of rain. Weather isn’t usually a plot element. It usually works to confirm the location, but it does this in different ways. The most obvious example of this is use of fog in the East End trope, where this particular location can be signified through some cobbled streets, some fog, a Victorian street lamp and maybe a carriage. This immediately tells the audience that something nasty may happen to any unaccompanied female characters. The fog is one element in a signifying set which evokes Jack the Ripper and the East End of London in films from Die Buchse der Pandora (1929) to From Hell (2001). Fog, not rain, is the important weather here.
Rain, on the other hand, can be used expressively, and many characters in British films get very wet when their lives are going wrong. If you are miserable in London, you are often wet as well. This is expressive realist rain. I have to admit that this may be a British, rather than a London-specific trope. However, concentrating on London-set films, the title of the wonderful 1947 film, It Always Rains on Sunday, demonstrates how this might work, and the bravura performances of David Thewlis in Naked (1993) and Charlie Creed-Miles in Nil By Mouth (1997) accentuate their characters misery through ‘dressing’ with rain. But rain can also be ‘resigned-ironic’. By this I mean the rain which rains on the feast at the end of Passport to Pimlico, and shows that the inhabitants of this London borough really are back in London, or the rain on the Charles‘ and Carrie’s (Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell) kiss in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). This is the rain of happy endings and fantasies in British cinema: rain which says well, this may be a happy ending, but don’t think you’re going to get good weather as well.
There are several films set in London made by foreign directors, most famous of them being Night and the City (1950) directed by Jules Dassin. Is their portrayal of the city radically different when compared with pictures of the ‘natives’?
I can see from your quotation marks round ‘natives’ that you realise that this is the sort of question that can lead to hopeless generalisations of ‘native’ and ‘foreign’ views of cities. So firstly, we must start with the obvious points: so many people who make films in London are foreign to the city in one way or another, whether they have come from Yorkshire, Wales, Czechoslovakia, India or the United States. So many people work on films that it’s often hard to say whose view prevails. So I’m reluctant to generalise, although I think an outsider often sees clearly what insiders take for granted, but there are many different ways of being an outsider. There have been some catastrophes: Woody Allen has made films which have a real sense of Manhattan. His London films are absolutely without redemption, either as films, or as London-films, and display no sensitivity to the city at all. On the other hand, the American Richard Lester obviously did find himself very engaged by 1960s London, as did a series of other foreign directors, and he also presented an excellent television series called Hollywood U.K. (1993) with real sympathy. Maybe we also have to pay attention to particular periods, in which a city is dynamic in some way, and therefore attracts outsiders to film there. Of later work, I very much like Aki Kaurismaki’s I Hired a Contract Killer (1990), and I think that is because there is something about his gloom which settles well in London.
In your book you mention the influence of Thom Andersen’s documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003). In what ways were you inspired by this extraordinary film?
Many scholars and critics have written of the way in which cinema is intertwined with memory, and some of the greatest films, such as Vertigo (1958) and Sans soleil (1983) touch on these matters. To think of the city and the cinema in relation to memory is to consider the way in which each is always disappearing before your very eyes. And yet, in the image, we seem to have its trace. This seems to me one of the central issues of scholarship on the cinematic city, and it is noticeable how melancholy some of the work is. What I liked about Thom Andersen’s film was the way in which he recognises how perverse it is to peer at films looking for traces of long-lost locations, but does it anyway, and indeed, makes a whole film of it, thus recreating a real Los Angeles from its fictional traces. When I started my book, I had no idea that I would end up so distraught about the changes that were being imposed on London at that time. I started determined to concentrate on the way in which film created ideas of the city. I ended up tracing the way in which cinema recorded the history of twentieth century London, and melancholy myself as both medium and metropolis transform almost beyond recognition. But there are always unanticipated resistances, and even the current abomination of the militarization of East London for the Olympics will not be the end. But only constant vigilance will reveal what is being done in the name of security, and I applaud film-makers such as William Raban and Emily Richardson who have worked to record a disappearing part of the city.