Lists are addictive at the best of times and in current circumstances I couldn’t resist the 20 London films selection compiled by the London Society. Nominated by members, it’s an eclectic group, ranging from Passport to Pimlico and Withnail and I to Shaun of the Dead and Paddington 2.
Qualification for lists like this must go beyond simply having a tourist board-approved backdrop or a cockney accent or two, so I was particularly pleased to see my own London favourite, The Long Good Friday, included. It isn’t just set in London, it also says something about London – the “grimy and gritty ambivalence” of the capital, the political and social tensions of the late 1970s and the economic shockwaves about to break, all played out in and around the newly-redundant Docklands, ripe for rebirth.
In fact, the London of that period becomes almost a character in its own right, its dynamics providing motivation for the action and its diversity, from down-at-heel Villa Road in Brixton to glitzy St Katherine’s Dock, underlining both the disparities and the complex interrelationships of the living city, played out on its shifting streetscapes.
The production itself is very much “of” the diverse city as well. Scripted by the East End writer of Irish descent Barrie Keefe, it provided the breakthrough movie role for Bob Hoskins from Finsbury Park and was directed by Scottish émigré John Mackenzie, who moved south in 1960. There is a standout performance by Helen Mirren, whose mother was from West Ham and whose father, the son of a Russian aristocrat stranded in London after the 1917 revolution, was variously a cab driver and a viola player in the London Philharmonic.
In successfully pinning down the constantly changing character of a great city and the tension – not always painless or victimless – that is always there, it can be compared with other films that capture a specifically London moment. I’m thinking of My Beautiful Launderette and maybe even Bend It Like Beckham. Or the ground-breaking portrayal of pre-decriminalisation gay culture in Victim. Or Blow Up’s unsettling take on “Swinging London” from the 1960s, or, from the end of that decade, Performance, described by Time Out in its 2017 top 30 list of London movies as the “ultimate London movie – a tale of rock stars and thieves, creativity and confusion, drug-fuelled fantasy and hard, ugly reality”.
You can find that quality too in Paddington, proving that a film starring a part-CGI, part-animatronic talking bear can convey a “real sense of the authentic city”, according to the BFI. Its sequel was praised by Variety as “reflecting a bustling, diverse 21st century London – with space for some light anti-Brexit subtext to boot”.
There’s nothing sentimental or twee about The Long Good Friday, unlike, say, Notting Hill, memorably dissected by Deborah Orr as a “tribute to the triumph of the trustafarian”. Instead, it is rooted in the real city, sharing that broader authenticity with the Mike Leigh London films, Life is Sweet, Secrets and Lies and Happy-Go-Lucky.
For me, The Long Good Friday’s final scene – wordless, homed in on Hoskins, as his world narrows and finally shifts inexorably out of his control – also has a musical quality, a sort of existential feel found in some of what I think of as the best London music. Blur’s For Tomorrow, perhaps, or Vaughan Williams’ London Symphony? Though that’s probably for another piece. See the British Film Institute website for an absolute wealth of material on London films, including lists of London films by sub-region (north, east, south and west), and locations then and now.
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