Tales from mean streets
There were Eastenders on screen long before there was EastEnders. Iain Sinclair on the small area of London that boasts a powerful, vital cinematic mythology
The East End, as a concept, is as slippery to define as the cinema derived from its values and locations. Hackney at certain epochs has given itself suburban airs and graces, before being slapped down and consigned once more to the dump bin of aborted ambition. Essex has advanced and retreated like an estuary tide, a neurotic square dancer. Citizens decamp from the threatened inner city, only for their children to return, armed with digital cameras, to squat in trashed theatres and condemned Lower Lea Valley warehouses.
- City Rats
- Release: 2009
- Country: UK
- Cert (UK): 15
- Runtime: 100 mins
- Directors: Steve Kelly, Steve M Kelly
- Cast: Danny Dyer, James Lance , Kenny Doughty, MyAnna Buring, MyAnna Buring, Ray Panthaki, Susan Lynch, Tamer Hassan
A pivotal moment arrived when Derek Jarman, in The Last of England (1987), violated memory by overlaying "innocent" home movie footage of his own RAF-sponsored childhood with a downriver apocalypse of bare-chested punks, culture deviants, and Kenneth Anger satanists with flaming torches ritually cleansing the ground for Thatcherite development. Millennium Mills, the decommissioned flour factory in Silvertown that looked as if it had been christened by William Blake and delivered by Albert Speer, was the perfect symbol for a cinematic endgame.
Jarman, interviewed near the end of his life, spoke of the process of film-making as a party laid on to entertain his chums, the art gang. He acknowledged his good fortune in working at a period when cumbersome video technology was being overtaken by machines that did it all for you, that set the agenda. The Last of England challenges the coming age of computer-generated fictions and steady-stare CCTV surveillance, when no single moment is more significant than any other and editing is redundant – until the crime which these systems are built to anticipate (and incubate) has been enacted. A major act of terrorism is the only justification for budget in a climate of reckless financial meltdown.
Jarman was canny enough to recognise that location is everything: the fire on the waste lot, mounds of rubble from which earlier working lives can be deduced. Docks have been left in limbo, between the bomb damage of the Blitz and the grand project regeneration floated by Bob Hoskins as a sawn-off Kray Xerox in The Long Good Friday (1979). Tilda Swinton’s mesmeric dervish dance, at the conclusion of Jarman’s film, a wild froth of constricting bridal satin and naked legs, activates a vortex in which time is seen as properly plural. The catalogue of past and future filmic representations of London’s badlands flicker in rose-red light, a slideshow carousel of deleted potentialities.
Before going back to the postwar period when Sir Patrick Abercrombie and his planners and architects worked in parallel with commercial film producers to revive and replenish a devastated city, it has to be recognised that London cinema is a force that defies its apparent boundaries, leaking from screen into street and back again. A pre-forgotten literature of urban working lives, by such as James Curtis, Robert Westerby and Gerald Kersh, slips unmolested into cinematic adaptations. The faces of certain performers – Jack Warner, Jimmy Hanley, Alfie Bass, Sydney Tafler – are ever present, sometimes villains, sometimes regular family men.
Warner, from a notable music-hall tribe, plays a double-identity Covent Garden fruit and veg trader in Charles Crichton’s Hue and Cry (1947) and a generic raincoat detective in It Always Rains On Sunday (1947), before being shot by Dirk Bogarde as a young tearaway in The Blue Lamp (1949). And then subsiding, with creaking gravitas and a twinkle in the eye, into the pension plan known as Dixon of Dock Green, an interminable TV series conceived by Ted Willis, who once shared an office with Alexander Baron, author of The Lowlife, a Hackney novel optioned as a vehicle for Harry H Corbett, but never made.
But these films are not just memory devices to fix a period, or an excuse for nostalgic revivals. They are an important element in forging a mythology of place. One of the significant local traditions is of the established outsider travelling east with missionary zeal, like a pioneer into the wilderness. Robert Hamer, most celebrated for Kind Hearts and Coronets, was certainly a film industry toff. (Less so than Anthony Asquith, son of a Liberal prime minister. More so than David Lean, who rose from the non-commissioned status of the cutting-room.) Hamer’s East End invasion of a place that was never quite there, for It Always Rains on Sunday, was a marker for much that followed.
Hamer garnished social realist material from a novel by Arthur La Bern (whose later work, Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square, became the vehicle for Hitchcock’s London return, Frenzy). The tone is relentlessly downbeat, morbid: without the incessant rain, necks would remain unwashed. Mean English streets are photographed by Douglas Slocombe with the melancholy lyricism of Marcel Carné or Renoir’s La Bête Humaine. Backlit smoke. A poetry you can smell: hot tar, bacon, cabbage, tobacco, wet dogs, armpits. Real places glorying in defiant entropy: rail yards, markets, mortuary pubs, tight backyards with Anderson shelters and rabbit hutches. Slocombe goes on, in terms of this London project, to work with Joseph Losey on The Servant: and thereby to connect with Dirk Bogarde (former bit-part delinquent) and Harold Pinter. Pinter attended the same school as Alexander Baron and Roland Camberton, those forgotten realists. Although his play The Caretaker was based on a glimpse into a Chiswick room, he returned, with director Clive Donner, to shoot the film version on his old turf: a house alongside the snow-covered Hackney Downs.
So many east London films are about alienation, difference. It Always Rains On Sunday marries glimpses of the real (Petticoat Lane, Canning Town) with artful studio reconstructions. John Slater, playing the local fixer, advises his sister to pack up, get out. "And where should we move?" "Stamford Hill." "What’s wrong with the East End anyway?" "It smells."
Recycled locations and twice-told tales conspire to shape a single narrative that stretches London from rubbled postwar blight to the present moment of frantic demolition. Hue and Cry introduces us to a city of permanent ruins. Harry Fowler leads a gang of kids who are not quite ready to be press-ganged into Carol Reed’s film version of Oliver!. (Key scenes from the expressionist Belfast of Reed’s Odd Man Out were actually shot in Hackney’s Haggerston Park. Thus establishing east London as a prostituted landscape, a location for hire. Now parks house the caravan convoys of television crews. Derelict hospitals are sets for music promos and fashion shoots, while they wait for the right development package.)
The Hogarthian Covent Garden of Hue and Cry, porters with wet sacks around their shoulders, reappears in its strangulated death throes for Hitchcock’s Frenzy in 1971. The labyrinthine city of bomb craters fixes a template for the stoic comedy of Aki Kaurismäki’s I Hired a Contract Killer (1990) and the real estate dementia of John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday (1979). Kauriskmäki produced what Nigel Floyd accurately described as "an Ealing comedy on downers". In other words: Hue and Cry marinaded in alienation, Finnish angst yawning into narcolepsy. Jean-Pierre Léaud, on leave from Truffaut, checks in at Jack London’s "Monster Doss House" in Fieldgate Street (where Joseph Stalin and Maxim Litvinov once lodged).
Everything Kaurismäki touches is on the point of erasure or reinvention. John Mackenzie, on the other hand, working from Barry Keeffe’s prescient screenplay, demonstrates that abandoned docks are simply development opportunities waiting to be activated. Old movies, like old villains, are part of a heritage mythology, ripe for exploitation. As celebrity slaphead Dave Courtney once remarked: "It was always my ambition to become an ex-gangster." Inspecting the regiment of suited and booted bouncers he lined up for Ronnie Kray’s funeral, Dave said: "With this lot, I could have invaded Poland."
A spectacular criminal record is the perfect audition for a career as a serial mourner, a memory man waxing tearful over Carol Reed’s A Kid for Two Farthings. East End mythology grinds everything down into that zone where there are no values beyond ratings; in other words, television. The Long Good Friday, for all its obvious qualities, is on the cusp of being theme-heavy TV drama. And now Hackney, once graced by Orson Welles and Jean-Luc Godard, is offering itself up as a backdrop for neatly plotted scenarios assembled from newspaper scare stories – Russian mafia thuggery, trade in body parts – by the television writer Steven Knight, who delivered the scripts of Dirty Pretty Things for Stephen Frears and Eastern Promises for David Cronenberg.
The distance between the hotel where illegal operations take place in Dirty Pretty Things and consumerist froth such as the Hotel Babylon franchise is not immense. For Frears, Ridley Road market and Bunhill Fields are nothing more than strategic locations. A story is written and illustrations are duly provided. If the form can be rescued, it is by projects such as Tony Grisoni’s Kingsland sequence; of which only the first part, The Dreamer, has so far been completed. Superficially related to Dirty Pretty Things, Kingsland recovers a valid London mythology, through the use of non-professional actors from the Kurdish community, and many hours of painstaking research. What Grisoni proves, or reasserts, is what has always been true: place is absolute, and film is only meaningful when images seep straight back into the streets that inspired them.
• The Iain Sinclair Weekend takes place on 25-26 April at the Rio Cinema in Dalston, London, as part of the East End film festival (eastendfilmfestival.com)
– from The Guardian, Friday 24 April 2009