Forgotten London films: Underground (1928)

Underground is the only silent film I’ve included on this list – and it is a corker. Largely shot on location, it is a treasure trove for anyone wanting to know what interwar London looked like – around Chelsea in particular. (Lots Road power station plays a major role – but you’ll have to watch the film to find out why.)

And then there is the London Underground itself, which gives the film its title – and indeed its premiss. Carriages, platforms and other public areas all feature extensively – beautifully shot with a keen sense of both their dramatic possibilities and the exigencies of real life. (If that isn’t enough for London Transport enthusiasts, the film also includes a ride on the 24 bus.)

Such ephemera aside, the film is a tense, involving thriller about two men who fall in love with the same woman they have met on the Underground. It is well worth seeing in its own right, whether as a piece of cinema history, social history or – dare I say it – pure entertainment.

Asquith’s reputation has risen dramatically in recent years, and the film was restored by the BFI in 2009. Neil Brand subsequently wrote a new score for the film – which is what you will hear if you watch the film via the BFI.

Underground is available on YouTube here, although there is a superbly restored print also available if you subscribe to BFI online.

The other films I have written about under the Forgotten London Film series are: Night and the City, Pool of London, The Boy and the BridgeLondon Belongs to Me, Waterloo Road, No Trees in the Street, Run for your Money, The Happy Family, and St Martin’s Lane.

My brief introduction to the series is here.

Forgotten London films: Run For Your Money (1949)

A lesser known Ealing comedy, Run for your Money tells the story of two Welsh miners who come to London having won a prize in a newspaper competition, which they need to collect in person. Some of the humour is more strained than in comparable Ealing films – think Whisky Galore, say – particularly in the stilted characterisation of the Welsh, but there is still much to enjoy as the two, somewhat naive young men, barrel around town being taken advantage of by spivs and swindlers of both sexes.

Hugh Griffith – perhaps best known now for his role in The Tiftield Thunderbolt – is very funny throughout and Alec Guinness is excellent, if underused, in a supporting role, and there is a cameo from the incomparable Joyce Grenfell.

There are some wonderful location shots, too, around Paddington, the Tower of London, Fleet Street and Holborn – as well as further afield Acton, Ealing and Twickenham. (Did I mention there was a subplot involving a rugby match?) It also has a great sequence shot on the London Underground, beginning at Holborn Station.

Run For Your Money is available from Amazon and elsewhere on DVD.

The other films I have written about under the Forgotten London Film series are: Night and the City, Pool of London, The Boy and the BridgeLondon Belongs to Me, Waterloo Road, No Trees in the Street, The Happy Family, St Martin’s Lane, and Underground.

My brief introduction to the series is here.

Forgotten London films: Waterloo Road (1945)

Set contemporaneously, Waterloo Road expertly taps into the tensions between those called up for military duty and those who remained behind in civilian life. It stars John Mills as a soldier who comes home to south east London on leave to find his wife, played by Joy Shelton, apparently enamoured of local spiv, Ted Purvis. Mills has to go AWOL to separate the two and save his marriage.

Stewart Granger took on the role of Purvis, and takes to it with some élan – it was some way from the romantic leads he tended to be offered at the time, and he is clearly relishing the opportunity.
The whole film was reportedly shot in ten days, including quite a number of scenes in the Waterloo Road and SE1 area – almost all of which has now changed beyond all recognition. Like a number of these London films, it doesn’t wholly transcend the limitations that cinematic and other kinds of convention placed on it. But it still offers convincing characters and locales and, importantly, understands what social realism is, even if it hasn’t a creative vocabulary to articulate it yet. The casting of Alastair Sim as the local doctor, who doubles as the film’s narrator, is, I think, symptomatic of the problem.

Of particular note is the extended fight scene between Mills and Granger, which goes well beyond the usual representation of fisticuffs on screen in the period. Granger, it is said, was particularly proud of it, and rightly so.

Director Sidney Gilliat had an extensive career in partnership with Frank Launder ranging from the script for Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes to the four original St Trinian’s films. If that isn’t range, I don’t know what is. The pair were also responsible for London Belongs to Me, which I wrote about here.

Waterloo Road is available to watch on the BFI website here.

The other films I have written about under the Forgotten London Film series are: Night and the City, Pool of London, The Boy and the BridgeLondon Belongs to Me, No Trees in the Street, Run for your Money, The Happy Family, St Martin’s Lane, and Underground.

My brief introduction to the series is here.

Forgotten London films: The Happy Family (1952)

The redoubtable Stanley Holloway leads the ensemble cast in this 1952 comedy set against the opening of the Festival of Britain the previous year. I say “against” advisedly: the premise of the film is that an administrative error, discovered just weeks before the festival is set to open, means that Holloway’s family home and shop must be demolished to make way for a road. And the family doesn’t want to budge.

From a London perspective, its fascinating to see the footage of the festival being built – and indeed of the festival itself, which closes the film. (The filming location for the Lord family home, however – which stands alone on a street corner with nothing but rubble and wasteland around it – was actually in Nine Elms.)

The film would seem to owe a good deal to Passport to Pimlico, released in 1949. At least, its central dynamic – plucky Londoners tired of being pushed around by a distant and dismissive bureaucracy – is much the same, and it also shares, alongside Holloway, Basil Radford as the harassed and harassing civil servant. That it is not as good a film is disappointing; but then, not many films are.

Kathleen Harrison is wonderful as Lillian Lord, Holloway’s wife, who runs the shop in question, and there is a good role for the young George Cole, playing something of a rabble-rousing radical. For those who take a dyspeptic view of the BBC, its staff here are lampooned as empty-headed effetes.

The Happy Family is available to watch for free on the BFI website here.

The other films I have written about under the Forgotten London Film series are: Night and the City, Pool of London, The Boy and the BridgeLondon Belongs to Me, Waterloo Road, No Trees in the Street, Run for your Money, St Martin’s Lane, and Underground.

My brief introduction to the series is here.

Forgotten London films: No Trees in the Street (1959)

Director J Lee Thompson had made Ice Cold in Alex the previous year. He would go on to make both Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear in the next couple of years before his career went into decline. He would end up helming a couple of films in the first Planet of the Apes series and Death Wish IV, before retiring after directing a star vehicle for Chuck Norris.

But his initial reputation was based on making social comment films like this one. Future social historians will use it as a reference point for that brief time when high-rise flats symbolised hope and freedom from the slums: its story is set in a narrative frame in which a troublemaker – played by a very young David Hemming – is schooled in ‘what life used to like round here’ before people were delivered by the tower blocks.

If you sense a little propaganda here for state planning, the screenplay was written by former secretary general of the Young Communist League, Ted Willis, who ultimately became a Labour peer. Between those two poles in his political life, Willis was best known for writing Dixon of Dock Green and creating The Adventures of Black Beauty for ITV.

Between them, Thompson and Willis took a melodramatic story and breathed considerable life into it. They are helped by a first-rate cast. Herbert Lom is the local racketeer who controls life in the slums; Sylvia Sims is Hetty, the young woman he is in love with, but who won’t sell herself to him simply to escape the misery of family life. Melvyn Hayes, in his first screen role, is her younger brother, Tommy, whose desperate attempts to better himself through petty crime threaten to destroy everyone around him.

I’m not sure you can say Herbert Lom plays a less hard role here than that of Kristo in Night and the City; he was good at playing gangsters and it’s not difficult to see why he was often typecast. But here he is a hard man who at least understands the cost of that hardness. Sims meanwhile gives genuine humanity and depth to her character: the situation might feel contrived but the emotions do not. Hayes meanwhile brings to his performance all the tension and anxiety of a young actor trying to make a name for himself – which is to say he is perfectly cast.

Stanley Holloway and Liam Redmond are both feckless in their own different ways. It’s not hard to see how hopeless life is for Hetty and Tommy.

No Trees in the Street is available from Amazon and other DVD retailers.

The other films I have written about under the Forgotten London Film series are: Night and the City, Pool of London, The Boy and the BridgeLondon Belongs to Me, Waterloo Road, Run for your Money, The Happy Family, St Martin’s Lane, and Underground.

My brief introduction to the series is here.

Forgotten London films: London Belongs to Me (1948)

Released in 1948, this is an adaptation of Norman Collins’ sprawling sub-Dickensian novel of London life, published just three years earlier. The novel teems with stories, and much has had to be trimmed to create a workable film (the book’s current Penguin edition runs to 750-odd pages of small type), but there is still plenty to enjoy.

Set in the year running up to the Second World War, the film follows the inhabitants of a Kennington boarding house and captures perfectly their quiet desperation and deceits. The principal plot line involves a young mechanic named Percy, played by a very fresh-faced Richard Attenborough, who has ambitions above his station. In order to fulfil them he turns to crime, but his first foray into that world goes horribly wrong and he finds himself charged with murder.

It’s an ensemble piece, but Alastair Sim is superb as Mr Squales – the names are very Dickensian – a fake psychic who takes advantage of the boarding house’s widowed landlady, and there are strong performances from Susan Shaw and Fay Compton, among others.

Most of the film was shot in the studio, but there are a number of great locations used too. Not all of them have been identified, but they certainly include Balham, Westminster and Waterloo.

London Belongs to Me is available on YouTube here.

The other films I have written about under the Forgotten London Film series are: Night and the City, Pool of London, No Trees in the Street, The Boy and the Bridge, Waterloo Road, Run for your Money, The Happy Family, St Martin’s Lane, and Underground.

My brief introduction to the series is here.

Forgotten London films: St Martin’s Lane (1938)

Also known by its US title, Sidewalks of London, St Martin’s Lane is the story of a pickpocket, played by Vivien Leigh, who is befriended by a seasoned street performer (Charles Laughton). He discovers she has a lovely singing voice and incorporates her into his act, falling in love with her as he does so. But her talent – and beauty – are spotted by wealthy songwriter Rex Harrison, who offers her the chance of stardom and, of course, a life away from the streets. The choice she makes, and its impact on Laughton and his fellow street entertainers, forms the film’s melodramatic third act.

As you can tell from this précis, this is not the most original of films. Nevertheless, it has a lot of charm, especially in the busking scenes, with a cameo from a young Larry Adler and a rare acting role for legendary impresario Tyrone Guthrie. Neither of the two principals have particularly convincing Cockney accents, but Laughton is fabulously hammy playing a man of some ego but little talent; Leigh seems a little uncomfortable yet lights up the screen; and Rex does what Rex always does, and does it pretty well.

There are some great street scenes in St Martin’s Court, with J Sheekeys and Wyndham Theatre in the background, and there is also an extended sequence shot outside the old Holborn Empire, which just a couple of years later would be damaged beyond repair during the Blitz.

Alexander Walker is very sniffy about the film in his biography of Vivien Leigh, and claims – I don’t know on what evidence – that Leigh didn’t like working with Laughton because he was so fat, but it has a lot more character than many British films of the period and the three stars play off each other to great effect.

The film was written by playwright Winifred Ashton under the none-too-subtle pseudonym Clemence Dane. Ashton was reputed to be the model for Madame Arcati in Blythe Spirit. She is also said to have had a famously tin ear for double entendre, once inviting Noel Coward for lunch with the memorable words, “Do come! I’ve got such a lovely cock.” This has nothing whatsoever to do with the film, but is too good an anecdote to miss. “I do wish you would call it a hen,” Coward replied.

St Martin’s Lane is available on YouTube here.

The other films I have written about under the Forgotten London Film series are: Night and the City, Pool of London, No Trees in the Street, The Boy and the BridgeLondon Belongs to Me, Waterloo Road, Run for your Money, The Happy Family, and Underground.

My brief introduction to the series is here.