My favourite films and documentaries about London




Many people have set out to capture the essence of London on screen and there are many, many wonderful films about the city. From classic history documentaries to avante garde films exploring esoteric quarters and peoples of the city, London is a tireless subject that is endlessly fascinating to watch on screen. A great place to go to see some classic footage of the city is at the BFI's Mediatheque on the Southbank where anyone can pop in to watch highlights from the National Film Archives which include some absolute gems on London. The BFI shop also stocks a great range of DVDs of documentaries about London and I like to go have a peruse whenever I'm in the area. There are a few clips available on YouTube, but if you ever get the chance to see any of them screened then I highly recommend that you get your hands on a ticket. Here are some of my absolute favourites.

1. Peter Ackroyd's London (BBC, 2004)


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Peter Ackroyd is the definitive London biographer and a master of making the hairs on the back of your neck stand up (I've previously mentioned his novel, Hawkesmoor). Ackroyd narrates this three part series about the historical patterns that have shaped the city - for better and for worse - over the centuries with the help of vox pops from some of its most famous historical residents. Ackroyd's vivid descriptions of the ancient occult forces that seem to dwell at the heart of the city make for gripping, disturbing viewing, and he wastes no time in asserting that 'London is trying to kill you'.
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2. What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day? (Saint Etienne & Paul Kelly, 2005)
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Clip - full video available on DVD 

This beautiful, ethereal short film is the second in a series of collaborations between the London-based band Saint Etienne and director Paul Kelly who set out to capture snapshots of a city that is constantly changing. The film (named in homage to Mervyn Day, a West Ham footballer in the 70s), follows a fictionalised day in the life of a paper boy exploring the deserted fringes of the Lower Lee Valley. Here, industries once thrived on the edge of the bucolic wilds of the Hackney Marshes, but by the time of the film had left behind pockets of urban decay that would soon be redeveloped to host the 2012 Olympics. The film is interspersed with a narration by the boy’s parents (played by Linda Robson and David Essex) reflecting on life in the area in days gone by and how the impending urban renewal will change the local landscape. 


The dreamy paean to one of London's last wildernesses is accompanied by the band's gentle soundtrack and captures both a sense of nervous optimism for the future of the area and a plaintive sense of nostalgia for a rare tranquillity that seems to be constantly slipping away in London. I love walking down from Walthamstow through the remaining marshes to the Olympic Park (now, fittingly home to the West Ham stadium) and I think that the developers did a good job of preserving a sense of tranquility and freedom in the park, which just about still blends into the remaining marshes. However, there is still on-going redevelopment in the area on a huge scale with seemingly endless blocks of highrise flats gradually boxing in the park from every side, so I hope that this sense of freedom won't be lost. The band's first film, Finisterre, is also well worth a watch. 
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3. A House in Bayswater (Ken Russell for BBC, 1960)
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This early film by pioneering British director Ken Russell depicts the overlapping lives of the bohemian inhabitants of a large old town house on the Bayswater Road where Russell had one lived himself (though he doesn't mention this detail in the film). The film poignantly depicts of a way of life in London that was rapidly becoming extinct at the time of filming - I don't suppose that many painters live in lofty attic rooms let by eccentric live-in landladies in the middle of Zone 1 today, and the end of the film is a heartbreaking dream sequence depicting how the ghosts of the inhabitants have now long gone, as has the house itself, making way for a high rise concrete office block in its place.
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4. London Symphony (Alex Barrett, 2017)
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This jubilant voyage around all of the 32 boroughs of London celebrates the sheer diversity and breadth of city, a place that is at once timelessly traditional yet also a preeminent world city which welcomes and celebrates peoples and cultures from every part of the planet. The ecstatic tone and pace of the film is balanced by the classic black and white style that nods to documentaries of the past (such as We Live By The River) and by opting for a swelling orchestral soundtrack rather than narration and interviews which lets the city speak for itself. I was lucky enough to watch a screening of it at the Shree Ghanapathy Hindhu Temple in Wimbledon with a live orchestra, which was a truly magical experience. It's available to watch through the BFI Player and on DVD.
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5. World of Mysteries - Hidden City of London (Naked Science, 2014)
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London gets the American treatment in this fun exploration of London's darker side. Expect Jack the Ripper, haunted palaces, secret lairs and all that good stuff. It's always fun to see how other people from around the world view London, and clearly the city's bloody history makes for good TV across the pond. I was surprised to see that these videos were originally made by National Geographic...at least you know that the depictions of ghosts must be scientifically accurate!
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Some others that are worth a watch:

Metro-Land (1973): A poetic journey through the suburbs around the Metropolitan Railway Line (which later became the Metropolitan tube line) narrated by Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman.  

London - The Modern Babylon (2012):  Music film director and Londoner Julian Temple takes you on a whirlwind tour around multicultural London and rummages through the archives for footage of the most defining moments in the capital's history since the invention of film.

I also tried my hand at making a music video last year featuring some of my favourite parts of London, you can see the results here.

Buying for a London lover? These would make great gifts:

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