Thursday, 9 August 2012

London: The Modern Babylon a film by Julien Temple

Julien Temple's remarkable portrait of London takes his now trademark documentary approach of juxtaposing witty and surprising historical archive footage against contemporary film of his subject. He has already successfully used this technique in his supreme portraits of the Sex Pistols in the "Filth & The Fury", along with Dr. Feelgood and Canvey Island, in "Oil City Confidential". This time round, the subject is not a band though, but the City of London. He creates a wonderful aural and visual assault on the senses with a kaleidoscope of images and music. Exciting and chaotic, but most of all uplifting and positive, just like London itself. The movie starts with a colourful montage soundtracked by the slashing chords of The Clash's "London Calling", and then flashes back to amazing flickering black and white footage of late Victorian London with horse drawn carriages and trams packing the dirty streets. The main premise of the movie is based on how London has dealt with the influx of immigrants into it's communities following the collapse of the British Empire. It's that multicultural London that Temple loves so dearly, and we meet various residents of all ages, faiths, colours and creeds, talking about their experiences of life in the Capital. 

Photo by Steve Worrall
One of those residents turns out to be the star of the film, 106 year old Hetty Bower, a Hackney resident, recalls some vivid scenes from her long life. Her childhood treat consisted of a trip to the River Thames to watch the drawbridges of Tower Bridge being raised and lowered. She also poignantly remembers waving off the troops as they left for the First World War and later, resisting Oswald Mosley's Nazi Black-shirts in the Battle of Cable Street, "...they did not pass", she proudly exclaims. Hetty also provides a note of common sense when, somewhat unexpectedly, instead of admonishing the recent Anti-Capitalist protesters, she praises them for their courage in questioning our society. It's another main theme of the film, that cyclical nature of London's history. As Madness singer, Suggs, announces as he walks through his home turf of Camden Town, "...there never were any 'good old days'". After all, there has always been that divide between rich and poor, always been traffic congestion, pollution and civil unrest. We see footage of the Suffragettes, neatly soundtracked by X-Ray Spex's "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!", and there is Winston Churchill in the midst of the Sidney Street siege in 1911. Of course London is also no stranger to riots, from Notting Hill in 1958, Brixton in 1981 right up to the looting and arson of last year's riots. London has had to deal with some terrible acts of devastation, from the Blitz, to the terrorism of the IRA and the sinister threat of the suicide bomber. Temple expertly brings all these situations sharply into focus and we realise that every generation has to deal with such issues.

Photo by Steve Worrall
Music of course, is key to the movie and Temple's beloved Kinks play a large part in the soundtrack, most effectively with the beautiful "Waterloo Sunset" playing over stunning images of the River Thames. Ray Davies is featured in footage from Temple's documentary "Imaginary Man", the programme that inspired my own little Kinks Walking Tour, which you can read about here. Then of course there's the Sex Pistols, the band with which he made his name as a film-maker. He cleverly puts images of old Music Hall against the scenes of Punk Rock, showing the historic lineage of London's knack of producing rebellious, bawdy and irreverent music. The Q & A session after the screening was very interesting as Temple talks about the Olympics and how the movie probably would not have happened without it. He also pays tribute to his late father who passed away this year, and who was once attacked and injured by one of the right wing Nazis featured in the film. 

I bumped into JC Carroll of The Members after the screening, which was a nice surprise. We had recently interviewed JC for a special Edition of our Retrosonic Podcast, in which he talked about his involvement with the soundtrack music of "London: The Modern Babylon". JC has also worked on previous Julien Temple films and you can hear him talking about this, along with a fascinating trip through his career with The Members and as a solo artist, in the Retrosonic Podcast Episode below: 


"London: The Modern Babylon" will be shown on BBC2 on Saturday August 11th at 9:20pm.

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