"This theatre, the Old Bedford in Camden Town, used to be the favourite theatre of Marie Lloyd the famous music hall singer… now it's just a mess"
This is the opening line of presenter/narrator James Mason as he saunters across the stage in an abandoned theatre in Camden, swiping at the rubble on the floor with the tip of his umbrella and it says it all. Welcome to 'The London Nobody Knows' – a glimpse into the crumbling remnants of Victorian London, viewed from the heady excitement of the capital in the midst of the swinging 60's. This documentary, which sets out to offer a glimpse of a fast disappearing world, is a car crash of the tragic, the experimental, the ridiculous and the downright weird. It's also absolutely amazing.
The film opens with a shot of a pick axe attacking a pile of rubble and then the shrill blast of a whistle sets off a swarm of workers, sped up like circus clowns or teeming ants, as they hack, saw and hammer away to create the shining concrete monuments of 60's london. The soundtrack is a cacophony of plinky plonk piano and abrasive cymbal crashes, giving way to mournful strings as we cut from flashed up images of the sparkling new buildings (including Centre Point and the BT Tower) to the drab interior of a decaying Victorian theatre. And then, clip clop down the stairs come the well polished leather brogues of the aforementioned Mason. This opening 3 minutes encapsulates the whole essence of the film, swerving between the comedic, the poignant and the strange.
"The London Nobody Knows" is a documentary made in 1967 by director Norman Cohen (based on the book by Geoffrey Fletcher) which has been re-released on DVD alongside 'Les Bicylettes de Belsize'. The film takes a look under the surface of the city and shows us the side of the London being left behind as the trendy modern capital accelerates through swinging 60's. The fact that it's narrated by James Mason (of Lolita and North by Northwest fame) is just one of the surreal twists that characterise the film. Mason saunters through the whole documentary wearing a tweed jacket and flat cap. He absent mindedly swings his umbrella as delivers his lines in a laconic tone, grumbling about the new buildings or chuntering away to bemused looking homeless people. He also serves up what may be the best line of his career while showing us the delights of a Victorian public toilet – 'here, one might say, one finds the only true democracy because all men are equal in the eyes of the lavatory attendant'.
Mason takes us on a tour around London, showing us old train yards and bustling markets with the sellers hawking their wares. We meet old gas lamp lighters, strongmen and buskers ("I'm a genius and felt i was unfit for normal work"). One of the highlights of the film must be the "eel scene" – an unnerving montage of diners in a steamy London caf, writhing vats of eels and motorised garbage crushers, all set to jarring, proto-electronic music made on an early synthesiser that sounds like something out of Delia Derbyshire's cauldron.
Oh and then there's the egg breaking plant. The egg breaking plant is just bizarre.
Aside from the humour and eccentricity there is a very bleak side to this film. We're constantly presented with images of the destitute, the washed up and the forgotten. The old men in the Salvation Army (watching Mason in line for the soup is just plain weird), the rough sleepers, the drunks fighting over their bottles of mentholated spirits on a street corner. We're taken on a tour of a crumbling old cemetery and shown round destitute Spitalfields, an area not much changed from the days of Victorian poverty and the Ripper murders. The reminder is always there of the parallel world that's being left behind in the age of progress.
It strikes me as strange watching this now, seeing a bygone era through the eyes of a bygone era, but there are parallels with today. We see the London of now as sleek and cutting edge watching all around us as the outdated, slightly embarrassing concrete relics of the past are swept aside. But, we also share a healthy dose of Mason's scepticism for the new-builds that are being erected left and right, passed off as progress but with a frighteningly short shelf life. On the flip side, the Victorian London that we are shown here as crumbling into obscurity was once the fast paced future metropolis of progress, envy of the world. This is going to happen to our London soon enough.
Joe had this to say about himself: I'm a London based goon who is interested in music, film, history, culture and sillyness and I like to write about them. I will be writing more articles on these and other topics in the future for the fine institution that is R$N.
I also write house music under the name Joe Europe, put on parties and run a record label.