West End on Film

The BBC 4 documentary London on Film is a compilation of fascinating archive footage of London spanning 100 years, giving an intriguing insight into London across the eras. The first episode focuses on the West End and features evocative footage alongside that of more mundane scenes. We see Covent Garden when it was still packed with fruit and veg, and an array of beautiful period clothes. There is black and white footage of men cleaning the Underground ventilation shafts, alongside a clip from a time when bin men still collected rubbish by horse and cart. An interview with a market stall trader reveals a supreme confidence in his selling abilities that would rival any modern Apprentice candidate.

There is also an article on the introduction of parking meters and traffic wardens to the West End: “it’s all going to be done courteously, no slanging matches, just say ‘what awful weather we’re having, sir’ and fine him £2”. The archive narration is perhaps more entertaining than the footage itself; while modern voiceovers can grate and seem unnecessary distractions, this older commentary is only improved by the RP delivery. I would find many modern documentaries far more entertaining if they were accompanied by an old-fashioned BBC-style narration.

The documentary moves on to Soho: “life after dark with an enamel gloss and the cracks showing – garish, gay, avaricious and a little sleazy at the edges”. We meet a posh stripper, just back from Morocco with her boyfriend. She is a source of some rather bizarre quotes: “for me [stripping] is just the same as standing on stage and singing the Schubert Lieder like I used to when I was in the convent”. We explore the entertainment of the West End, from clubs to cinemas and theatres. There is a particularly incongruous interview where the brilliance of rapping is discussed by men in suits with cut glass accents.

Clips featuring protests and riots merge together, from charwomen seeking an extra thruppence three farthings, via the Vietnam War and Poll Tax Riots, to football hooliganism; this reflects the effect of the film as a whole in bringing out continuities across the period. While the programme flits from one topic to another it continually demonstrates the timeless qualities of the West End, and of life in general.