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London: The Modern Babylon


Stars: Documentary - none

Director: Julien Temple

Julien Temple’s enthralling picture of London from the earliest days of black and white cinematography to the present may not be comprehensive – how could it be given it ranges from horse-drawn buses and horse dung in the streets in the Victorian and Edwardian eras to the gaudy multiracial city of today? That said, however, Temple’s ever eclectic, always fascinating and vividly assembled choice of clips from hundreds of newsreels and comments from Londoners ranging from Tony Benn to Molly Parkin and George Melly adds up to one of the most enjoyable documentaries I have ever seen. It’s one of those rarest films of all – a movie that cries out to be seen and enjoyed again and again. And, for once, your Lottery money and BBC licence fee have been admirably spent on making the movie.

Its pleasures are many, varied and frequently poignant. There are toffs in toppers and schoolboys in caps playing in the streets, the Siege of Sidney Street, midget cars, music-halls, men on crutches with missing limbs marching back from WW1 service, London on fire during WW2, the Coronation, the extraordinary mixture of immigrants who became Londoners, enlivened by well-chosen songs ranging from ‘Champagne Charlie’ and ‘Percy from Pimlico’ to ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’ and the Sex Pistols. Temple’s selection may not be comprehensive but is constantly compelling and informative.

Movie buffs, too, are excellently served with excerpts from a wide, wide range of films including Hitchcock’s The Ring and Blackmail, The Blue Lamp, Passport to Pimlico and The Tommy Steele Story to Sparrows Can’t Sing, The Rebel, Peeping Tom and Temple’s own Absolute Beginners.

Rather than continuing to catalogue the thousand and one delights in Temple’s film, let me simply recommend it as unmissable to anyone who calls themselves a Londoner and everyone who doesn’t as a terrific documentary that cries out for a sequel.

Alan Frank

UK 2012. UK Distributor: BFI films. Black and white and colour.
128 minutes. Not widescreen. UK certificate: 15.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 1, Violence/Horror 1, Drugs 0, Swearing 2.

Review date: 05 Aug 2012