Published: 9 August, 2012
by DAN CARRIER
He calls it “the first truly global metropolis in history” – a sprawling, hectic, chaotic home to millions of people.
Director Julien Temple’s new film, London: The Modern Babylon, charts the growth of the capital and examines what make it so unique.
“People come from all around the world and see it as a place that everyone is welcome,” he says.
Temple, a former William Ellis School pupil, first came to prominence in 1980 when he directed the The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, and his back catalogue includes documentaries on those archetypal London singers, Ray and Dave Davies from The Kinks.
The unfathomably huge amount of film footage available for his latest release could have been overwhelming. He was faced with the daunting task of trawling through hundreds of hours of London scenes stored in such depositories as the BBC, Pathe News, the Bfi, the Museum of London and even family home videos.
But for Temple it was an Aladdin’s Cave of images to look at.
“We started at the beginning of film in the 1890s and went from there,” he says.
He had storyboards with crucial events to provide hooks for the narrative, but was regularly led astray by nuggets of reel that demanded to be aired.
“I looked for themes to explore, but our first attitude was: bring it on and let’s see what we have here,” says Temple. “If you plan too much, you lose a sense of chaos. You want the footage to speak for itself.
“You want to suggest things rather than trying to impose your ideas on the viewer. I went in with an open mind, I didn’t try to catch specific things.
“The exciting thing about making this film has been the alchemy of various archive sources. The process of transmuting a dead clip into gold is what keeps me going when I am chained to the desk for week after week of editing.”
It was also a personal journey.
Temple grew up in a highly politicised environment.
His father, Landon, organised the “Progressive Tours” to the USSR during the Cold War and his sister, Nina, became the last General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Politics features throughout the film as London’s radicalism and reaction is celebrated.
Physical changes are noted, such as explosive growth caused by the Tube taking people out of cramped inner-city slums to new suburbs, and the rise and fall of the London docks.
“The city has a time-lapse sensation to it – it is organic,” Temple says. “It has a sense of extending its tentacles in one direction or another, and then they shrivel up and others come in and take their place. It is unplanned and out of control.”
He says that London today is as vibrant, colourful and creative as it ever has been.
“The suburbs are so different from when I was a child,” says Temple. “Look, for example, at somewhere like Southall today: it is teeming with life and colour. It used to be much more monochrome and mono-cultural.”
Talking heads in the film include New Journal contributor, 106-year-old Hetty Bower. She provides an eloquent personal testimony of the devastation the First World War wrought on her generation, while the earliest members of the Windrush generation recall life in a new – and often very hostile – environment.
It is also about the city’s soundtrack. Temple finds common links in surprising places. Marie Lloyd’s music hall is linked to the Sex Pistols and punk.
“I wanted the music to work as narration,” he says.
“The lyrics tell much about the time they were written in. Working class songs of the music hall had such a strong character and are full of such irreverence: Marie Lloyd is not that different from the Sex Pistols.”
Above all, this is a subtle film.
“This project was an opportunity to dig deep into cultural roots,” adds Temple, “more time travel than history lesson. I wanted to portray London in full character and without judgement, showing its brutality alongside its glory.”
• London: The Modern Babylon will be screened on BBC2 on Saturday, August 11 at 9.20pm