Summer Comes In with a Splash! (1925) spotlights a gang of good-time girls – clad in a surprisingly provocative ensemble of swimwear and leather biking gear – who arrive at the pool by motorbike, limbs trailing languorously from their sidecar. It’s a fun, if fairly innocuous image today, but I wonder if it prompted a few raised eyebrows on release? Topical Budget would have been only too happy to cash in on any controversy surrounding women’s bodies and behaviour in a decade in which gender rules were flouted and boundaries pushed (watch 1928’s See-saw Cycling for more on women’s motorcycling).
Middlesex – Merry Mermaids (1926) captures a mischievous, all-female swimming troupe colonising the pool in a spirit of solidarity, before throwing a male clown into the water and posing triumphantly. It’s a great film, bursting with exuberant, positive images, though you might detect the whiff of exploitation as the women pile up like so many Busby Berkeley babes.
The camera’s ogling is more obvious in Bathing Fashions (1922), meanwhile, as young flapper types model “this season’s toilettes for the seaside which water cannot spoil” – including kimono-style gowns, parasols and an extremely elaborate swim hat! Such spectacles were part of the lido’s repertoire of democratic entertainments, including gala days and competitions, which the newsreels fully supported (and sometimes sponsored), as in Channel Swimmers in a Bath (1923).
Fast-forward a few years to 1930 when a happily-timed heatwave graced the opening of London’s hottest new attraction: the brand-new swimming hole at Hyde Park. Often cited as Britain’s first lido, this fenced-off portion of the Serpentine was known at the time as ‘Lansbury’s Lido’, after the Labour government’s Commissioner of Works and popular socialist George Lansbury. Topical Budget got in on the action with In the Heat of the Moment (1930), showing Mr Lansbury himself admiring his handiwork amid swarms of appreciative, cheering bathers.
Gender politics aside, these films capture the social significance of London’s original lidos – unique public spaces which channelled a sense of spontaneity, vitality, glamour and unbridled joie de vivre. Let’s hope London’s current phase of bath building will go the distance.