BFI Southbank’s London on Film season runs between July and October 2015.
If another looser theme links this list of terrific transpontine films it is the act of rebellion. Every film on this list contains at least one seditionary character, idea or attitude. In some cases, it can be a mere kicking against expected behavioural norms or an adoption of a countercultural idea; in others, something far more profound. This intangible and unquantifiable feeling of insurrection may well spring from something as simple as geographical distance and the Thames itself: south London doesn’t share the same embankment as the rest of the city and you have to cross a river to get there – perfect for anyone wanting to escape, lose themselves or get up to no good.
There are many other south London films that didn’t make the list below but deserve to be tracked down by those interested in digging deeper. A trilogy of Anthony Simmons films should be the first port of call: atmospheric kitchen-sink drama Four in the Morning (1965) includes an early, BAFTA-winning performance from Judi Dench alongside vivid Thameside scenes that include Putney, Greenwich and the Woolwich ferry; Peter Sellers stars as an old street musician in The Optimists of Nine Elms (1973), a film centred on a part of south London currently undergoing huge regeneration; and finally there’s Black Joy (1977), which stars Norman Beaton (the eponymous barber in Peckham TV comedy Desmond’s) as a degenerate gambler who schools a wet-behind-the-ears Guyanese youth in the art of Brixton streetlife.
10 to try
Each of the recommendations included here is available to view in the UK.
Aside from Simmons’ films, Peter Collinson’s Up the Junction (1968) is a solid adaptation of Nell Dunn’s novel. The Elephant Man (1980), David Lynch’s affecting take on the story of Joseph Merrick, features stunning black-and-white photography shot in Bankside’s Clink Street and Butler’s Wharf in Bermondsey. Derek Jarman used Bermondsey and Deptford’s grim wastelands in Jubilee (1978), though a director today would have to venture further afield to avoid expensive redeveloped flats. Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland (1999) included footage from a Crystal Palace football match, while Nick Love’s Goodbye Charlie Bright (2001) is a coming-of-age comedy set in Bermondsey and Deptford that lacks the seriousness of Nil by Mouth (1997) but provokes many more laughs.
This decade has seen several notable south London successes, with Treacle Jr. (2010) showing parts of the capital rarely depicted on film including Walworth, West Dulwich and Camberwell Cemetery. Elsewhere, Destiny Ekaragha’s comedy-drama Gone Too Far! (2013) tackles racial tension and sibling rivalry in Peckham, while – in the same postcode – Superbob (2015) sees a postman become a superhero. Finally, Rebecca Johnson’s powerful debut, Honeytrap (2014), is based on the real-life case of a teenage girl who sets up an admirer with shocking consequences.
This Happy Breed (1944)
Director David Lean
Beautiful panoramic images of an unrecognisable south London shot from high above the Thames open and close This Happy Breed. There are no residential tower blocks and no glass and chrome skyscrapers full of office drones, but we soon learn there is plenty of life in the Gibbons household in Clapham. A brisk, funny and pointed film, Noël Coward’s adaptation of his own play focuses on the story of a London family from 1919 to 1939.
Robert Newton and Celia Johnson are excellent as pragmatic, dependable parents Frank and Ethel, heading up an extended lower middle-class family full of dissent, worry and complaint. But it’s Kay Walsh as daughter Queenie who makes the most impact and has the best lines. At one point she says: “I hate living here. I hate living in a house that’s exactly like hundreds of other houses. I hate coming home from work on the tube.” Queenie soon departs and any viewer who has ever wanted to escape their own milieu will punch the air in solidarity. David Lean’s unfussy direction chimes perfectly with Coward’s script. There’s rarely a frame or word wasted and it’s a treat to see now-gentrified Clapham – including the common – in Technicolor.
Waterloo Road (1945)
Director Sidney Gilliat
When soldier Jim Colter gets word that his wife, Tillie, is stepping out with local spiv Ted Purvis, there can be only one solution: go AWOL, find Ted and give him a good hiding. Having leapt off a train on its way towards Clapham Junction, Jim hunts for Ted in and around the titular Southwark street. Ted’s cronies cosh Jim in an amusement arcade but nothing can stop him as he dodges army MPs in a pub, legs it from a dance hall and hides out in a tattoo parlour before finally catching up with former boxer Ted for one of cinema’s best fist-fight showdowns.
Waterloo Road was released in February 1945, nearly five and a half years into the Second World War. A straightforward plot with little room for moral ambiguities was just the ticket. Despite his desertion, there’s never any question of Jim’s bravery, and he’s played with resolute determination by John Mills, a terrific counterpoint to Stewart Granger’s oily Ted (Granger considered the role one of his favourites). Alastair Sim is typically wry as narrator Dr Montgomery and evidently made a good impression on his director. Gilliat would later write and produce the first two St Trinians films, Sim’s best-known features.
Pool of London (1951)
Director Basil Dearden
Basil Dearden’s snappy crime thriller about two merchant seamen on shore leave centres on white Dan MacDonald and black Johnny Lambert. The two are fast friends but MacDonald has his loyalties tested when he gets involved in moving a bounty of diamonds, freshly stolen from a depository in the City. Johnny is oblivious as his friend concocts a plan to get the diamonds safely away; he’s pre-occupied with Pat, a white woman he’s been spending time with.
Dearden, a progressive director who would later helm the first English-language film to use the word ‘homosexual’ (Victim, 1961), is sensitive in his portrayal of the film’s key relationships. Dan (played with archetypal fast-talking noir vim by Bonar Colleano) and Johnny (played with careful, understated grace by Earl Cameron) are believable friends; Johnny and Susan Shaw’s Pat are tentative but have clear affection. No biggie in 2015, but in 1950, any realistic and considered portrayal of a mixed-race couple was deemed controversial.
This Ealing production makes brilliant use of a broad range of south London locations including Bermondsey, Greenwich Park, Camberwell, Borough Market and even features a thrilling denouement in Rotherhithe Tunnel.
The Happy Family (1952)
Director Muriel Box
A working-class family are under siege in this light-hearted South Bank-set comedy. Government bureaucrats erroneously miss The House of Lords (a smartly-named shop run by Lilian Lord and family near Waterloo) from their Festival of Britain plans and threaten to demolish the shop and the attached family home if the building is not vacated. The whole family, including daughter Joan’s fiancé, Cyril, decide to barricade themselves in and fight the powers that be.
On-the-money performances abound in Muriel Box’s film. Stanley Holloway’s put-upon Henry and George Cole’s bolshy Cyril are the pick of the men, while Kathleen Harrison as spirited Lilian and Dandy Nichol as screw-loose spiritualist Ada are vital and on point. Scenes including the construction of the festival site alongside long-gone landmarks like the Shot Tower of the Lambeth Lead Works give the film an extra note of pathos and curiosity.
Director Michelangelo Antonioni
Michelangelo Antonioni’s audacious swinging 60s tale of an amoral photographer who may have snapped a murder is packed with the director’s trademark striking images and ambiguous meanings. Antonioni and director of photography Carlo Di Palma create bright, stylish scenes when depicting unlikeable protagonist Thomas (David Hemmings) in his studio, yet manage to give seemingly prosaic streets an inscrutable air.
Woolwich Road and nearby Maryon Park were never – and never will be – destinations for the in-crowd, while Consort Road in Peckham and Stockwell Road are similarly off the tourist radar. There is a party in Chelsea’s Cheyne Walk and we see The Yardbirds at a small, cool gig and Thomas meeting his publisher in a Ladbroke Grove bistro. But despite these refined surroundings, Thomas’s mind always seems to be on getting back to the muck and intrigue of his south London whodunnit.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Director Stanley Kubrick
Chief droog Alex lives in Municipal Flat Block, Linear North in Stanley Kubrick’s memorable and then-controversial adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s novel. The striking brutalist architecture on screen is actually Thamesmead South (Alex’s home), an imposing housing estate on the fringes of south-east London, while the scene in which the droogs attack a homeless man is set in a tunnel in Wandsworth. Although Alex and his droogs commonly venture to the countryside to commit their savage acts of ultraviolence, the location is also the setting of the pivotal mutiny scene, which includes some fine slow-motion camerawork.
As a meticulous, relentlessly inventive director who pushed the cinematic envelope with effects and non-linear structure in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), lighting in Barry Lyndon (1975) and Steadicam in The Shining (1980), it’s perhaps unsurprising that Kubrick used contemporary London architecture for his take on Burgess’s dystopian vision. He later repeated the trick and turned east London’s Beckton Gasworks into the ruined Vietnamese city of Hue for Full Metal Jacket (1987).
Director Franco Rossi
The end credits of Babylon thank “all the people of Lewisham who made this film possible”. It’s a fitting tribute given the film’s authentic, semi-documentary feel. Mechanic Blue (Ainsley Forde of reggae band Aswad) and his friends build a soundsystem in a Deptford lock-up using whatever bits of kit they can recycle, borrow or steal and visit Brixton to get the best records to play at soundclashes.
Blue loses his job amid a torrent of racist abuse from his white boss and, later, a white woman piles on the abuse at the lockup. Tension in Babylon is never far from the surface and Blue finds that the police can be an even tougher proposition.
Co-writer Martin Stellman wrote Quadrophenia (1979) and had an eye for youth alienation and warring subcultures. The direction of co-writer Franco Rosso, meanwhile, is sympathetic and realistic. London’s simmering racial tensions, police brutality and poverty would come to the fore a few months after the film’s release when riots erupted in Brixton and across the UK in April 1981.
My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)
Director Stephen Frears
Greenwich-raised Daniel Day-Lewis reeled off a list of south London areas and landmarks while accepting a best actor BAFTA for There Will Be Blood in 2008. When such a talent teamed up with Bromley born-and-raised writer Hanif Kureishi, the result could only produce a south-of-the-river classic.
Tackling racism, class, immigration, suicide, alcoholism, depression and interracial homosexuality without ever feeling glib or condescending, Kureishi’s hilarious and truthful script is remarkable. It concerns the son of Pakistani immigrant Omar (Gordon Warnecke) and his friend-turned-lover, Johnny (Day-Lewis), attempting to make sense of their place in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain while taking over the establishment of the title, located in Vauxhall’s Wilcox Road. The story jumps back and forth to Omar’s father’s shabby flat overlooking the train tracks in Battersea, while throughout, Stephen Frears’ assured and heartfelt direction is pleasingly lacking in sentimentality.
Nil by Mouth (1997)
Director Gary Oldman
Gary Oldman’s BAFTA-winning debut as writer and director is a harrowing portrait of a dysfunctional family living in Bermondsey. Oldman drew on his own experiences growing up with an alcoholic father in neighbouring New Cross, and the film’s strength lies in its uncompromising honesty. Ray Winstone is at his career zenith as terrifying, cocaine-abusing, alcoholic wife-beater Ray, while Kathy Burke won best actress at Cannes for her role as his wife, Valerie, a sad, downtrodden woman trapped by horrible circumstances.
Sterling support is provided by Charlie Creed-Miles as Val’s heroin-addict brother Billy and Laila Morse (Oldman’s real-life sister) as Janet, Val and Billy’s mum. Occasional moments of levity are provided by Jamie Foreman’s Mark, an excellent and ribald raconteur, but Nil by Mouth remains a bleak experience for all but the hardiest of cinephiles.
Attack the Block (2011)
Director Joe Cornish
Long-term Brixton resident Joe Cornish wrote and directed this ace urban sci-fi about a gang of south London tearaways defending their tower block against alien invaders. This proximity must account for how Cornish manages to shoehorn so many genuine south London youth/gang colloquialisms, such as “you get me” and “fam”, into his script – keeping his film feeling fresh and exciting.
It starts with a superb descending crane shot that focuses on Oval tube station while Guy Fawkes night fireworks explode over the Clapham and Stockwell night sky to the south. As establishing shots go, it’s what Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day (1993) would call “a doozy”. Myatt Fields Estate in Brixton and the now-demolished Heygate Estate by the Elephant and Castle are also prominently used as locations as 15-year-old gang leader Moses (John Boyega), his crew, and a nurse they befriend (after mugging) tackle Critter-esque creatures with a taste for flesh. As genre mashups go, it’s as good as cult romzomcom Shaun of the Dead (2004). As funny and bloodthirsty urban romps go, it ranks alongside Wes Craven’s The People under the Stairs (1991).