Hidden City: mapping the co-ordinates of Stephen Poliakoff’s psychogeographic mystery

Sending Charles Dance on an exploration of London’s secret streets, Stephen Poliakoff’s directorial debut puts our writer in mind of the psychogeography movement and the urban conspiracy films of Jacques Rivette.

Hidden City (1987)BFI

Stephen Poliakoff’s directorial debut Hidden City (1987) explores London with an unusual level of psychogeographic curiosity. A Channel 4 production made for their own Film on Four strand, the film exemplified the writer’s idiosyncratic approach to drama, with troubled characters attempting to find their way through the murk of modern life. It also showcases another, less discussed aspect of Poliakoff’s work: the use of setting.

Poliakoff remains one of Britain’s most preeminent writers for stage and screen. With a vast catalogue of plays, films and television dramas, his scriptwriting rummages around contemporary Britain in search of meaning in the modern age. Hidden City is a good example of how this search could be a physical as much as an emotional endeavour.

The film follows the intertwining stories of statistician James Richards (Charles Dance) and researcher Sharon Newton (Cassie Stuart). Responsible for Sharon’s firing after she ruined his research by sending the wrong piece of film from an archive, James is subsequently forced to help her in a strange quest. Sharon has discovered an unnerving piece of film, disguised in the archives under the title of ‘The Hedgerows of England’, but which actually shows evidence of a potential kidnapping by a shady government organisation. The quest is to find the film that follows the first reel. But other agencies and forces may have different ideas as the pair are drawn beneath the shabby surface of the city, metaphorically and literally. They go deeper into the capital’s history and secrets, but also physically explore places beyond the street surface, delving into disused tram tunnels, forgotten archives and rubbish tips.

Hidden City (1987)BFI

Though ostensibly about conspiracy and government cover-ups, Hidden City is equally concerned with an evolving relationship to London. The city is full of contrasts for the characters: from the pristine streets of the City, where James works, to Sharon’s down-and-out east London. Even the apartments of both characters are in stark contrast to one another: James’s is tidy, luxurious and vast, while Sharon’s is chaotic and collapsing, with the paint peeling off the walls. The shambolic, dreary London of the 1980s conceals something much more interesting than first appears, however. It’s the act of looking beyond this initial hopeless surface layer of demolished buildings, empty streets and closed amenities that opens up the mystery for the characters.

As a thriller shot through with an interest in the forgotten parts of the capital, in many ways Hidden City taps into the unfolding trends of the period for psychogeography – the wandering fascination with urban environments first defined by Guy Debord. Poliakoff explores dilapidated greasy spoons, empty streets and even the disused Kingsway tram tunnel in Holborn, which services as a vast archive for secret government files. These explorations echo those found in contemporaneous books by Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd, but also in later, more essayistic films by Patrick Keiller and Chris Petit. As James suggests in the film: “You could walk down this street now and never know what it’s all about.” His concern matches the loose aims of psychogeographers, who are interested in the secret synchronicities of the city. Poliakoff’s narrative functions through similar quirks of urban fate rather than pure conspiracy.

Patrick Keiller’s psychogeographic film London (1994)

Of course, the city is not the only focus of the drama. The relationship between James and Sharon is humorously chaotic, a kind of run-down 1980s London equivalent of Susan (Katharine Hepburn) and Dr David (Cary Grant) from Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938), sans leopard. At times, when James is being reluctantly dragged further into the mystery, you half expect to hear him call out, like the beleaguered Dr David: “I’ll be with you in a minute Mr Peabody!”

The film’s unusual sub-theme about the growing ubiquity of screens also feels timely. As the film’s journey is frustrated by the physical junking of film, James’s belief in a future dominated by screens and video feels somewhat ironic, though his screen-based vision of the future is the one that won out, thanks largely to the dominance of digital technology today. His own journey, from rigid rationalist to intuitive explorer, however, goes against his own methodical and highly specific screen-based approach to research. Getting out into the street and physically searching for something reignites his interest in where he lives and works.

The atmosphere that the film creates is also reminiscent of the Balzacian themes beloved of French director Jacques Rivette: quiet conspiracies, obsessive repetitions, revisitations and reoccurrences, and vast interconnections between people and place. The out-and-about segments of Rivette films such as Out 1 (1971) and the much more widely seen Le Pont du Nord (1981), with their shabby vision of the urban environment, could be a subtle influence here. Hidden City possesses a similar emphasis on a quest muddled in with a conspiracy, all haunted by secrets under the pavements.

Le Pont du Nord (1981)

Early on in the film, James is dismayed with his lacklustre middle-class life in the city. “This must be the most boring city in the world,” he bemoans. “I’m beginning to hate it.” Interestingly, the dialogue echoes a moment in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966), when photographer Thomas (David Hemmings) similarly has a whinge about the capital. “I’ve gone off London this week,” Thomas says. “It doesn’t do anything for me.” Both men end up having their ideas about the city challenged. By the end of the films, they’re seeing it in an entirely new light. “It looks so different now,” James admits. Exploring the city changed them. Its streets would never seem the same again.

Hidden City is out now on Blu-ray and on digital channels.