Edinburgh-born writer and broadcaster Douglas Anderson has lived in London for more than 13 years. His love of the capital and of the much celebrated 1967 film The London Nobody Knows, in which actor James Mason tours London’s stranger corners, compelled him to retrace Mason’s arcane journey through the city. His short homage to its vanishing streets will be screened as part of the London on Film: The Changing Face of London season at BFI Southbank, as part of a programme that includes Norman Cohen’s original The London Nobody Knows and the British Transport film The Scene from Melbury House (1973).
A participant in BBC Radio 5 live’s The Christian O’Connell Manifesto and Radio 4’s It’s Not What You Know, Anderson is probably best known as a regular on 5 live’s Fighting Talk, where he has attained something of a cult following. Specialising in music, film, sport and entertainment, he has also worked extensively for Channel 4 and BAFTA. The Public Service Broadcast is his regular music podcast, and he published the eBook What to Talk About When There’s Nothing to Talk About in 2014. Part memoir, part guide to creativity, Left of the Mainstream: From DIY Filmmaking to Public Service Broadcasting (2015) is his upcoming book. His previous film work includes starring in the Belle & Sebastian film Write About Love (2010) and his widely distributed short Timber! (2011).
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People may be more familiar with your broadcast work. When and why did you first get into filmmaking?
Someone I knew had a camcorder which I borrowed and started to film videos to accompany songs I was writing. Alas, a career as a musician didn’t pan out, but I continued to make films as I enjoyed the creative process immensely. It was very simple stuff and at the start I was even editing in camera, but I enjoyed the complete independence of it. Leave the house, film something, come back home and feel you had done something worthwhile on a Saturday afternoon. Even after getting into the TV and radio industries, I always kept up my filming endeavours as it was and is an important and gratifying creative outlet for me.
When did you first become aware of The London Nobody Knows?
I had the original book, written by Geoffrey Fletcher, before I ever saw the film. I then saw some clips from the 1967 film perhaps around 2007 and was suitably intrigued. I was eventually able to buy the film when it was released as a double feature with Les Bicyclettes de Belsize (1969) by Optimum Classic and StudioCanal. It always seemed to be a film that a select few knew about but was worthy of a broader audience.
When I was making the film Write About Love with Belle & Sebastian in 2010 in the dual roles of host and band manager, the director Blair Young mentioned The London Nobody Knows as a point of reference and I knew then that I was working with a kindred spirit. It was around that time when I began to think about making The London Nobody Knows Now.
What spoke to you about the film?
I loved seeing London as it was, the presenting style of James Mason, the sheer weirdness of it at times. Even the completely superfluous egg-breaking scene didn’t tarnish my love for it. It’s such a brilliant standalone piece of filmmaking and an extremely valuable document of the lesser-known London at that time.
How did the project begin, and how did you get your crew together?
Initially I wanted to make an hour-length documentary for TV. The idea was to interview fans of the movie, historians, documentarians, people from the places featured, as well as critiquing the film itself. I thought in order to make this possible I could make a taster in order to entice broadcasters. As anyone in the know will tell you, the commissioning process in television can be a long and frustrating one so whatever the case, I was determined to make a short film that had a beginning, middle and end, thus making it a standalone piece. I wrote a script, did a recce and off I went.
Regarding crew, the main concern was that I had no budget to pay anyone and had to rely on favours and other people’s good will. This really did feel like the epitome of independent filmmaking. Thankfully the people I asked to help knew that I wasn’t a time-waster and they liked the films I had already made. They also understood that what I was trying to do was worthwhile and were excited about the project and if we all had to wait until there was a budget in place not much would ever get done.
What were the challenges when researching for the film and then filming and in post-production?
As far as research was concerned, I just watched the film a lot, re-read the book and wandered around London looking at the locations used in the original film and also scoping out new locations for my own film.
I always knew the biggest post-production challenge would be securing the rights from the original film. I approached StudioCanal, who own the rights to The London Nobody Knows, and asked for permission. After they saw my film and we had a discussion I was able to secure the rights to use some original footage for a nominal fee.
I also tried to attain rights for seven seconds of D.A. Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back (1967) as the famous ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ video was shot on the Savoy Steps just along from Carting Lane where the sewer ventilation lamp from The London Nobody Knows is situated. I actually ended up in discussions with his son Frazer Pennebaker but sadly, after a few emails back and forth from London to New York, the trail went cold and so I didn’t end up getting clearance. Alas, the triumvirate of Anderson, Mason and Dylan appearing in the same film will have to wait for another day…
How do you think The London Nobody Knows is relevant to today?
London is an ever-changing city so to have this document from 1967 is precious to say the least. There is obviously a lot of London on film but the areas The London Nobody Knows visited were off the beaten track and to see them as they were is a valuable filmic record. It’s great that my film will now be preserved at the BFI National Archive for future generations to see.
What would you like to have included but were unable to due to budget or other constraints?
There was also a sequence I used in an early cut that didn’t make it to the final version when James Mason visits a Salvation Army hostel and speaks to the men who are staying there. Although it’s many years later, poverty and poor standards of living are still very much prevalent in London and I would have liked to have addressed this.
Can you tell us about the locations used, what does the capital mean to you?
I visited many of the locations from the original film as well as some places I thought would look good on film, so in the end I used locations in Euston, Fitzrovia, Spitalfields, Chalk Farm, Embankment, Camden Town, Chancery Lane, The Savoy, Bankside, Kings Cross and Islington. As far as what London means to me, I feel I’m in some ways a typical Londoner in the sense that I wasn’t born there but love the city and embrace it. It’s a joy to film and also to see on film and it’s gratifying to have contributed to this in my own way.
The London on Film: The Changing Face of London season played at BFI Southbank from July-October 2015.
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