BFI Southbank’s London on Film season runs between July and October 2015.
As one of capital’s most dynamic, troubled, racially diverse, socially complex, and historically fascinating districts, it’s little wonder that the East End has inspired many of the great London films.
Though rapid gentrification has seen swathes of east London transformed beyond recognition in recent years, poverty and deprivation rates remain higher in Hackney, Newham and Tower Hamlets than anywhere else in the UK – a fact which is cruelly emphasised by the area’s geographical proximity to the twin global financial centres of the City and Canary Wharf.
It should come as little surprise, then, that economic hardship and social inequality are central themes to many of the films that follow. Racial tension is another recurring issue in some of the more recent titles – though it’s heartening to compare and contrast the repellent views espoused by Harold Shand in The Long Good Friday (1980) with the interracial gay relationship that sits at the heart of The Comedian (2012), as a measure of how far we’ve come in the past few decades on that front.
10 to try
Each of the recommendations included here is available to view in the UK.
But while this neck of the woods may frequently go hand-in-hand with grim or worthy subject matter, the variety of genres and filmmaking approaches on display here at least demonstrates that there’s more to East End cinema than caricaturish cockney gangsters and dour kitchen-sink realism.
Hue and Cry (1947)
Director Charles Crichton
Credit: STUDIOCANAL Films Ltd
Charles Crichton’s exuberant, Boy’s Own-style adventure is generally regarded as the first of the great Ealing comedies. Harry Fowler stars as Joe, a plucky teen who becomes convinced that his favourite comic contains secret messages intended for a criminal gang. A meeting with eccentric writer Felix H. Wilkinson (Alastair Sim, on exquisite, show-stealing form) confirms that Harry is indeed on to something. The boy enlists the help of his friends to hunt for further clues, and so begins a frantic cat-and-mouse chase across the capital, as the kids begin to antagonise crooks and coppers alike.
Hue and Cry’s trump card is its vivid evocation of a war-damaged east London, not yet recovered from the devastating impact of the Blitz. Harry’s home turf is a wasteland of bombed-out buildings and rubble-strewn streets, imbuing the fantastical story with a sense of realism. The film concludes in spectacular fashion, with literally hundreds of kids converging on Shadwell Basin in an attempt to thwart the gangsters.
It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)
Director Robert Hamer
Credit: STUDIOCANAL Films Ltd
This noir-tinged, rain-soaked portrait of post-WWII Bethnal Green sees Ealing Studios director Robert Hamer at the top of his game, positively revelling in the seamier side of East End life. Googie Withers smoulders as Rose, a bored and frustrated housewife whose life is turned upside-down by a surprise visit from former lover Tommy (John McCallum), an escaped convict who is now the subject of a major manhunt.
As local police officers begin to close in on Tommy, Rose’s stepdaughters contend with dramas of their own. Aspiring singer Vi (Susan Shaw) is caught in a compromising amorous clinch with a married man, while her sister Doris (Patricia Plunkett) considers a potentially indecent proposal from said married man’s decidedly shady brother. Hamer elegantly juggles multiple interlinking and overlapping plot threads, delivering a tense, deeply atmospheric film that feels at once both sprawling and concise.
The Bespoke Overcoat (1956)
Director Jack Clayton
This warm, witty, Oscar-winning short launched the troubled but frequently dazzling directorial career of Jack Clayton (Room at the Top, 1958; The Innocents, 1961). Adapting Nikolai Gogol’s highly influential 1842 story ‘The Overcoat’, writer Wolf Mankowitz relocates the action from Russia to east London, and re-imagines its pair of protagonists as working-class Jews.
Alfie Bass delivers a deeply moving performance as Fender, an impoverished elderly warehouse clerk in desperate need of a decent new coat. David Kossoff plays his hard-drinking tailor friend, Morry, who agrees to make Fender a fine bespoke overcoat for cost price. But in a cruel twist of fate, Fender dies from a cold before Morry can finish the job. The film is told largely in flashback, with Fender returning as a ghost to recount his final days to Morry, and to exact modest revenge on his draconian former manager, Ranting (Alan Tilvern). The film’s melodramatic premise is leavened by a playful sense of humour, most notably in a scene in which Morry urges Fender to take advantage of his supernatural state and walk through a wall.
Bronco Bullfrog (1969)
Director Barney Platts-Mills
Barney Platts-Mills’ precocious debut feature offers a fascinating snapshot of late-60s disaffected East End youth. With an unassuming, nouvelle vague-inflected style, and dialogue largely improvised by a cast of game young non-professionals, Bronco Bullfrog charts the exploits of jaded delinquent Del (Del Walker), whose all-consuming boredom perpetually propels him towards a life of petty crime and gang rivalries.
Despite Del’s tendency to loiter on the wrong side of the tracks, his life seems to pass by without major drama or mishap. But that all changes when he crosses paths with the titular Bronco, a charismatic figure, recently released from borstal, who enjoys near-mythical status among his peers. From the moment Del agrees to take part in a railway-car robbery, it becomes hard to shake the feeling that his ill fate may be sealed. Though the film was greeted with critical acclaim on release, it languished in obscurity for decades, until the BFI resurrected it in 2010. Covering its rerelease for The Guardian, Xan Brooks caught up with Walker, who remained baffled by continued interest in the film: “I remember at the time, this film critic, Alexander Walker, he said, ‘This is a film that will be talked about in years to come.’ And I thought, ‘You’re mad.’”
The Long Good Friday (1980)
Director John Mackenzie
Filmed in 1979, John Mackenzie’s blistering gangster opus proved eerily prescient, anticipating as it does both the ‘greed is good’ mentality that would come to define 1980s consumer culture, and the transformation of London’s Docklands from industrial wasteland to global economic powerhouse and Olympic site. Bob Hoskins tears up the screen as self-satisfied crime lord Harold Shand, dogged in his determination to persuade an American mob boss (Eddie Constantine) to invest in his vision for East End regeneration. But hours after his esteemed guest lands on British soil, Shand learns that two of his employees have been murdered, and it becomes suddenly apparent that his empire is under serious threat.
Shand is one of the great screen antiheroes. His racism is plainly abhorrent, while his smooth-operator façade slips all too easily and often, revealing the volatile monster that lurks beneath. Yet Mackenzie and Hoskins inject the character with just enough humanity to ensure that he remains a compelling protagonist. His treatment of girlfriend Victoria (Helen Mirren) reveals a degree of sensitivity and compassion, while his nonchalant attitude towards his gay cohort’s private life borders on progressive, given the context.
Director Mike Leigh
Commissioned by Channel 4 at the height of the early 1980s recession, Mike Leigh’s feature-length TV drama offers an unflinching look at the bleak reality of working-class life under Thatcher. Set predominantly on a Hackney council estate, Meantime secured its place in film history by providing breakthrough screen roles for both Tim Roth and Gary Oldman. Roth stars as Colin, a withdrawn, introverted young man who spends his days cooped up in the bedroom he’s forced to share with his brash, confrontational brother, Mark (a charismatic Phil Daniels). With no hope of gainful employment in sight, the boys find themselves with an agonising amount of time to kill, and the film brilliantly captures the sense of futility that comes as an inevitable consequence of a life without enticing prospects.
As skinhead Coxy, Oldman brings a sense of genuine menace to proceedings. This exceedingly angry young man takes his personal frustrations out on those around him, including his black neighbours, in a manner that somewhat anticipates Stephen Graham’s ferocious turn as National Front supporter Combo in Shane Meadows’ 1983-set This Is England (2006). But Leigh offsets the darkness with a healthy injection of sly, cynical humour. Marion Bailey and Alfred Molina are painfully amusing as the boys’ crassly aspirational aunt and uncle, while a home visit from an impossibly pretentious estate manager (Peter Wight) provides a dash of laugh-out-loud weirdness.
Director David Cronenberg
This restrained, chillingly detached adaptation of Patrick McGrath’s novel casts Ralph Fiennes as the clearly disturbed Dennis Clegg, who acquired the nickname ‘Spider’ from his mother as a boy. Recently released from an asylum, and now living in an almost comically austere London halfway house, Spider spends his days roaming the East End streets on which he grew up, obsessively reliving his grim childhood. He appears to recall the past with photographic clarity, but certain passages from his young life seem too outlandishly awful to be taken at face value. Before long, it becomes apparent that we’re in the hands of an extremely unreliable narrator, and the film reveals its true nature as an unflinching study of schizophrenia.
The film hops restlessly between the 1980s and 60s, but the two decades are virtually indistinguishable from a visual perspective, emphasising just how much Spider is a prisoner of his own past. By allowing his protagonist to tell his own story on his own terms, Cronenberg ensures that the film remains free of the patronising sentimentality that undermines so many screen depictions of mental illness.
Made in Dagenham (2010)
Director Nigel Cole
Nigel Cole’s slick, uplifting take on the 1968 Ford sewing machinists’ strike, which paved the way for the passing of the UK Equal Pay Act in 1970, was clearly conceived with blockbuster box office takings in mind. In its broad-strokes depiction of a group of spirited Brits overcoming their natural modesty to behave in a provocative, decidedly un-British manner, the film sticks rigidly to a template that reaped great financial rewards for the likes of The Full Monty (1997) and Cole’s own Calendar Girls (2003).
But although Made in Dagenham failed to capture the imagination of a broad global audience, it struck a chord with domestic cinemagoers, and ultimately holds up as a heartstring-tugging tribute to a key victory in our ongoing struggle for gender equality. The film is anchored by Sally Hawkins’ captivating central performance as Rita, a meek factory worker who, with encouragement from union representative Albert (Bob Hoskins), becomes an unlikely figurehead for the labour movement. Visually, it’s a far cry from the drab aesthetic that often characterises East End cinema – the opening sequence sees our heroines cycling to work in glorious sunshine, stylishly dressed in vibrant swinging-60s garb. It’s a romanticised depiction of working-class life, for certain, but it’s hard to begrudge the film when its core message is so laudable.
My Brother the Devil (2012)
Director Sally El Hosaini
In the wake of Saul Dibb’s Bullet Boy (2004) and Menhaj Huda’s Kidulthood (2006), the last decade or so has seen a proliferation of low-budget, London-set urban crime dramas. The sub-genre had become so formulaic, in fact, that by 2011 it had spawned its own Scary Movie-style parody in Adam Deacon’s risible, albeit commercially successful, Anuvahood (2011).
Welsh-Egyptian writer-director Sally El Hosaini, a long-time Hackney resident, breathed new life into the gun-toting, drug-dealing estate kid formula with her compassionate and multi-layered debut feature. James Floyd is terrific as Rashid, who struggles to maintain the respect of local gang members, while simultaneously dealing with the expectations of his conservative immigrant parents and keeping an eye on his impressionable younger brother, Mo (Fady Elsayed). It gradually becomes apparent that Rashid’s swaggering bravado masks serious insecurities, and that he’s also secretly wrestling with his sexual identity. El Hosaini seems to delight in subverting viewer expectation at every turn, while cinematographer David Raedeker justly picked up an award at Sundance for his supremely deft work here.
The Comedian (2012)
Director Tom Shkolink
An air of profound melancholy hangs heavy over Tom Shkolnik’s understated debut. Edward Hogg is utterly convincing as Ed, a struggling standup comic who scrapes a living with a soul-crushing job in a call centre. On his way home from a disastrous gig, he gets chatting to audience member Nathan (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), who teases him about his dreadful performance. The pair hit it off and begin dating, but Ed’s deep-seated existential ennui ensures that the relationship is troubled from the outset.
The Comedian is peppered with excruciatingly well-observed scenes, which will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever strived to keep a personal dream alive while struggling to make ends meet in the big city. It’s also one of the most vivid portraits of modern East End nightlife committed to film, beautifully charting the languorous journey from overcrowded bar, to subterranean club, to starkly-lit kebab shop that is the unthinking Friday night ritual for many a young urbanite.