If you were to believe the hundredweight of Pop culture tomes pontificating on the Swinging Sixties, you would believe that London was the very pendulum of all that was hip, trendy and happening. You would imagine Mary-Quant-skirted girls and Carnaby attired young gents swanning around like contemporary Byrons as the music of Pink Floyd or the Creation blared from Aston Martins.....right?
Well, Norman Cohen's 1967 filmed short (48mins) documentary 'The London Nobody Knows' will come as a real eye-opener and a bit of a culture shock!
Filmed in the very heart of London at the height of the Sgt Pepper era, Cohen's film paints a bleak and disorientating picture of London as a run-down slum filled with meth drinkers, doss houses and crumbling, decaying architecture.
Our host, James Mason, looking and sounding like a wandered country gent, takes us on a tour of abandoned theatres that once boomed to likes of Marie Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin, standing within perilous distance of the swinging wrecking balls demolishing the buildings. Then it's onto a street market where, amongst all the fresh food and bartering salesmen, live eels are prepared in gruesome close-up as they are prepared to be jellied and sold to the punters. Cockneys? Jellied eels? And you thought it was all a bit of a stereotype! We then cut to run down cafés where pensioners and down-and-outs are served suspicious looking green gruel. Then it's on to the Salvation Army flop houses where the homeless and the desperately poor congregate for a hot meal and a bed for the night. Here the film begins to resemble Luis Bunuel's 'Land Without Bread', a film the ~Streetlamp~ had seen at the Sleeping Cinema event we covered back in the Spring.
Bunuel's film shows inland Spain in the 1930s; rough, rural landscapes peopled with faces as ravaged and worn as the land itself. It seems baffling then that here in 1960s Swinging London, faces very similar to those in Bunuel's film gaze out from the screen, eyes bereft of hope and a demeanour that suggests they have given up. One haggard old chap reveals that he had once been wealthy but had lost everything in the great stock crash of 1929. Now he dosses in the Salvation Army shelter, bedraggled and covered in boils.
Once out of the flop houses, the impoverishment and wastage never lets up as we find ourselves gazing upon genuine meths drinkers. I always thought the whole drinking meths scenario was a bit of a put on, some urban myth surrounding tramps and the homeless, but here we are and bottle after bottle of the pink pure alcohol is swigged straight or mixed with what looks like cheap cooking sherry. In the infamous 1963 documentary 'Mondo Cane' there is footage of Hamburg's Reeperbahn district, depicting excessive drunkenness leading to violence and debauchery, and here again as the meths drinkers begin fighting among themselves these images echo and again you find yourself pondering "Could this really be London in the late Sixties? This is not what the brochure promised!".
Any film set in Swinging London, even those shot at the time, inevitably has almost EVERYONE decked out in the latest high fashions of Carnaby Street. The hair is often long, the young men bearded, the girls all flowery dresses and uber-big sunglasses. The reality, captured in this film's street scenes, appears quite different. The clothes are drab and workmanlike, the young women all dress like housewives or their mothers, and men's hair seems to be divided into two groups; greasy quiffs or severe Beatle-cuts (as in the Klaus Voormann Left Banke haircuts sported by the 1963-era Beatles). If London really does 'swing like a pendulum do' then the clock it is affixed to seems still to be set in the 1950s.
Of course there are a couple of Jason King dress-alikes, and one or two hipster chicks, but that's just the point....one or two!
It's hard to tell from James Mason's comments whether he approves of this unseen London, or if he's happy to see it being torn down. His beautiful, velvety, mellifluous voice seeming at odds with the ruination and neglect (of body and building) on display. But his authoritarian presence elevates the film from trashy 'Mondo' rubber-necking to a more serious and worthy timecapsule. Not of a world that no longer exists, but of a world we never knew did exist!
You can view the whole film below.