There used to be a popular series of prints illustrating the Cries of London: "Chairs to mend!", "Strawberries, scarlet strawberries!". Julien Temple's archive documentary is bookended with a cry of London today, an Asian market trader's virtuoso performance of "One pound fish! Very very cheap!". It's one of many moments in London: The Modern Babylon that demonstrate that, while the city of the past 120 years has been a crucible of dizzy flux and ferment, there's also a remarkable continuity. "Plus ça change … " is the theme that runs through this remarkable montage.
Celebrating the plurality of London high and low, Temple's London (also screened by BBC2 at 9.20pm on Saturday), isn't recommended –or rather, it is – to Aidan Burley MP, who objected to the "leftie multicultural crap" of the Olympics opening ceremony. This dense, expansive assembly of archive and contemporary footage manages to cram in more multiculturalism and right-on exuberance than even Danny Boyle's extravaganza could accommodate.
The premise is that London has always been a vortex of changing social and racial identity – one of the liveliest (if not always the happiest) places on earth. Temple has culled the archives to create a phantasmagoria of London on film since the 1890s. Images, music and literary quotations (read by Michael Gambon, Imelda Staunton et al) testify to London's metamorphoses, as do interviewees of various ages and races – including 106-year-old Hetty Boxer. She remembers the poverty of the east London of her childhood (again, plus ça change), her antipathy for Lord Kitchener ("I didn't like him and his finger") and 1936's Battle of Cable Street, where Oswald Mosley's blackshirts were routed ("He and his followers," she declares with triumphant emphasis, "did – not – pass!").
The film takes us chronologically from the First World War and the 1920s explosion of neon; through the bleak 1930s and the Blitz, with its "jaunty behaviour" (the period, apparently, was raunchier than wartime nostalgists usually let on); and the greyness of the 1950s and 1960s, at last infused with colour by pop (the sparkle was only superficial, argues bubble-bursting Ray Davies: "The only thing swinging in London was handbags"). Through it all, successive waves of immigration add new notes to the cultural register.
Temple juxtaposes clips to draw out what immigration meant both to newcomers and to often confused or hostile resident populations: some hair-raising silent-era intertitles evoke an East End flavoured with "betel nut, bhang and opium" and populated by "lascars". The other Lord Kitchener, the eminent calypsonian arriving on the Windrush, cheerfully carols, "London is the Place for Me" – cut against Linton Kwesi Johnson's later lament "Inglan is a Bitch".
Temple's collage has a cast of thousands: Tony Benn, T S Eliot, a Caribbean veteran of 1950s Soho reminiscing about sex, drugs and bebop; nobs, paupers, unionists, fascists; Barbara Cartland, a coy teenage David Bowie, mid-1960s Michael Caine moaning about short skirts, failing moral fibre and the loss of Empire. On the soundtrack, the Pistols and the Kinks, of course, but also Marie Lloyd, Laurel Aitken and that hero of hardcore, Max Bygraves.
Edited by Caroline Richards, London is extraordinarily dense, and Temple – a late-flowering documentarist of some brilliance – wryly characterises himself in his coda as a chimp running riot with film cans, looking for order among chaos. The result is a joyous, yet often also rueful, commemoration of one of the most multiple and uncontainable cities on earth. Whether you've lived here for decades, or are just visiting – even if you sympathise with the young homeless man who declares, "It's a shithole, because it's full of people like me" – Temple's film is a mesmerising anti-nostalgic advert for the metropolis. Like William Blake, you'll want to wander through each chartered street.
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