“No horseguards, no palaces, but Islington’s Chapel Market, pie shops, and Spitalfields tenements. Carnaby chicks and chaps, the 1967 we have been led to remember, are shockingly juxtaposed with feral meths drinkers, filthy shoeless kids, squalid Victoriana. Camden Town still resembles the world of Walter Sickert. There is romance and adventure, but mostly there is malnourishment. London looks like a shithole.”
‘The London Nobody Knows’, directed by Norman Cohen in 1969, is a documentary featuring and narrated by James Mason. It’s essentially a psychogeographic walking tour around the esoteric areas of the capital along the lines of Patrick Keiller’s ‘London’, Mason acts as a genial guide, wryly noting the changes to the city and occasionally interviewing the occupants. It’s a film about change and decay, from an opening sequence in a dilapidated theatre to the unpacking of a stratified layering of impoverishment. It ties location with architecture with people moving back and forth through history to unravel the psychology of the city. It’s a short film, and one that is deceptively simple, but under its surface it is a rich and powerful snapshot of the city at a time of momentous change. Throughout are shots of old London being demolished; Victorian buildings going under the wrecking ball, and these are matched with the shots of elderly people, the homeless and disenfranchised forced onto the streets or into charitable shelters. Mason risks coming across as a overly-avuncular and patronising presence, but he is saved from this by his seemingly spontaneous and polite commentary. It’s a portrait of a place that is not afraid to dig under the surface and to linger on the bits that would otherwise be ignored, a documentary, in short, made with knowledge and love.
Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s brief but packed with meaning. Watch in a double bill with ‘London’ for a sense of the changing city.