London: The Modern Babylon is a two-hour documentary from director Julien Temple about our city. Commentary from Michael Gambon is light, leaving archive footage, talking heads and a rich soundtrack to tell the story of the last 110 years.
Let’s take a look at those three facets, one at a time.
The archive footage is superb. The earliest shots show pre-motor vehicles racing across town. How strange to see Westminster Bridge bustling with horses. The story of London progresses chronologically from there, right up to the riots of last summer and the banking crisis. Scant mention of the Olympics is made other than the fictional but prescient 1988 Olympics bid for Docklands in a clip from The Long Good Friday. Anachronistic flourishes, like Born Slippy soundtracking footage from the First World War, work surprisingly well. We’ve all done that London thing of walking down a modern road, turning a corner, and finding ourselves in a Dickensian, Georgian or futuristic streetscape: this is the audio-visual equivalent.
The ‘talking heads’, as we blithely put it up top, are extremely well chosen. Chief among them is Hetty Bower, a 107-year-old Londoner who eloquently reminisces about losing relatives in the First World War, and who as a 30-year-old joined in the Battle of Cable Street to stop fascists marching on the East End. Ray Davies, Suggs and Tony Benn are repeatedly conjured up like three modern genies of London. All are used sparingly, letting the archive footage do most of the talking.
The soundtrack is a real treat, drawing mostly on London performers. Everyone from Max Bygraves to Lily Allen gets a few seconds. We initially groaned at the old cliché of launching a documentary about London with that Clash song but, really, how else could you open it?
London: The Modern Babylon is a fast-paced but never rushed impression of the 20th and 21st Century capital. Those who’ve tried to keep up with the recent spate of London documentaries on TV will recognise many of the clips, but personal insights from the likes of Hetty Bower, and the masterful video jockeying and soundtracking will delight any Londoner.