Londonist Film Club: The London Nobody Knows

By Lindsey Last edited 115 months ago
Londonist Film Club: The London Nobody Knows

In this series, we look at films with one thing in common: London. Our only rule is that the films must have either the word London or a London place name in the title. Other than that, any film is fair game.


The London Nobody Knows (1967)

Director: Norman Cohen

Starring: James Mason

Delving beneath the surface of tourist London, based on a book of the same name by Geoffrey Fletcher, this is both a period gem and a bonkers piece of documentary making. James Mason, in flat cap and blazer, leads us around some of the less salubrious areas of late sixties London focusing on the changing times, the working class and the dilapidated side of the fashionable capital. His delivery is so dry he's less tour guide, more a faintly bemused benevolent uncle, striding about his property, writing off rebuilding efforts since WW2 with a "yick" and sagely pointing out that, when it comes to disused Victorian public conveniences, all men are equal before the lavatory attendant.

Mason's personal charms and quirks aside this is a fascinating glimpse of bygone London life. There are gas lamps and a lamplighter; access into Cardinal Cap Alley is still open on Bankside, as the Globe crowds haven't arrived to spoil it yet and the power station is still a power station. Buskers aren't living statues but eccentric ex-music hall types who sing and jig and when asked what made them choose the busking life, reply "I'm a genius and I felt I'm psychologically unfit for normal work."

Intermittently, documentary is discarded in favour of whimsical and trippy sequences such as a skit on the former Behr and Mathew Egg Breaking Plant with steamrollers and explosive devices shattering shells "Carry On" style and a borderline psychedelic excursion down Chapel Street market repeatedly zoning in on a box full of wriggling live eels replete with bubbling mad electronic soundtrack.

Contemplating death in London, there's a maudlin trip to a fancy undertaker and a stark visit to a rambling graveyard, accompanied by the tune we want played at our funeral, "Ain't it grand to be bloomin' well dead". Death segueways into poverty and a sensitive Mason chatting to Salvation Army hostel residents about what they have for breakfast and why they're down on the luck. Suddenly it's not funny anymore as the cameras seek out dead eyed street drinkers, huddled together over a bottle, or brawling lurchingly. We're left with a lusty street preacher, warning the end of the world is nigh.

Presented on our DVD as a double bill with the totally swinging, whimsical musical-dream-love story about a 60s boy dandy who falls in love with a model in a poster and cycles round leafy North London in pursuit of her, singing, The London Nobody Knows is a slice of London life, that's rarely seen and a rare take on documentary making.

London Landmarks Spotted: The Roundhouse, Bankside Power Station, St Pauls plus lots and lots of documentary street footage around town and things you can't see anymore.

Realistic London Score: genuine music hall songs 10/10

London Film Club Rating: A eccentric period gem * * * *

Which film would you like us to watch next? Let us know in the comments!

Last Updated 06 October 2008


What about 'London Belongs to Me'? Richard Attenborough, Alistair Sim....


Watched 'The London Nobody Knows' yesterday. I also described the pie, mash and eel scene as trippy, watching pensioners and toddlers wolfing down the goods fully dressed in long coats, scarves and hats. An odd interview with 3 guys staying in a Salvation Army hostel, and grim shots of homeless drunks fighting over a bottle of meths, plus some entertaining market scenes. It's generally a weird half hour, but what's poignant in it is when Mason is showing you signs of 'what once was' and what was replacing it, knowing that the 'new' in the film is now either old or itself replaced. He's quite scathing in his presentation in places, condemning some of the new buildings going up at the time.

The DVD also contained something called Les Bicyclettes de Belsize which I started to watch. I have no idea what that is supposed to be but I didn't last long. An utterly bizarre musical based on some flappy git riding a rubbish bike around north London, flirting with a girl of about 8 (who he crashes into, resulting in him being unconscious for about a minute, after which he comes to, gets up and brushes down his clothes before happily riding off again) and fantasizing about some kind of model or pop star. It was unbearable.