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The retropolitan line: documentary How We Used to Live by Paul Kelly

A cinematic paean to postwar London uses rare footage from the BFI. But has time edited out the boring bits?

Swinging roundabout: Piccadilly Circus in 1963
Swinging roundabout: Piccadilly Circus in 1963

How We Used to Live (PG)
dir: Paul Kelly

If you miss proper coffee bars and council houses and you think they should never have knocked down the Skylon, then the delightful documentary How We Used to Live is for you. Its director, Paul Kelly, who has made a speciality of the capital’s subliminal aspect, offers an impressionistic London travelogue through time as well as space, with music from the couture indie-pop band Saint Etienne (for whom Kelly briefly played guitar). The film hides its politics deep in the credits, in a caption that pointedly reads: “Almost everything you have just been watching was made with funding from the British government between 1950 and 1980.” In other words, our leaders once thought that our shared lives and mass culture were worth recording.

More accessible than Iain Sinclair and hipper than Peter Ackroyd, How We Used to Live is a spirited addition to the pop-psychogeography genre that runs from Nor­man Cohen’s film The London That Nobody Knows (1969) – a much-shared touchstone of London retro featuring a voice-over by James Mason and a bizarre egg-smashing factory on the South Bank – to Julien Temple’s London: the Modern Babylon (2012). Suburbanites all, from areas such as Farnborough and Croydon, Kelly and his collaborators share an outsider’s unrequited obsession with the capital. They built their film from BFI National Archive footage and borrowed its title – by way of a Saint Etienne pop single of the same name, released in 2000 – from a Yorkshire Television educational programme that began in the 1960s. The result captures a hitherto unmythologised London that was “no longer postwar but pre-something else”.

This is the Britain of the Central Office of Information and the public information film, of the busy state and its egalitarian new Elizabethans. The film’s bookends are the Festival of Britain and the Canary Wharf redevelopment, the twin poles of the public and the private. Viewed from our end of the age of market omniscience, the bleached but bright world of How We Used to Live seems exotic and – for anyone over the age of 30 – painfully nostalgic. You yearn to revisit this tatty but optimistic David Kynaston city with its Swingle Singers soundtrack.

Here, smoke still pours from Battersea Power Station; you might see the pop mogul Mickie Most jogging at dawn in the same chocolate-brown shirt and slacks he’d wear to a hot nightspot; and London exists in a permanent early-spring haze. On the platform of the newly rebuilt Euston Station, a boy trainspotter aged about 11 dawdles in shorts. Would a child be allowed to venture there alone now, even though today it is undoubtedly safer than it was in the see-no-evil 1970s?

There is an unnerving crispness to the film stock that makes the past seem more real than the present, an effect now imitated by Instagram camera filters. In Kelly’s film, the years have edited out the boring bits and everybody looks fantastic. But is it just the lens of time that makes them that way? Will today’s TOWIE girls and ochre, tattooed gym lads one day seem amazing and characterful instead of lost and conformist?

Pop culture used to scorn the past. Now it lives through it. Yet the visually recorded past now crowds out the living present, blotting out the light it needs to grow. In How We Used to Live we see how daily ephemera changed utterly over a couple of decades. Cars morphed from Dinky Toys to post-Starsky racers; bowler hats and twinsets gave way to Man at C&A and Biba. Look at a street scene from the early 1990s, though, and it is barely distinguishable from today. In advertising and entertainment we are surrounded by more of the past than ever: cleaned up, visually remastered and digitally frozen at peak quality, not distanced by scratchy negatives or decaying film stock. They’re making more of it every year and it looks better than now. No wonder things are slowing down.

Until perhaps 15 years ago we lived in what will surely be seen as the hundred-year infancy of the moving image, when it was a costly and cumbersome medium available only to professionals and the dedicated hobbyist. (This could produce its own weird epiphenomena, such as the interminable – and I’m sure by no means unique – 1950s “colour cine” footage of flowers gently waving in the back garden that my grand­father used to subject us to in the 1970s. A lone protest against modernity? You’d win the Turner Prize with that now.) Today everything has a camera in it and on YouTube, Vine and countless other websites we are sharing moving images at a rate that will terrify future video editors and data storage planners. One day it will not be the planking students, exploding Diet Coke bottles or capering children in the foreground that are of value but the vanished buildings and advertising hoardings behind them. They will be the real evidence of how we used to live.