Swinging roundabout: Piccadilly Circus in 1963
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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?

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. 

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

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Why a new Keith Richards documentary doesn't give enough satisfaction

I wonder whether Julien Temple is stitching up Richards in his documentary The Origin of the Species.

As we sink down into the dog days of summer, something weird appears to have happened to BBC2. Boy, does it reek of testosterone – and that’s even before we get to Louis XIV’s underpants (yes, unbelievably, the first series of Versailles is still not over). It’s the television equivalent of a potting shed, complete with leaky armchair and battered record player: its schedule last week included, among other manly treats, Gregg Wallace touring a cereal factory, Roald Dahl talking about an old mate who made model aeroplanes, and Keith Richards describing his meteoric rise through the ranks of the Dartford Scouts (“Suddenly, I was a patrol leader . . . I could get the other cats into it!”). I kept thinking of Charlotte Moore, the executive who now runs both BBC1 and BBC2. What on earth is she thinking? Doesn’t she want to rush around the place, squirting air freshener and opening windows?

I’ll spare you the delights of Wallace, who has unaccountably been given a series called Inside the Factory in which, over the course of six hour-long episodes, he gets to find out how various things are made. Imagine the treatment he usually reserves for a good meringue on MasterChef directed at a conveyor belt and you’ll have some idea of the patronising tedium involved. I’ll also move pretty swiftly through The Marvellous World of Roald Dahl (23 July, 8pm), which was basically Jackanory for grown-ups, narrated by Robert Lindsay, who read extracts from Dahl’s autobiography, Going Solo, in a voice I can only describe as the full spiced ham. I wasn’t after a hatchet job; I love Dahl as much as the next fortysomething, brought up to believe that in Fantastic Mr Fox and Danny the Champion of the World you will find all the rules necessary for living. But nor was I in the market for this kind of unmediated hagiography, a portrait Dahl himself – who thought nice people rather boring, and vicious ones endlessly fascinating – would doubtless have despised.

No, let’s head instead straight to the hard stuff, by which I mean to Keith Richards: the Origin of the Species, in which the director Julien Temple focused perhaps just a little too closely on the guitarist’s oh-so-English childhood (the film concentrates exclusively on the years 1943-62). Poor Keef. He’s spent so long trying to be cool, he can’t remember how to be anything else. And so it was that we were treated to the weird sight of a 72-year-old man, wearing a range of headbands, talking about rationing, council houses and, yes, the Scouts (apparently, he got loads of badges) in the kind of language last heard in an airless teepee at the Esalen Institute, Big Sur, in about 1969. “I can’t say I had any real affection for the joint,” he said of Dartford, the town where he grew up, and to whose determination to charge a toll for crossing its bridge over the Thames he apparently takes exception (“a stick-up joint”). Woo! Taxing road users. Rock’n’roll.

Was Temple trying very subtly to stitch up Richards, or was this Open University-style assemblage of black-and-white newsreel and interviews a genuine, even reverential, attempt to place a so-called genius in context? Knowing Temple’s other work (last year, he made a film about Wilko Johnson in which he presented the Dr Feelgood guitarist as the seer of Canvey Island), I feel it must surely have been the latter – and yet, I still wonder . . . That title: it’s so appropriately (sarcastically?) Darwinian, given what we know of the Stones’ politics, their restless quest to go on – and on – making money. Survival of the fittest, and all that. Deep into the film, Richards complained about the rise of advertising in the Sixties. “Wanty, wanty!” he said, talking disdainfully of Daz and capitalism. This, I felt, was a bit rich, coming from him. At other moments, though, there was something elegiac in his tone, a dolefulness that cut through the enamelled rock-star-speak. A white mare on a bomb site; a dead tramp in a pillbox; the day sweets came off the ration; the day his voice broke and he could no longer remain a member of the school choir (“Here’s the pink slip, man!”). As the titles rolled, movie reels flickered over his face, eerily. A study in the past: granite, lit from below.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue