Remembering Anthony Asquith’s Underground

Juliet Jacques returns to one of Britain’s best silent films.

For decades, Anthony Asquith’s Underground (1928) was known as one of Britain’s greatest silent films but barely seen. A story of love and betrayal set around “the Tube”, it was restored by the British Film Institute’s National Archive and re-released this January to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first Metropolitan Railway station opening at Baker Street. Now issued on DVD with Neil Brand’s soundtrack and a host of extras, including a documentary about how the BFI used a French print from the Cinemathèque Royale in Brussels and two reels of original negative to recreate the film as originally screened, Asquith’s "British picture of Modern London Life" can finally be enjoyed by a wide audience.

Underground was not Asquith’s filmmaking debut – he worked with A V Bramble on Shooting Stars in 1927 – but it was the first time that he directed his own screenplay. Aged 26, Asquith was from a highly privileged background, being the son of former Liberal Prime Minister H H Asquith and educated at Balliol College, Oxford. Despite his upbringing, Asquith was a staunch socialist, fascinated at the social mixing facilitated by the 65-year-old Underground network.

Underground, however, wasn’t quite the "cinema for the masses" that avant-garde film journal Close-Up demanded after its launch in 1927. A modern, if not Modernist movie, shot at night in Waterloo station and the Lots Road Power Station, as well as Chelsea Embankment, Thistle Grove Alley, and (possibly) Selfridges, Underground was about London life, in its parks, department stores and bedsits, looking at how the Tube, buses, radio and telephones had changed the urban world, but it focused on four "ordinary work-a-day people whose names are just Nell, Bill, Kate and Bert".

The way that the Tube connects people is central to Underground’s plot: the film opens with a train leaving a tunnel to a platform crowded with people, who clamour for seats. This provides some interesting glimpses of how the Tube looked before Frank Pick and Harry Beck redesigned it – Beck’s famous diagram was not finished until 1933, so we see an old map of what became the Northern Line. Much else, though, is familiar to 21st century commuters: passengers talk across each other; a man leans over someone’s shoulder to read his newspaper; a woman tires of a man’s leering, grabs his cap and throws it across the carriage.

In Underground, the old wooden escalators, an American invention introduced in 1910 and abolished after the fire at King’s Cross in 1987, provide some light humour – the diagonal cut-offs meant that anyone who ignored the advice to "Step Off Right Foot First" would trip, a small gift for slapstick-age London filmmakers. The escalators keep shop assistant Nell and underground porter Bill, who have just met, apart: they find each other again, fall in love and agree to get married, but electrician Bert also meets Nell on the Tube and proposes to her, resolving to leave his live-in partner, seamstress Kate.

As the relationships develop, the camera moves overground, offering a panorama of inter-war London life. There’s a real joy at seeing familiar scenes as they existed then, such as the man selling paintings on the Embankment, matched only by the colour sequences in Claude Friese-Greene’s The Open Road (1926). Asquith’s simple storyline creates high drama, heightened by the restrained performances of leads Elissa Landi and Brian Aherne, far from the stereotypical silent film over-acting. Norah Baring, as Kate, is the most expressive, as Bert uses her as a pawn in his efforts to tear Bill and Nell apart, and despite the lack of dialogue, the scenes between Kate and Nell are sensitive, almost conspiratorial, contrasting them with Bill and Bert’s brutal pub fights.

These are brilliantly composed, the second brawl opening with a broken mirror after the first ended with Bert throwing billiard balls across the room, before swiftly panning back to the violence. Silent film historian Bryony Dixon writes in the sleeve notes that the punch into the camera that terminates one brawl is far better executed than a similar moment in Alfred Hitchcock’s boxing film The Ring (1927), but otherwise, Underground is shot without obvious trickery: Asquith occasionally uses montage or overlays to portray the masses of commuters or a leading character’s thoughts, or shadows to suggest that Bert’s presence is becoming more threatening, but he utilises these German Expressionist devices without borrowing the contorted sets or plots of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari or Metropolis.

Asquith carefully ramps up the tension, as Nell comes to Bert and Kate’s tiny lodgings, only to find that he has left for his new job at the power station. The climactic scenes at Lots Road, where the 11,000-volt high tension cable immediately spells danger, are the film’s most impressive. The camera pans up to the industrial building’s windows and smoke stacks as Kate races after Bert, and there’s an ominous sense of her becoming lost in its machinery as soon as she enters, so expertly does Asquith frame her within it. Cyril McLaglen plays Bert as quietly menacing rather than maniacal, and the way he looks through Kate at their final confrontation is quite chilling: then, there is a chase scene as gripping as anything else in British cinema, like that in Robert Hamer’s classic, claustrophobic dissection of working-class London life in It Always Rains on Sunday (1947).

Contemporary critics, particularly those at Close-Up, felt that British silent cinema made no significant contribution to the new art’s form developing language, and its reputation never quite recovered. Certainly, Underground borrowed more techniques than it invented, but the intelligence with which it places its protagonists amidst the pressures of city life and its combination of drama and humour put it alongside Hitchcock’s The Lodger, Hindle Wakes by Maurice Elvey and E A Dupont’s Piccadilly in the first ranks of 1920s British film, and remains a sincere, touching document of its time.

A still from "Underground". Image: BFI

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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The filmmaker forcing the British Board of Film Classification to watch Paint Drying for hours on end

The film does what it says on the tin.

Would you watch paint dry for several hours? If you work for the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), you might not have much choice in the matter. As a protest against problems he sees within the organisation, British filmmaker and journalist Charlie Lyne has launched a Kickstarter to send the BBFC a film he’s made called Paint Drying. It does what it says on the tin: the film is a single, unbroken shot lasting several hours (its length is determined by the amount of money raised) of white paint slowly drying on a brick wall. Once Lyne has paid the fee, the board are obliged to watch it.

“I’ve been fascinated by the BBFC – and censorship in general – for ages, but it was only when I went to a BBFC open day earlier this year that I felt properly frustrated by the whole thing,” Lyne told me. “There was a lot of discussion that day about individual decisions the board had made, and whether they were correct, but no discussions whatsoever about whether the BBFC should have the kind of power it has in the first place.”

The 2003 Licencing Act imposes the following rules on cinemas in the UK: cinemas need licenses to screen films, which are granted by local authorities to the cinemas in their area. These licences include a condition requiring the admission of children to any film to normally be restricted in accordance with BBFC age ratings. This means that in order to be shown easily in cinemas across the country, films need an age rating certificate from the BBFC. This is where, for Lyne, problems begin: a certificate costs around £1,000 for a feature film of average length, which, he says, “can prove prohibitively expensive” for many independent filmmakers.

It’s a tricky point, because even Lyne acknowledges on his blog that “this is actually a very reasonable fee for the services rendered”. The BBFC pointed out to me that its income is “derived solely from the fees it charges for its services”. So is the main issue the cost, or the role he feels the BBFC play in censorship? The Kickstarter page points out that the BBFC's origins are hardly liberal on that front:

The British Board of Film Classification (previously known as the British Board of Film Censors) was established in 1912 to ensure films remained free of 'indecorous dancing', 'references to controversial politics' and 'men and women in bed together', amongst other perceived indiscretions. 

Today, it continues to censor and in some cases ban films, while UK law ensures that, in effect, a film cannot be released in British cinemas without a BBFC certificate.

It might be true “in effect”, but this is not a legal fact. The 2003 Licensing Act states, “in particular circumstances, the local authority can place their own restrictions on a film. Film distributors can always ask a local authority for a certificate for a film banned by the BBFC, or a local category for a film that the BBFC has not classified.” The BBFC point out that “film makers wishing to show their films at cinemas in the UK without a BBFC certificate may do so with permission from the local authority for the area in which the cinema is located.” There you have it – the BBFC does not have the absolute final word on what can be shown at your local Odeon.

While the BBFC cannot officially stop cinemas from showing films, they can refuse to categorise them in any category: something Lyne says mostly happens with “quite extreme horror films and pornography, especially feminist pornography made by people like Petra Joy and Pandora Blake, but it could just as easily be your favourite movie, or mine.” This makes large-scale release particularly difficult, as each individiual local authority would have to take the time and resources to overrule the decision. This means that, to get screened easily in cinemas, a film essentially needs a BBFC-approved rating. Lyne adds, “I think films should also be allowed to be released unrated, as they are in the US, so that independent filmmakers with no money and producers of niche, extreme content aren’t at the mercy of such an expensive, censorial system.”

Does he think Paint Drying can make that a possibility? “I realise this one small project isn’t going to completely revolutionise British film censorship or anything, but I hope it at least gets people debating the issue. The BBFC has been going for a hundred years, so it’s got tradition on its side, but I think it's important to remember how outraged we’d all be if an organisation came along tomorrow and wanted to censor literature, or music. There's no reason film should be any different.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.