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Remembering Anthony Asquith’s Underground

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

A still from "Underground". Image: BFI

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.