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 unsung heroes of Aberfan

How volunteer embalmers helped to handle the Welsh village’s tragedy.

Fifty years ago, on 22 October 1966, the Midland Division of the Institute of Embalmers gathered, bow-tied and ballgowned, in Nottingham, for the high point of the social calendar – the annual ladies’ night. The banquet was interrupted by a telegram requesting urgent help. In Aberfan, a Welsh village near Merthyr Tydfil, a 40-foot wall of coal waste had slid down a mountain at over 100mph and hit the Pantglas Junior School, killing 116 children and 28 adults.

Leaving their partners, the volunteer embalmers returned home to collect equipment, embalming fluid and coffins. Travelling through the night, they arrived in Aberfan to join colleagues from across the UK. Some had flown from Northern Ireland on a plane with the seats removed to accommodate stacks of child-size coffins. Billy Doggart was one of them, and it was he who co-ordinated their extraordinary efforts. 

Some of the bodies recovered from the school were already wrapped in blankets and laid on the pews of the Bethania Chapel. Makeshift mortuary stations were quickly established. Working without electricity or running water, the embalmers took over from the police and performed their first task: cleaning the bodies for identification. The viscous slurry that had swallowed the school also covered the bodies. One embalmer, fresh from his honeymoon, told me that his first job was to remove a boy’s shirt and take it outside to the waiting parents. He had to hold it aloft and ask whose little boy had been wearing it. Usually in disaster situations such as plane crashes or explosions, identification is a big problem. Not so at Aberfan, where every parent was waiting outside, distraught and eagle-eyed for evidence of their child.

Once identified, each body was further cleaned and embalmed, ready to be placed in a coffin. In the Calvinistic chapel nearby, five embalming units were established in the vestry and a further two in the foyer. Dead bodies deteriorate rapidly, so embalming was an urgent task to save the bereaved from further distress. With nothing but rudimentary equipment and buckets of water that were carried back and forth by volunteers, the embalmers worked quickly and efficiently. Ever mindful of the parents waiting patiently outside, they tried to hide the worst of the damage wrought by the brutal impact.

Many men returned to their day jobs on the Monday after the disaster, having worked non-stop through the weekend in Wales. By the evening, all of the recovered bodies had been treated, and just six volunteers remained, waiting on call all night in case further recoveries were made. From Tuesday to Friday, it was just Billy Doggart, on sentinel watch at the school site, aware that the longer the bodies had lain under the wreckage, the quicker the decomposition would be once they were exposed to air.

Half a century later, disaster rescue work looks different to this. The privately owned disaster management company Kenyon International Emergency Services maintains three deployment-ready, disaster-scale morgues, ready for shipment anywhere in the world.

Yet, however advanced and efficient rescue operations have become, it will always require one human being willing to stand next to the mutilated body of another and treat it with respect and dignity. The aim is the same is it was that day in Aberfan: to give practical help at moments of shock and disaster.

With formaldehyde classified as a human carcinogen, and the whole process certainly not environmentally friendly, (although there are now organic embalming chemicals made with plant oils approved by the Green Burial Council), some argue that the main benefits of embalming are financial. There is a valid debate to be had over how we do it, but in disaster situations there can be no doubt embalming is a compassionate act.

For the past year I’ve been writing a novel about a fictitious embalmer at Aberfan, and have been privileged to interview some of those who were there at the time of the disaster, including Doggart. I’ve spent time with local embalmers and once I even watched one at work. What impressed me, during a shockingly intimate and invasive process, was the care and profound attitude of service with which it was done.

“Most of us are on anti-depressants,” one embalmer said to me matter-of-factly, “and most of us have lost and found, or found and lost our faith at least once”. Inevitably, there is a price to pay for those who go against the grain of human nature and confront our mortality on a daily basis.

The Queen visited Aberfan a week after the disaster, and Doggart was presented to her on behalf of his embalming team. I went there in September, and looked through the book of press cuttings collated for the anniversary. I found no mention of the embalmers, who had quietly arrived to serve a community at the very extremity of human distress and then quietly left again. Heroic by anyone’s standards, these men returned home with a sense of a testing job well done and unspeakable memories seared into their psyches.

A police officer who worked alongside the embalmers later wrote to Billy: “I shall always remember the expressions of relief on the faces of the bereaved who were able to view their children at the Chapel of Rest. . . They will never know the wonderful work that you and your colleagues performed to make this possible.”

Maybe that’s the point. Some heroes, by the very nature of their work, remain unsung.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage