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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Clive James’s intriguing poetic response to Proust

What is James trying to do? He jokes that he has made a good living out of dying.

Baudelaire once wrote that “the best review of a painting might be a sonnet or an elegy”, and it is liberating to think that we can all respond to art with art. This isn’t just because it bypasses the airspace of criticism, but because art liberates something of the artist in ourselves. Baudelaire also knew that thinking needed to be rescued from academicians and from official culture.

Clive James’s verse commentary on Proust would make sense to Baudelaire. As James says in his preface: “I had always thought that the critical essay and the poem were closely related forms.” This is a very old thing to say, but perhaps now, when poetry is so marginal and introspective, is the right new time to be saying it. Part of the problem with saying that art should respond to art is the countervailing belief that great art should be in some way unanswerable. In short, what is the point of a short free-verse book on Á la recherche du temps perdu? Who’s it for? What’s it for? There is also something defiantly retro about the title (A Verse Commentary), evoking those chalk-dust-covered Latin schoolbooks we see in black-and-white films. But there’s a difference: usually the commentary is in prose and it’s longer than the poem; here, the commentary is in verse and it’s shorter (by a ratio of roughly 90:1) than the prose.

So, what is James trying to do? He jokes that he has made a good living out of dying. He has been prolific: his recent output – two books of criticism, a Collected Poems, a translation of Dante, and now this – is part of a great burst of late fruition. This book is not as slight as it looks, nor indeed as dependent on its pretext (Proust) as it appears. It is not a commentary in any but the vaguest sense, and is full of skittering side references to the world beyond Proust.

The book opens with a nice representation of Á la recherche as being “only” a structure in the sense that “Gaudi’s cathedral in Barcelona/And the weird Watts Towers in Los Angeles –/Eclectic stalagmites of junk – are structures”. You can enjoy what James is saying here without agreeing with the comparison, because he is cleverly taking up the idea of architecture as “frozen music” and inviting us to think of Proust’s novel, in all its great, ramifying spread, as something organic, something made of time as well as being “about” Time. Besides, in the next lines, he adjusts the tone by evoking “the sandcastle you helped your daughters build/Before you sat with them to watch the sea/Dismantle it and smooth it out and take it/Back down to where it came from”.

This is a moving switch, because it reminds us that there is something bleak and dark at the centre of Proust, and that beneath the tulle, the tisane and the taffeta is the great, annihilating sweep of time. James is also very good on what we often forget about Proust: his economy, his way of connecting up the world, seeing how it coheres and fits together. Seen from the point of view of what it leads out to and not what it “contains”, Á la recherche is quite a short book. James knows this, and is alive to the way in which metaphor holds Proust’s world and work together. Metaphor is language’s great two-for-one offer and he notices the reverbarative range of Proust’s seemingly trivial images, the way it all comes “[f]laring to life from a mixed metaphor”.

James also knows that so much of our memory and identity is dormant and untapped. He puts it beautifully when he writes how Proust, “famous for seeing how we bring to mind/The past, [ . . . ] also sees how we do not”, and how the bright moments we retrieve are “balanced by dark blots we know are there/Only because of how they do not shine”. There are many instances where he pulls out critical insights that, though not necessarily new, feel new because they are so well put. Their value lies also in being not just about Proust, but about Proust’s subject, which in a sense is the only subject there is.

For a short work, Gate of Lilacs nonetheless has a few longueurs, not least when plot summaries or historical and political context are poured into the joins of the poem like a sort of textbook cement. As someone who finds James’s usual poetry – with its seat-belt-click of formalism and its fondness for witty sententiae – too much like his TV voice, I found this book graceful in its thought, moving in its insights, and often written with a fluidity that makes me wish he had done more of this sort of thing. I’ll also put it on my students’ reading list to remind them that, whatever the universities tell us, we can’t understand something until we have responded to it creatively.

Patrick McGuinness is Professor of French and Comparative Literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford

Gate of Lilacs: a Verse Commentary on Proust by Clive James is published by Picador (112pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad