One Way to Necropolis: The coffin trains beneath Waterloo Station

BBC Radio 4 Extra's documentary about the coffin train which ran from Waterloo to Brookwood Cemetary makes for sombre theatre, writes Antonia Quirke.

A documentary about a coffin train that ran from Waterloo to Brookwood Cemetery near Woking between 1854 and 1941 (3 August, 7.30am) told us of the subterranean waiting rooms and lifts, the coffin workshops and porters going quietly about their business, careful not to pant and strive like the platform employees in the main station – they were instead caught up entirely in the sombre theatre of their tasks. “Corpses, pauper: two shillings and sixpence”, an in-carriage advert informed us. “Corpses, artisan: five shillings.”
 
Female passengers were by law devoid of any ornament. Black and perfectly plain was the dress code – nothing to capture the gaze, nothing to shiver or shine, no thin lines of beads sewn into the fabric, no lucky opal winking on their finger. (Was even the folded handkerchief, ready for a surreptitious dab, black, too?) At Waterloo – in the 1850s the biggest station in the empire – general passenger and freight trains chugged day and night, dominating all human life. Moving into death with the London Necropolis Company and its dedicated trains and countless coffins and mourners was inevitable. “Everybody would take this train at some point,” someone said, almost under his breath.
 
The voice of each person interviewed – a historian, a gravedigger at the modern Brookwood Cemetery, a former tea lady at the café who served passengers in the 1920s – was faded out rather than cut, sliding away sweetly and politely, a fantastic way of putting the programme into a kind of swoon or trance, as though its makers were acknowledging that we all have something important and interesting to say but sooner or later blood pressure or hypertension or an unwise dash into traffic gets the better of us and our voices stop.
 
Or do they? There were moments that sounded almost like radio frequencies getting muddled, earth-side and nether-side (as packed, perhaps, as a mainline station at rush hour with the bored and irritated deceased) crossing wires. But none of it was depressing or disconcerting. There was no under-note of corrosion and damp; there were no places you’d rather not be.
 
The programme was more like a low, mass sigh and never more so than when someone came across a grave in Brookwood of a Victorian bookseller who had died at 27. “Young in years,” read his epitaph, “but old in sad experience.” It was such a tragic sign-off that the person reading it was forced to repeat the phrase in different, increasingly prosaic ways, as though querying a grocery bill. Some things are better unsaid.
A Parisian funeral tram - with coffin compartment on one side. Photograph: Hulton Archive via Getty Images.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump