Back in time: Julien Temple on London – The Modern Babylon

With the DVD release of London – The Modern Babylon, director Julien Temple reveals how he transformed thousands of hours of archive film into a probing but celebratory social history of his hometown.

Samuel Wigley
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Archive film becomes a form of time travel in Julien Temple’s London – The Modern Babylon, which marshalls a treasure trove of moving images from the last century into a propulsive, ever-shifting history of the capital.

Renowned for his chronicling of punk on film (The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, 1979; The Filth and the Fury, 2000), Temple now endeavours to chart a route map of his hometown’s past, kicking off with the first film footage of London from the birth of cinema at the turn of the 20th century, and working up until the present day.

What emerges is a picture of a metropolis characterised by cycles of social discontent, by times of war, insurrection, violence and political unrest – from the Siege of Sidney Street in 1911, via two world wars, industrial strikes and IRA attacks, to the July 7 bombings and the summer riots of 2011. Yet it’s also a picture of resilience, an impassioned ode to the spirit of Londoners, and an avowal that the source of the capital’s greatness lies in its endless capacity for reinvention. 

Why did you first decide to make a film about London?

Partly because I’m from London and to understand where you come from is a good part of understanding who you are. Certainly there was an autobiographical energy to making it, and looking at the changes in the city I remember. The city I grew up in isn’t there anymore and I wanted to trace that journey and – without delivering answers – to weigh up whether the change is good or bad or a combination of both.

I think it is a very personal film: I learned very early on that you can’t be encyclopaedic – you have to follow your own route if you want to make something that has any coherence or any emotional connection to an audience.

How did you begin to sift through the vast range of archive film about London?

I wanted to use archive film as a way of time travelling. I was excited by the idea of beginning at the point where images of people began to move, with the beginning of cinema. But this did mean that there were then thousands and thousands of hours [of footage] opening up in front of you to look at.

I didn’t have a predetermined script or essay. I think with a lot of TV documentaries, they write an essay and then try and find the archive footage to illustrate it. I was very keen to make the meaning of the film come out of the archive and the voices of the people we talked to, rather than pre-asserting some already determined approach to the film.

Obviously, you have your own opinions and sense of history, but there’s something exciting about allowing the archive to demand to be in the film and suggest ways that you could then move into the next chapter, which alleyway to take. It’s like a virtual map that you’re exploring when you look at archive through time and space. It can be very overwhelming. We had over 6000 hours of London footage to look at.

Where were you looking for that material?

We had the great support of the BFI National Archive, and the BBC Archive which comes into play after about 1950. Because of the Olympic timing that we were working to, we also managed to get a lot of the other archive companies involved, cutting deals that meant we could afford to make the film. I think if we were to set out to do it next year, you wouldn’t have been able to call on the sense of the eyes of the world being on London this summer – although the film has nothing really to do with the Olympics.

With so many social history documentaries on television, how did you avoid a sense of over-familiarity?

With a more random approach. Without trying to impose preconceived ideas on it, and certainly not working to a committee system that often demands that you pre-plan things too much creatively. We were mercifully free of that. We were basically told, You have enough rope to hang yourselves, go away and come back with a film.

I was also driven by the music: you can use the music to narrate the film, rather than a written narration. You’re bound to find moments of chance and chaos. Two pieces of archive that were never meant to be put with each other across time connecting with a piece of music; you find it doesn’t obey the normal rules of documentary-making that you would see on television.

The history is told chronologically, but the footage is also mixed up, so you have Edwardian children seemingly dancing to punk rock.

It’s designed as a time travel, so it makes sense to use a chronological approach, but then constantly fracturing it and rupturing it with input from the present. It becomes more accessible to the audience. You can mix things up from all over the last 100 years and still maintain a narrative line.

Obviously you could say, I’d like to start with the 1940s and end with the 1920s, but it didn’t seem to be worth playing tricks like that when you want to keep the audience on a travelling momentum so that they understand why one period begets another and how the past influences the future.

Working with material from different eras and different sources, did you have to do any restoration work to make the footage stand up?

I like all the aspects of decay and abuse that archive film has gone through. I think that gives it a certain character and amplifies the sense of time. So we didn’t try and clean it up. We did grade it, but we didn’t try to get rid of the scratches.

We did colourise quite a bit of archive, which is seen in some quarters as sacrilegious, but I think there’s no reason not to do that if it has a point. Colourisation had a bad rap (with Ted Turner and all that) in the past, but now that you’re able to more subtly paint with it, it becomes another tool in the archive arsenal.

The other notable visual celebration of London and British life this year was Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony. How would you compare your approaches?

I think creating something so tied to the psyche of the nation, you have to be slightly more circumspect and pull your punches a little bit more. I didn’t feel I had any constraints, I was just trying to do something personal – I wasn’t trying to please Olympic committees and governments.

I think they did a brilliant job in the circumstances they were working under. And I’d like to think we shared some of the same sense of celebrating a culture that is often deemed unworthy of celebrating, which is 21st century Britain. Particularly, in my case, 21st century London, which is even more advanced than the rest of Britain in the sense of a society where people from all over the world are beginning to live together and reinvent the whole notion of being a Londoner or being British.

Both projects celebrate the idea that change is inevitable and should be engaged with rather than hanging on to more sclerotic heritage traditions as being emblematic of a living country. If you hang on to the past, which I think we’ve been in danger of doing, you miss the whole point of the place you’re living in now.

The film’s thesis about a city renewing itself through political strife, rebellion and immigration – was that something you wanted to say from the start or did it come out of archive research?

I was intrigued by my own personal memories of London in the 1950s being a completely different, vanished city, largely because of the monocultural nature of large areas of it. It still felt like quite a Victorian place in terms of morals and the way people lived their lives; people didn’t use the streets in the way people do today.

I was intrigued by how that city had gone and been replaced by what we have now, the idea that the global capital of an empire had somehow turned itself inside out and now not just the inhabitants of the empire but people from every country in the world are coming to define that city rather than the other way around.

I wasn’t aware that I was going to look at the cycles of social discontent, but when you do look at 100 years of archive, it becomes strangely clear that things do have a cyclical nature and in times when the elastic band of rich and poor is stretched to breaking point it often snaps.

I was beginning to feel that when looking at the archive before the riots happened last year, but they somehow compounded that and the sense that social discontent is a big part of London’s history. Paris is seen as emblematic of that, but in a way the London mob have been a very important player in London’s history stretching way back to the Peasants’ Revolt and beyond.

Toward the end, the film shows poorer neighbourhoods on the Isle of Dogs being squeezed out by luxury developments. How optimistic are you about the direction London is heading in?

One thing you learn looking through that much archive about a big city is that it’s almost permanently in a state of crisis, just under the surface, and it’s a very fine line between everything careering out of control or remaining in a state of normality. So I’m reconciled to the idea that London is, by its very nature, always changing.

The London in 20 years time will have evolved in a way that we can’t completely imagine now, and some of that change will be for the worse, but I hope a lot of it will potentially be for the good. I think it is inspirational seeing suburbs that when I was a kid really felt like dead, dormitory areas now becoming some of the most vibrant places in London.

But Londoners [are] being pushed further and further out by the arrival of billionaire money from sandy and snowy parts of the world buying up properties in the centre of London, which drives up property prices so that nobody else can afford them – and then [the new owners] only visit them two or three weeks a year. That’s the danger: you have a dead inner-city of wealthy property owners, and the people who service the city are pushed out into the suburbs or beyond. There’s a doughnut effect that you can see in cities like Detroit, where the centre falls away and you have a very strange city left.

So you’d be naive to say everything’s going to be wonderful, but equally naive to say that change is bad. With the benefits of all these cultures coming and co-existing and beginning more and more to share their experiences and their cultures – particularly in schools now where you see kids from so many different backgrounds growing up as friends – you know the future can only be better in some ways.

Were Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a City (1926) and other ‘city symphony’ films of the end of the silent era any influence on your film?

I’m certainly aware of the city symphony genre, which I don’t always think is that successful. I love [Alberto] Cavalcanti’s Paris film Rien que les heures [1926], I love the imagery of the Berlin Ruttmann film, but they are quite simplistic films in that they don’t analyse the city, they just show the poetry of the mass energy of the city. They’re great documents of their time, but they’re not totally engaging as a genre.

[Dziga] Vertov was more interesting because he put a lot of challenging ideas into his films – which did similar things in Moscow at the same time. I do think it’s a genre that’s ready to be fully explored now, as you have 100 years of film archive footage of a city, so you are able to see it from a much stranger perspective than the people who made those films nearer the beginning of cinema were able to. 

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