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Bow Bells (1954)

Courtesy of Anthony Simmons

Main image of Bow Bells (1954)
35mm, black and white, 14 mins
DirectorAnthony Simmons
Production CompanyHarlequin Productions
ProducerLeon Clore
ScriptAnthony Simmons
PhotographyWalter Lassally

A nostalgic journey through London's East End, winding through the old street markets, along the banks of the Thames and amongst the crowds at a race track.

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Bow Bells was both a sequel to and a development of Anthony Simmons' breakthrough short Sunday by the Sea (1953). Running almost the same length, and using the same formula of silent footage cut to recordings of music-hall songs, the difference here is that the film's East Enders here are now on their own (and Simmons') home territory. The film also needed more advance planning, its larger canvas making it less likely that Simmons would casually chance upon the perfect image. However, he did relatively little advance research, preferring to turn up at places like Billingsgate Fish Market when he knew that there would be plenty going on.

While the first film is all hustle, bustle and bubbling enthusiasm, Bow Bells opens with a ship slowly gliding down the Thames and empty lorries entering a depot before the first 'musical number' starts over Billingsgate porters, fish and wriggling eels. A brief aside in which a porter is distracted by a pretty girl is followed by a full-scale East End market sequence, with wrapped packages tossed into the crowd, and all manner of goods on sale including pets.

With the next number, 'If It Wasn't For The 'Ouses In Between', the tone becomes more explicitly elegiac. East Enders are shown at home, scrubbing steps, growing vegetables on allotments and playing games in cramped backyards in the middle of long lines of terraced houses. In this partial landscape of the imagination, gasworks stand in for mountains, and a donkey can be turned into a dead ringer for a cow with the addition of some "artificial 'orns".

Bow Bells then becomes the first of Simmons' many studies of the eastern end of the Thames, with overlapping vocals on 'Row, Row, Row Your Boat' mimicking the water rippling on the shoreline. Outside the Tower of London, a busby-wearing guard is greeted with a cheerful "wotcher!" by the lyrics of 'Knocked 'Em in the Old Kent Road'. This segues into a natty fashion parade, while at the other end of the income spectrum, an old man shuffles through rubbish-strewn streets. In a sequence that most explicitly recalls Sunday by the Sea, it's off to the races (greyhounds and bikes), before the film returns to Tower Bridge for a wistful, open-ended conclusion as a mother and child ('played' by Simmons' own wife and child) bid farewell to their breadwinner as he sets out towards the sea.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. All very fine and large (1:44)
2. If it wasn't for the 'ouses in between (2:11)
3. Knocked 'em in the Old Kent Road (1:20)
4. Poor Robin (1:05)
5. A day at the races (1:20)
6. Waiting there for me (1:26)
Sunday by the Sea (1953)
Clore, Leon (1918-1992)
Lassally, Walter (1926-)
Simmons, Anthony (1922- )