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London (1994)


Main image of London (1994)
DirectorPatrick Keiller
Production CompaniesBritish Film Institute, Koninck, Channel Four
ProducerKeith Griffiths
ScriptPatrick Keiller
CameraPatrick Keiller

Cast: Paul Scofield (narrator)

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A fin-de-si├Ęcle personal portrait of London shot over a period of twelve months, which saw the election of John Major as prime minister, renewed IRA bombings, the 'Black Wednesday' European monetary crisis and the "fall of the house of Windsor".

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Neither documentary nor fiction, London (d. Patrick Keiller, 1994) is more than either: a chronicle of a year in the life of England's capital through the eyes of Keiller's imaginary protagonist, Robinson, and the unnamed and unseen narrator and relayer of his insights, voiced by Paul Scofield.

1992 is a low point in the history of London. The fourth successive Tory election victory returns to power a government with no social or cultural interest in the capital, only in the City of London as a financial centre. IRA bombs continue to kill and destroy buildings, while anachronistic ritual dominates London in the form of royal pomp and ceremony. Robinson speculates that the nineteenth century, England's reaction to the French revolution and the failure of the English Revolution itself may all be to blame for London's decline and its imminent isolation and disappearance.

Obsessed with late-nineteenth century French poets (Arthur Rimbaud, Guillaume Apollinaire, Charles Baudelaire) and eighteenth century Romantic English writers (Horace Walpole, Laurence Sterne), Robinson declares London to be a series of monuments to these writers and their adventures: Canary Wharf's tower becomes a memorial to Rimbaud's wanderings in the London docks. London is not only an explanation of London as a failed city but an attempt to re-imagine it and reinvest it with all the values that Robinson (and Keiller) feel to be missing.

Looking for public spaces both lively and comforting, Robinson finds them only in the suburbs: in Wembley and in the arcades of Brixton Market. He identifies aspects of London's history as fragments of a never-achieved Utopia: Routemaster buses, Arnold Circus's social housing, and County Hall, the now-defunct seat of London's own government.

London was shot silently: ambient sound, narration and music were added subsequently, giving the film a layered quality: sound, images and music play off each other, in both harmony and contradiction. The recurring motif of ripples on water suggests the natural solidity of the Thames: London cannot after all disappear as easily as Robinson predicts.

Nearly ten years after the film's release, London is a different city. A Labour government has given it back a governing body, and new social architecture. The Millennium Bridge and Tate Modern have reshaped London's face, and Robinson's worst predictions have not come true. But the power of Robinson's visions remains necessary: in his monuments to French poets we can see what London might have been.

Danny Birchall

*This film is available on BFI DVD.

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Video Clips
1. Vauxhall (2:38)
2. Rimbaud's bridges (1:08)
3. Polling day (3:55)
4. Stockwell (2:10)
5. London stone (2:35)
6. London disappears (1:26)
Production stills
Robinson in Space (1997)
Griffiths, Keith (1947-)
Keiller, Patrick (1950-)
Scofield, Paul (1922-2008)
Channel 4 and Film
They Started Here