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City, The (1939)

Courtesy of Royal Mail Group Ltd

Main image of City, The (1939)
35mm, black and white, 18 mins
DirectorRalph Elton
Production CompanyGPO Film Unit
ProducerAlberto Cavalcanti
CommentaryH. Hodge
PhotographyH.E. Fowle
MusicAlan Rawsthorne

Presenter: Sir Charles Bressey

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Sir Charles Bressey talks about the Bressey report and urges its implementation.

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In 1935 Sir Charles Bressey was appointed by Hore-Belisha, Minister of Transport, to make a comprehensive and systematic survey of the roads of Greater London. It was clear that the infrastructure required radical improvement to keep up with the expansion of traffic and Belisha said that Bressey's report "would stir the imagination of the whole country".

The report was published three years later and laid out a reconstruction scheme for London based on a detailed 30-year plan for highway development. Bressey's plan to deal with traffic involved tunnels, overhead roads, new arterial and circular highways and 'parkways' linking the city to the rest of the country. Before any of this could be implemented the plan was interrupted by war and aerial bombardment. Nevertheless, many of Bressey's ideas would influence post-war reconstruction and subsequent schemes for the capital's reorganisation.

While the inauspicious title suggests a filmed lecture, the actuality is quite different and includes a wealth of footage shot across pre-war London. Many of the innovative methods used in the survey are depicted in the film: aerial photography, surveying from moving cars, the use of models, maps and plans and the testing of road surfaces. Bressey's measured patrician tones punctuate the film, detailing the history and proposed future development of London, but the narration is largely carried by the off-screen voice of Herbert Hodge. Hodge was a former London taxi driver, known to the public both by regular BBC radio appearances and popular books about his life behind the wheel of a cab.

The GPO Film Unit regularly found a way of squeezing GPO business into its documentaries, no matter what the ostensible subject. In a film about roads, the long section on the workings of the Post Office's underground railways provides a dissonant, if fascinating, digression.

James Piers Taylor

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'If War Should Come: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume 3'.

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Video Clips
Complete film (18:21)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
The GPO Film Unit: 1939