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Journey Into a Lost World (1960)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Journey Into a Lost World (1960)
For Monitor, BBC, tx. 28/3/1960
22 mins, black and white
DirectorKen Russell
Production CompanyBBC Television
ProducerPeter Newington
ScriptJohn Betjeman

Cast: John Betjeman (presenter), Eileen Elton, Donald McAlpine, Phyllida McAlpine (dancers)

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John Betjeman reminisces on Britain's great historical exhibitions since the 1870s: Barnum and Bailey's circuses, Brighton fairgrounds, Crystal Palace, Alexandra Palace, the original White City pleasure ground, the Empire Exhibition at Wembley and the Festival of Britain.

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Also referred to as Architecture of Entertainment, Ken Russell's second and final collaboration with the poet John Betjeman was constructed along similar lines to the first, A Poet in London (BBC, tx. 1/3/1959), with Betjeman seen exploring various London locations and reminiscing about their past, which Russell reconstructs via photographs, archive films and atmospheric musical extracts.

There's a particularly evocative sequence where Alexandra Palace is transformed into a World War I military hospital via a series of well-judged dissolves, and Betjeman mischievously undercuts what appear to be images of Venetian canals by pointing out that they were shot in Shepherd's Bush in West London, and that the boats smelled of chlorine.

While A Poet in London visualised disparate Betjeman poems, their author being the only common element, Journey into a Lost World has a more coherent theme: that of London's great exhibitions of the past (from Crystal Palace in the 1860s to the South Bank's Festival of Britain in 1951, via Wembley, Alexandra Palace and White City) and how they survive today as little more than rusting ruins, overrun with weeds. Though Betjeman cites London's bigger cinemas as being amongst the few surviving examples of the decorative exotica of the exhibitions, over four decades on we now know that they were equally doomed (and indeed were on the way out even in 1960).

As ever, Russell's direction is at its strongest when he finds opportunities to take off into rhapsodic flights of fantasy, imagining Betjeman menaced by the giant dinosaur sculptures at the foot of Sydenham Hill, or turning the Crystal Palace transmitter into a series of Mondrian-style abstract compositions. This final sequence ends a generally nostalgic and reflective film on an upbeat note, as Betjeman acknowledges that although the old Crystal Palace is no more, its replacement (the BBC's television transmitter) offers just as much variety, and to a much bigger audience. The old exhibitions may be long gone, but the dreams that inspired them continue to this day.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. The Ally Pally (2:33)
2. Picture Palaces (2:07)
3. Dinosaurs in Dulwich (1:38)
4. The dreams remain (3:20)
Sports and Nations' Dance, The (1899)
White City Franco-British Exhibition 1908 (1908)
John Betjeman: A Poet in London (1959)
Betjeman, Sir John (1906-1984)
Russell, Ken (1927-2011)
Ken Russell on Television
Ken Russell: The Monitor Years