The Top Documentaries About London (by the people making 1000)

As part of the 1000 Londoners project we are of course making 1000 short documentaries about the inhabitants of this city. Though, whilst ours may be the largest digital portrait of the city there are countless other documentaries that have been made in the past by some of the most acclaimed filmmakers in the world. We’ve gone around the team here to find out which of those documentaries most speak to them about the city, it’s stories and it’s history. So, we present to you: The top documentaries about London, by the filmmakers making 1000 documentaries about London



The London that Nobody Knows by Norman Cohen / James Mason

A fantastically peculiar film where James Mason, star of North By Northwest and Lolita,  strolls around London in a flat cap uncovering the city’s secrets. He pays a visit to the slums of Spitalfields, reminisces about the derelict Roundhouse and meets one of London’s twelve remaining buskers (!). Then he is reassured by visiting Marks deli, which he is sure will be around for another 100 years (it closed in the 80s).

Lift by Marc Isaacs

“A quietly fascinating meditation on the mundanities of London life. Installing himself inside the lift of a high-rise block of council flats, Isaacs and his camera patiently observe the residents as they go about their daily business. As each of his subjects enters the lift, it’s interesting to note their reactions to him being there; some are suspicious, others curious, and then there are those who seem more comfortable in his presence.” (Official Synopsis)



London: The Modern Babylon by Julien Temple

From musicians, writers and artists to dangerous thinkers, political radicals and above all ordinary people, this is the story of London’s immigrants and bohemians and how together they changed the city forever. Reaching back to London at the start of the 20th century, the story unfolds through film archive and the voices of Londoners past and present, powered by the popular music from across the century. It ends in 2012, as London prepares to welcome the world as it hosts the Olympics (Official Synopsis)



The Road: A Story of Life and Death by Marc Isaacs. 

The documentary centres on individuals that have emigrated to London and live along the A5, an ancient road that runs from Hyde Park Corner all the way to Holyhead. The film focuses on those starting new lives in London and others reflecting on their time spent in the city.

The stories are varied, bittersweet and indicative of London life; from a Buddhist monk seeking nirvana in Colindale, to an isolated alcoholic navy veteran.



The Heart Of The Angel by Molly Dineen

The Heart of the Angel is a 40-minute documentary made by director/producer Molly Dineen in 1989, before the 1992 renovation of the then 100-year-old Angel tube station on the London Underground. The film follows 48 hours in the everyday lives of the people who work in the station, including London Underground foreman Ray Stocker, ticket-seller Derek Perkins, the groups of women called ‘fluffers’ who clean human hair out of the tracks to avoid the fire hazard and the gangs of men who work with pickaxes in almost pitch-black conditions to renovate parts of the track in time for the following day. (From Wikipedia)

Laura says that it is “An amazing portrait of ‘fluffers’ who clear human hair out of the tracks at Angel Station”.


The Elephant Will Never Forget by John Krish 

John Krish, when asked to record London’s Last Tram, argued intently with British Transport Films’ head Edgar Anstey that a proper film could be made out of this record shooting. Anstey refused, claiming it was not in the remit of the unit to reflect on the passing of old transport. Krish was told BTF’s remit was to look to the future and celebrate new technology, not to make sentimental films about the past. Krish, bemused and annoyed, grouped together a small band of men keen to go ahead irrespective of the consequences, shot it, edited it and arranged for Edward Williams to compose music, all under the disguise of doing other work.

Impressed with the finished results, the team screened the film for Anstey, who promptly dismissed Krish, claiming he would never work for the unit again!

Yes, it is sentimental and yes, it is a great piece of filmmaking (turning out to be one of the most successful BTF films of all time), however, it is out of character with the rest of British Transport’s output purely because of its reflective nature. Going against the grain cost Krish his career with BTF; he did make one more film for British Transport, The Finishing Line (1977), but only after Anstey had retired. (Taken from Screen Online)



The Filth and the Fury – Julien Temple

A great documentary charting Punk and the rise of the Sex Pistols, as told by the band themselves. It shows London during what I always feel is one of the most important and exciting cultural movements of the past 50 years. It’s always amazing to see how little and also how much certain parts of the city and youth culture have changed since the late 70s.



London by Patrick Keiller

“An impossibly wide shot of Tower Bridge on a grey London day. Something about the 16mm film image looks grainy and old. Nineties. A voice, elderly and authoritative: “Dirty old Blighty. Undereducated, economically backward, bizarre. A catalogue of modern miseries. With its fake traditions, its Irish war, its militarism and secrecy, its silly old judges, its hatred of intellectuals, its ill health and bad food, its sexual repression, its hypocrisy and racism and its indolence. It’s so exotic, so… homemade.” (Read the rest of Nick’s article about the film here)

Posted by:   /  30th Apr, 2014