Long before Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd or the London Psychogeographical Association had begun beating the bounds of our capital city, there was Geoffrey Fletcher. An illustrator and columnist for the Daily Telegraph, throughout the 1960s Fletcher documented the sights, sounds and scenes of a London fast vanishing beneath the grey concrete tide of redevelopment.
Music halls, gas lamps, cemeteries, public toilets, vaults and catacombs, the horse and cart – all were preserved for eternity by Fletcher in ink and word as they slowly disappeared from view. His books – The London Nobody Knows (1962), Down Among the Meths Men (1966), London Overlooked (1964) and others – long charity shop staples, are now quite collectible, and this film version of his idiosyncratic city vision was previously only available in samizdat bootleg editions passed round by collectors. Recently adopted by thoughtful popsters St Etienne as an adjunct to their Finisterre project, it finally gets a well-deserved clean-up and reissue on DVD.
A dapper and sardonic James Mason takes on the role of Fletcher, and with lines like ‘all men are equal in the eyes of a lavatory attendant’, it’s hard to know where one ends and the other begins, this being a good thing of course. Mason’s crusty charm never fails to enchant, even when he’s doing his best Prince Charles impression, hobnobbing with toothless meths addicts at a Salvation Army Hostel. Our Masonic dérive takes us to the Camden Roundhouse, soon to be at the heart of London’s psychedelic revolution, a bustling Chapel Market, an eel and pie shop, Kensal Green cemetery, the East End and elsehwere.
It’s a mostly sober affair, bordering on grim at times, particularly the sections dealing with those who are, as Mason puts it, ‘down on their luck’ – ‘the brotherhood of the leaky boot’ who gulp down moonshine and meths as they fight and dance in the streets. Brightening the tone are a curious and probably ill-advised slapstick routine centring on an egg-shelling business, and a lively market scene set to a wonderful tape and electronics score that wouldn’t have been out of place on the first White Noise album. But for the most part the film presents an unromantic yet sympathetic portrait. Fletcher’s London is one of hidden gems buried deep within a city of dust, hardship and decay. Gems that were, and still are, being erased from maps, inch by inch, as the years roll on. Having said that, as amazing as it is to see these two-dimensional remnants of London’s past, it’s remarkable quite how much of it is still here, despite another four decades of change. This resilience is perhaps how London retains her dignity and her magic.
The London Nobody Knows is a remarkable time capsule, and a film project that should be institutionalised, perhaps something like Michael Apted’s 7-Up series for television that is updated periodically, reminding us how, as Mason remarks, ‘all these things meant something once upon a time’.
Also on the DVD is the 25-minute Les Bicyclettes de Belsize, a whimsical musical romance set in swinging Hampstead circa 1969. Draped in yellow satin and polyester, a pretty boy cycles around Hampstead Village in search of a model he’s fallen in love with after banging his head on a billboard photo. It’s a fairly unpalatable period piece, but director Douglas Hickox went on to make the immortal Theatre of Blood (1973) with Vincent Price, whose derelict London landscapes come straight from the works of Geoffrey Fletcher. So as we come full circle we can perhaps forgive him this youthful folly.