Art and Music      


Underground (1928 dir: Anthony Asquith)

DARREN HAYMAN: Old films make me think of death. When I was younger I used to imagine the beautiful women of thirties and forties cinema as glamorous golden girls. Now, of course, I can’t pretend these people are still with us as I could when I was a child; too much time has passed. People come and go but films are there to keep them alive forever. Aren’t they? 

More than 80% of British silent films are missing, and when we say missing we mean ‘gone forever.’ In a young industry geared toward making quick money and with no idea of its future worth, movies were often melted down for the silver found in early film stock. What survived the melting was fragile and deteriorated quickly. Much of what remains of our early cinematic history is held by the British Film Institute in its’ National Archive. There, unsung backroom heroes labour tirelessly to preserve and restore a vital celluloid history that could otherwise turn to dust.

Without them we would not have Underground, a story of desire and deception on the Bakerloo line at Waterloo station, made in 1928 by Anthony Asquith and shown as part of the London Film Festival in a newly restored print. 

Before the film we are told a little of the renovation process and are shown how distorted the original film looked before skilled hands worked their restorative magic, frame by frame, day by day, year by year. ‘Restored’ and ‘re-mastered’ are words that lose their currency when we are asked to marvel at a slightly more sparkling Ringo Starr hi-hat. Let’s be clear; with Underground we’re not talking a revision or a fine-tuning; this is nothing short of an unveiling. 

I don’t mind a crackly record or a scratchy film, in fact I love them, but the glitches can simply serve to remind you of the physicality of the artefact itself, sometimes to the detriment of the content. What the restoration team have done with Underground is truly magical. A fog has been lifted. I can see Waterloo station in 1928 but surely if I reach out I can touch it as well. These are no longer ghosts in front of me, these faces are real and contemporary; I can almost see the iPod earpiece slipping out of one boy’s ear.  It isn’t just the technical feat that’s jaw-dropping. The film itself is a revelation. It’s a remarkably subtle and nuanced piece of work. Nell, a shop girl (Elissa Landi) and her beloved Underground porter (Brian Aherne)  are tricked and manipulated by the dastardly Bert (Cyril McLaglen). The thrilling denouement takes place at Lots Road Power Station in Chelsea; a stark black outline against a thunderous London sky. The direction seems so modern that its hard to think of what innovation eighty years of subsequent cinema has given us other than colour, sound and CGI’d dinosaurs. 

Neil Brand has written a new score for the movie played live by a tight jazz quintet. The music understands but doesn’t pastiche. It seems so much a part of the film you almost forget the musicians are there in the room.

It was a masterstroke to show the film at Queen Elizabeth Hall. After the film we walk straight out and down onto the Underground platform we had just seen, nearly a century ago. London lives forever.


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