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Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 5 Number 1 (March 2007)

On William Raban’s Thames Film

Michael Chanan


<1> THE representational space of the screen has special properties. Through the ubiquitous camera and altering frame, the spectator becomes a vicarious unseen observer, transported into an imaginary space which is very similar to real space but behaves according to its own generic rules. However, fiction and documentary work in different ways. Where the space of the fictional narrative produces continuity, documentary space is typically composed of discontinuities, both spatial and temporal, produced by dialectical and dialogical associations across time and space. Neither system is absolute or totalizing, but fictional screen space has an ineluctable tendency towards closure and abstraction from lived experience. Whereas in the space of documentary the represented world is not separated from the viewer by the boundary of the fictive. On the contrary, the social reality of the documentary is one in which a viewer could in principle find themselves present, as a potential historical subject, at least putatively and sometimes palpably. As Walter Benjamin remarked, films like Vertov’s Three Songs of Lenin or Ivens’ Borinage offer everyone ‘the opportunity to rise from passer-by to movie extra’.[1] Paradoxically, then, while documentary is composed of discontinuities, it pictures a world which is continuous with the space in which the viewer lives their own life, not separate from it. Speaking as such a viewer, this means I cannot think, for example, about Patrick Keiller's London except as a Londoner, who entered the cinema to watch it with the secret hope of seeing his own city on the screen. (I was constantly surprised and never disappointed.) Another example is William Raban’s Thames Film, which I first saw when I lived near the river myself, crossing it every day, always aware of its presence, the state of the tide, the changing qualities of the seasonal and diurnal light, all of which are beautifully evoked by Raban’s camera. But this is only the aesthetic surface. Under the ripples runs a film about London which is now an element in the way I understand the city I hail from.


<2> LONDON has a history of representation on film which, because it was one of the cities where cinema first appeared, is as long as the history of cinema. It is pictured in early actualities as the setting for state processions, and in vignettes like R.W.Paul’s On a Runaway Motor Car Through Piccadilly Circus of 1897. London Docks makes one of its earliest appearances on film in Cecil Hepworth’s Aliens' Invasion of 1905, with Jewish immigrants arriving on crowded steamers and dispersing to East End tenement blocks. Three years later the West End becomes the location of another source of social problems in the time of crisis of Liberal politics, as the Suffragette Film of 1908 shows women chalking the pavements, protesting outside shops, and rallying in Hyde Park. In short, like any well-pictured city, there isn’t one London but several.

<3> In the 1946 Hollywood movie of Ziegfield Follies, there is a Fred Astaire dance number entitled Limehouse Blues, which Colin McArthur describes as being set in an indeterminate, pre-war London which shows ‘a bleak, fog-ridden Thames-scape’ populated by ruffians and ‘bobbies’, Chinese, down-and-outs and pearly kings and queens.[2] This amalgam, he suggests, is a composite discourse derived from sources like travellers’ tales, the novels of Charles Dickens, the Sherlock Holmes stories and memories of Jack the Ripper; a rickety construction of London that has informed many a Hollywood movie, from D.W.Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919) to Gaslight (1944) and beyond. A wholly imaginary London is also found in certain film cycles produced in London itself, like Hitchcock’s 1930s thrillers, or in different vein, the ‘London’ series of light comedies produced by Herbert Wilcox and starring his wife Anna Neagle.

<4> Quite another London emerges in the new documentary cinema of the 1930s, in films which showed the grimy reality of working class life; like Housing Problems (1935), which John Corner calls ‘a work of radical ethnography… giving previously marginalised or unheard voices a chance to express their grievances publicly’.[3] The picture is redrawn in the wartime documentaries which followed, like London Can Take It (1940), which constitute a narrative about a proud city enduring the Blitz. A communitarian London survives in the realist discourse of post-war features like Hue and Cry (1947), one of the first successes from Ealing Studios, and The Blue Lamp (1950), a B-movie starring a young Dirk Bogarde, two films which I remember fondly because here is the London of my earliest memories. The French film historian Georges Sadoul pointed out that the story of Hue and Cry owes an obvious debt to Emil and the Detectives,[4] but this is a London of spivs, resourceful children, and bombed sites (it’s the bombed sites that I remember). The Blue Lamp amazes me because here is Ladbroke Grove exactly as I recall it, but it also brings up another London, spanned by radio-controlled police cars, the emergent virtual city of modern communications.

<5> London as I remember it is also present in several of the Free Cinema documentaries of the 1950s. The most paradoxical is Refuge England, from 1958, in which Robert Vas recreates the day he arrived in London as a Hungarian refugee two years earlier, with no English and an incomplete address written on the back of a photo, but succeeds in creating a portrait of the city which probably only a Londoner can fully appreciate. In the course the day, as the speechless foreigner searches for the correct street, criss-crossing the city from the teeming West End to the quiet leafy streets of the semi-detached in the suburbs, then back to the run-down terraced rows of the inner city, the film takes me back to the London I knew, in the same grey tones as I remember it, and not just the sight of it but the feel, a London that corresponds to my own teenage cognitive map of the city. At the same time, because all this is shown through a stranger’s eyes – and this was also true when it was first exhibited – the city sheds the skin of familiarity, and even a Londoner is forced by this estrangement to re-evaluate. Later, when the drabness give way the colour and glitz of ‘swinging London’ in the 60s, something similar is true of Antonioni’s Blow-Up of 1966.


<6> THERE is a curious absence in this roll-call. There is no classic documentary about London comparable to the ‘city symphonies’ of the 1920s, in which the city is portrayed as both metaphor and embodiment of the modern world. The city pictured in those films is more than the sum of its physical locations and the activities which go on there, but also the network that conjoins them, and which the city dweller feels and senses as much as sees.

<7> The silent city documentary of the 1920s explores the spaces and spatiality of the city under various guises and in the full gamut of styles. It enters as living subject with Paul Strand's short and impressionistic Manhatta of 1921, incorporating Walt Whitman’s lyric hymn to New York, to become the protagonist in its own story in films like Cavalcanti's fanciful Rien que les heures (1926), or Jean Vigo's metaphorical A Propos de Nice of 1930. Ruttmann’s 1927 film, Berlin, Symphony of a Great City, is a day in the life of a city in an hour-and-a-quarter, like Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera two years later, a composite city made up of Moscow, Odessa and Kiev. At the opposite end of the scale, a film of 1926 called Cinq minutes du cinéma pur (‘Five Minutes of Pure Cinema’) is a delirious high-speed tour of Paris which harks back to the delights of trick photography in the earliest days of cinema, while the short films of Ivens (The Bridge, 1928 and Rain, 1929) take moments of special urban beauty, like rain in the streets or the operation of a lifting bridge, and condenses them into barely ten minutes.

<8> It is no coincidence that these were the films in which the documentary discovered itself as a branch of film art. It’s as if you had to be able to find a way of expressing the space of lived experience as the first condition for making documentary at all, and coming to terms with the city was therefore a necessary condition for the self-invention of the documentary idiom. Because film constituted a new form of cognitive mapping, so the city becomes its first natural subject, and the synthetic power of the screen creates a new vision of the space of everyday life, its ebb and flow, and the social forces binding it together and pulling it apart. A synthesis which transcended the capacity of the naked eye, or rather, the restricted perspective of the atomised and isolated individual observer, so that making a film like this is a way of transcending your own city-dweller’s alienation.

<9> Who can say why London didn’t stimulate a similar film? Perhaps, as Monica Ali puts it in a recent essay, because ‘trying to get the measure of London is futile’. She is comparing the London you see today with the city described by Virginia Woolf in a series of magazine articles in the 1930s. ‘I have read enough descriptions,’ says Ali, ‘both fiction and non-fiction, to know that London does not fit on the page’ -– or in our case, the screen:

London sprawls, mutates, deceives; wears one garb by day and another by night; smiles when the sun shines and grimaces in the rain. The weight of history lies heavy, and in an instant is cast off. London is like a lover in whom the very qualities you love are the ones you sometimes hate. Wherever you are in London you think, “This is the place, this is what it is like”, and feel the unease of knowing that you are not in the right place at all.’[5]

<10> But can’t the same be said of any other great metropolis? Why should London be any different? Perhaps it isn’t. All the same, London isn’t just any metropolis, but the very model of a metropolis ‘whose ramifications extend to the farthest corners of earth and sea’. These are not Ali’s words, nor Woolf’s, but the commentary of an educational film about London’s docks dating from 1939, called The City of Ships. This otherwise run-of-the-mill documentary turns the usual image of London inside out by portraying the port as the complete expression of the city’s raison d’être. Unwittingly, it offers the elements (or some of them) of a Marxist analysis of the basis of London’s power and functions in the global scheme of things. The opening commentary, coming straight in over a pan across the city skyline:

We think of London as the capital city of the United Kingdom, the metropolis of the British Empire, the headquarters of a miniature league of nations under one flag. We think of her as the city in which the British ideology evolved . . .

Ideology, no less. But really, the voice goes on to suggest, it is London’s port which makes it what it is. The port is the hub of world trade, revealed by the film in its journey down river. It’s worth enumerating. St Katherine Docks, closest to the city, handles ‘coastwise and continental trade’, Surrey Docks takes smaller vessels from the Baltic, Canada and America. West India and Millwall docks handle the West Indies, Mauritius, Persia and the Canary Islands, while East India dock ‘owes its existence to the old East India Trading Company’. The Royal Docks – ‘the largest artificially enclosed dock water in the world’ (at the time) -– caters to larger ocean-going vessels from Australia, New Zealand, South America, Africa, the North Atlantic ports and Bermuda. Tilbury, deepest of London’s docks and further out, that is, nearest the sea, provides berth to the largest cargo and passenger liners, mainly engaged in far eastern trade. Unfortunately, in the end the film is imbalanced – it’s mostly about imports, about empire as consumption, with only a hint at the end that who consumes isn’t just 9m Londoners and 21m in its hinterland, but also industry, whose exports also reach across the globe. But we do see plenty of the hustle and bustle of the docks described by Woolf –- in Ali’s account, ‘the ships lying “captive” beneath the warehouses, the “unconscious, vigorous movements of men lifting and unloading”, the hoisting of barrels, sacks and crates, the lorries jostling in the narrow lanes’ -– all of which, as Ali says, has now vanished.

<11> The City of Ships is one of the films from which Raban borrows a number clips to invoke the history whose remnants he sees from the river 45 years later (Thames Film was shot between 1984 and ’86).


<12> ALI reads her Woolf:

As we come closer to the Tower Bridge the authority of the city begins to assert itself. The buildings thicken and heap themselves higher. The sky seems laden with heavier, purpler clouds. Domes swell; church spires, white with age, mingle with the tapering, pencil-shaped chimneys of factories. One hears the roar and the resonance of London itself.

And she writes:

I look at the London before me and see no factory chimneys. The spires and domes are humbled by the glass towers, smoky, clear and pallid green. Red buses splash across London Bridge. Cranes, one white, one blue, make their majestic swings at distant building sites. Only the river refuses to sparkle in the sun. It is resolutely, doggedly brown.

<13> Raban, for his part, brings in the voice of T.S. Eliot on the soundtrack reading the lines from Four Quartets about the river as a strong brown god,

                                        … almost forgotten
     By the dwellers in cities -– ever, however, implacable,
     Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
     Of what men choose to forget. …

The river is Raban’s focus. The first thing we hear on the soundtrack is its lapping waters. The first thing we see, however, is not the river but a painted skeleton playing a pair of kettledrums, revealed as a detail from a landscape of war and death at the estuary of a river. (This is Breughel’s ‘The Triumph of Death’, of which Raban comments that if Brueghel painted it with a real landscape in mind, then it seems to fit topographically with the entrance to the Schelde looking southwest from Vlissingen towards the Belgian coast; in other words, opposite the Thames Estuary, which it resembles).[6] Other ghoulish details of Breughel’s painting will recur at later moments in the film; meanwhile it immediately gives way to shots of the Thames Estuary taken from Raban’s own boat, the constant point of view for the film as he sails up and down the river. The film’s paradigmatic structure lies in the insertion into contemporary views of the Thames of historical images of the same sites taken from engravings, old photos and archive film footage. These sights invoke in turn a series of texts on the soundtrack, including several snatches of Eliot’s voice, and quotations from a manuscript in the library of the Port of London Authority, an account of a Voyage from London to Dover in 1787 by a certain T.S.Pennant, beautifully spoken by John Hurt.

<14> The second time we hear Eliot's voice, for example, we are looking at the 18th century brick warehouse at Free Trade Wharf (which is now demolished), the picture cuts to photos of the warehouse from the late 30s, barges hauled up on the foreshore at low tide, and children playing cricket beside them. Eliot’s voice enters, pronouncing the famous lines about present, past and future:

     Time present and time past
     Are both perhaps present in time future,
     And time future contained in the time past

as the picture cuts to the present-day view of disused jetties and abandoned warehouses behind them, before cutting back to The City of Ships and dockers unloading sacks.

<15> A sequence on the Prime Meridian (a reference surprisingly absent from The City of Ships). Engravings from Pennant’s manuscript. The soundtrack explains succinctly: ‘Set at the Azores by Spain and Portugal; lost to France and moved to Paris. Taken by England and set at Greenwich.’ The river runs on anyway, and Raban’s camera continues downstream; here there are container ships in what are now called ‘deep water terminals’. The voice adds: ‘The Prime Meridian, symbol of power and changing fortune’, and then we hear Eliot again:

     Whatever we inherit from the fortunate
     We have taken from the defeated
     What they had to leave us – a symbol:
     A symbol perfected in death.

<16> Further references to death abound, in picture and commentary. An engraving from the old days: ‘Gallows raised on the low water mud at Execution Dock. The hanging body left there to be covered by three full tides before sentence was complete.’ And the fate of convicts in prison ships, taken ashore to labour then locked up at night below decks with the hatches closed: ‘The living next morning often find their comrades dead by their side.’ The whole film is thus permeated by the sense of death, which comes in many ways, overtakes every generation, and undoes empires. While the river runs on. And when the empire is finally undone, then the port itself dies. What Thames Film shows us is the river returned to a placid existence, because the port has gone and most of the trade moved elsewhere, but the river still flows between its banks as a sign of the city’s history.

<17> The film itself, however, is far from ghoulish, but meditative and reflective. This is partly due to the advantages of shooting from a boat gliding along the river: the camera is constantly moving at a gentle steady pace. It is also because of the remarkable soundtrack. The opening is magical: the Brueghel image is accompanied by the uncanny sound of a soprano singing a passage from Bach’s St Matthew Passion slowed down, but with the pitch transposed back to normal. Later, Eliot’s voice is subtly treated to bring out the hiss and scratches of the old disc recording. The film was shot mute, with location sound recorded on a Walkman with a rifle mike, capturing the way sound travelled across water in different atmospheric conditions. Raban worked with a sound technician (Richard Guy) to treat the recordings in various ways, like phasing and reverberation effects, and large sections of the soundtrack can only be described as musique concrète. Sans commentary, accompanying river scenes, sometimes with archive images cut in, portraying the river’s moods and aspects, always to the rhythm of the water.

<18> Toward the end of the film, the commentary sums up:

The river journey unwinds a distant memory, each moment has a particular meaning and relation to the past... On this journey time is exposed: the past and present form one continuous pattern of unfolding experience.

<19> The words crystallize both the film’s method and also the quality of the type of representational space of which this film is an exemplar. Thames Film is a film which London truly deserves.


[1] Benjamin, 1969, p231. [^]

[2] Colin McArthur, ‘Chinese Boxes and Russian Dolls: Tracking the Elusive Cinematic City’, in David B. Clarke, ed., The Cinematic City, London and New York: Routledge, 1997, p.34. [^]

[3] John Corner, The Art of Record: A Critical Introduction to Documentary, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996, p.64. [^]

[4] Georges Sadoul, Dictionary of Films, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1972, p.152 [^]

[5] Monica Ali, ‘After Woolf’, The Guardian Weekend, May 27 2006, pp.23-8 [^]

[6] Personal communication. [^]


To Cite This Article:

Michael Chanan, ‘On William Raban’s Thames Film’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 5 Number 1 (March 2007). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2007/chanan.html. .


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