As the Coronavirus lockdown continues, many of you are no doubt turning to streaming services in an attempt to stave off the boredom. However, there’s plenty to watch free online too, and here is my London films and documentaries box set selection!
Current crisis aside, we are fortunate to live in a world where access to older, archived content has never been easier.
I’ve therefore selected 25 lesser-known London-based films and documentaries ranging from the 1950s to the present day which are must sees. All can be viewed below in their entirety.
Please be aware of the guidance on each entry as some of these films are only suitable for adults.
If you can think of any other similar shows available online, please let me know.
The Elephant will Never Forget (1953)
Suitable for all. Running time: 11 minutes.
The ‘Elephant’ in this title refers to the Elephant & Castle which was once a major hub for London’s tram network. This short film follows the city’s trams during their last week of operation, which occurred in the summer of 1952. Look out for neon Guinness signs, billowing chimneys and some splendid views of the Thames.
The Elephant will Never Forget inspired a similar film; 1962’s Nine Dalmuir West which documents the last days of Glasgow’s trams and is an absolute joy to watch- you can view it here.
A Kid for Two Farthings (1955)
Suitable for all. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.
Notable for starring Diana Dors, this film is worth seeing for the location filming, much of which took place around Petticoat Lane Market and the East End.
Telling the story of a young boy who buys a baby goat with a twisted horn, the film is based upon a book by Jewish author, Wolf Mankowitz who himself grew up in the area depicted.
Without giving too much away, the ending which features a softly sung version of the traditional Passover song, Chad Gadya is particularly moving considering how soon after WWII this film was made.
Every Day Except Christmas (1957)
Suitable for all. Running time: 37 minutes.
A insightful look at Covent Garden in the days when it was still very much a working market pedalling flowers, fruit and veg.
Under Night Streets (1958)
Suitable for all. Running time 18 minutes.
This atmospheric short film focuses on the army of workers who toil through the night to clean and maintain London’s tube network. You can almost taste the dust watching this- and keep an eye out out for the gaffer’s special cycle-train!
Monitor: A Poet in London (1959)
Suitable for all. Running time: 12 minutes.
Monitor was a BBC arts programme which ran from 1958 to 1965.
In this episode we are treated to a melancholy tour of London- still heavily scarred by the Blitz- by the wonderful Sir John Betjeman. At certain points in the film, Betjeman’s memories lend themselves to recitals of his poems.
Interestingly, this short film was directed by Ken Russell who would later go on to direct the rock opera, Tommy.
Suitable for all. Running time: 34 minutes.
Directed by Hampstead-born John Schlesinger (who would later go on to make blockbuster films including Midnight Cowboy and Marathon Man), Terminus- which depicts a typical day at Waterloo station- is, quite simply, a masterpiece.
There’s no commentary; the imagery and overheard conversations speak for themselves. Every aspect of human nature is on display here and it’s all set to a soothing jazz score.
Look at Life: Eating High (1966)
Suitable for all. Running time: 9 minutes.
The Rank Organisation’s Look at Life films were a series of short documentaries made to be shown in cinemas before the main picture. Together, they form a vivid archive of British social history.
Eating High takes a look at the then newly opened Post Office Tower (known today as the BT Tower) and the revolving restaurant which once existed at its summit. The restaurant sadly closed in the early 1980s due to security issues.
Suitable for all. Running time: 22 minutes.
A promotional film charting the development of the huge Barbican complex. Be warned; some of the interior shots may induce migraines!
Hells Angels, London (1973)
Contains adult themes. Running time: 24 minutes.
If you’re keen to see what a gang of surly bikers watching Dr Who on a derelict boat looks like then this documentary is for you. The disdainful commentary is a particular highlight!
Black Joy (1977)
Strictly for adults only. Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes.
One of the first British films to feature an all Black cast, Black Joy stars the late, great Norman Beaton (better known for his later role as the long suffering barber in Channel 4 sitcom, Desmond’s) and the unsurpassable Floella Benjamin (although be warned- if you only know Floella from the children’s show, Play School you may be in for a shock!)
Black Joy was filmed entirely on location- primarily around Brixton- making it an evocative time capsule. It’s also very funny with sharp, witty dialogue and a cracking soundtrack.
The Waterloo Bridge Handicap (1978)
Suitable for all. Running time: 20 minutes.
A comedy short starring Leonard Rossiter in which a group of regular commuters make their daily journey across Waterloo Bridge- in the style of a horse race!
The Knowledge (1979)
Contains adult themes. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
Written by Jack Rosenthal, The Knowledge is a comedy drama which holds a special place in the heart of many a London cabbie.The play follows the tribulations of several Knowledge students as they attempt the gruelling task of learning every street and point of interest in the capital; the goal being to become a licensed London taxi driver.
Speaking as someone who has undergone this process, I can confirm The Knowledge is very true to life! The sadistic examiner, Mr Burgess (played with gusto by Nigel Hawthorne) was even based upon a real person; a formidable Scottish fellow named Mr Finlay…
Strictly for adults only. Running time: 1 Hour, 30 minutes.
Released just one year before the 1981 Brixton Riot, Babylon charts the experiences of a group of young black friends as they struggle with racism, unemployment and the controversial ‘sus’ law which prevailed at the time.
Like Black Joy, Babylon was filmed on location around south London, as well as featuring scenes shot in what was then a very seedy Soho. It also boasts a brilliant soundtrack including music by Aswad– band member, Brinsley Forde actually stars as the film’s main protagonist, David- aka ‘Blue’- and is superb in the role.
Despite its uncompromising nature, there is still a good deal of humour in Babylon and the razor-sharp dialogue is in a class of its own.
Breaking Glass (1980)
Contains adult themes. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
Hazel O’Conner (who wrote the film’s soundtrack) stars in this film as a Kate, a feisty singer songwriter who teams up with Danny (Phil Daniels) in an attempt to make the big time.
As with the other films on this list, Breaking Glass depicts a London that is now largely unrecognisable; in this case a city which still had old, red tube trains, violent, grotty pubs and crumbling flats packed with squatters.
The film is perhaps best remembered for its climax; an electrifying gig filmed at the former Rainbow Theatre on Seven Sisters Road.
Breaking Glass was produced by Dodi Fayed who died alongside Princess Diana in August 1997.
The Flipside of Dominick Hide (1980)
Suitable for all. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
Dominick Hide is a time traveller from the year 2130 who, although forbidden to do so, cannot resist the temptation to explore the London of 1980 on foot…
Like most TV science fiction from this era, this BBC Play For Today now looks rather dated (although it does feature video calling and a device which resembles Alexa). What makes it worth watching however is the sublime story telling which is gentle, compelling and intelligent
Early on in the play, an instrumental version of The Beatles‘ Yesterday can be heard playing. At the time this was a sad coincidence, as The Flipside of Dominick Hide was first broadcast on the 9th December 1980; less than 24 hours after John Lennon was murdered in New York.
Dangerous Davies: The Last Detective (1981)
Contains adult themes. Running time: 1 Hour, 43 minutes.
The Last Detective is a murder mystery, largely filmed around west London.
The ‘Last Detective’ in question- played by the always wonderful Bernard Cribbins- is so called as he’s something of a buffoon; the last person you’d want to send to investigate a serious crime.
Although the murder in question is a disturbing one, Dangerous Davies is a relatively light-hearted watch with a good sense of humour.
By the way, did you spot the Trellick Tower in the screenshot above? I’ve created an illustrated mug featuring this iconic London building which is available to purchase from my shop!
This is London (1981)
Suitable for all. Running time: 27 minutes.
Although this touristy travelogue provides a basic rundown on London’s history and sights, it already feels like an historic document in own right: for this is the London of almost 40 years ago, a place where you could still feed flocks of pigeons in Trafalgar Square, where the skyline wasn’t littered with glass carbuncles and where Wembley Stadium was still old school.
Suitable for all. Running time: 19 minutes.
Dead on Time (1983)
Contains adult themes. Running time: 31 minutes.
One of Britain’s greatest comics- Rowan Atkinson- is told he has just 30 minutes left to live. This alarming news sends him on a spree around London, determined to make the most of the short time he has left…
The Southbank Show: Francis Bacon (1985)
Contains adult themes. Running time 55 minutes.
You don’t have to be a fan of Francis Bacon’s disturbing paintings to enjoy this insightful documentary which includes a tour of the eccentric artist’s South Kensington home and studio and scenes from Soho’s Colony Club.
Be sure to catch the action at around the 36 minute mark when Bacon becomes rather tipsy during a lunchtime drinking session with Melvyn Bragg at the former Dino’s restaurant.
Perpetual Motion: The London Taxi (1992)
Suitable for all. Running time: 28 minutes.
Warren Clarke narrates this BBC documentary about the iconic London taxi.
Ghosts on the Underground (2005)
Suitable for all. Running time: 47 minutes.
London’s tube network is apparently home to a good many phantoms… it’s probably best not to watch this one if you’re self-isolating alone!
A Lion Called Christian (2009)
Suitable for all. Running time: 45 minutes.
This is a modern re-telling of the 1971 documentary, The Lion at World’s End which told the story of Ace and John; two young Aussies who purchased a lion cub from Harrods back when the store had an exotic pets department.
The pair try to raise the little lion in their Chelsea shop, but unsurprisingly he soon becomes far too big and arrangements are made to transport him back to Africa.
Even if you don’t know Christian’s full story you’re probably already familiar with the emotional ending in which, after many months back in the wild, he still recognises Ace and John and runs up to them for a big hug…
The London Markets: Inside Billingsgate (2012)
Contains adult themes. Running time: 59 minutes.
Billingsgate is London’s main fish market; a huge complex based in Poplar near Canary Wharf. As with London’s other commercial centres, Billingsgate has a history stretching back centuries and when this documentary was made the market was going through a particularly turbulent period.
Sherbet Dab: An Oral History of the London Cabbie (2018)
Suitable for all. Running time: 54 minutes.
I must admit to some bias with this choice as it is a film in which I appear!
This wonderful project, which involved interviewing London taxi drivers from a wide array of ages and backgrounds, was conducted by London school children who, as you will see, did an incredible job. It was an honour to take part.
Be sure to check out the other films associated with digitalworks51 as there are plenty more tracing the history of London’s trades, from dockworkers to Saville Row tailors.
If you are after more London themed films and documentaries, I would highly recommend checking out the BBC’s London Collection which is an absolute treasure trove.
And please feel free to make further suggestions for this list in the comments!