The final offering in our season of British cult classics are two films that take us far into the dark heart of England
The fourth and last of our British cult classics double bills offers two very different, virtually unclassifiable films: Patrick Keiller's London, from 1993, and Christopher Petit's Radio On, released in 1979. Keiller's film, a melancholy homage to the UK capital, resembles a string of animated still photographs, while Petit's is a gloomy, mannered black-and-white road movie that, as its director suggests, is something of a journey into the past as well as across England. Despite their surface dissimilarities, the two films share a dynamic intelligence towards the environment and landscape that surrounds them; both are cinematic pilgrimages through England.
London is perhaps the slightly better known: written and filmed by Keiller, who rather obviously spent considerable amounts of time traipsing around the city with a locked-off camera to capture his perfectly composed shots. London is ostensibly a travelogue around the city, undertaken by two (presumably fictional) and never-seen characters. Only one of them has a name â" Robinson â" and the other only evoked in Paul Scofield's measured voiceover. Robinson, particularly, is occupied by the "problem of London". The pair's "expeditions" seek to memorialise obscure events in the capital's political and literary past â" from the mythical "London stone" lying beneath a Cannon Street office block, to the Stoke Newington school where Edgar Allan Poe was briefly a pupil in 1817.
Keiller produced two followup films to London: Robinson in Space, about the "problem of England", centred on Reading; and Robinson in Ruins, largely dwelling on Oxford and its environs. But he is still very much an oddity compared with most British directors: part academic, part artist and part documentary-maker, and arguably better known now as a justly acclaimed gallery-based installation artist. Here's a link to an interview with him that the Guardian ran in May 1994, in which he outlines his intention to "show how London could be, that is, how some of it already is".
Radio On was Christoper Petit's first film. A film critic for Time Out, he had pitched the idea to Wim Wenders while interviewing the director. If London is the hermetic vision of an isolated artistic/academic voice, Radio On is the opposite: drenched in the post-punk culture of the late 70s, Bowie, Kraftwerk and Wreckless Eric on the soundtrack, and room found for the likes of Sting (just before Police hit the bigtime) and Wenders's wife Lisa Kreuzer. Petit scrutinises London â" seen in the first third â" with a fierce Ballardian eye, contemplating the tower blocks and flyovers of Shepherd's Bush with monochrome intensity. And David Beames, playing the inscrutable disc-jockey B, on a cross-country trip to Bristol after his brother dies, has the role of a lifetime.
Radio On was given a brief re-release in 2004, and the Guardian's John Patterson wrote a brilliant appreciation of it, some 25 years on. Here's a taster, but it's worth revisiting the entire article.
Petit is less interested in narrative than in new and un-English ways of looking and seeing. He and [cinematographer Martin] SchÃ¤fer are in love with the sensual delight of a camera moving forward through space. The film is peppered with long, coldly stirring shots from B's clapped-out Rover, moving through a series of defamiliarised, Ballardian English landscapes â" the Westway at night, the M4, Hopperesque filling stations in deepest Wiltshire, and what Petit's collaborator Iain Sinclair refers to as "typically featureless Petit fields". Between them Petit and SchÃ¤fer attempt to remake our understanding of British urban space, much as Godard discerned contemporary Paris's futuristic foreignness in Alphaville. The opening shot â" a long, dark, nosy peek through the dead brother's flat â" passes a handwritten sign reading "We are the children of Fritz Lang and Wernher von Braun" and comes to rest on the suicide's feet in a bath, to the sound of David Bowie singing Heroes/Helden, half in English, half in German. Already we are are in unfamiliar territory.DramaDocumentaryStingDavid BowieLondonAndrew Pulver
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