Culture, Film

Review: London – The Modern Babylon (2012)

London: Modern Babylon movie posterBritish director Julien Temple (The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, Absolute Beginners) has released a new documentary called London: The Modern Babylon, to coincide with the cultural Olympiad. Temple, a veteran of pop videos, documentaries, comedies and semi-serious dramas, remains a subversive.

It is a film about a vibrant city continually renewing itself, mixing film archive material and popular music with the voices of Londoners past and present; musicians, writers, artists, political radicals and ordinary people. ‘London Babylon’ is a relentless, sprawling collage, starting with a raid on BFI archives, from the earliest moving picture footage of the late Victorian era through to present day.

Mixing remarkable first-hand accounts from the likes of Tony Ben, 106-year old Jewish emigre, Suggs from Madness, and assorted retired cockneys, market traders, cabbies and migrants in their adopted home town, it rattles through the social impact of two world wars, the Depression, postwar austerity, coronations, decline, renewal, the arrival of new immigrants and the 2011 riots.

The film sports a fascinating jukebox of popular music, opening with classic Clash, London Calling and taking various liberties mixing old and new, sounds with pictures. We have 1930’s Chinatown footage under Siouxie and the Banshees Hong Kong Garden, Noel Coward’s London Pride over the Summer of Discontent and the piles of rubbish in the street.

The fifties is celebrated with Bowie’s Golden Years. Bohemian Soho; old and modern jazz. The Sixties is of course, The Beattles, Stones, Twiggy and Mods. Reaching the Seventies, there’s Bowie again, playing in the industrial decline and demolition of the East End and docks that the Blitz and fifties urban planning didn’t touch. Here we arrive in Temple’s heartland – Punk, with the Sex Pistols over a breathless montage; the build up of racial tension, the Silver Jubilee, a Royal wedding, riots.

The Eighties bring the financial boom and next wave of social change, the yuppies and docklands renewal, the nineties pass by quickly the Millenium Dome, and the desperate immigrants from Africa and the Middle East. And so we arrive in the present day. Did you think of fast food chicken shops and book-makers as an index of economic deprivation?

Dizzyingly edited, this leaps from  colour to black and white and back; appropriately for arrival of ethnic groups from across the empire, Caribbean, India, Asians from Africa, marking their cultural contribution. There is a constant juxtaposition of archive material inter-cut with modern parallels – tenements alongside tower blocks. Temple never lets us forget the turbulence of urban violence; the Sidney Street siege, the Battle of Cable Street, Teddy Boys and gang culture; riots in 1985 and again in 2011; IRA bombings and the 7/7 attacks.

There is also a startling mix of fact and fiction, documentary archive and news reel sits alongside Tony Hancock’s the Artist and Michael Powells Peeping Tom, Kenneth Wiliams and Sid James in Carry On Cleo, Bob Hoskins’ Long Good Friday and Temple cheekily includes his own Great Rock and Roll Swindle.

Ever the subversive, Temple always comes back to the plight of the common people, whatever the period; poverty, poor housing, squalor; the working class, the protesters and the homeless. Ever the partizan, Temple cuts up Margaret Thatcher’s Dischord and Hope speech to completely reverse the message.

There is a recurring strand of identity. Temple admires the London spirit – the opposition to Mosley’s Fascists, voting out Churchill, the Viet Nam protests – but also marks the natives’ rejection of each successive wave of immigrants. The film carefully considers the identity of those immigrants as British and Londoners, through successive booms, recessions and unemployment.

Temple’s film is both celebration and critique. Amid the procession of highlights and lowlights, he  destroys any thoughts of nostalgia. Good old days? What good old days? There were none. Who does London belong to? No one. Everyone.

Whenever there is a note of optimism, Temple undercuts it; multi-culturalism and the selection of the Olympic city is followed by the 7/7 bombings. With the rise of new money and new immigrants from Eastern Europe, the gap between rich and poor widens, there are the evictions in the name of regeneration for the Olympics and in consequence, the London riots. The more things change the more they stay the same.

Temple is uneasy about progress, and picks out many dissenting voices, while returning often to one of the many CCTV control rooms, marking London as the surveillance capital of the world.

Temple’s unrestrained verve and vigour pours out of every edit of this two hour film, in which the archives and Londoners speak, with sparse use of narration from the likes of Gambon, Keith Allen, Andy Serkis, Imelda Stuanton, and Temple himself.

Ending with Waterloo Sunset by the Kinks, in a wet, neon-lit London in the rain, it is glorious, uneven but constantly moving.

The film was shown on limited release at various London venues before its’ TV screening on BBC 2 on Saturday 11 August. RC

London: The Modern Babylon (2012)
Director: Julien Temple
Certification: (UK) 15
Genre: Documentary
Duration: 128 mins
UK Release: Aug 3 2012

Related: Film Documentary Of Time and the City, Everything Express

About Robin Catling

Robin Catling gained degrees in both arts and technology which led to a diverse portfolio of employment. A freelance systems analyst, project manager and business change manager for the likes of American Express, British Airways and IBM, he moved on to web design, journalism and technical authoring. He has also worked in film and television, both behind and in front of the camera, including productions by Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorcese, Ron Howard and Ridley Scott. A qualified three-weapon coach, he runs West Devon Swords teaching sports fencing to all age groups, and in recent years qualified with the British Federation of Historical Swordplay to teach medieval and renaissance combat in the Historical Western Martial Arts.


6 thoughts on “Review: London – The Modern Babylon (2012)

  1. Knowledgeable, but entertaining, as are many of your pages. I read through the last few days entries, and I must say I think I’m smitten.

    Posted by Betty Shin | Aug 23, 2012, 10:09 am
  2. i can always trust your information to learn something more.

    Posted by Cidire | Aug 23, 2012, 9:17 pm
  3. Good to see that documentary is not dead.

    Posted by Gains | Sep 8, 2012, 6:00 pm


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