The Paul Kelly-Saint Etienne London Trilogy

As a (slight but long-term) fan of London’s Saint Etienne I’d been meaning to watch the trilogy of short films they made with director Paul Kelly for some time. Examining three different aspects of London, the body of work is made up of Finisterre (2003), What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day? (2005) and This Is Tomorrow (2007), each one being around an hour long and a kind of wistful meditation on the changing face of the city (and thus as they deal to various extents with the past, present and future Saint Etienne’s very distinct brand of retro-futurism seems like a good fit for the soundtrack to me, for they are a band that has always looked back to classic European and American pop and also to more modern sounds of the dancefloor, albeit filtered through the lens of white pop classicists). I understand that the fourth collaboration between band and filmmaker, 2014’s How We Used To Live  a collage about 20th century living that uses British Film Institute archive footage, and which I haven’t yet watched sits seperately from these earlier works.

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Finisterre poster

Finisterre, co-directed by Kelly with Kieran Evans, is a modern take on the city symphony film, the footage darting from spots in suburban London a few of which I definitely recognised, a few that seemed familiar, many that I don’t currently know and probably never will – to more recognisable yet characterful places in the centre. The band and others, such as artist Julian Opie and musician Lawrence from the acts Felt, Denim and Go Kart Mozart (who would later be the subject of Kelly’s 2012 film Lawrence of Belgravia) discuss the places that mean something to them, which tend to be old, traditional cafes, gig venues, record shops, pubs and other places along those lines. But that’s not all; there are wide-reaching cityscapes, close-ups of boarded-up shops and everything in-between. The directors show a knack for catching small architectural details, interesting graffiti and stencils (the latter still a relatively new artistic phenomenon back then), and they use typography as a means of tracking changing times and design fashion, an approach that is consistent across all three films. It’s a fleeting glimpse of a city in flux, and it does to an extent feel like a personal one: this is Kelly and Saint Etienne’s London, primarily, not yours or mine, even if there is some overlap with the types of faces and places you see. The South Bank, Camden, Chalk Farm, Soho, Croydon… Finisterre darts from one spot to the next, knitting it all together, and the emphasis on London’s music scene and nightlife makes it seem warm and positive.

The voices of born and bred locals are more to the fore in What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day?, a 45-minute short about Hackney Wick and the lower Lee Valley in London’s East End (pictured top). Watching today, this is the part of the trilogy that feels to me like the most valuable snapshot, given that the area of the city it examines has been heavily gentrified in the years since it was made, and is markedly different now to how it was in 2005. Kelly spoke to the BFI in 2014 about the three films, addressing the remaking and remodelling of the era. “There was a lot of change going on in London, but we didn’t necessarily see that as a negative thing,” he said. “London was being revitalised. But we wanted to document anything that we thought was going. At the time, there were lots of places that we thought ‘We’ve got to capture this,’ but by the time we got there it would be gone. There was a sense that things were going very fast. It seems to be changing even faster now, accelerating at a pace.”

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Still from What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day?

Mervyn Day the title is a rather niche reference to a 1970s goalkeeper who played for local teams West Ham United and Leyton Orient is an atmospheric portrait, proudly examining the area’s industrial and sporting past, finding plenty of time for the waterways, overgrown and neglected corners and crumbling, condemned buildings of 2005. There are hints of the present and future: radio reports of the London terror attacks are incorporated, while the then-recently successful bid to host the 2012 Olympics is referred to in hopeful terms by some, who correctly identified it back then as an opportunity for renewal, collaboration and sporting endeavour.

East London’s gentrification was already well underway by 2005. As Kelly pointed out to the BFI, it was the influx of artists taking advantage of cheap rent in Hoxton and Dalston during the late 1990s that kicked it all off, but it went through the roof immediately after this film was made. However, as one resident points out on the soundtrack, this is a part of London that has regularly seen periods of dramatic change, partly due to its proximity to the Thames and the City of London (ie the financial district). The arrival of larger numbers of younger, middle-class professionals than normal is nothing new for an area that had just previously welcomed a large influx of Bangladeshi residents, or had seen a sizeable portion of the community’s white working class families move out of London into Kent and Essex. I’ve walked around here a couple of times in 2018. Some edges are still tatty; not everything has changed.

There’s a surprising amount of dereliction on show in this film, considering how close everything depicted is to one of the wealthiest square miles and some of the most valuable property in the entire world, but it’s all shown for a purpose, to highlight lost industries, to demonstrate how things  places, communities, events  can be forgotten, or how economic shifts take place and the use of land changes. Our guide through all of it is a mopey teenage lad on a bike, perhaps a Saint Etienne fan, perhaps a future Olympian, while David Essex and Linda Robson – defiantly uncool but absolutely inspired choices of celebs who were raised in the area – provide commentary.

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DVD cover

Of the three films, I was less enamoured with This Is Tomorrow, which charts the building, role and later renovation of the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank, but it’s still well worth a watch. The area was bombed during the Second World War; the building of the concert hall as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951 helped to put south London on the map, so to speak; and much has sprung up around it since, so it fits with some of the trilogy’s overarching themes, such as London’s changing face and land being used for different purposes. Kelly’s eye for detail is evident once again and there’s an interesting selection of interviewees, including philosopher Alain de Botton. Also present is Robin Day, one of the most significant furniture designers of the 20th century, whose seats adorn the hall. The film was commissioned by the Royal Festival Hall itself (or rather the people who work in it and for it), and as such it’s more of a conventional documentary than the other two films in A London Trilogy, somehow less personal and by necessity rendering the people of London irrelevant.

I felt sad watching the three films; I see here the London that I moved to, albeit in 1999 rather than 2003, 2005 or 2007. What I should say, then, is that I definitely see the London I lived in for many years. I also felt a degree of warmth towards the films which came, oddly enough, because of Kelly’s insistence on poking around in dingy, messy corners of the capital. You don’t see these spaces committed to film too often, and I think such scenes here are part of a kind of more general, quiet celebration that I’m glad exists.

The London Trilogy is available to watch on BFI Player in the UK and can be purchased from lots of the usual outlets.