The Big Smoke

Dir: various various

United Kingdom (UK)

1896 - 1945



Experience London life in a bygone age, from the bustle of the Victorian commute to the ordeal of the Blitz, with this programme of silent films from the BFI National Archive – brought to dazzling life with a newly-commissioned score and featuring a selection of treasures from the Imperial War Museum and London’s Screen Archives.

The Big Smoke explores the forgotten face of the capital with a tantalising tour through half a century of life in this most vibrant of cities. Highlights include Blackfriars Bridge (1896), an extraordinary glimpse of Victorians travelling to work by horse-drawn tram and on foot at an enviably elegant pace. Look out for famous landmarks in Old London Street Scenes (1903), where the traffic chaos seems strangely familiar, while sci-fi short The Fugitive Futurist (1924) sees an oddball inventor startle Londoners with a glimpse of their great city’s future.

Scenes at Piccadilly Circus and Hyde Park Corner Underground Stations (1931) offers an ethereal insight into the change and continuity of tube life.

In Colour on the Thames (1935), the main artery of the city has never looked lovelier, an experimental colour film process bringing the ebb and flow of this great river into vivid focus. The Big Smoke closes with rare colour home movie images of a city under siege as the 1940s brought tragedy and triumph to the capital’s crowded streets.

During the first half-century of the cinema – from the last years of the Victorian era to the close of the Second World War – Londoners of all ages flocked to see themselves immortalised in moving pictures. We now invite a new generation to join this journey into the capital’s past.
Score composed and performed by celebrated pianist James Pearson with the Ronnie Scott’s All Stars.

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Blackfriars Bridge

R W Paul | 1896 | 1 min

Amazingly when we look at this tantalising half-minute footage from 1896 of Blackfriars Bridge, little has changed. The bridge is still recognizable although our Victorian counterparts make their way to work across the Thames by tram, horse-drawn carriage and, for the health conscious (or the poor), good old Shanks’ pony. More or less business as usual then, although compared to the daily onslaught we face in 21st century London, the commuters caught by R.W. Paul’s static camera proceed at an enviably elegant pace.

Petticoat Lane

1903 | 3 mins

This fascinating film provides an authentic view of the East End from over a hundred years ago. A struggling tide of flat-capped men flow down Middlesex Street – better known by its unofficial name, Petticoat Lane – on a Sunday morning, as they have for generations. The rare presence of a movie camera undoubtedly makes an impression on the crowd with bowler caps and waving hands frequently raised to the cameraman.

Old London Street Scenes

1903 | 4 mins

Made over 100 years ago, this footage shows a number of scenes shot around central London, taking in locations such as Hyde Park Corner, Parliament Square and Charing Cross Station. We see crowds of people disembarking from a pleasure steamer at Victoria Embankment, pedestrians dodging horse-drawn carriages in Pall Mall, and heavy traffic trotting down the Strand. In fact crossing the road back then would probably be regarded as an extreme sport today – pedestrians scarily dodge carriages and horses risking life and limb.

City of Westminster

1909 | 3 mins

Bringing Edwardian London to life, the opening of this captivating film is shot from a moving vehicle that circles Trafalgar Square and catches sight of historic monuments and buildings, including Nelson’s Column, the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery. This phantom ride really places the viewer in amongst the traffic, and offers fascinating views of Edwardian vehicles, including a horse-drawn bus covered in advertisements for items such as Coleman’s Mustard and attractions such as Selfridges.

The Smallest Car in the Largest City in the World

1913 | 4 mins (extract)

Queen Alexandra ordered a miniature Cadillac car for Crown Prince Olav (later King) of Norway and not one to miss an advertising opportunity the manufacturers have arranged filming of the car’s departure from the factory where it is waved out by an enthusiastic male crowd.

This mini marvel continues its jubilant journey through the streets of London – past the Bank of England, around Trafalgar Square and on to Hyde Park. As crowds cheer and leap in front of the camera, desperate to be preserved on film, the driver’s composure and deadpan facial expression remains one of the most entertaining aspects of this Edwardian glimpse of British pride.

Hoxton…Saturday July 3rd, Britannia Theatre

1920 | 2 mins (extract)

Clearly some celebratory event was taking place on July 3rd 1920 in Hoxton, but there are no details of who made this film or why. We see a view of the Britannia Theatre, the most famous of all the East End music halls, from across Hoxton Street, Shoreditch. The streets are crowded with a typical audience for the Britannia, including a group of small boys waiting in line outside the theatre.

London Street Scenes c.1920s

1920s | 3 mins

This 1920s actuality film offers proof, if it were needed, that central London has never been congestion-free. Private horse-drawn cabs nestle alongside company vans, open-top double-deckers and rag-and-bone carts. Vintage buses skim past policemen who appear to be the only form of traffic control.

The Fugitive Futurist: A Q-riosity by "Q"

Gaston Quiribet | 1924 | 11 mins

This witty short proffers futuristic visions of London landmarks by way of a ‘magic’ camera that can ‘see beyond the limits of ordinary life’. Brick walls magically build themselves; airships take off from the Houses of Parliament and Tower Bridge has a sky high mono rail. But while its gleeful inventor turns out to be an escapee from the local asylum, French director Quiribet was possibly not entirely barking up the wrong tree with one of his trick shots – that of Trafalgar Square swamped by the river Thames. With sea levels rising, let’s hope this isn’t a prophetic glimpse of London’s fate.

Cosmopolitan London

1924 | 2 mins (extract)

It now sounds extremely old-fashioned, but before ‘multi-cultural’ and ‘diverse’, the word ‘cosmopolitan’ was the catch-all to describe the emerging variety of ethnic and national traditions finding their place in Britain, a rough and ready signifier of the exotic. How appropriate to find it in the title of this eye-catching tour of the capital, a film which reveals not only the city of nations that London had become by the inter-war years, but also a latent suspicion of the new Londoners.

The Port of London

1924 | 11 mins (extract)

The opening sequence with scores of shipping clerks and managers working round the rotunda in the main offices seems strangely reminiscent of Metropolis and a reminder of manpower necessary in a world without computers, faxes and modern technology. The river seems almost unchanged though, if anything today’s vessels seem smaller especially when we see rare footage of the ocean-going liners of the era. It also includes probably the earliest film records of some of the great docks of the Thames including King George V and Royal Victoria and Albert.

Courtesy of the Port of London Authority Collection/Museum of London, Docklands

London's Contrasts

1924 | 3 mins (extract)

Touching upon many issues still very much relevant to London life today such as big department stores vs traditional markets and squeezing houses into tiny gaps between buildings, this film encapsulates the many faces of London. Opening with the glitter and pageantry of the West End where guards march, we wend our way to the ‘disorder of the East’ as London’s last horse-drawn bus takes us down Regents Street past the chic Parisian export, Galeries Lafayette and on fleetingly to the Old Vic theatre. As our journey continues comparisons are made between the areas around St. Paul’s and the Admiralty and Soho and Caledonian Markets. Nestling under Hammersmith bridge is London’s little fishing village now, unfortunately, long gone but what a treat it is to know and see that it once existed.

The Open Road

Claude Friese-Greene | 1926 | 3 mins (extract)

In 1924 Claude Friese-Greene (cinematographer and son of moving-image pioneer William) embarked on an intrepid road trip from Land’s End to John O’Groats. He recorded his journey on film, using an experimental colour process. Entitled The Open Road, this remarkable travelogue was conceived as a series of 26 short episodes, to be shown weekly at the cinema.

Wedding at Belmont Free Church

1931 | c2 mins (extract)

Belmont Free Church is not there any more, the site was sold in the 1980’s and in fact the congregation affiliated to the Methodists in 1928. For this wedding though, shot by an amateur (we assume a member of the wedding party) it seems a very vibrant community as the radiant bride marries her scout master groom, ably supported by his fleet of scouts. The fashion for shorter skirts and shorter hair can be seen in the bridal party and clearly, it was a very exciting event for the local community with local children peeking over the fence to get a glimpse of the bride.

With thanks to Sutton Archives

Scenes at Piccadilly Circus and Hyde Park Corner Underground Stations

c.1931 | 3 mins (extract)

Who made the film (and exactly why) is obscure: a transport employee would seem the most likely bet. Whoever it was has left us with some captivating images of the tube. Generally much cleaner than it looks now and the underground shops at Piccadilly Circus look extremely smart. Unsurprisingly, the infrastructure in this film will look familiar to modern Londoners – it’s the passengers who have changed: their dress, their body language, their racial mix, their sheer numbers and they can be seen smoking, cigarette in hand – something you certainly wouldn’t see today. This artless series of unedited shots of people moving from A to B has taken on a strange, involuntary poetry over the decades.

Some Activities of the Bermondsey Borough Council

1931 | 4 mins (extract)

Pre-NHS, councils in many impoverished areas pragmatically pursued socialist programmes of improved local public welfare. The health department of Labour-run Bermondsey was unusual in documenting and promoting such work via some thirty films made by officials, which would be screened to citizens across the borough.

Views from Hackney Library Roof

c.1930s | 2 mins

Our first glimpse of London in glorious colour in the programme. Although some of the buildings and Victorian squares may remain, Hackney seems strangely pastoral in this film with its open air displays of PT, swimming and gymnastics, a very civic embracing of a healthy lifestyle much in vogue in the 1930s.

Courtesy of Hackney Archives


Matthew Nathan | 1933 | 4 mins (extract)

Lunch-Hour offers us a kaleidoscopic snapshot of the City of London enjoying its lunchtime break. We see the clocks strike 1pm and suddenly the streets come alive with the workers’ eateries of choice ranging from Oyster bars, restaurants, a café scarily called Dive and outdoor snack shacks. It’s the impression given of the Square Mile’s social structure that most intrigues – the film’s top hats, bowlers, homburgs, trilbies and caps (and police helmets) signify the different social classes of their wearers. Each class of worker patronises a different class of eating establishment. Workers flock to Tower Hill which seems to have been the Speakers’ Corner of its day, to listen to enthusiastic orators.

Colour on the Thames

Adrian Klein | 1935 | 2 mins (extract)

This film is tricky to describe: is it a boat study, a film-poem, an experiment, a picture postcard? One thing is certain: it’s a rare colour snapshot of the Thames and London in the 1930s – and it looks quite magical. Its artistic qualities may look a bit old-fashioned to us today; the slow pace and moody colours definitely belong to a bygone era, strikingly peaceful and undemanding. Yet colour film was still a novelty for audiences in 1935, and the photography (using the new Gasparcolor system) succeeds in accentuating the sharp contrast between the vivid green banks of the countryside and the drab tones of the industrial landscape.

Britain at War: The London Blitz

Rosie Newman | 1941 | 4 mins (extracts)

This amateur film, predominantly in colour and shot and edited by Rosie Newman captures unique footage of the London Blitz during the Second World War. Buildings rage with fire as the camera pans over scenes of devastation – houses are destroyed and windows blown out. Fire fighters douse smoldering rubble as civilians assist the search and clear operation.

With thanks to the Imperial War Museum

Amateur Film by Lieutenant Sidney Sasson

Sidney Sasson | 1945 | 4 mins (extract)

Streamers and confetti float down from open windows as London celebrates victory on VE day. Londoners take to the streets around Piccadilly Circus dancing, kissing and at one point doing an impromptu conga. Women are stylishly dressed, playing up to the camera or marching with US troops waving the American flag. Couples leap into fountains with gay abandon and rolled up trousers. The mood of this lovely little colour Eastman Kodak film is one of triumphant jubilation and it is very infectious – this is one moment in history which would have been great to be a part of. Thankfully it was captured on film for us all to enjoy by Lieutenant Sidney Sasson, an American army officer based in London who was part of an army film-making operation that included the Hollywood directors John Ford and William Wyler.

With thanks to the Imperial War Museum

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