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 Blitz bombardment, 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 Ronnie Scott’s All Stars.

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Blackfriars Bridge

R W Paul | 1896 | 1 min

When we look at this tantalising 1896 footage of Blackfriars Bridge, it’s how amazing how little has changed. The bridge is still recognisable, though 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 captured 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. 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 – with pedestrians dodging 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 for Crown Prince Olav (later King) of Norway and not wanting to waste an advertising opportunity, the manufacturers film the car’s departure from the factory, waved out by an enthusiastic crowd. The mini marvel continues its jubilant journey through the streets of London – past the Bank of England, round Trafalgar Square and on to Hyde Park. As people 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 national 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.

Cosmopolitan London

1924 | 2 mins (extract)

Though its meaning has now shifted, ‘cosmopolitan’ was the term most often used to describe the growing diversity of London’s population in the 1920s. Here it’s used in the title of a 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 prejudice against the new Londoners.

The Port of London

1924 | 11 mins (extract)

The opening sequence, with scores of shipping clerks and managers working round a rotunda, is strangely reminiscent of Metropolis and a reminder of the sheer manpower necessary in a world without modern technology. The Thames 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. Includes possibly the earliest film records of some of the Thames’ great docks, 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)

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 fleetingly to the Old Vic. 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 a little fishing village – of course it’s now long gone, but what a treat it is to 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 no more. 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 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. But whoever it was left us with some captivating images of the London Underground; generally much cleaner than it looks now, with some extremely smart underground shops at Piccadilly Circus. The infrastructure in this film will look familiar to modern Londoners; it’s the passengers who have changed: their dress, body language, and smoking habits – with cigarettes in hand on the Tube, something you wouldn’t see today. These unedited shots of people moving from A to B have a strange, involuntary poetry viewed today.

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. 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 civic embracing of a brisk, healthy outdoors lifestyle very 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 on its lunchtime break. As the clocks strike 1pm, the streets come alive, with workers streaming out to eateries ranging from oyster bars to restaurants to 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 typically patronising a different eating establishment. Workers flock to Tower Hill which seems to have been the Speakers’ Corner of its day, eager 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 seem old-fashioned; 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) beautifully accentuates the contrast between the vivid green 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 destroyed and windows blown out. Fire fighters douse smouldering rubble as civilians assist the search and rescue 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 performing 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 complete and infectious jubilation, capturing a moment in history it would have been great to see in person. Thankfully it was caught on film for us all to enjoy by Lieutenant Sidney Sasson, an American officer based in London who was part of an army filmmaking operation that included Hollywood directors John Ford and William Wyler.

With thanks to the Imperial War Museum

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