Ed Hardy: London seems like an angry elegy for a city "with no future" – is that how you felt in 1992?
Patrick Keiller: As far as I can remember, my experience of 1992 was mostly very enjoyable, in that after a long period of preparation we were making the film, and the pictures were turning out better than I had dared hope. The cinematography is what I have always enjoyed most about making films – it’s where the surprises are. In earlier films I had tended to avoid London as a camera subject because I thought it was very difficult, so there was a risk in taking up the challenge.
The film is essentially a joke about a man who thinks he would be happier if London were more like Paris, or like he imagines Paris used to be (there is a review of it in History Workshop Journal by Stephen Daniels with the title Paris Envy). It refers to the disenfranchisement of Londoners, but this is expressed not so much as anger at the abolition of the GLC, but as homage to its predecessor the London County Council, with admiring images of LCC arts and crafts housing architecture, Routemaster buses and other visible manifestations of municipal socialism. (As a municipal entity surrounded by suburbs, the LCC’s situation somewhat resembled that of Paris surrounded by the banlieue, though London’s outer suburbs are very unlike those of Paris). The LCC was brought into being in 1889, after many decades of campaigning, in the face of opposition from central government, the City and other local interests. Even then, control of the Metropolitan Police remained with the Home Office. When the LCC was enlarged to become the GLC, one always had the idea that the Conservatives saw it as a body designed to be abolished, so that the abolition of the GLC was not so much a Thatcherite novelty as a return to the status quo of Victorian London.
London and Robinson in Space are both critical of conservative capitalism, perhaps "a peculiarly English form of capitalism", which now seems to prefigure the New Labour project. Would Robinson have been as alienated by Tony Blair’s re-election as he felt himself to be at John Major’s return to government?
Both films set out with the idea that the UK is a backward or flawed capitalism because it has never had a bourgeois revolution, a view that was quite widespread in the early 1990s, often expressed in terms of a critique of the City. However, in Robinson in Space the exploration moves on. I find the second film more interesting both as the discovery of a newly installed landscape of a computerised, global consumer economy, here in the UK (which was not really visible in London), and as revealing to what extent the UK is still a successful manufacturing economy, and the extent to which our material prosperity depends on this despite the fact that few people are directly employed in the manufacturing sector.
London had succeeded in re-imagining its subject experientially, but the polemic is fairly unchanging throughout as the suggestion that London would be a better place to live if it had, or were able to develop, some of the characteristics of a certain kind of European city. This reflected something of the architectural culture of the 1980s and the activities of, say, Richard (now Lord) Rogers (who had made a television series about London with the Labour MP Mark Fisher in 1991), the Architecture Foundation, and ultimately the Royal Institute of British Architects, which in 1999 awarded its annual Royal Gold Medal not to a living architect, but to the city of Barcelona, Barcelona being the leading model for the regeneration, or if you like the Barcelona-isation, of UK regional cities, most famously Manchester. London was taken up by the proponents of Barcelona-isation – there is apparently (or was when it opened) a clip from the film on permanent display in the URBIS museum in Manchester.
I don’t know how Robinson would react to the re-election of Tony Blair. Towards the end of Robinson in Space, he loses his reason, having developed increasingly manic notions about the United States and the UK’s involvement with its military. Perhaps the unfortunate events of recent years would not have been quite as unexpected to him as they were to most of the rest of us.
How did Paul Scofield come on board for the two Robinson films (London and Robinson in Space)? His dry, amused tone is so much a part of the atmosphere of those movies, did you write the monologues with his voice in mind?
When devising the project, I had the idea that London would be narrated by a character exemplifying one of two possible gothic-fiction stereotypes, either a mysterious middle-European, or a Byronic Englishman. The former reflected an early assumption that Robinson would be the narrator, Robinson being an English name that a mysterious middle-European might adopt as typically English (the name came not directly from Defoe, nor from Céline, but from Kafka’s America). I thought a feature-length narration read with an accent might be difficult, but I wasn’t quite sure what a Byronic Englishman should sound like. Keith Griffiths (the films’ producer) had suggested Paul, and then I discovered that he (Paul) had made Hugh Brody’s Nineteen Nineteen for the BFI in 1984, in which he played a Viennese psychoanalyst. I had a look at the film, we sent him the first twenty pages of the narration, which was by then nearly finished, and he agreed.
Did the London script form as a kind of alternative journal for 1992, alongside the footage you shot? To what extent did you plan what to film, and did you go out with the camera every day?
Most of the film was photographed between the end of January and the middle of November 1992, the picture was fine-cut over the winter and the script written in mid-1993. I had produced a document beforehand so that the people who commissioned the film would have some idea what they would get, which included the idea of two people who go on walks, some itineraries and some sample narration. A little of this was incorporated in the subsequent script, but much of the photography was a response to events as they unfolded in 1992, and the narration was written to fit the fine-cut picture. This was how I’d made all the preceding films, so I was quite accustomed to the method.
Julie [Norris] and I worked two regular days a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, I think, and I would sometimes go out at night or at the weekend, either alone or with someone else. I once worked out that the film was photographed in about 100 days on about 100 400ft rolls of film.
As a materialist, the character of Robinson seems to live in a soft city. He’s excited by modernism, but in Robinson in Space, he seems to be disappearing as the film goes on. Did you want him to be less present in the second film?
I tended to devote less time to the voice towards the end of the films, thinking that by then the audience has probably got the idea and might like to have more freedom just to look at the pictures, but Robinson reasserts himself towards the end of Robinson in Space, with the theft, the giant vegetables (as if we’re heading towards Invasion of the Bodysnatchers), the Tornado that crashes etc.
The visible economy is disappearing, a fact we paradoxically see over and over in Robinson in Space, and with it Robinson seems to be fading – with the final lines "I cannot tell you where Robinson finally found his utopia", a common audience reaction is to sense that Robinson has died, or has left the narrator in some irrecoverable sense. Is this the kind of reaction you intended with that line?
The last line might mean either that Paul can’t tell you because he doesn’t know whether Robinson found his Utopia or not, or that he can’t tell you because he (Robinson) did find it but he (Paul) doesn’t know where, or that he can’t tell you because Robinson has asked him not to. I think that the last of these is most likely, because he didn’t want a lot of people clambering about on the neolithic rock carvings. Utopia is among other things the name of a settlement in northern Australia where indigenous Australian people are recovering their culture, some of which strongly resembles the prehistoric rock art of northern Britain pictured in the film (and other rock art all over the world). Robinson identifies with hunter-gatherers and migratory people generally. However, he also seems to have an interest in Newcastle. He may even be a football supporter. There is a running gag with magpies, and reference to buckminsterfullerenes (the structure of which the pattern of some footballs resembles) and Sir John Hall. Whether he found his Utopia or not, I can reveal that he is actually in prison, having been picked up in late 1996 by MoD police wandering lost on moorland near the former Spadeadam rocket base, suffering from apparent memory loss.
How does Blackpool stand "between us and revolution"?
‘Blackpool stands between us and revolution’ was apparently said or written by the landscape architect Thomas H Mawson, who designed Blackpool’s Stanley Park (in 1922) and other well known parts of the town’s topography. I assume he meant that were it not for Blackpool, the United Kingdom would be at risk of revolution. His statement appears to predate Le Corbusier’s Vers une architecture, in which the final chapter is ‘Architecture or Revolution’.
For me, Blackpool might stand between us and revolution for the quite different reason that it is sometimes (depending on the weather, especially the extraordinary quality of Blackpool light) just this side of ‘The Revolution of Everyday Life’.
How do you think of film (and its relation to architecture)? In ‘Lights out for the territory’, Iain Sinclair writes how he stumbles across the park gateposts (which feature in London) as if into "someone else’s dream landscape", implying perhaps that you have built a "London" in cinema, from the material of London which is then left changed (for viewers, at least) – did such ideas cross your mind when making the film?
Not so much while we were photographing it, because we were more preoccupied with trying not to get run over and so on, but generally I think of the medium as offering a way to transform experience of (architectural) space, and increasingly also as a great reservoir of space that it is no longer possible to experience directly. There is perhaps a conflict between these two ideas.
How can we find the city of the future in archive footage?
The majority of early films (between say 1895-1905) were actualities, many of them street scenes or views from moving vehicles such as electric trams, then being installed in UK cities. Much of the space seen in these films appears (to me) unexpectedly familiar, as if it has not changed, physically, as much as one might have expected. By exploring the spaces of the past in films, it seems to me that we might begin to better anticipate the spaces of the future. I have been concentrating on the virtual cityscapes of films from around 1900, as they are unusually extensive (in terms of both geographical extent and uninterrupted duration), but the landscapes of UK and other narrative cinema of the late 1960s and early 70s also seem to be very interesting. This was shortly before the 1973 oil crisis and the widespread implementation of computers during the 1970s, which signalled the beginning of the postmodern period.
What films and which filmmakers do you most admire?
Much the same films and filmmakers as most other people, I expect. There are a great many. Just at the moment, I am particularly keen on the films of Robert Hamer.
The most frequently watched film in our house just now is probably Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge, because we recently acquired the dvd. This was made during the period (late 60s/early 70s) I already mentioned. There is a material quality in some of these films (Blow-Up, If. . . and Accident are others) that I find extremely attractive, a combination of the cinematography and the material reality of the period.
What have you enjoyed at the cinema recently?
The last film I remember unequivocally enjoying seeing it projected (for the first time) wasn’t in the cinema, it was a part of Warhol’s Empire in the 2002 exhibition at Tate Modern.
What are your current and possible future projects?
The current project is called The City of the Future, and involves among other things a dvd made with about sixty early topographical films arranged both on a hierarchy of maps, and as a narrative, so that viewers can wander between the two.
The third Robinson project is called The Robinson Institute. I have not yet managed to secure patronage for this film from any of the conventional sources, but have instead found myself working in academic research as if I were (though I hasten to say that I am not) an employee of The Robinson Institute.
London and Robinson in Space are available in a double-disc edition from the BFI now.