"Dirty old Blighty. Undereducated, economically backward, bizarre – a catalogue of modern miseries, with its fake traditions, its Irish war, its militarism and secrecy, its silly old judges, its hatred of intellectuals, its ill-health and bad food, its sexual repression, its hypocrisy and racism, and its indolence. It’s so exotic, so …home-made."
The BFI have been building up an impressively diverse portfolio of DVDs of late, and a very welcome addition to their collection is this long-overdue double-disc set of Patrick Keiller’s two ‘Robinson’ films, London (1994) and Robinson in Space (1997).
London (the film) is distinctive and easy to grasp when watching, but has always resisted easy description. The story, such as it is, is told in lugubrious voiceover by an unnamed narrator (a note-perfect Paul Schofield), and concerns his travels with his friend Robinson, a struggling academic who is conducting research into the ‘problem of London’. Neither character appears onscreen, and there are only a few onscreen allusions to the specific travails of the characters. Instead, the visuals are exclusively occupied with a series of static, ostensibly documentary shots, straightforwardly framed (the narrator reports that Robinson is interested preparing a series of postcards of contemporary London), never prettified, and generally free of people, except for passers-by; although they often contain mischievous juxtapositions – huge gas towers looming over the Oval, that bastion of Englishness, or policemen lurking on a roof overlooking the ceremony of Trooping the Colour.
Robinson is trying to revive the lifestyle of the nineteenth century flaneur, and his journey with the narrator is led by the literary, the companions visiting places connected with Montaigne, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Baudelaire, et al., eventually ending up – while searching for a school once attended by Edgar Allen Poe – at the house in which Daniel Defoe had written about his namesake, Robinson Crusoe: "[Robinson] had gone looking for the man of the crowd, but had found instead shipwreck and a vision of Protestant isolation". This sense of slight disappointment – always framed by the narrator’s understated irony – hangs over the Robinson’s search, and the film. As they tour the great agglomeration that is London, the narrator and, through him, Robinson muse on architecture, poetry, painting, photography, urban planning, and contemporary politics. Our companions are witness to the shock victory of the Conservatives in the general election of 1992, a crushing disappointment for the pair of old left aesthetes that contributes to the sense of social decay that hangs over the film, and leads to the gloomy but probably accurate conclusion that "the true identity of London is in its absence".
In Robinson in Space the narrator catches up with Robinson a couple of years later in Reading. Robinson has been commissioned by an advertising agency to conduct a follow-up "peripatetic study of the problem of England", so the two of them tour the provinces searching for the remnants of British industry, mostly finding instead travel hotels and new roads. As they proceed, Robinson becomes increasingly obsessed with his paranoid theories about the government and the arms industry, eventually finding his contract cancelled from under him.
Inevitably the passage of time leaves London and Robinson in Space no longer feeling like commentaries on current events, as they did on their original release. London now has an Assembly, a Mayor, and a renewed – if somewhat grouchy – sense of civic pride; the last grim years of the John Major’s government (when, as the narrator muses, "it seemed that there was no longer anything a Conservative government could do to cause it to be voted out of office") seem like distant, dull nightmare; and even though the glorious gloss of May 1997 has long since worn off, "dirty old Blighty" (the litany of complaints against which, quoted above, opens the first film) doesn’t seem like quite such a "catalogue of modern miseries" any more. Indeed, with its boxy cars, Tory government and IRA bombs, London feels so much like a document of a bygone era that it’s hard not to feel a little nostalgic watching it – especially if you recognise the places depicted – however miserable it was at the time.
Nevertheless, these two films captivatingly occupy the rarely-trodden ground between the popular and the avant-garde, between Richard Curtis and Isaac Julien, and do so with such charm and urbanity that they deserve to be a part of the DVD collection of anyone who has more than a passing interest in the recent political and longer cultural history of this country.
There are no special features on the discs, and (as is often the case with art-house releases) the transfers aren’t great, but they are beautifully presented and accompanied by a booklet containing a useful essay by Mike Hodges (director of Get Carter ), some predictably abstruse commentary from Iain Sinclair (characteristically entitled ‘London: Necropolis of Fretful Ghosts’), and an interesting conversation between Keiller and historian Patrick Wright.