Going underground

OK, here’s a test for you – who’s in this picture? It’s a frame still from a newsreel of an aviation demonstration held in Britain for the parliamentary aerial defence committee at Hendon in May 1911. It shows two parents and their 9-year-old son. Recognise him at all? Well, it may help to know that the father is Herbert Asquith, prime minister of Britain at the time, with his wife Margot. And so yes the little boy is indeed Anthony Asquith, making his first appearance on a medium where a dozen or so years later he would shine as one of Britain’s leading film directors and go on to enjoy a notable career in film spanning four decades.

Asquith is back in vogue. Most who know their film history will associate him with elegant if (apparently) bloodless society dramas, typically adaptations of Terence Rattigan plays, peaking with a peerless version of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. But now more and more we are being encouraged to look at Asquith the young man, who took a very different approach to the camera. In common with a number of the British intelligensia of the early 1920s Anthony Asquith became fascinated by film while at university. He spent some time in Hollywood as a guest of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, joined H. Bruce Woolfe’s British Instructional Films to learn about filmmaking from the gound up, and was a founder member of the Film Society, the London-based body formed to screen films of articis worth or historical interest which did so much to establish an intellctual film culture in Britain.

Asquith first served as a general assistant on Sinclair Hill’s Boadicea (1926), before writing the script for Shooting Stars (1927), a film for which he was also described as assistant director, with industry old hand A.V. Bramble being named director. But the opinion of posterity (and even opinion at the time) is this is an Asquith film. It is one of the most astonishing of film debuts: a witty deconstruction of filmmaking (the story is set in a film studio) and a stylistic grand feast. It is crying out for restoration with new score, and all of promotional works that we now expect to come with high-level silents brought back to public attention. Doubtless all that will happen in the fullness of time, but before Shooting Stars becomes the talk of the town we have the film of the town, and that is Underground.

Underground (1928) was the first film for which Asquith received full director credit, and it shows quite definitely that Shooting Stars was no fluke (or astonishing late career flourish from Bramble). It is a work of someone who had seen a lot of German and Soviet films at the Film Society and who wanted to bring the exciting techniques of expressionism and Soviet montage, coupled with psychological penetration, to a British setting. Underground achieves this about as well as you could hope. There is something slightly ridiculous about looming shadows, vertiginous camera angles and doom-laden characters placed among the mundanities of a London setting. Eisenstein showed a people impelled towards revolution; Asquith shows them catching the Undergound train everyday. There is a melodramatic love story to follow, with an absolutely splendid fight climax (some of which you can see in the trailer above), but the real story is the ebb and flow of London life, which doesn’t really fit in with the tempestuous technique. The revolution was not going to happen in London – Asquith was interested in what the camera could do, not what society might do, and the two do not really connect in Underground.

But what the heck – it’s a great film to watch, and now the BFI restoration is getting the full new orchestral score treatment courtesy of Neil Brand and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It’s worth noting how extraordinary this is, in terms of British silent films. Brand’s score for Blackmail, shown at Bologna and at the Barbican in London last year, was the first full orchestral score for a British silent fiction film since the days of the silents themselves (Laura Rossi produced an orchestral score for the documentary The Battle of the Somme in 2006). Underground is the second. It shows how the critical and commercial reputation for British silents has risen in recent years – or at least the small coterie of British silents that are likely to please a modern audience. Asquith’s A Cottage on Dartmoor has entered many people’s favourite lists after its DVD release and Stephen Horne‘s great work in accompanying it, and one expects that preconceptions will be shifted once again once word gets round about Underground‘s particular thrills.

Underground is being shown with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Timothy Brock at the Barbican, London, on 5 October 2011. The Barbican web page has full booking details, plus a podcast with Neil Brand giving his thoughts on scoring for silent films. It will be good to be there if you can.

Anthony Asquith made four silent features. The third among them, The Runaway Princess (1929), I’ve not seen but has a reputation of being a bit on the lightweight side. It was an Anglo-German production, for which Asquith was encouraged or obliged to rein in the arty stuff, and there’s unlikely to be much there to excite an audience today. But Shooting Stars – now there is treat for you in the future, I hope.

2 responses

  1. Now wouldn’t it be nice if the BBC were to broadcast UNDERGROUND and/or the bfi released it on DVD, ideally together with SHOOTING STARS? Both are superb films, on a par with A COTTAGE ON DARTMOOR, and might do a lot to rectify the myth that no good silent films were made in Britain.

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