London Film Festival 2013 Review: ‘How We Used To Live’

‘How We Used To Live’ is from the same St Etienne documentary team of Bob Stanley (writing), Pete Wiggs (music) and Paul Kelly (directing). Their boxset of documentaries called London Trilogy: 2003 – 2007 was reviewed earlier this year –

For this fourth visual tribute to London they’ve added friend and author Travis Elborough into the creative mix. Not only is he a long time resident, but his books ‘The Bus We Loved: London’s Affair with the Routemaster’, ‘London Bridge in America: The Tall Story of a Transatlantic Crossing’ and most recently ‘A London Year: 365 Days of City Life in Diaries, Journals and Letters’ ensure his input is loaded with the kind of knowledge and awareness their documentaries thrive on.

The tone of the film is set early on, when a blonde woman in a white coat is seen flitting around amongst the rubble of demolished, Victorian terraced houses. It’s surreal and beguiling as we are led into the exposed cellars of a brownfield site and then BOOM, our view jumps to the brave new world of high-rise London and a partially built tower block surrounded in scaffolding. It’s a metaphor for the whole of the film – blink and you miss the changing face of London. Made entirely from government archive footage from late 60s, the 70s and 1980, ‘How We Used To Live’ captures the heady, evolution of Britain’s biggest city. Left languishing for too long after the war it seems that the consensus was to rip it up and start again.

On the surface of this documentary there is evidence of a recent, but now forgotten past. Cigarette ads on the side of red buses, premiers for ‘Let it Be’ in Piccadilly Circus and harangued commuters scowling into the intrusive lens – curious as to why they’re being filmed versus today’s ubiquity of CCTV cameras that plot our every move. There are great shots around Oxford Circus showing the problem of getting vast amounts of people in that tube station at rush hour have always existed. Safe to say though, everyone looks to be in less of a hurry and more polite than they would today.

It’s clear the filmmakers believe that what makes a city is its people. Conversely what you see is planners and builders colluding to make the place impersonal and controlled to stem the flow of the ‘forced informality’ that one archive voiceover tells us is all the rage.

The hues of the sixties footage is like the world seeing itself in colour for very first time. It’s exciting and real. The early seventies content is plastic by comparison – an era when the petro-chemical industry was giving us dazzling bright plastics and manmade fibres. Judging by the models laughing at commuters or the daring skateboarder weaving between bowler-hatted folk it was also a time when the folly of youth was no longer easily ignored. There’s also a bit of videotape as we near 1980 with images of fashionable punks. A segment where Wiggs’ loungy, urbane sounds transform into spunky electronica that signifies the race into the future is on. Over all of this, Ian MacShane’s mellifluous tones, poetically points out the good, bad and indifferent by-products of all this change.

In addition to those social engineering London, ‘How We Used To Live’ sees the automobile as the enemy. Quick cuts to overhead shots of cars flooding the streets like invaders sent to keep you on the move. They contrast sharply with trains benignly snaking in and out of tunnels and gliding into station platforms – there only to serve. Later on a voiceover retrieved from the archives even tells us roads breed anxiety and railways are relaxing.

The colour footage from this period brings a smattering of celebrity, including the familiar faces of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip. These totems of UK tradition and stasis are often used against a voiceover narrative that cheekily subverts the notion that they are just Londoners as much as the next person.

‘How We Used To Live’ shows that London then, as now, works despite inhuman logic thrown at its people. Young people are its best defence and its lifeblood. For the establishment it’s simply too hard to keep up as another excited batch arrives to face the future head on – never asking what went before – only demanding what’s next.

This documentary serves to remind us that for all that the planners and urban economists want to manage the growth of London, an anarchic streak gets into the mix making sure no one is really in control of our capital city. Kelly and company capture that London really is a joyful, enthralling Frankenstein’s monster of a place. And it lives.

Originally appeared on Britflicks at


About Stuart Wright

Screenwriter, Podcast Host, Journalist, LFC, Horror, Leyton
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