While many of you were rushing round the Circle line on Sunday, I was at the cinema to watch a film about trains. Proper electric underground trains rumbling beneath the streets of London, and the characters who inhabit them. The auditorium was full, the film lasted an hour and a half, and everyone left enthused by the character development, the cinematography and the chase scene at the end.
What was highly unusual about the film is that Underground is 85 years old. To save you the calculation, that means it was shot in 1928, in black and white, just before the advent of the 'talkies'. It took a major act of restoration to digitise a damaged nitrate print by removing all the scratches, fades and faint bits - an act only completed when a second copy was uncovered in Belgium. Then a new score was composed, especially for the cleaned-up version, recorded by the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican. End result, an unexpected masterpiece of timely nostalgia. Want to see an eight minute video about the restoration? Watch here.
If you're thinking silent movies involve comedians in bowler hats and floozies fluttering their eyelashes, think again. This film has a full story arc, and proper character development, and tracking shots aboard moving vehicles. It starts off by emerging from a tunnel into a gloomy Northern line station where waiting passengers jostle for position. Then we're aboard the train, in a crowded rush hour carriage, as a situation familiar to commuters today plays out. A sailor and a soldier stand to offer their seats to a young lady, but two other passengers slip in behind and steal them away. Another passenger attempts to offer his seat to a sturdy-looking policewoman, but she spurns his kindness and he slinks back down to hide behind his paper. Want to see the first two minutes of the film? Watch here.
Within minutes we've met the film's central love triangle, that's Nell (a shopworker) and her two suitors Bill and Bert. Bill has filmstar looks, but has somehow ended up guarding the foot of one of those new-fangled escalators. They slanted in those days, you know, so you had to step off right foot first or you'd stumble horribly. Bert meanwhile works at the local Power House, and we can tell he's the baddie because he was one of the two seat-stealers earlier. Everyone wears a splendid hat - Nell a dapper flapper number, Bill a peaked cap and Bert a cloth cap. And a buttonhole. Buttonholes will turn out to be crucial as the coincidence-packed plot develops, but that's not evident at the start. Want to see the escalator scene? Watch here.
Director Anthony Asquith (son of the former Prime Minister) has a lot of fun mixing serious plot development with comic touches. Bert tries on a new hat, and leaves feeling over-confident. Nell works on a shop floor, but has tussles with her draconian supervisor. A bus ride to Hampstead Heath leads to a romantic picnic (and the sharing of a banana). A pub landlady watches impassively as her local is smashed in a bust-up over a girl. A bleaker note is struck as Bert's existing girlfriend becomes increasingly unhinged, in a commanding performance by actress Norah Baring (who you might know from Hitchcock's Murder!). A lot of this could very easily be a modern film, apart from the captions that flash up every so often. Want to read much more about the cast and plot? Look here.
Only about a quarter of the action occurs on the Underground, but there are several period features such as line diagrams and lattice-fronted lifts to whet your appetite. A climactic chase scene takes place on the roof of Lots Road Power Station, then out into the adjacent creek - unbelievably accomplished in style for the 1920s. But of course it's still possible to pick holes in the continuity (hang on, there are no underground tunnels in Chelsea) (and surely that's the Bakerloo line, not the Northern). Want to see the rooftop chase? Watch here.
I enjoyed Underground far more than I'd expected, not least as a window into the era when my grandparents could have been Bill and Nell. Each shot was framed intelligently, the musical score was delightful and the film held my attention throughout. And then of course there was London, captured "as it was" in the background, now a welcome snapshot of long-vanished times. Congratulations to the British Film Institute for having the foresight and the expertise to rescue this old master, and for proving that excellence in British film-making has been around a lot longer than you'd think.