Thursday, February 7, 2008

Notes From the Underground


I do like the London Underground when it's being decorated. Not once it's been decorated: then it's back to looking horrible again. But in those few weeks when the work is ongoing, it's a treat.
Long corridors with not a single poster, advert-free platforms... It just shows you what the place can be like with a little imagination.
Best of all is when years of accumulated advertising is stripped away to reveal decades-old posters underneath. The best example of this was when I was at university and a bit of rebuilding brought back to life the posters for Operation Crossbow and Dr Who and the Daleks, hidden since 1965 and briefly revealed again, only to be presumably lost forever.
I was reminded of this recently when I saw some old posters excavated on the Northern Line. Even as I was enjoying them, a bit of mental calculation revealed with a chill to my spine that they dated from around 1992, and were therefore exactly contemporary with the ones I was so glad to see stripped away in my university days.
That's when I knew I'd been in London too long.
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Here are my five favourite Underground movies:
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1. An American Werewolf in London (1981)
A late-running commuter is chased through the tunnels of Tottenham Court Road by the lycanthropic tourist of the title. The blink-and-you'll-miss-it shot of the monster padding towards the bottom of the escalator is perhaps the scariest effects shot in this uniformly magnificent film.
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2. Bulldog Jack (1934)
Fay Wray on the Underground in the rousing action climax to this odd semi-spoof of Bulldog Drummond. Great fun, with lots of old London footage; probably the most interesting product of her British sabbatical.
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3. I Thank You (1941)
First rate vehicle for Arthur Askey and Stinker Murdoch begins with Arthur waking on an Underground platform during the Blitz, and launching into a rendition of Hello To The Sun. One of the sleepers is a dead ringer for Hitler but it's okay - he's clutching a copy of the Jewish Chronicle. Never such innocence again.
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4. Rich & Strange (1931)
One of Hitchcock's strangest and most untypical films begins with a nicely edited montage of the London working life, including some splendid tunnel-eye views of the Underground which appear, unusually for the director, to be genuine.
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5. Death Line (1972)
Nostalgic reminder of the days when the most you needed to worry about on the Underground at night was a tribe of inbred cannibals who abduct commuters from Russell Square station and eat them. The descendants of a construction crew trapped and abandoned a century before, they are riddled with disease and capable of speaking only three words: "Mind the doors". I'm pretty sure I've seen some of these myself. Some good laughs and a few scares in this horror for the Man About the House generation.