It's an alarming statistic that 80% of British silent films have disappeared forever - usually because after initial release the negatives and prints were melted down for their silver content. Of the surviving films many are in poor condition: one such up to now has been Anthony Asquith's Underground (1928), which includes sequences filmed on the London Underground railway. I saw the BFI's print of this in 1983, but even by the time they acquired a print and made a preservation in the late 1940s the condition had deteriorated sadly.

Now at last digital restoration techniques, and the discovery of a better (though incomplete) print in Brussels, plus the two surviving reels of the camera negative and one other battered original print, have enabled a restoration to remarkably good quality, which was given its word premiere yesterday evening at the Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of the London Film Festival.

Asquith is now better known for his later sound films, which include Pygmalion and The Importance of Being Earnest, but even by 1928 he was an imaginative and innovative director, and the film is an excellent example of how good his work could be. The plot is simple enough: Underground porter Bill (Brian Aherne) and shop-girl Nell (Elissa Landi) meet by chance in the Underground and quickly fall in love. Nell is pursued by Bert (Cyril McLaglen), a worker at the Underground's power station, despite her lack of interest. Bert persuades Kate (Norah Baring), a girl who is infatuated with him, but in whom he shows no interest, to falsely accuse Bill of molesting her - Nell initially believes this. When Bert abandons her she pursues him to the power station, threatening to expose him: he kills her. Meanwhile Bill and Nell have been tracking them both down, and there is a chase: Bert is arrested and Bill and Nell reunited.

The two leads give excellent and very natural performances - Landi is particularly good, and even in the somewhat over-heated finale the eye-rolling is kept within limits (Kate goes mad in classic film-acting style). However the real fascination of the film is its use of location work. Despite the title only a few relatively short sections are actually filmed on the Underground, but even with what must have been considerable technical difficulties they give a fascinating glimpse of the platforms and escalator (where Bill and Nell first meet) at Waterloo station. (There are also scenes taking place on a moving train, though I suspect these may be a studio set, albeit a very convincing one). There are also intriguing glimpses of London streets, and the final chase takes place round Lots Road power station (though again some of the interiors are sets). These sequences alone make the film valuable for its documentary material.

The presentation was accompanied by live music from a small improvisational group called the Prima Vista Social Club. I've learned to be wary of live scores, having had two films wrecked in the past by totally inappropriate scrapings and plinkings: but the music was directed by Neil Brand, the foremost pianist for silent films at the National Film Theatre, who has a clear understanding of what silent films require. No attempt was made to replicate the rather limited scoring common at the time (usually incorporating great chunks of Liszt and Mendelssohn) but the result was entirely suitable for the film, and supported it rather than distracting from it.

The hall was packed, and the audience clearly enjoyed the film, which stands up very well and needs no apology after eighty years.

Posted: Sat - October 24, 2009 at 10:20 AM by Roger Wilmut          



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Published On: Mar 11, 2016 05:00 PM