The cameraman pushes through the crowd in London’s ramshackle Petticoat Lane Market. He is high up. Is he standing on the back of a cart? A car? As he pushes forward, the men – and they nearly are all men – turn and look over their shoulders, their eyes momentarily catching the lens’s attention. And then they cleave, left and right, letting the camera plough on.
The year is 1927 and the man behind the camera is the English cinematographer Claude Friese-Greene who made a series of films as he travelled the length of the British Isles. The films are good but what changes everything is when you know they are all in colour.
This film about London is not a new discovery, people have known about it for years and some time ago the British Film Institute released a computer-enhanced version. Hell, there’s even been a TV show about the man and his movies and his Friese-Greene Natural Colour process (this was a complicated way to turn black-and-white imagery to colour by using filters and dyes).
But over the past few weeks this view to the past has gone viral with some half a million views on YouTube alone. Yet even that isn’t really the fascinating nub. The real intrigue here is the "why". Why does a film from 1927 of a city covered in soot, with barges packing out the Thames, and of a young girl feeding sparrows in a park, grab the attention of said YouTube generation?
It’s all down to the colour.
As we imagine the photographic past and travel back through time in our minds, normally the colour slowly drains away. After the flowerbed colours of 1950s Technicolor you fall into the black and whites of the 1940s and 1930s with the odd, quirky exception. Didn’t I see a picture of Hitler in colour once? And by the 1920s we see people as grey.
And their demeanour changes too. People become more static, posed. That’s why Claude Friese-Greene’s film trips you up. It’s a cliché that for once rings true: the pictures bring the past alive. The men glancing up at the lens, at you, are just there, breathing, you can almost reach out and touch their shoulders.
And in moving colour you start noticing small details: how come so many of the sleek women in cloche hats have walks ready for a catwalk? Did people just walk better then? What happened to all those caps and trilbies? Did no man leave home without covering his head? And see how London was covered in grime; Nelson’s Column looks like a factory chimney it’s so soot soaked.
But it’s the people that pull you in – the woman slightly tired heading over London Bridge, the soldier in full uniform mixing with the throng. I wonder, if like me, the colour somehow allows those half a million viewers to travel back in time and narrow the gap with a place which, mistakenly, we had thought was a long way off. This is a film that brings back the dead, pumps smoke once again through chimney pots and adds balletic traffic chaos to the unmarked city streets. You should have a look.
Andrew Tuck is editor of Monocle.