Norman Cohen’s filmic version of Geoffrey Fletcher’s 1967 book, The London Nobody Knows, could hardly be called an adaptation. With the book being a mixture of personal documentary and the historical exploring of London streets, its narrative is one purely of journeys if anything else. Cohen was already used to this blurring of fiction and fact having unaccredited work on Arnold L. Miller’s cult documentary, London In The Raw (1965); a work that earnestly blurs this line in order to effectively make a skin-flick in an era when such a picture was incredibly difficult to get off the ground and past the powers that be. Cohen was, therefore, well set for making a response to Fletcher’s work and arguably continues the tradition of the book’s primary function: to capture and document the fluctuating social and architectural topography of the capital whilst it was in the grips of the dramatic post-war development spurt. Because of this, Cohen’s film encompasses several unique techniques for psychogeographic cinema that sees a natural influence over future works such as Chris Petit’s Radio On (1979), William Raban’s Thames Film (1987) and Patrick Keiller’s London (1994).
Though short on length (and in fact finding its broadcast premier on West German television of all places), The London Nobody Knows manages to pack in a number of key cinematic motifs, partly brought over from the literature and partly of its own serendipitous creativity. The first of these comes in the dominant narrative and visual force of the cinematic flaneur; famously played in the film by James Mason. A few years earlier, Mason had been working for the likes of Stanley Kubrick in Lolita (1963), Alfred Hitchcock in North by Northwest (1959) and Jack Clayton in The Pumpkin Eater (1964), so was still a big name for such a small-scale project. He even helped produce the film but this isn’t the reason for mentioning his stature during this period. Instead, it is worth noting the role he plays and how his gentlemanly persona aids the technique of creating the cinematic flaneur; he achieves that rare balance between a lofty distance (well-spoken, flat-cap, umbrella as walking stick etc.) and intimate knowledge of the place (garnered through speaking the words of Fletcher). It’s an incredibly effective mix, so effective in fact that ITV commissioned him for a similar film looking at his home town of Huddersfield in 1972 called Home James. Here though, he managed to achieve that same balance without ghosting Fletcher’s walks and words but in fact retreading his own.
This technique of guiding a viewer in a very literal manner is a key staple of modern psychogeographical film, sometimes acousmatically with no walker visually on screen, other times with a consistent walking companion. Perhaps it could even be seen as a typical staple of general documentary filmmaking, especially on television, but, as Frederick Wiseman suggests in his essay on the “four-way conversation” required in documentary editing, a number of elements need to be addressed by the individual creator on any documentary project: “The crucial element for me is to try and think through my own relationship to the material by whatever combination of means is compatible. This involves a need to conduct a four-way conversation between myself, the sequence being worked on, my memory, and general values and experience” (1994, p.278). Mason is the most effective prototype of the “sequence being worked on” element of this; a smooth talking companion to walk the history of the streets back into life. The other elements align themselves comfortably to the director, the London geography and Fletcher’s text upon it though the idea could equally be seen as a general composite mechanism used by the writer himself. Mason has more roles than this to perform, however. Cohen’s mimicking of Fletcher’s primary role of documentation would not quite work if simply performing the act of filming buildings before their undoubted demolition. Having Mason as a physical presence on screen gives Fletcher’s more opinionated riffs on the state of the modern developments a sense of grounding, authenticity and even an endearing warmth. As psychogeography is so often about a symbolic digging backwards into the history of place, it requires the context of a seer to move its role of documentation into the form of an essay. This is especially necessary considering just how in flux London topography is at this point in history; it requires vitality and opinion to keep alive the buildings even as they fall into the rubble.
Some subtle editing of Fletcher’s text also benefits the film, lifting certain segments straight from the page, whilst others requiring a slight alteration to blend with Mason’s general persona. Compare, as a good example, these two passages discussing the Roundhouse before it was converted into the famous venue that it is today. The former is from the book whilst the latter is spoken in the film:
“The Round House is the huge circular building that can be seen from the trains going north. It makes an impressive subject, as can be seen from my illustration, forming the background to a vast paved area and rusty metals overgrown with willowherb. The Round House dates from 1847, and was designed by Stephenson in association with Dockray and Normanville. Its distinctive feature is the vast conical roof of slate supported on twenty-four cast-iron columns. The building was originally a turntable house for locomotives in the days when expresses prepared for the journey north above the slope running down to Euston. The turntable has gone, but a short section of line is still to be seen.” (1967, p.35)
“This is the Round House; a giant turntable for railway engines which was built in the time when engine drivers still wore top hats. Actually it was partially designed by George Stevenson himself: father of the railway and the inventor of the famous engine, The Rocket. Having once given steam engines its initial shove, he was obliged to apply his creative genius to all the other gadgets that went with railway travel.” (1969).
The difference being that one is designed to be read whilst the other is designed to be spoken and even received. In psychogeographic cinema, this transition is essential. The same can be seen in the Channel 4 version of Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital (2002); where the text’s density is required to be broken as to avoid simply repeating what is on screen. It could be said that any adaptation from a text to the screen has to in some way balance this but psychogeography cinema has to avoid this doubly so as its main content is itself the visual journey; its literary content is its perceptive journey and so can be split between the personal, historical response and the actual journey itself. The London Nobody Knows was one of the earliest films to understand this, bringing in a Hollywood heavy-gun to aid any bumps in the transition from a deeply to personal book to an equally personal film; riding the fluctuating landscape all of the way to its last edgelands and rubble-filled squares.