50 Years of the London Boroughs
Looking through the LSA treasures with the London boroughs in mind, has reminded me about how important these units of local government are to Londoners. Invented in 1965, the London Boroughs are now 50 years old.
At 50 they are now firmly bedded down into London: always present in the urban landscape, 7 days a week, a bit like the weather. And like the weather, the boroughs can be changeable; going through the odd stormy period but generally being benign and enabling things to grow. The boroughs are, after all, the agents of the people, working for the people. And how better to celebrate their 50 years of public service than through film.
Here are some films that have caught my eye as saying something about the splendid, but often unsung work the boroughs have done over the past 50 years.
This film is included as a reminder that the London boroughs made films themselves as well as commissioning them.
This is a memorably distinctive offering from Camden which uses animation and poetry - an ‘ode’ – to convey a road safety message. ’This is the tale of Else Bossing / who would not use a proper crossing’ intones Cyril Fletcher with gravity. The slightly bizarre mixture has an added twist of strangeness in that the ode is introduced by the boxer Henry Cooper.
It would be nice to know whether Camden intended the film to appeal to children, or pensioners – Elsie is definitely a grumpy old woman, however she does eventually learn her lesson and everyone lives happily ever after.
The Tale of Elsie Bossing
This is a rather sweet film with a very British feel. Although the borough is new, the film is very keen to let the viewer know that Hounslow is very old indeed. Hence the film starts in the 18th century with a stage coach.
I always think that starting in the past, as a kind of throat-clearing exercise before getting to the present, is a distinctively British habit, but maybe it’s true of other nationalities as well.
Anyway, we soon get to Hounslow in the 1960s and the modern services that the new borough is going to provide for its residents, all of which sound splendid. Look out for the sculpture park, which includes some truly modern works; and the pantomime, another distinctively British habit.
The First Stage: Hounslow - A New Borough
This film from the 1974 achieves the rare distinction of making local government planning processes rather engaging to the outsider. Although the GLC set out frameworks for the overall development of the metropolis, the London Boroughs still had lots of choices to make about the nature of developments, roads, amenities etc in their local patches.
Here Haringey’s earnest young officers go about their work with exemplary thoroughness, seeking advice from experts and residents, and being thoughtful about how their borough is developing.
On the way there are lots of great images of North London neighbourhoods in the 1970s. Some places look exactly the same today, others are very different indeed. How much of today’s changes was foreseen by the 1974 planners?
What Future for Haringey?
Another reminder that although the London Boroughs were new in 1965, the places they governed had long histories stretching back, in Southwark’s case, to Roman times.
This film again has a very British feel, not just because the Queen is in it and not just because the weather in June 1977 was as rainy and windy as the June weather for her 2012 Golden Jubilee.
Here, you can see a quintessentially British historical pageant with lots of people parading through the rain-swept streets of Rotherhithe in costume: Shakespearean characters mingle with a tall man on stilts, a steel band and Isambard Kingdom Brunel chatting to a woman in a bikini. Everyone is ridiculously enthusiastic.
This film is a good illustration of the ceremonial side of the London boroughs, one of the many ways in which they have helped nurture a sense of local place and local pride over the past 50 years.
Visit to Southwark of Her Majesty the Queen, 9th June 77
This is an old-school public information film, explaining the new system of local government that brought the London boroughs into being in 1965, along with the Greater London Council (GLC).
The film was made by the GLC and you can tell from its tone that the GLC considered itself to be the most important of the new bodies: it dealt with big strategy, rather than the merely local matters devolved to the boroughs.
However, as it turned out, the boroughs were to outlive the GLC which was abolished in 1986. If you want a facts and figures account of which local government body did what in 1965, this is the film for you. It’s very professionally made so also includes some great visuals.
This is another film made by the GLC (and therefore very professional) but encompassing the work of the London Boroughs as well. It’s a stark reminder of the main issue that faced London in the mid 1960s – no, not the optimum length of the mini-skirt, but housing.
Housing is in fact always the main issue facing London. Whereas today the housing problem is about affordability and key workers, then it was about providing a basic level of amenities - inside toilets, for example – for all.
There are some truly startling images of the slum conditions some families were still living in at the time. The London Boroughs put heroic efforts into housing provision in the first 10 years of their existence. Mistakes may have been made, but the problems identified in this film were tackled with vigour.
Somewhere Decent to Live