Whilst we regularly feature and praise the work of Charles Holden for London Underground, without Frank Pick, none of Holden’s designs would have been possible. Pick, working for the Underground Electric Railways of London (UERL) and then the London Transport Passenger Board (LPTB), revolutionised the way the fledgling underground network presented itself, changing everything from advertising posters, network maps and the stations themselves, creating the tube we know today.
Pick was born in Spalding, Lincolnshire on 23rd November 1878, to Francis and Fanny Pick. After finishing his schooling he studied law at the University of London, before going to work for North Eastern Railways. There he became assistant to managing director George Gibb, and when Gibb moved to work for the Underground Electric Railways of London in 1906, Pick followed. Starting as assistant to Gibb, by 1908 Pick had become Publicity Officer, and by 1909 Traffic Development Officer. Three years later Pick was the UERL’s Commercial Manager. It was this this role that Pick started to have a real impact on the identity of the Underground network.
Pick was given the task of increasing passenger numbers, as the UERL was locked in competition with a number of other private rail, bus and tram companies. Pick started by instigating a standardisation of advertising materials; setting poster sizes, as well as their number and placement within stations. Pick also commissioned Edward Johnston is design a distinctive typeface for UERL materials, the now iconic “Johnston” type. A few years later, Pick would also change to the underground map o Harry Beck’s radical new design. Pick initially dismissed Becks design, produced by Beck unwarranted, but after some persuasion by Beck and a trail run, the tube map as we (almost) know it today was launched in 1932.
The other important person Pick bought in to the UERL fold was of course, Charles Holden. They met in 1915 at a Design and Industries Association meeting, and when in the early 1920s Pick wanted to modernise the underground networks stations, Holden was man he turned to. The UERL already had a chief architect, Stanley Heaps, who had taken over from Leslie Green in 1908, but Pick was not a fan of his designs, so Holden and his firm, Adams, Holden & Pearson, were bought in to create a “new architectural idiom”, with the stations themselves communicating modernity, speed and ease of use. This was first achieved on the Morden extension of Northern Line, where Holden produced a simple design of double height ticket halls, clad in Portland stone.
Pick and Holden’s next major project was the Piccadilly Line extension. Something that had been planned for a number of years but shelved due to lack of funds, before work began in the early 1930’s. To research the new architectural styles, in 1930 Pick and Holden visited Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia, visiting buildings by the likes of Willem Dudok, with whom Pick was particularly taken. The buildings they saw eschewed decoration and concentrated on letting the function of the building guide its form. Pick and Holden were also impressed by the illumination of buildings at night, something they replicated on many underground stations.
The new Piccadilly Line station, especially those built from Turnpike Lane to Cockfosters, set new standards in contemporary British public architecture. This was the first time a group of public buildings had been so carefully planned and executed in the modernist style, taking in all aspects of the commuters journey from station design to advertising posters to platform lighting. The buildings themselves were highly praised in the architectural press and visited by designers and officials from aboard. Of the stations built, Turnpike Lane was recorded as Pick’s favourite due to the to the success of the design in integrating the different above ground transport elements, including bus station and tram stops. The highly thought of Arnos Grove proved to be his least favorite, and he approved the scheme only after much persuasion.
More stations and works were built as part of the 1935-40 New Works Programme, and Pick who had become Joint Managing Director of UERL in 1928, was named as Chief Executive Officer and Vice Chairman of London Passenger Transport Board when it was formed in 1933. However, Pick’s star would not ascend forever. Despite his achievements since joining the UERL in 1906, in May 1940 Pick resigned from the LPTB after disagreements of its restructuring. He then had a short and unproductive spell as Director General of the Ministry of Information. He only lived until November 1941 when he died at his house in Golders Green from a cerebral haemorrhage.
Pick’s legacy was far reaching, being instrumental in creating a large scale integrated transport network for what was then one of the worlds biggest cities. Pick thought of this undertaking as being the modern equivalent of building a medieval cathedral, bringing together a large number of master craftsman, to create a modern work of art. Pick’s mix of pragmatism, drive and attention to detail would allow those designers, such as Holden and Johnston, to create the Tube as we know it.
Charles Holden- Eitan Karol
Bright Underground Spaces- David Lawrence
Frank Pick Wikipedia page
A Guide to Modernism in Metro-Land, our guidebook to help you discover the suburbs best art deco, modernist & brutalist buildings is crowdfunding now. Go HERE to get your copy.
Crowdfunding for A Guide to Modernism in Metro-Land has reached 84% with over 600 supporters! Thank you to everyone who has pledged so far. We know you all eager to get your hands on a copy of the book, and we thank you for your patience. We are getting closer and hopefully it won’t be too long before you’ve got your copies in your hand.
To help the final push, we have introduced three new pledge levels, as follows;
For £20 you will receive a first edition paperback of A Guide to Modernism in Metroland as well as one 8x10 inch digital photographic print from a choice of three of Charles Holden’s “round” stations; Arnos Grove, Chiswick Park or Southgate. If you have already chosen the £15 pledge level you can upgrade for only £5 and receive a print as well as helping push the total towards the magic 100%! This will really help our progress. To upgrade just click on the green Upgrade/Donate button next to A Guide to Modernism in Metroland on your Unbound account.
For £35 you will receive a first edition paperback of A Guide to Modernism in Metroland and three 8x10 inch digital prints of Charles Holden’s “round” stations; Arnos Grove, Chiswick Park and Southgate.
Ideal for anyone organising an architectural society or reading group, or just someone who is stocking up on Christmas presents; this pledge level gives you 10 copies of A Guide to Modernism in Metroland for £150.
We chose “Frank Pick” and “Piccadilly Circus” as pledge level names as they both celebrate important anniversaries in the next few weeks. Keep an eye out on our blog for more information.
As ever, don’t forget you can choose one of our other great pledge levels or simply donate a sum by clicking on the green Upgrade/Donate button on your Unbound account. Every little helps push us closer to 100%. Once again, thank you for your support and patience, and we hope the next update will be when reach 100%.
Finsbury Health Centre opened on 21st October 1938, and was praised for its architectural design as well as its moral purpose, two things that were seen to go hand in hand. A number of health centres in the art deco or modernist style had been built in London and beyond in the interwar years; Owen Williams’ Pioneer Centre in Peckham being the most famous. But Berthold Lubetkin and Tecton’s design for Finsbury Borough set new standards in modernist architecture and in public health in Britain.
The centre was conceived as part of the “Finsbury Plan”, a borough wide policy to combat common problems such as lice, ricketts and diphtheria. The plan was to encompass a health centre, libraries, public baths and nurseries. Due to World War II, only the health centre was completed before 1939. The building was meticulously planned by Lubetkin and his Tecton colleagues, little expense was spared in providing the best medical technology for the inhabitants of Finsbury, (“Nothing is too good for the ordinary people” was Lubetkin’s famous maxim).
Lubetkin and Tecton had previously designed a health centre for Dr Philip Ellman in 1932. The building was to be a TB centre in East Ham. The flexible design was shown at the British Medical Association Congress in 1933, and was well received. However the centre did not come to fruition, but a visitor to the BMA congress was a Dr. Katial, Chairman of the Public Health Committee of Finsbury Council, who would commission the Finsbury Health Centre in 1935.
The building in Finsbury featured TB and foot clinics, a solarium, a dentist, a decontamination zone and a mortuary. It also catered to the mind as well as the body, featuring a lecture theatre and murals by Gordon Cullen. The structure itself was built from reinforced concrete in a H plan with two flanking wings, with a curved frontage, something Lubetkin likened to a "smile on the front of the machine". The building is finished in faience tiling, glass bricks, and brass, copper & teak framing. The centre even featured chairs designed by Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto. The interior was arranged to be more like a drop in centre than a formal doctors waiting room; there was no reception desk (one was added later) and the waiting area seating was loosely arranged rather than in the traditional rows.
The health centre and the wider Finsbury Plan was part of a progressive socialist movement of the war years; one that would eventually see Clement Attlee's Labour party sweep to power in 1945. This was made explicit in Abram Games 1943 propaganda poster featuring the health centre, “Your Britain-Fight for it Now”, which was apparently banned at the behest of Winston Churchill.
The buildings mix of forward looking design and public responsibility, as well as its balance of physical and mental elements, set a tone for the post war architectural period with its outpouring of state sanctioned design. Lubetkin and Tecton would build further projects in Finsbury; the estates in Priory Green and Spa Green; but never again would this partnership of design and purpose by realized so well. And unlike the previously mentioned Pioneer Centre, which is now an apartment block, the Finsbury Health Centre is serving patients to this day.
A Guide to Modernism in Metro-Land, our guidebook to help you discover the suburbs best art deco, modernist & brutalist buildings is crowdfunding now. Go HERE to get your copy.
We were very pleased the receive a copy of the book Modern London by Lukas Novotny (out on October 4th). It is an illustrated guide to many architectural styles of London from the 1920's right up to the present day. Featuring buildings ranging from the Hoover Factory to Balfron Tower to the Cheesegrater, the book covers the changing face of London over the last 100 years in all its glory, enlivened by Lukas' wonderful illustrations.
The 144 pages pack in plenty of art deco, modernist and brutalist designs, as well as representing a host of other styles. It has accessible but well detailed text for each building, and also features the changing designs of the capitals various buses, cars and other modes of transport. If you would like to purchase the book, it is available from Lukas' website HERE, as well as via all the usual book selling sites.
Open House London returns on the weekend of 22nd and 23rd September, allowing you access to hundreds of building normally closed or difficult to access for the public. Again this year there seems to be a heavy skew towards the contemporary, but there are still plenty of art deco, modernist and brutalist buildings for you to enjoy. Here are our picks of the weekend with links to each building.
The icons of modernist design are all accounted for. Erno Goldfinger has 5 buildings in this years programme; Greenside School, Haggerston School, Metro Central Heights, Trellick Tower and 2 Willow Road. Other brutalist behemoths by Denys Lasdun (Royal College of Physicians, National Theatre) and Basil Spence (Salters Hall, Swiss Cottage) can be visited. Buildings by slightly earlier modernist architects are also open, such as Charles Holden (55 Broadway, Senate House)
Berthold Lubetkin (Bevin Court, Priory Green) and Frederick Gibberd (Fullwell Cross Library, Pullman Court)
The post war estate is also well catered for with great examples in Camden (Stoneleigh Terrace, Alexandra Road), the City of London (Golden Lane, Barbican) Haringey (Page High, Ferry Lane), Chelsea (World's End) and Lambeth (Cressingham Gardens).
There are a bunch of interwar cinemas included in the programme; The Phoenix in East Finchley, the Rio Cinema in Dalston, The former Rayners Lane Grosvenor, the Troxy in Stepney, and the spectacular former Tooting Granada.
Churches and Religious Buildings are also well served. There are interesting interwar churches in Barking (St Patricks), Edmonton (St Alphege) and North Harrow (St Alban). There are also some excellent and varied post war religious buildings open St Pauls Newington, St Bonifatus in Whitechapel and the award winning St Pauls Bow Common. You can also see a number of Quaker Meeting houses; in Blackheath Quaker by Trevor Dannatt and Wanstead by Norman Frith.
Of course what are really about is the suburbs and its wealth of modernist buildings, and there are plenty of interesting finds in the outer boroughs. In Croydon you can find the St Bernards houses by the Swiss architects Atelier 5, as well as Croydon's answer to the Royal Festival Hall, Fairfeld Halls. In Greenwich you can visit 129 Maze Hill, an architects studio and house from 1968 by Myles and Deirdre Dove Architects. In Merton you can visit another post war house, designed in the Case Study House style, 31b St Mary’s Road by Peter Foggo. Lewisham has the Segal Method self build houses in Honor Oak Park open for visiting on Sunday.
Earlier houses open include CFA Voysey’s 14 South Parade in Ealing, the Dorich House Museum by Dora Gordine and Richard Hare in Kingston and Bruno Court in Hackney, a 1935 art deco former hospital extension by Burnet, Tait & Lorne. If you feel like seeing something a little different there is Mortlake Crematorium in Richmond, designed in 1939 by F. Douglas Barton in an restrained art deco style.
There are also a few tours worth taking. 50 years of the Victoria Line is celebrated with visit to the first 6 stations that opened on the line (something we blogged about a couple of weeks back). You can also take a tour around the Thamesmead estate in Bexley, which also opened 50 years ago. An earlier estate, Becontree in Barking & Dagenham, is available to tour by bus on Sunday.
And finally, our own Modernism in Metroland walking tour of the art deco and Modernist houses of Stanmore returns for a fourth year. Tours will take place on the Saturday at 10am and 2pm, meeting outside Stanmore station. Wherever you go, we hope you have a great time!
A Guide to Modernism in Metro-Land, our guidebook to help you discover the suburbs best art deco, modernist & brutalist buildings is crowdfunding now. Go HERE to get your copy.
The new Victoria underground service opened with little fanfare on Sunday 1st September 1968, with the first train leaving for Highbury & Islington from Walthamstow (which was then the extent of the line) at 6:30am. Three months later to the day, the next section opened, south from Highbury & Islington to Warren Street. The new line did finally get an official ceremony, with the Queen unveiling a commemorative plaque at Victoria station on March 9th 1969, and taking a short tube trip to Green Park, becoming the first reigning monarch to take the underground. The grand station had been linked up to its tube line progeny two days earlier, with another extension to Brixton being completed in July 1971.
The line had first been mooted in 1937, connecting North East London to the centre. After much to and froing, a Parliamentary Bill for ‘Route C’ from Walthamstow to Victoria was passed in 1955, with an extension to Brixton added in 1965. The name of the new line took some different forms, with a Bakerloo style portmanteau name favoured, with the results being “Walvic” (Walthamstow-Victoria) and “Viking” (Victoria-Kings Cross). Eventually “Victoria” was suggested and passed for use. Compared to its illustrious forebears, such as the Piccadilly Line, or future feats like the Jubilee line, visually the Victoria Line lacks the ‘Wow’ factor. However the line does have some design features worth exploring.
The new line did not have many new stations built for it, mostly using connecting stations that were already were part of the London Underground network. A new station building was built at Blackhorse Road, opening on September 1st along with the line itself. The station is in the tradition of the Charles Holden Sudbury Box, with a spacious rectangular ticket hall in dark brick. The real interest lies in its artworks, featuring a fiberglass relief of a black horse by David McFall, which is surrounded by a mosaic created by Trata Drescha.
Tottenham Hale is the next station south on the line, and not much to write home about with constant rebuildings and additions muddling any coherent idea (it is currently undergoing another redevelopment). However it does have a great, futuristic bus waiting room designed by Alsop Lyall & Stormer from 1992. It comprises a tunnel shaped waiting room, featuring porthole windows and a 50 metre artwork by Bruce Maclean. MacLean, designed three artworks for Tottenham Hale, Path of the People (the 50 meter mural), Bridge of Signs (a fountain) and Tower of Time (a blue beacon), but the last two have now been demolished.
At the other end of the line, Stockwell was given a new station building as well. It was in keeping with Blackhorse Road and Tottenham Hale in being a rather dour design, with a single storey entrance hall balanced next to the ventilation tower in dark brick. Flats have now been added above the station in the same dark brick. Brixton station was given a new entrance as well, in similar muted colours as the rest of the line. The station was rebuilt between 2001-2010 with a modern update of the Holden style ticket hall with generous glazing.
All of the Victoria Line stations feature unique tile work mosaics at platform level by Hans Unger and others, reflecting the history of the local area, something that had been done on the Piccadilly Line by Harold Stabler's ventilation grilles. The designs range from the straightforward, a black horse at Blackhorse station to the more abstract, such as the Abram Games swan design for Stockwell. Apart from the mosicas, the overall Victoria Line platform designs were very muted, with a colour palette of grey, black and white set out by Mischa Black of the Design Research Unit, in charge of the design of the new line.
An area where colour reigned supreme however, were the new posters advertising the line, with designs by many of the same artist who designed the platform mosaics. Tom Eckersley, Hans Unger, Denys Nicholls and William Fenton all produced posters influenced by contemporary styles such as Pop and Abstract art to advertise the new line.
So while the Victoria Line is not as highly thought of in architecture terms as the Piccadilly or Jubilee Lines, there are plenty of design elements to look out for next time you take ‘Route C’!
A Guide to Modernism in Metro-Land, our guidebook to the suburbs best art deco, modernist & brutalist buildings is crowdfunding now. Go HERE to get your copy.
We just wanted to let you know about two tours we are holding in the next couple of months. First of all on Saturday September 22nd, we will be giving our Stanmore walking tour for Open House London. This will be the fourth year we have held this very popular tour, exploring the Art Deco & Modernist houses of Stanmore and seeing how modernist design changed between the 1930’s and the 1960’s. The Open House London listings don’t go live until August 21st, but the important details are that the tour is free and no booking is necessary. Tours will be held at 10am and 2pm meeting outside Stanmore Tube Station, just turn up!
Our second tour is in association with the wonderful 20th Century Society, which campaigns for the preservation and exploration of architectural design from 1914 onwards. We will be holding a walking tour called “Wembley and the Making of Metro-Land” on Saturday October 27th at 10.30am. Meeting at Wembley Park Station, we will how Wembley has grown since the start of the 20th Century and how its buildings help fuel the growth of “Metro-Land”. We will visit the site of the British Empire Exhibition, and buildings like the former Empire Pool, old Brent Town Hall, the modernist Haymills Estates houses and many others before returning to Wembley Park. The tour is limited to 30 people, and tickets cost £15 For 20th Century Society Members and £20 For non-members. You can book the tour HERE
If you can’t make it to one of the tours, there is always our Guide to Modernism in Metro-Land. Pledge HERE for your copy.
Thank you, and we hope to see you on one of our tours soon!
The modernist estate was attempted many times in the interwar years; visions of rows of fashionable white walled, flat roofed houses filled developers eyes. In practice the idea was less popular with potential house buyers. In the Metro-Land suburbs of London, estates were attempted in Ruislip and Stanmore, with a dozen houses at most being built. One estate that produced more modernist houses than most, albeit less than planned, was the Frinton Park estate at Frinton-on-Sea on the Essex coast.
The estate started taking shape in 1934, when 200 acres were purchased by South Coast Investment Company Ltd, led by Francis Arnatt. After a management company was formed, Oliver Hill was employed as the consultant architect. Hill was known for his house designs, which spanned styles from Arts and Crafts to Modernist. Hill was to draw up a plan for 1100 homes, as well as a shopping centre, luxury hotel and offices. 30 acres of this were set aside for showcase the best of British modernist design. The plan was for prospective buyers to buy a plot and then engage architects to design their new house from a list of designers drawn up by Hill. The list featured some of the best modernist architects working in Britain at the time; Maxwell Fry, Wells Coates, F.R.S. Yorke and Connell, Ward & Lucas (who designed the doomed Ruislip estate) among them.
As wonderful as this sounds today, the buying public of 1935 did not quite agree. The majority of potential buyers were apparently put off by the Estates insistence on flat roofs and modernist designs. Plan B was to build a number of show homes to seduce the public into buying the modernist dream. Of 50 planned show homes, around 25 were built, with about 15 more houses built to order. The majority of these were designed by J.T. Shelton, the estates resident architect, with a number designed by other architects like Hill, Frederick Etchells, RA Duncan and Marshall Sisson.
The most famous building in the estate is now known as The Round House, formerly the Estate Office. It was designed by Oliver Hill, and in its circular plan perhaps most resembles Charles Holden’s Southgate tube station. The office also had a mosaic map of the estate on its floor. It is now Grade II listed along with another Hill house, Seaspan, 4 Audley Way. The rest of the houses aren’t as distinctive, but show all the usual International Style elements in differing arrangements; flat roofs, white rendered walls, Crittall windows, staircase towers and sun decks. In this catalogue of elements, the Frinton Park estate most resembles another exhibition estate of the same era, Gidea Park, now in Havering, which features a number of modernist houses by the likes of Tecton, FRS Yorke, Minoprio & Spencely and others.
The completion of many of these houses was problematic, with builders inexperienced in bringing these modernist designs to life. As elsewhere, the gleaming white concrete walls were in fact usually brick with render applied over them. And of course the much complained about flat roofs did tend to leak. Hill left his post as consultant architect in July 1935, with the agents and developers Tomkins, Hamer & Ley taking over sales and new designs. The modernist portion of the estate did not grow any further, numbering about 40 houses in the end.
Today, of course, these houses are highly sought after and even imitated in the new builds near the estate. The majority of the houses are well maintained, with many still having original (or replacement) Crittall windows. It is a wonderful place to visit and imagine what might have been, a picture perfect modernist Metro-Land-on-Sea.
Explore the original Metro-Land with our “A Guide to Modernism in Metro-Land”, a guide to the art deco and modernist buildings of the region. Follow this link to help make this possible and see the great rewards for pledging
Pledge for A Guide to Modernism in Metro-Land
Back in February we wrote a blog post on the 45th anniversary of the first screening of Sir John Betjeman’s “Metro-Land” film. Recently we have been in correspondence with Edward Mirzoeff, who directed “Metro-Land” and many other films with Betjeman. He very kindly offered to answer some questions about the making of the film and working with Betjeman.
How did you first meet Sir John?
In 1968 the BBC found itself in an exceptionally rare situation - it was awash with cash (because of a big leap in Colour TV licences). Among other things, it decided to hire a helicopter for three years. When the bosses got round to thinking what to do with a helicopter, they came up with a wholly new idea - a thirteen-part documentary series about Britain, to be filmed entirely from the air.
Although I was a junior and inexperienced film-maker, I was asked to take charge of the series, which I named Bird's-Eye View. It was immediately clear that films with no sync. sound would require writers - indeed, would take the form of essays. A whole gaggle of potential writers was invited to convene for a seminar at our offices, Kensington House. Among them was John Betjeman, whom I had never met before. Although the most distinguished of the group, he seemed affable and approachable. We immediately got on. After some hesitation, he agreed to sign up as a writer, and in the end wrote the commentaries for three of the programmes, two of which I directed myself.
What was he like to work with?
Nearly always a delight. He was one of those life-enhancing people who make you think you are witty, sparkling and intelligent - far more so than you really are. He was sensitive and funny, sharply observant (both of people and of buildings), ironic, enthusiastic, warm, and by no means always 'nice'. Absurdly generous - "I'm frightfully rich" he would say in a pub, producing a wad of crumpled notes; it took time to realise that this was Betjemanese, meaning the opposite of what it said (he was haunted by an irrational fear of poverty and "the workhouse", just as he was haunted by doubt, guilt, and fear). There were always drinks and lunches, gifts and treats.
Working on location with Sir John was full of surprise. When filming, we would prepare and rehearse his pieces to camera meticulously. But no two takes were ever the same, and improvisation was always a part of his performance. For example, at the Voysey house - if you look carefully you can see that he is carrying a little Beatrix Potter book. The plan was that he would read from The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse, and compare it to the interior of The Orchard. But then Betjeman was suddenly struck by how deceptively low the interior was, and how he could show this by moving across the hall to stand under a door frame. Which he did, to the cameraman's considerable surprise - and Mrs Tittlemouse was forgotten.
He was very gifted at speaking to camera, at making contact through the glass lens with the individual viewer at home, perhaps because of his spontaneity, his sincerity, the unpatronising language he used, and his light-heartedness.
But most of our work together was in the cutting room, after the film had been edited, and when he would come in day after day to settle in front of the editing machine, running the sequences forwards and backwards, backwards and forwards, assimilating the rhythm of the editing, before setting pen to paper. He would write on A4 pads, tearing off sheet after sheet of unsatisfactory words, scrunching them up, throwing them on the floor. Most of what he wrote was in verse, often iambic pentameter in blank verse, varied with rhyme when the sequence seemed to call for it. His rhymes were sometimes couplets or quatrains, sometimes more elaborate schemes borrowed from other poets, such as Thomas Hood. It didn't always come easily. Sometimes he would get bogged down. Then he would retire to what he called his "composition cell" - a tea-making and broom cupboard - where he could shut himself off from the noise, chat and phone-calls, and emerge perhaps an hour later brandishing an immaculate piece of verse.
Our film editor, Ted Roberts, played a vital part in all this. A wonderful rapport developed between him and John. He could make the poet laugh, creating a jokey atmosphere that relieved the tension of creativity. Sometimes he came up with rhymes or even whole sections of verse in Betjeman's own style. "Oh, that's much better than I could do", Betjeman would say, and, altering just a word or two, he would incorporate Ted's whole suggestion.
Sir John loved the cutting-room because he felt part of a closely-knit team, with jokes, laughter, and fun. He himself was sometimes given to depression and self-doubt. On such days he might arrive with his teddy-bear, Archibald Ormsby-Gore, in a carrier bag. "Archie's feeling very gloomy today". "Well, let's cheer him up" the editor would reply, placing the bedraggled old bear on the film rewind machine, where it would spin round as on a merry-go-round. "Oh Archie's much more cheerful now" Sir John would then say, his wonderful smile breaking out, as if the sun had emerged from behind the clouds.
How was the idea of “Metro-Land” first conceived?
Metro-land was conceived in the upstairs dining room at Wheeler's Restaurant, Old Compton Street, Soho, early in 1971. Three of us were lunching together - John Betjeman, film editor Ted Roberts and I - to celebrate the successful conclusion of the series "Bird's-Eye View".
Aerial films consist largely of landscape and countryside (it is difficult to get permission to fly low over built-up areas). Such films may be beautiful to look at, but they are not about the way most people live. Over the fish (Sir John was very fond of oysters) we wondered about making another film together, this time ground based, about towns and cities. Suburbia, we agreed, was where most people wanted to live, although (at that time) the fashionable scoffed and planners derided it. Why not make a film about the delights of urban life, celebrating the unregarded suburbs? Nobody had done that before. By coffee we had even come up with a possible structure (I think this was Betjeman's suggestion). If we followed the course of the Metropolitan Railway from Baker St and St John's Wood out to distant Buckinghamshire, our journey would tell the story of how the suburbs grew and developed.
In order to bypass the cumbersome and risky commissioning process at the BBC, I persuaded Sir John to write a personal letter to the Controller of BBC2, Robin Scott. On 9 May 1971 he sent a note pleading for "a film on the beauties of suburbia. It is a rich theme and could be full of praise and stimulation. Most people are suburban and won't admit it. What trim gardens we could show, what shopping arcades, front halls, churches, schools and human-scale paths and bicycle-tracks and open spaces. I see it as a thanksgiving for traffic-free privacy throughout Britain - but not Southern Ireland, which isn't suburban, as is Yours gratefully and ever, John Betjeman".
Our devious trick worked. The Controller, charmed by the letter's eccentricity, directly commissioned a 50-minute documentary. Our working title was "The Joys of Urban Living", soon replaced by the snappier "Metro-land". Betjeman suggested that the film should resemble music hall performances of his youth - each item no longer than four minutes, variety and surprise the key-notes, lots of laughter and perhaps a bitter-sweet moment or two along the way. Certainly no interviews.
I thought that we would need three anchor-points in the film, significant houses of different periods and styles through which Betjeman could guide us in detail. He suggested Norman Shaw's Grim's Dyke in Harrow Weald, Voysey's small masterpiece The Orchard on Chorleywood, and the modernist High and Over in Amersham. My team and I would find everything else during the research. The script would come after the shooting and editing.
What are your memories of the making of “Metro-Land”?
It was hard to find anything of interest for us to film in Chorleywood (apart from The Orchard). I went to consult the local historian, and sat, for numbing eternities, as he told of one worthy municipal monument after another. In despair, I got up to leave - and heard him murmuring that he didn't think it was very interesting, but there was a man who had recently installed a cinema organ in his back room...
The sequence of Len Rawle and his Mighty Wurlitzer from the Empire, Leicester Square would, we knew, take a whole day to film. But when John Betjeman turned up that morning he announced, to general consternation, that he could spend no more than 45 minutes there. Never one who found it easy to say no, he had somehow agreed to film with us in Chorleywood and also with another team, on the same day, back at his home in Cloth Fair. The cameraman went pale, and muttered about resigning.
There was time only to film Sir John arriving at the door, and a couple of shots of him by the Wurlitzer. Then he was off to the station. All the rest of the complicated sequence was shot that day in his absence, with plucky Len Rawle at the console smiling at the stand-in (me) as if Betjeman were there. By the time the editor had finished, you wouldn't have known he wasn't.
Sir John felt it was in the spirit of the film to travel to and from filming locations on the Metropolitan Railway. So it was on the day we arranged to film at Moor Park, the imposing early 18th century mansion converted by its last owner, Lord Leverhulme, into a golf club, in 1923. During the war the unhappy Battle of Arnhem was planned here. And here we, too, we suffered a setback.
Sir John was to be picked up at the station and driven to the mansion. The crew and I waited on the steps for him to arrive. Time passed. Eventually a Mini drew up, and out of it emerged our distinguished presenter, stormy as a thundercloud. "I know I'm only the artiste, and therefore the least important person in this team, but..."
Apparently he had been waiting at one exit, our highly competent researcher at another, and neither had realised that there are two ways out of Moor Park Station. Sir John was not a happy man, and it was no good expecting him to discourse cheerfully about Sir James Thornhill and Giacomo Leone, the plasterwork, murals and trompe-l'oeil ceiling. I thought it might be best to switch the schedule around, and film him trying a drive or two on the golf course first. It might lighten the mood.
It didn't. When we got to the tee he was still fuming. Normally a good golfer, he took a massive swing - and missed the ball completely. Turning to camera, his black mood forgotten, he laughed and laughed, the cameraman went on filming, and a memorably joyous accidental moment was captured.
Where there any difficulties in the making of the film?
Metro-land was a happy film in the shooting and editing - no rows, no disasters. Quite unusual.
Perhaps the greatest difficulty came at the very last - the recording of Sir John's commentary. He was the finest reader I have ever known, with his mellifluous voice, perfectly judged intonation, superbly natural rhythm and emphasis. There was no-one like him for reading verse, either his own or other people's. So I was looking forward to recording day.
But when I arrived at the studio in Oxford St., the film editor seemed anxious. "Have a word with Sir John", he said, "see if you think he's all right." He wasn't. His speech was slurred and very slow. Had something dreadful happened?
We contacted his doctor, who spoke to him on the phone. It emerged that after lying awake for hours worrying about the coming ordeal, he had taken sleeping pills at about 5 a.m. He was not really fully conscious, and the only thing to do was to let him sleep it off. How were we to manage that? By good luck, the studio had a camp bed and a blanket. The Poet Laureate was put to bed, the lights were turned out, and we tip-toed away. I went to see if I could negotiate a lower hourly rate for sleeping than for commentary recording.
When we returned several hours later, Betjeman was nowhere to be found. Apparently he had awoken perfectly refreshed, and taken himself off to Wheeler's for a dozen oysters and a glass of bubbly. He re-appeared, wide-awake and in excellent form, to deliver a relaxed and masterly performance.
The music is a very distinctive part of “Metro-Land”. How was the music chosen for the soundtrack?
Film editor Ted Roberts was particularly gifted at knowing or finding the right music for a sequence he was cutting. He was responsible for matching Tiger Rag with the speeded-up Metropolitan journey at the beginning of the film. Absurdly fast music was hard to find, so he thought of speeding up his own (33rpm) LP of the Temperance Seven by playing it at 45rpm. This produced a suitably manic quality.
Ted also chose the Elgar's "Civic Fanfare" at Wembley, to go with archive newsreel of Elgar himself conducting what we think was that very piece. It was also his idea to use the 'Witch of Endor' section from "Le Roi David" by Honegger (a rather obscure work) to match the creepy 'Agapemone' house in St John's Wood.
Many recordings of songs of the '20s and '30s were sent to me by the extraordinarily knowledgeable assistants (sadly no longer there, thanks to John Birt) of the BBC Gramophone Library, and from them the editor and I selected the most appropriate and amusing ones, such as "Build A Little Home" by Roy Fox and "Sunny Side of the Street" by Jack Hylton, to counterpoint our 1920s and '30s Metro-land houses .
Willie Rushton's little floppy record "They Call It Neasden" came attached to the front of an issue of Private Eye. I had a copy, but the mix was so poor that the words could not be heard properly. I got in touch with Private Eye and found that, by extraordinary good fortune, the original three tracks were still extant; we re-mixed them, in effect re-mastering the record, so that the funny words were now loud and clear. I was rather proud of that.
The Harrow School song is the real thing, a private recording Betjeman tracked down and borrowed from an aristocratic Old Harrovian friend. Betjeman believed himself 'an Old Harrovian in all but truth'.
The car washing sequence is cut to "Down By The Lazy River" by The Osmonds. It was from the tape of the "Family Favourites" radio programme broadcast at just that time on the very Sunday morning that we filmed the sequence. Once again, the real thing.
The music towards the end of the "High and Over" sequence is a song ("Everything I Own") by a contemporary band called Bread. The editor chose it for negative reasons; it seemed grungy and mediocre and mindless, matching the pictures of encroachment by the dreary houses of the new estate. "Good-bye, High hopes and Over confidence - In fact, it's probably good-bye England".
Why do you think film has endured so well?
This is an impossible question for me to answer.
There may be a number of reasons. Betjeman was in good health and on the top of his form at that time, ebullient and entertaining. We had an enjoyable and stimulating relationship together, each bringing out the best in the other. It was a subject he knew and loved, but much of the content that we had found was new and enjoyable to him.
He loved the camaraderie of filming, and what he saw as the poetry of film language - Gennies and Blondes and Redheads, Pups and Bashers, Brutes and French Flags, Barn Doors, Baby Legs and Inky-Dinkies...
And it was a truly outstanding team - three brilliant researchers, a uniquely sympathetic film crew, the perfect film editor, all feeling involved and creative together. A happy film to make, full of jokes and high spirits, both on the screen and behind the scenes.
It was a timely film too. The tide was just beginning to turn against high-rise and brutalism, and the long-derided suburbs seemed fresh and attractive again. Those unexpected period houses - Voysey, Norman Shaw, moderne - all suddenly seemed interesting once more. And with them, an English timelessness too - Watkin's Folly, The Byron Luncheon Club, the Pinner Fair, the Croxley Green Revels...
And the format worked - a clear narrative drive, short sequences, surprise, a sense of fun, poetry, beauty, celebration, a mix of old and new - and no interviews!
Thank you to Edward Mirzoeff for his thoroughly detailed recollections of filming "Metro-Land" and of Sir John Betjeman.
More information on Sir John Betjeman, and his work and life, can be found at the Betjeman Society website
Charles Francis Annesley Voysey, architect and designer, was born on 28th May 1857. He designed not only houses, but also furniture and textiles as well. His designs combined functionalism with high levels of craft, bridging the link between the Arts & Crafts of William Morris and the coming modern styles of Art Nouveau and eventually Modernism. Although he was praised as a pioneer of Modernism by the likes of Nikolaus Pevsner, Voysey rejected this idea, preferring not to be thought of a part of any group.
Voysey was born in Yorkshire but his family moved to London when he was teenager. After leaving education, he trained with architect J.P. Seddon, and eventually set up his own practice in 1881. In his first years in practice, Voysey concentrated on designing furniture and textiles, including producing wallpapers, carpets, tiles, fabrics, ceramics and metalwork.
Voysey’s first houses were small cottages and studios, finished in a roughcast render with strong clear cut forms. The best example of this is 14 South Parade, Bedford Park in Ealing for the artist JW Forster from 1891. Its stark white walls and vertical emphasis contrast strongly with the surrounding red brick houses of Richard Shaw. The whole top floor is a studio.
The same year Voysey designed another combined studio and house, this time in Hammersmith for painter W.E.F Britten. 17 St Dunstans Road has a more horizontal emphasis than the Bedford Park house, set on just one storey but with the typical roughcast walls, ironwork railings and oversized chimney. Voysey designed over 40 houses, taking care over every detail including the furniture and fittings.
One of Voysey’s few non-house buildings is the Sanderson Wallpaper factory in Barley Mow Passage, Chiswick, (now called Voysey House). Designed for Sanderson & Sons wallpaper manufacturers and built in 1901, it combines a concrete barrel vault interior with a white glazed brick exterior, topped by vertical buttresses.
Despite his success for over 20 years, after the First World War, work dried up for his practice. Ending up moving in with his son. Critical recognition also came late, with the RIBA Gold Medal coming a year before his death in 1941. However his influence was felt far and wide, with his simplified Arts & Crafts style copied in towns, villages and suburbs all over Britain.
More information on C.F.A. Voysey can be found at the Voysey Society website