DVD Review: The London Nobody Knows (1967) / Les Bicyclettes de Belsize (1969)
There are numerous reasons why some films and TV shows become cult items, but obscurity/lack of availability is probably the biggest one. And that's certainly applicable to The London Nobody Knows and Les Bicyclettes De Belsize - both almost impossible to find or see since the 1960s and both available for the first time on a single DVD disc. But that's where the similarity ends as these two 'mini movies' have absolutely nothing else in common.
The London Nobody Knows has become a favourite of cult cinema nights in recent years, directed by Norman Cohen and based on a book by Geoffrey Fletcher, it's a look at the 'underbelly' of London in the late 60s through the eyes and voice of veteran actor James Mason.
Part history lesson, part social commentary, Mason takes us round a condemned music hall in Camden, Spitalfields (including the sites of Jack The Ripper's murders), traditional markets, old-style cafes, Victorian public toilets and Salvation Army hostels. Upbeat it isn't, swinging it certainly isn't (although we do get snapshots of the cool kids out shopping as a stark contrast to 'real' London life). It also dwells on the real suffering and poverty on London - the tramps drinking bottles of meths on street corners, the decaying housing (in the process of being replaced by the high rise blocks) and the elderly people living out their final years in those Salvation Army hostels.
And all overseen by James Mason. At first glance, the veteran actor seems a strange choice as frontman for the film - but he's pretty much perfect for the role. Not a man to pull his punches, he's scathing at the world around him, in particular about the loss of London's Victorian heritage and the lack of support for the vulnerable. Not that it made much difference - many (if not all) of the landmarks featured have long since disappeared. And poverty is still with us today.
For all of those positives, it's certainly not perfect. Coming in at just under 50 minutes, The London Nobody Knows doesn't really have the length to cover the city or the subject matter. And it lacks direction - is it a history programme or social comment? It doesn't really know and probably didn't quite work on either level in 1967. But in 2008, it's a different matter. The London Nobody Knows is an important social document - a fascinating glimpse into a world now lost to us and a balance to the traditional view of late 60s London as a world of music, models and carefree attitudes. A world like Les Bicyclettes De Belsize in fact.
Les Bicyclettes De Belsize might be geographically similar to The London Nobody Knows, it might also be a similar era in time - but it's very much a different world. This is fantasy 60s, boy-meets-girl around the streets of Hampstead - and with just music as the soundtrack - no voices at all. Anthony May is the boy, riding round on a particularly small bike, dreaming of the model on the Raleigh bicycle poster (Julie - played by Judy Huxtable). She's lonely at the top, looking for love. He's only got eyes for her. And one day, they meet by accident - and it's love at first sight. Yes, it's that simple, but it's also very enjoyable if you want something light and frothy that lasts for under half an hour. And the music will be stuck in your head for days, as will a desire to buy a bike!
As a potential DVD buy, it does suffer from a lack of overall length (around 75 minutes) and a complete lack of extras. Quite possibly because these are, in effect, extras themselves. But if you have an interest in London and/or the 1960s, this will be hard to ignore. In fact, it will be pretty much an essential purchase.
Extras on the DVD: