Dir: Alex Barrett
The popularity of BBC4’s ‘ambient TV’ strand might reflect a growing and pervasive desire to escape the relentlessness of the digital age. It could mean the time is just right to reprise a forgotten totem of simpler, calmer times. The city symphony. A format that reached its heyday in the inter-war years, but long lapsed, Alex Barrett’s 21st century contribution is both an eloquent snapshot of London today, and an authentically faithful tribute to the now-lost genre. Any urge to take a break from the intensity of the modern metropolis is (paradoxically) satisfied by a presentation of the city in a style that is so archaic it’s refreshing.
An orchestral paean to arguably the most diverse conurbation on the planet suits the concept down to the pavement. Accompanied by a tailor-made suite of instrumental arrangements, ever-revolving ‘silent’ imagery presents a living slideshow of the capital, as we take in a stream-of-consciousness tour of all it has to offer. It’s split into four movements. Though not named as such, they seem to form around the loose themes of architecture, culture, construction, and the place of nature in the urban jungle. Shot in black and white, it all feels timeless, preserved in aspic, articulating the permanence of the town, and thereby the transience of its inhabitants. And there are subtle details best appreciated by those Londoners. A tube-traveller covertly strains to read the paper of the next commuter, the annoyance of the impinged-upon expressed in a split-second glance. James McWilliam’s score heightens consistently engaging visuals. It reflects and emphasises the energy of each scene, at times driving, sparky and vivacious, at others serene, wistful and statuesque.
London Symphony is a contemplative mood piece offering a brief hiatus of cinematic reflection against the hyperactive backdrop of the usual film fare. It’ll play wonderfully at festivals and outdoor events. Naturally, its release includes some live recital screenings, the ideal context within which to view. Taking in a night-time performance at a London venue would be singularly atmospheric and rewarding.
It’s a classical serenade to the classic global city. An overland overture that will make Londoners proud of their shared home. A welcome divertimento that hints at the perpetual resilience of a place with so many strings to its bow. A city that is often tested by those who would wish to sow discord. Yet one that always remains defiantly in harmony.
★ ★ ★ ★