A screening of short films at The Edinburgh Filmhouse, 2 January 2011
In spite of its historic charms and cinematographic potential, the city of Edinburgh is not one we are accustomed to seeing on the big screen. Perhaps this made it all the more special that, to mark the 2011 new year, The Edinburgh Filmhouse arranged to screen a collection of short films providing rare snapshots of the city throughout the twentieth century. Long-since obsolete projection machinery was dusted down and brought into service in order to treat viewers to a glimpse of four vignettes of the city’s past, beginning with Jean Gray’s Northern Capital (1937), a fourteen minute, silent, black and white montage of motion pictures depicting scenes from the city in the 1930s, and ending with Murray Grigor’s Sean Connery’s Edinburgh (1982) in which the famous Scottish milkman guides us in colour through a quite different city, one where the modern and the ancient—he explains, standing in front of the then new Scottish Widows building with the volcanic mass of Arthur’s Seat looming large in the background—sit cheek by jowl.
The first of the four films succeeded in conjuring up nostalgia for an Edinburgh of steam trains, double-decker trams and dapper inhabitants, while its quirky camera work and characterization could not help but raise a few laughs from the audience. However, it was arguably the second film, John Eldridge’s Waverly Steps (1948), that was the highlight of the line-up. Enriched by dialogue, the film concentrated less on the scenery of the time and more on its people, bringing together a series of adept portraits of those who lived and worked in the city. A dour kirkmaster’s sermon of doom and damnation, a gossiping microcommunity inside a tenement stair, the courting rituals of two medical students going to the dancing, a Danish sailor fresh off his ship in the Port of Leith, a coalman going about his rounds accompanied by his trusty steed, a group of schoolboys dodging gouts of steam as they peer over a railway bridge to spot the numbers of the trains; the intertwined narratives of all these characters were made all the more engaging by an ability to capture the essence of those who constituted the fabric of the city, something also present in the third film in the series, Margaret Tait’s Rose Street (1956). Despite the absence of dialogue, its portraits of characters from a slightly later era, such as professional shopkeepers and children who play games like hopscotch, football and tig in the street, like those of Eldridge’s film before, provide us with a glimpse of a way of life that has been all but lost to the sands of time.
The fourth and final film in the series, Sean Connery’s Edinburgh, opens with a playful mock-horror shot of a young milkman trying to escape the petrified gargoyles of Edinburgh’s Fettes College: cue the entry of Sean Connery, who then goes on to present a charismatic and loving appreciation of the city, evoking its proud history and the heyday of the thriving brewing community in which he grew up: Fountainbridge. But the city he describes is no longer the same as that of the other three films, for something has changed. The suburban housing developments of the sixties and seventies that resulted in the generation of the urban sprawl that is markedly absent in the panoramic views of the first three films, paved the way for an exodus from claustrophobia of the “medieval Manhattan”—as Connery describes the Old Town—and its surrounding districts, these developments being contemporaneous with other processes of change that would see Edinburgh move beyond the confines of the Classical and the Romantic, and into the Modern.
In Connery’s portrait, it is also possible to detect another change, one that has also had profound effects on the city: the genesis of its conscious exploitation of its history. Indeed, the second half of the twentieth century did not only mark a break from its past, but also, with the advent of modern tourism, saw the transition from a place that lived and breathed in the present, to one that increasingly gave itself over—and continues to do so—to an unhealthily narcissistic obsession with its past. Sir Sean’s narration then, perhaps reveals some of the earliest signs of this phenomenon, but it is a mark of its integrity and wit that something else succeeds in shining through his brief presentation, something shared by all four of the movies shown as part of Edinburgh from the Archives: a city of which its inhabitants could rightfully be proud.
This was then, not only an occasion for enjoying curiosities from the city’s past, but one which also provided food for thought to reflect upon the present: by catching sight of the processes by which the heritage left behind by others was formed, of the infinitesimal contributions that constitute Edinburgh’s evolution, perhaps we might better consider our own contributions, and what we will add for generations to come.