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‘Trading Places’ at Barbican: The Decline And The Fall of London Landscapes

Trading Places
Deadphant (2020); image courtesy of Ayo Akingbade (via Barbican Cinema)

When looking at archives of London’s streets and neighbourhoods, it is impossible not to feel an irresistible nostalgia for a time that most of us have never experienced. This was the predominant atmosphere at Barbican Cinema’s programme ‘Trading Places’, part of their season ‘Artists In Residence’. The evening was composed of three projections: Mary Dickinson’s 1985 film Old Kent Road, the 2001 BBC documentary New Eastenders, and Ayo Akingbade’s 2020 short film Deadphant.  These films were all selected to show the past lives of London artists, workers and places as well as the instability surrounding them, with a particular emphasis on the process of gentrification. Both funny and melancholic, these images provoke a powerful feeling of tenderness for these eccentric Londoners who inhabited the city not so long ago. 

The first film is a 1985 documentary called Old Kent Road, which was introduced by its director Mary Dickinson. She describes her film about the historic South London street Old Kent Road as “a portrait of the people [she] found there”. More than a documentary about a geographical place, Old Kent Road portrays the shopkeepers and inhabitants of the street as a memorable and colourful community. Historically part of the pilgrimage road that led to Canterbury, Old Kent Road owes its numerous pubs to this century-long tradition, as the pilgrims used to stop there to rest and drink. A parallel is built between Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the documentary’s protagonists, with readings of the introduction and conclusion of Chaucer’s well-known work being included at the beginning and the end of the film. Images of the street are accompanied by interviews of shopkeepers reflecting on their lives on Old Kent Road,  just like the Canterbury Tales’ pilgrims tell their stories. 

Several times the audience burst into laughter because of comments some of the workers would say, or perhaps simply because of the inimitable mid-eighties glaze that covers the whole film, inducing an atmosphere unique to this time. Images of an aerobics session accompanied by synthesiser club music bring tender smiles to viewers' faces. However, inhabitants expressing their nostalgic memories of a past time also reflects a certain sadness caused by the decline of some institutions, such as the demolition of the Old Kent Road Astoria cinema in November 1984. Accompanied by soundbites from old films, the images of the demolition symbolise the brutal changes in the area and how it affected the local community. A bittersweet melancholy thus grasps the audience from time to time, as everyone remembers the impermanence of things. 

The second film is the episode ‘The Artists’ from Mary Sackville-West’s New Eastenders (2001), a docu-soap dating following artists trying to break into the London East End’s art scene. The artists are filmed facing various obstacles such as high prices of studio rents, as well as relishing in their artistic ascent, as they organise expositions, receive prizes or simply create art in their studios. The film is a touching report of the then-emerging East London art scene, whose current alternative side owes much to the early-2000s artists who moved there to try their luck in the Big Smoke. 

Finally, Ayo Akingbade’s Deadphant is a 16mm portrait shot in 2020 of the now-demolished Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre. For three minutes, we walk through the corridors of the mall in a kind of blur, in an almost dream-like rendition of what the place once was. The choice of a 16mm camera makes the memories of the disused mall seem older than they actually are, reminiscing about this South London landmark that was considered by a lot of people to be iconic. As efficient as an elephant’s memory is, the film ensures that the existence of the shopping centre will not be forgotten, and constitutes a powerful way to fight against the instability of a city as rapidly changing as London. 

These projections all offer different ways to remember bygone places. It was interesting to notice how some comments from the protagonists of these films, such as those complaining about the rising cost of living, deploring the disappearance of community-esteemed places demolished to build residential buildings, or expressing regrets caused by a past era, could still be heard today. History, in this way, is cyclical, there being no such thing as a ‘golden age’. However, when watching the faded colours of London’s past, I cannot help but feel a mix of pain and joy at the sight of people reflecting on what was once an important place for them, glad to be projected temporarily into a time that does not exist anymore. 


Edited by Oisín McGilloway, Co-Film & TV Editor


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