Julien Temple has created a brilliant, exhaustive and exhausting clip-collage, a visually throbbing cine-quilt that basically proves the Sex Pistols got their most famous title wrong. It’s Anarchy in London, not Anarchy in the UK. London is where the dense swirl of creativity, energy and violence is to be found. In comparison, the rest of the country is placid and dull. It’s arguably a bit more subversive than Danny Boyle’s masterly Olympic opener – though perhaps no less heartfelt.
The material is well-chosen; the juxtapositions are witty and bold, collapsing the distinction between the modern world and ye olden dayes. After a while, I went into a trance, immersing myself in this Lucy-in-the-Sky trip into the heart of London. Temple finds flickering black-and-white footage from the Victorian and Edwardian capital and will splice it with 80s analogue video, showing Margaret Thatcher outside Downing Street. No sooner have we registered a grand gentleman in a tall hat in turn-of-the-century Piccadilly Circus, than Temple shrewdly brings in footage of the Siege of Sidney Street in 1911, showing a smirking Winston Churchill, in his tall hat, making the most of all the excitement.
Not surprisingly, though perhaps without consciously wanting to, Temple puts the spirit of punk at the centre of everything: pugnacious, bloody-minded, revolutionary and reactionary at the same time – and as English as a cup of Indian tea. The point seems to be that London was once the epicentre of empire, a trading nation whose instinct is to absorb influences while periodically, peevishly, attempting to prove national superiority. After the war, migrant incomers and former subject peoples came to London: Jews, Poles, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Russians. Tony Benn and Suggs from Madness are interviewed about their childhood experiences growing up in London and, interestingly, both tell us there is no point in sentimentality and nostalgia about a supposed golden age. “It’s about whatever’s on the go at any given moment,” says Suggs.
Violence and the mob is a subject to which Temple returns, and he is perhaps guilty of nostalgifying and romanticising this kind of disorder. Watching this film, I began to wonder if periodic outbreaks of violence are simply the inevitable price of cramming people together: the racist violence of the Notting Hill riots in 1958, the Poll Tax riots of 1990, the looting of 2011 – all symptoms of the same strange, dark dysfunction that also gives us explosions of music, poetry and art. On a tiny personal and heretical note, I found myself impatient with the obligatory intonations of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land and hearing the Clash’s least interesting track, London Calling. But Temple’s film is refreshingly free of cliché. A very heady experience.