Hidden City (1987) (film review).

‘Hidden City’ is a relatively low-key film that focuses more on the characters than the events until the end, revealing a London you might not have known existed in the late 1980s.

In 1942, school children, engrossed in watching videos, mistakenly view a film about cattle breeding. This incident occurs twice, prompting the supplier to dismiss the individual responsible for sending the incorrect film. Writer, researcher, and statistician James Richards (actor Charles Dance) is not happy. He also believes London lacks energy and is considering emigrating.

Richards encounters Sharon Newton (actress Cassie Stuart), who reveals she was fired for sending him the wrong films from the film library. She drags him to a film shop, where she shows him a film about a woman being abducted, and instructs him to locate the next film, ‘The Hedgerows of England’, number 2047, which is protected by the Official Secrets Act. Sharon believes Richards’ connections can determine what happened next. Gradually, his curiosity grows as he engages in a conversation with his friend. He then reaches out to Anthony (actor Bill Paterson) in an attempt to locate someone in the Ministry of Defence, only to learn that they have relocated. Sharon persuasively persuades Richards to pursue the case further, but he remains unaccounted for, being thrown out, dumped at the rubbish tip, and then sent to the incinerator, where he is unable to locate him.

They split up. Sharon finds a place where some films are recorded and videotaped before destruction. Richards, meanwhile, has an encounter with an old teacher before getting a phone call to join her. There’s still not enough, the registration is poor, and it leads to the next part of ‘Hop Pickers in Kent.’ All these films have footage that they shouldn’t contain.

Brewster (Richard E. Grant), the head of one of the film libraries, reveals that dreams are recordable. This hidden city continues to draw Richards in. He also gets drunk and wakes up at Sharon’s flat, discovering it had been turned over, which she thinks they were looking for in the film. He also discovers Sharon has a young daughter, Jodie, whom she convinces to look after as she goes for a job. He takes Jodie to a meal with his likely-to-be ex-wife Barbara (actress Tusse Silberg) and nearly gets trampled by a pair who want the film and his car stolen. He also suspects that someone has targeted his friend Anthony, leaving him tethered to a coat rack. Returning home, he finds it also ransacked, and later, the same two men are waiting outside. The rest of the story unfolds like a climax.

As I commented in the opening, this really is a low-key thinking film, almost arthouse, from director/writer Stephen Poliakoff. I picked it up mainly because of the mystery aspect and a different view of London, which it certainly has. These days, all cities have a secret life, but this looks like one of the earlier films showing that aspect. You could also consider it a character-oriented film, and by filming a significant portion at night or in unconventional locations, it managed to stay within budget. I suspect an American audience would find ‘Hidden City’ far too slow, but for us Brits, used to such things, we will endure to the end and then look for documents or films that might be out there. Read the booklet. It has everything you need.

Oh, in the credits, there is a notable cameo by actor Jason Carter in the black-and-white footage, then beardless and with a different haircut than on a particular space station. In the audio commentary, Poliakoff points out that actor Hugh Grant was originally going to play the role but needed his hair for his next film.

Audio Commentary

This is with director/writer Stephen Poliakoff and film critic/former BFI curator Michael Brook. In the extras, their descriptions match the film shorts. Poliakoff apologizes for the poor research and statistics in the script. Traffic jams and the selection of previously unfilmed locations in above-ground London stalled a 32-day film schedule, leading to the demolition of numerous buildings. This was also Poliakoff’s first-directed film. Actress Cassie Stuart had the kookie quality he was looking for. The tunnels are really where they said they were. There were a lot of actors in mirror roles who went on to have famous parts later. Charles Dance turned 40 while making this film. Pollokoff’s daughter, Jodie, was born.

The 34-page booklet

This is a really extensive booklet with six articles, two of which are by director Stephen Poliakoff himself and his discovery of a hidden city beneath London’s streets that other people used. Given the replacement of numerous topside buildings, it’s intriguing to explore the extent of surviving underground tunnels, especially considering that any survey likely uncovered some of the entries. Do read before you watch the film, as it’ll probably bring things more into perspective.

The Extras

Interestingly, the pair’s search for five films included the name of one of them. All of them are in black and white, or sepia, and the first three are silent, supplemented by music. In many respects, these must have been educational for the cinemagoer before that nasty little screen in the corner we call television.

‘Cheese Mites’ (1903), from the ‘Unseen World’ series, runs for nearly two minutes and features a man looking at just that. In those days, this was most likely a revelation to viewers. Years passed before the BFI discovered a copy of this complete short.

‘Barging Through London’ (1924), from the ‘Wonderful London’ series, is a view from the capitol via the 9-mile-long Regent’s Canal, running for 11 minutes. You can also see an odd clip of the roads with trams running. The places might not be recognisable, but the names aren’t.

‘Hop Gardens of Kent’, a 7-minute film, depicts the hops production process from the field to the brewing house. People used to go on holidays to pick hops from the plants.

‘The City: A Film Talk by Sir Charles Bressey’ (1937), at 19 minutes, is a discussion on the proposed rebuilding of London pre-WW2. He shows how London has expanded. I didn’t realize the slums were so extensive back then until he showed me around the city. The GPO unit’s creation highlights the importance of the early postal systems in the area. It’s quite peculiar that Bressey had plans for overhead roads, yet these never materialized.

‘Shown by Request’ at 19 minutes shows a village cinema and the Ministry of Information from the Central Film Library what was going on, all pre-TV. It should hardly be surprising that the system is similar to a book library, with the narrator pointing out that there are 10,000 users and 15 million viewers. Back then, that was a large chunk of the population.

‘Inside the BFI National Archive’ (2023) demonstrates modern methods in just 50 seconds.

It’s certainly an odd mix of old films of London that don’t exist today.

What makes this important for the inner geek is the realisation that so much is hidden from view. Various films, particularly those set in the future, often depict the construction of new cities on top of old ones, but the realization that these places are real is truly a revelation. The extras are certainly worth paying attention to, and I suspect someone of you, especially someone living in London, is going to take a peek. I guess the Regent’s Canal should be the easiest to find. Don’t get lost.

GF Willmetts

May 2024

(pub: BFI. 1 blu-ray disk 108 minute film with extras. Price: £19.99 (UK). ASIN: BFIB1510)

cast: Charles Dance, Cassie Stewart, Bill Paterson and Richard E. Grant

check out website: https://shop.bfi.org.uk/hidden-city-blu-ray.html


Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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