My Top 6 Retro Documentaries

Welcome (back!) to my blog. I put out new content every Wednesday.

Today I wanted to showcase some of my favourite documentaries and give you a little bit of information about them; the hope being that I’ll spread the joy of them to a new audience, even if it’s an audience of 1.

I’ve long been a fan of documentaries, any and all kinds – I love getting stuck into a good Storyville or Louis Theroux, Ben Fogle Lives in the Wild, feature documentaries on TV, crime or lifestyle documentaries on Netflix, the extensive bin over at BBC iplayer, whatever. Just gimme the information. I especially love documentaries which focus on the inner struggles of every day people; the micro instead of the macro. I’d take Queen Mimi over a documentary about the ice caps, for instance, because it’s person-centered. That doesn’t mean to say I don’t care about the ice-caps; it’s just my tastes are more internal or introspective.
I suppose one simple way of describing it is to simply admit that i’m nosey.

Netflix has been amazing in spreading the joy of the documentary over the last few years, and I’ve seen some amazing things on there myself.

However, today I’d rather highlight some of my favourite documentaries from deeper into the past, before reality TV was common place. Why? Because the past is fascinating. I find myself endlessly nostalgic about a time I never grew up in, and I can’t explain why. I get a special hankering for anything set in post-war London of the 60s and 70s, when times were rapidly changing.

I hope some of the following peek your interests and that you learn a little about me and my tastes along the way. I’ve even included a special bonus mention at the end – as it’s nearly Christmas! – so keep reading.

I’ve included links to all the films mentioned (either BBC or Youtube) in their titles.

The Family, 1974

1. The Family

This is my go-to when I want the comfort of family life and reality TV while I get my retro fix. ‘The Family’, AKA the Wilkins’, were an ordinary ‘working class’ family from Reading, who volunteered to be part of a fly-on-the-wall documentary in 1974 – the very first of its kind in the UK.

Margaret Wilkins (pictured far left) is a bossy-yet-fair matriarch who runs the green grocers downstairs while her chaotic family live in the flat above. They were a particularly interesting subject matter because they broke the mold in myriad ways. For instance, Margaret and her husband split briefly after marital problems and Margaret became pregnant by another man, the result of which was little Christopher. Her husband raised him as his own.

Then there’s Gary, married at just 16 with a little baby in the house, and elder daughter Marian who is living with her fiancΓ© out of wedlock – not to mention youngest daughter Heather, 15, who has a black boyfriend. Between them they cover just about every taboo and, even in the 70s when times were changing, this program ruffled the feathers of many a hair-netted biddy.

As a piece of social commentary on cramped accommodations and the council housing system (Gary and his wife attempt to get re-housed) of 70s Britain, this has a lot to offer. But it’s also wholesome viewing of what were a funny, loving, and interesting bunch of people all under one roof. This show never fails to intrigue me and you’ll find its characters endlessly fascinating – especially when a row breaks out.
Expect chain-smoking, cramped teas around a Formica kitchen table, a wailing opening theme song, and a wall of twittering budgerigars.

The 7 Up series 1964 – present

2. The 7-Up Series

Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.”

Beginning in 1964, a documentary filmmaker captures the lives of children from a multitude of backgrounds and checks in with them every seven years for the entirety of their lives. This ground-breaking social experiment continues to be updated even today, and I can tell you I’m glued to the TV every time a new installment comes out. The theory behind this experiment, as the quote above suggests, is that by the time a child reaches the age of seven, you can accurately predict the person they will become when they grow up. Their ideals, personality, and place in society have been etched in stone by the age of seven.
Or at least, the filmmakers invite you to make your own mind up on that one.
You might be skeptical, but what has startled me is that, honestly, they were almost right about that.
Though these children started out endearingly optimistic little things, with age comes wisdom and, tragically, self-awareness: these kids with big dreams start learning where they belong in the world. Some of them reach those dreams. Some of them get half-way there. Some take other paths and find successes where they least expected. And some seemed doomed to a life of lonely wandering, asking themselves – what’s it all about?

I’m referring to a particular participant there: Neil. Neil is an adorable little boy who can’t decide if he wants to be an astronaut or a bus driver. By the time he’s 21, he’s dropped out of Durham university and is squatting in derelict houses and sheds by the time he’s 30. Eventually he finds his feet in politics and the church, however still preoccupied and frankly depressed as the meaning of life eludes him. I was happy to see in the latest episode that he had become a lay preacher, because I hope that has given purpose and meaning to his life and enriched him sufficiently that he finds happiness.

This is a fascinating social experiment, a piece of social commentary (much like The Family), and also a joy to watch these children grow up.

Comic Roots: Kenneth Williams 1983

3. Comic Roots: Kenneth Williams

Whether you’re already a fan of Kenneth Williams or not, you will be by the end of this short 30-minute reflection on this comic’s life. He begins at the flat where he lived with his mother (where he dropped plant-pots on the heads of passers-by) and takes us to his local pub, ‘The Boot’, the barbers, the green grocers, and his old school. He regales us with comedic tales of his first acting role in The Rose and the Ring, a school play, and recounts tails of some hilarious characters from his youth. My favourite is the tale of when the family had a row at his aunt’s funeral, when somebody brought a wreath in the style of ‘the gates of heaven ajar’, which apparently stepped on a lot of toes.

There’s nothing that this man couldn’t have you in stitches about, and there’s nothing his nasal flamboyance couldn’t make entertaining. Learn all about old London town and relive Kenneth’s youth as he takes you on a stroll down memory lane.

As a fan of Kenneth Williams, I loved this documentary – it’s short and sweet, but you’ll learn so much about him and about London from by-gone days. Even better, if you’re a fan: read his diaries, which he kept faithfully throughout his entire life.
See also: Going Places – again, Kenneth Williams (and even starts the same way, at his childhood flat), but filmed in 1975 and sadly about a fraction as interesting.

‘F’ for Fake by Orson Welles 1973

4. ‘F’ for Fake

Described as a ‘free flow’ documentary, this one can be odd to follow at times and yet always entertaining. I’m a big Orson Welles fan and loved following his career , from the Mercury Theatre to Citizen Kane to Lady from Shanghai to later-life gems like this one. I particularly love how a man born in 1915 could create something as racy and avant-garde as The Other Side of the Wind, which was recently released after crowd-funding (which I contributed to) and 30-odd years of argument over copyright. His experimental nature meant Orson was forever pulling something wild out the bag; sometimes, even, a little white rabbit.
This documentary surrounds the infamous fakers Elmyr de Hory and Clifford Irving; one an art forger and the other a forger of a Howard Hughes autobiography. The stories unravel between shots of Orson with his entourage, ordering plates of oysters and gorging on exotic foods – it’s like he’s dining on the experience with us. The mystery is built with scenes of Orson performing magic tricks and, towards the end, he even plays a little trick on you, the audience. Have a watch and see if you realise when. Features re-enactments from his long-term partner Oja Kodar.

I love this documentary as an Orson fan more than anything; I can (and often do) literally listen to the guy for hours. Check out Around the World with Orson Welles for some early documentaries of his – no joke, this guy wastes about 15 minutes talking about a cake in one of them, and it’s still interesting.

‘To the World’s End’ BBC 1985

5. To the World’s End

This is pure joy from 1985, and one I only discovered this week but simply could not leave from the list. We the audience follow the number 31 bus from Camden Town to The World’s End pub, Chelsea, and drop in on the characters who live along the way. You get a distinct feeling of the old world meeting a new modern era. We meet everyone from an elderly Irish woman who tells us how she threw her antibiotics down the toilet in favour of a bottle of whiskey, to a little girl who dresses like a business woman and is 7-going-on-50. This doc literally takes you on a fascinating journey from one end of London to another, and by the end of it you’ll feel like you’ve made a lot of new friends.

A House in Bayswater by Ken Russell 1960

6. A House in Bayswater

My absolute favourite. So real, yet so avant-garde – this early Ken Russell documentary explores each floor of a shared house, introducing us to the characters who live there and their dreams and aspirations. The idea was to celebrate the house and its inhabitants before the place was knocked down; however, do a little research and you will find that the house in Bayswater (now an abode for only the sickeningly-wealthy) is still standing. Ken Russell actually lived in this house at one point, but in this film he introduces us to the middle-classies on the top floors: a fashion photographer and an artist, comparing them with the working class couple living humbly downstairs, and the bizarre yet endearing landlady who gives tots of sherry in receipt of rent.
My favourite character (apart from the eccentric landlady who is just genius, and who actually appears in other Russel works) is definitely young knock-kneed Anne, pictured above, performing the little moth dance for her tutor (who incidentally was trained by the prima ballerina Anna Pavlova, namesake of the dessert!)

Fanny Cradock Cooks for Christmas 1975

Bonus: Fanny Cradock Cooks for Christmas
And finally, not a documentary but included just for fun: a bit of Fanny Cradock. I seriously love watching the absolute messes she dishes up, marveling at how anybody thought her creations looked even mildly appetising – and this is in the days of hotdogs in aspic. The first episode is “Royal Mincemeat”, and my god doe she make mincemeat – and between two wobbly sheets of omelette, would you believe. Best of all are the bizarre outfits and the increasingly manic look in her eyes; Fanny is not a woman you’d want to cross. Ah, the 70s.
Enjoy this fine piece of retro cooking over your Tofurkey and, as the saying goes: “May all your Yorkshires turn out like Fanny’s!

I hope you enjoyed that little glimpse into my tastes in television – like everything else in my life, I prefer it retro.

The BBC archive is an absolute treasure-trove of London documentaries especially; if you’re an enthusiast of the best city in the world (IMO) then get stuck in.

Best wishes,

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