Lionel Bart’s pre-Oliver! stage hit Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be is currently being revived at the Theatre Royal in the East End. I wonder what London audiences today will make of it. Joan Littlewood, the legendary producer who got the original 1959 production together, was evangelical about the need for working-class actors not only to be seen and heard but to be heard in their original voices, untouched by Rada and its belief that only received pronunciation bestowed the authority required of all real actors. The following decade gave us a slew of famous figures from genuinely working-class origins — Michael Caine and Terence Stamp, both London boys, became bona fide Hollywood stars — and finally it seemed that working-class actors had broken out of their “character and comedy” ghetto.
That era is as dead as the notion of Swinging London. Like our political class, acting seems yet again to have become dominated by the privately educated. The bullishly agitprop-spouting Littlewood would doubtless be horrified at the way in which economic restraints and the breakdown in social mobility have led to a remarkable rise in solidly public school performers, and she’d be right.
But it’s not the whole story. Of all the changes that have taken place in the capital in the past couple of decades, the gradual disappearance of traditional working-class communities, indeed of working-class identity itself, is the most stark. As an older Lambeth resident says in Michael Collins’s wonderful book about London’s working class, The Likes of Us, “It’s like we were never here.” EastEnders, the BBC’s series of largely working-class life in the modern East End, is little more than a polite fiction.
What this means is that audiences who are still quite versed in, as it were, the more upmarket costume drama aspects of London’s identity will have little familiarity with that group of people who once made up the bulk of its population. No working-class culture, no working-class actors. Fings definitely ain’t wot they used t’be.
Bob Hoskins, who died last month, was born far from the sound of Bow Bells (in Bury St Edmunds) but his popular persona was certainly that of the rough but goodnatured cockney. Again, his voice — superficially threatening yet warm, humorous, even innocent, underneath — must strike younger audiences unfamiliar with London’s past social terrain as exotic, even a bit corny, rather like Dick Van Dyke’s infamous cockney impersonation in Mary Poppins. But it was the kind of voice that surrounded me growing up in the Sixties and Seventies.
Two of Hoskins’s most memorable films, The Long Good Friday, set amid the decay of London’s docklands in the Seventies before gentrification set in, and Mona Lisa, in which he played a driver charged with ferrying a high-class call girl, depicted a city which was either in decline or simply hole-in-the-wall seedy. It always seemed particularly hard for London to rise to the occasion on film; its grey tattiness always worked best as the backdrop for a certain sort of clichéd urban grittiness. Too heavy for romance and too parochial for big scale action — it was always more The Sweeney than The French Connection — London only really came into its own as an all-purpose setting for Olden Times. The majestic colonnades of the Royal Naval Hospital, just along the road from me on the banks of the river at Greenwich, have stood in for everything from Tsarist St Petersburg (for Crime and Punishment) to revolutionary Paris (Les Misérables) and been pressed into service for enough movies set in 18th-century Whitehall to give them an identity crisis.
This cinematic treatment of London has certainly changed in the past decade or so, as it has become a different kind of city. It has gone in two distinct directions: there’s the glossy and loved-up oeuvre of Richard Curtis, or the gangster and geezer version, pioneered by Guy Ritchie, which now seems to form a whole sub-genre. Rupert Everett beautifully summed up Curtis when he described him as the Leni Riefenstahl of Blair’s Britain: all liberal sensibility, multicultural harmony and well-meaning posh chaps. When seen from a Notting Hill window, this shiny, happy London — easy in its own skin, as the cliché has it — certainly looks like a great place to be. Less inviting on the other hand but with a new, harsh glamour, the crime-ridden world of movies such as RocknRolla and Layer Cake portrays a city of designer suits, good-looking hard men and billionaire interlopers.
What these pictures of London have in common, however, is a distinct air of self-consciousness. While we might recognise aspects of the city in each, neither version feels genuinely familiar. Few of Curtis’s characters could now afford to inhabit their beloved West London, which, with its acres of empty investment properties, is in danger of becoming a ghost town. And Ritchie’s duckers and divers look increasingly like exercises in masculine nostalgia. Neither Michael Caine nor Bob Hoskins would, I’m sure, feel much at home in either landscape.