Sometimes you see, read or hear something that has a real impact you. I’ve just had one such experience. I’ve just watched A House in Bayswater, an early documentary film made for the BBC in 1960 by Ken Russell. It’s about a large terraced house that’s about to be demolished and the lives of the people who live in it. Russell himself lived there in the fifties, apparently, but one wouldn’t know from the film. There’s the eccentric landlady who lives in the basement, with a weakness for flea-markets, who serves sherry to her tenants when they call – and who tries to sell them her acquisitions.There’s the married couple who work in the wine business. There’s the artist who, sadly, probably isn’t very good. There’s the photographer, who photographs a girl in a hip-bath on the balcony – he knocks out photos of girls, he says, to pay for the photos he really wants to take. There’s the retired ladies’ maid who spends her time feeding the birds, looking at the garden and looking at her photos of America, which she is nostalgic for and where she spent most of her working life. And then there’s the elderly dance teacher, who seems to have only one pupil The film critic John Baxter said:
The dancer, leading her willing, wispy pupil through a two-woman show hazed in memories of better days (“My next solo is one I did on Broadway in 1929 and I am wearing the same costume”) is faded but not absurd, the maid’s images of New York have the insouciant fever of Scott Fitzgerald, and the concierge who… cultivates toadstools and deadly nightshade in the garden with a philosophical “They might come in useful” celebrates the indestructible eccentric.
Interestingly, we see more of the imaginative life of the tenants who are not trying to make art than we do of the artist and the photographer.
I have personal reasons for falling in love with the film. I was two when I was it was made: it describes a world that was happening around me before I was really aware of it. Only a couple of years earlier my parents had lived in a flat in a shared house (though not in London). I spent the first ten days of my life there.
The film ends with the demolition of the house and Ken Russell builds up to it in an uncanny, dream-like way that explores the potency of the inner lives people live in their heads – lives that in the day-to-day anonymity of a shared house remain concealed but which are as fantastic -and touching- as the communal staircase is mundane. It’s something most people think about at one time or another, walking up and down the stairs in shared houses or flats. Ken Russell riffs on it brilliantly.
The film is also currently available to watch on BBC iPlayer.