The London Nobody Knows – an interview with Brian Comport

May 4, 2011

Widely regarded as one of the truly essential London films, the  1968 documentary The London Nobody Knows was based on a bestselling gazetteer-cum-memoir written by Geoffrey Fletcher, an illustrator and Daily Telegraph journalist.

Directed by Norman Cohen (best known for later helming the long-running 1970s Confessions Of…sex comedy series), the 46-minute film features a melancholy James Mason leading an hour-long tour through the seamier streets of Swinging London, eschewing tourist sites for meths drinkers, shoeless children and bleak Victorian tenements.

Forty years after it was made, and after a decade of being the BFI’s single most requested title, The London Nobody Knows was finally released on DVD in 2008.

While Fletcher was billed as the film’s writer, the documentary was actually scripted by Brian Comport, who was only given a credit for “additional material” on commercial grounds. Now in his seventies and living in “sunny Brixton”, the dapper Comport is the only person involved in the film who has lived to see it acknowledged as a classic.

This is an interview I conducted with him, first broadcast on my old film show on Xfm.

How did The London Nobody Knows come to be made?

Norman Cohen, who produced and directed The London That Nobody Knows, had done four shorts for the Boulting Brothers and, as part of the deal he was on, had been offered a fifteen minute documentary. In 1966, he’d worked with James Mason on a film called The Blue Max as sound editor, had mentioned that he was thinking of doing this book as a documentary and Mason said “I’d love to do it.” That promptly raised money for another half hour. So Norman called me in. I was living on Bankside and I took him around, and he said “Right, go for it. Write me all this material.” So I did. He said “Look, the book on which it’s based is basically a point of departure, but the title The London Nobody Knows has got great marquee value, we’re sticking with that title because legally we have to, and as such, I’m going to have to acknowledge the author of the book, Geoffrey Fletcher.”

How much was Geoffrey Fletcher involved with the film?

Well, he wrote the book. He was a graphic artist, very good one, for the Daily Telegraph and exhibitions, and a bit of a history buff about London, a bit like Peter Ackroyd. He would have been, I suppose, a bit erudite for Norman when it came to the film. So I took it from there.

What was Fletcher like?

I never met the man. I read the book but I never met the man at all. He certainly knew his stuff as an artist and historian, though.

What was the reaction when the film was first released?

There was a very strange reaction to it. People didn’t know what to expect, frankly. Some people described it as ‘quirky’; some people described it as ‘quaint.’ Recently, someone called it an early fly-on-the-wall documentary, imitated since by television. At the time though, it was a very “Comme Ci, Comme Ça” reception – although we thought it might be a bit of a sleeper, and so it’s proved to be.

What’s do you put its enduring appeal down to?

I would say it was the humanity. Norman was a lovely man, had a great sense of mischief and he looked for characters – we filmed the kids, we filmed the olds and we filmed the down-and-outs. We took our lives in our hands in the really itchy part, where we had this evil-minded absolute raving animal of an alcoholic – poor devil – and we had a camera either side of him, knowing we’d have to be ready to drop them and just run if necessary.

Was the writing done during the filming process?

No, no, I’d written the material but when you get someone like James Mason, obviously if he wants to extemporise, that’s entirely down to him! Norman would have been a fool to have it any other way. So, no, the script was written before.

So there’s no treasure trove of unused material that one day will come to light?

I doubt it. There’s an out-cut that I don’t think will ever see the light of day, as I don’t think it was printed off. We were on Tower Hill with the escapologist.

Mason was talking on a prompt from my script, and he happened to mention in passing about being a Cockney, which I am – born in the sound of Bow Bells, in Cheapside. And this bloke breezed in, camera running, “’Ere, Mr. Mason, now, let me correct yew on that small matter. The Bow in question is ver Bow down in Poplar, right? It’s not anywhere else.” Mason was flummoxed – he was so urbane, gentlemanly, and polite – and Norman leant over to the cameraman and just whispered “Let it run! Just let it run!” But then he had cold feet and we canned it, so I don’t think it saw the light of day in any physical sense, and it’s not likely to ever turn up.

It’s astonishing watching someone the stature of James Mason walking through the rough streets of London and the commotion it causes.

Oh, it did! He had a driver and I would share the car occasionally, and he was standing with my partner at the time, when a little girl came up to her and said “’Ere, if that’s Mr. Mason, are you Mia Farrow?” They assumed anyone near him was famous too.

Considering the muted critical reception, I presume there were no plans for a follow-up, despite Fletcher writing more London titles.

Well, Norman went on to do ‘Til Death Us Do Part and Dad’s Army, and I did two or three more movies, and so that was it. It was an early point in his career and in mine. I was very fond of all the films I later made, but I was always particularly fond of London. Norman was a great mate, and it’s very moving, a lot of it.

Are you surprised by the level of acclaim it’s enjoying after forty years?

I must say I am, but I think it a thoroughly decent picture, and I’m sorry that Norman isn’t here to enjoy the accolades. I feel like a broom in a broom cupboard, that someone’s wondered what it’s doing in there, has brought it out and finally put it to good use. When I saw the film again the other day, I was very pleased with it. And that’s a very nice feeling.

The London Nobody Knows is available as an Optimum Classic DVD as part of a double-bill with Les Bicyclettes de Belsize, and is available here and here (I’m only making life easier if you want a copy – I don’t have any association with these vendors.)

The documentary is also up on YouTube, but it probably shouldn’t be for sorts of copyright issues. The quality isn’t a patch on the DVD.

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