Thursday, 16 May 2013

What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? (2005) - Paul Kelly

Paul Kelly’s second foray into the world of film making is this wonderful short (45 minutes) film about the Lower Lea Valley in London’s East End. The announcement on 6th July 2005 that this long neglected area was soon to become the center of the worlds attention (due to it being transformed beyond all recognition into the Olympic Park for the 2012 London Olympics), was met with a smattering of applause and a healthy dose of scepticism from the local population. Luckily Paul Kelly was on hand along with long time friends and collaborators Saint Etienne to capture the area on film before it disappeared forever.

We follow a paperboy as he cycles through the various places that make up his route. It’s a simple narrative that allows Kelly to focus on a number of seemingly unconnected images and places that appear to have been forgotten by all but those that live there. Mervyn Day (the paperboy) meanders around the downtrodden area exploring derelict buildings, cricket grounds and canals. On top of this we get various audio bursts from the locals, waxing lyrical about everything from a crocodile that lives in the canal, Dick Turpin and a kidnapper on the loose. There's also wonderful gravelly narration from David Essex and Linda Robson as Mervyn's grandfather and mother respectively.

What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? works in the same way as The London Nobody Knows or even The Long Good Friday in that it records a whole swathe of London that has now gone for good. A time capsule for a future generation if you will. There's references to The Smiths, Eastenders (signs for both The Dagmar and The Queen Victoria turn up), stories about great leaps in industry (plastic being invented here) and how nicking toy cars from the Matchbox factory wasn’t really thought of as stealing. More than anything there is a strong feeling of nostalgia running through the film. This comes across not only in the audio interviews, but also in Saint Etienne's score.

Peppered throughout What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? are snippets of radio news about Britain winning the Olympic bid and of the bombings that knocked London for six the day after that announcement. Which cleverly manages to convey both the mixed feelings (excitement & gloom) that was in the air at the time. It also firmly anchors the film in a particular moment in time. It might not mean much now, but in 50 years…

Coming from a photography background Kelly has a keen eye for where to place his camera and manages to find beauty in things that most people would normally look away from. An old Coke can and half deflated football sitting atop a puddle of scum on a waterway, rows of long abandoned industrial premises, old street signs and heavily graffitied walls. All look interesting and invoke a nostalgia for ‘the old days’. I found a shot of an old bin with wooden slats particularly moving. Maybe you had to be there.

Just as with their previous collaberation with Paul Kelly, 2003's Finisterre, the Saint Etienne soundtrack works a treat. The music itself is almost an updated version of John Cameron’s aces score for Kes. Very pastural yet modern at the same time, very Saint Etienne in other words. It's all flutes and beats, the sound of the past and the present clashing with great success. They performed it live at the film's premiere at London’s Barbican Centre.

By the film's end our paperboy is down at the Thames staring across the water at that other huge London redevelopment project of the recent past - The Millennium Dome. It leaves the viewer questioning what will happen to the communities around the Lower Lea Valley in the aftermath of the Olympics? Will they be pushed further afield and not get to enjoy the rejuvenation of their own area? After all, that has been happening for donkey's years now with the gradual 'gentrification' of London. Time alone will tell. Once the lovely animated credits for What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? start to role though you’ll find yourself wanting to go for a stroll along the waterways, or maybe pop into one of the local caffs for a mug of tea. It’s too late though since it’s all gone now. That’s why this film is so important. A total triumph.

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