Sheffield Doc/Fest 2014: ‘How We Used to Live’ review


Unlike recent pioneering archive-led offerings such as Penny Woolcock’s British Sea Power collaboration From the Sea to the Land Beyond and John Akomfrah’s The Stuart Hall Project, Paul Kelly’s How We Used to Live (2013) isn’t a great deal more than what it appears at first glance – an audiovisual document of a London now consigned to history. This is vérité at its most refined, with occasional interjections from Ian McShane kept to a bare minimum in order to allow rolls of colour footage from the BFI National Archive to do the talking. As such, there’s not a huge amount to be gleaned from Kelly’s collage other than what we see, with the film as a whole peaking and troughing.

Confining itself to what McShane refers to as the “new Elizabethan age”, from Britain’s emergence out of the Second World War through to the dawn of Thatcherism, How We Used to Live stars the nation’s capital as its own living, breathing character. Enlivened by immigrants from such exotic lands as the West Indies, this flourishing multiculturalism was just one of many changes London embraced with open arms. Like Finisterre, What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day and This Is Tomorrow before it, Saint Etienne’s Pete Wiggs, Bob Stanley and Travis Elborough provide a suitably eclectic soundtrack and script to supplement the vibrant imagery on show. As London evolves so to does the musical accompaniment, bowing out as the sun sets on the city’s most iconic landmarks.

From strip clubs and spit-and-sawdust boozers to the remarkably untouched underground network, the National Archive clearly has it covered. What’s frustratingly absent from How We Used to Live, however, is any sense of deeper analysis. Whereas Woolcock’s From the Sea to the Land Beyond lamented the gradual disappearance of the traditional British seaside jaunt and Akomfrah’s The Stuart Hall Project had the titular late cultural theorist to give greater, profound meaning to the footage provided, McShane’s sporadic commentary is almost entirely redundant. A fine advert for the BFI National Archive, then, but Kelly’s fifth directorial effort (following on from 2011’s Lawrence of Belgravia) isn’t quite as unmissable a film artefact as it perhaps could have been in more innovative hands.

Sheffield Doc/Fest takes place from 7-12 June 2014. For more of our Sheffield Doc/Fest coverage, follow this link.

Daniel Green