Wednesday 12 December 2012

Optimists of.... ?Chelsea

The Optimists of Nine Elms is a 1973 film about a grumpy old entertainer (played by Peter Sellers sporting, for reasons that never become apparent, a large prosthetic nose...) who lives with his talented dog in a derelict canalside warehouse supposedly in Nine Elms, Battersea. The film charts his relationship (these were more innocent times) with two "'Battersea" children, Liz and Mark, in a well-trodden filmic path from antagonism through tolerance to friendship. It all plays out against the backdrop of post-industrial decay, as the children wait their chance to move from their cramped Victorian ("Victorian", like "Battersea" is always bad in films up to the 1980s) basement flat with outside loo into the clean, new concrete flats they see "across the river" (meaning north of the river, of course). Except the filming locations tell a different story. That derelict warehouse? It's in Chelsea... Crown Wharf, Lots Road, now the west London branch of Bonhams auctioneers, the decay all around is the site of swanky Chelsea Wharf, just beside Lots Road Power Station.... all north of the river, like the children's basement flat, which is actually in Uverdale road, Chelsea, just behind the power station, all seen here a few years earlier from a picture in English Heritage's Aerofilms archive:

Those wonderful flats are actually miles to the east, and south of the river, at Thamesmead, which plays a less congenial role in A Clockwork Orange, and, more recently, in Misfits.

What does this tell us? Even in 1973 "Chelsea" would not have been plausible as an emblem of social decay. Battersea, more particularly Nine Elms, was a shorthand all Londoners would have understood for deprivation. The discourse of south London = bad, north London = good is as old as Old Father Thames. Aileen Reid, Survey of London

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