Last weekend saw us in London. We were staying in that bit of Mayfair called Clubland, catching up on a couple of art exhibitions before they closed at the end of January.
On Saturday evening we noticed a commotion, traffic jams and people everywhere. “It’s the Lumière”, we were told. London was running its first light and sound show. After eating we took to the streets, despite some rain, to see what was going on.
In Piccadilly we encountered three large luminous things floating in the air. They might have been whales: though their large outstretched wings and incredibly long tail (or trunk) made them look more like elephants. They floated up and down and occasionally changed colour. We were underwhelmed. There were some pictures projected on to the fairly plain wall of a building: it was all right, I suppose, as projected pictures go, but they weren’t very special. Frankly, the normal illumination of Fortnum and Mason’s elegant building was more attractive.
Undeterred we moved on to Regent Street. There were two more floating whale-like things: one lost its buoyancy and crashed to earth. We’d learnt by now that, to find installations (as artists call them), we just had to listen for the next bit of amplified minimalist music (none of it live).
Further up Regent Street, Hamley’s famous toy-shop was decorated with walking figures created by projected white dots. Diving into Carnaby Street, or just off it, we located a single walking figure, similarly projected. Oh, and I’d forgotten the paper lanterns hanging from a side street both there and across a portion of Piccadilly.
St James’s Square was a little classier, as you might expect from that address, with no amplified music. Human figures perched perilously on the tops of two of the most elegant buildings, cleverly illuminated: and a flying human figure hung suspended over the street.
I confess we’d dined well, but this attempt at spectacle made us giggle hysterically. This is the capital city, for goodness sake! They should see what little Durham, out in the sticks of the North East, can achieve! It has the advantage of being a World Heritage Site with a spectacular castle and cathedral onto which to project pictures: but those images from the Lindisfarne Gospels are themselves amazing. They mean something and have a link to the place: we could discern no such coherence in London’s dismal efforts.
What were those airborne cetaceans (or pachyderms) all about? Last autumn’s Lumière in Durham saw a whale breach and leap from the River Wear: repeatedly; successfully; spectacularly.
I love visiting London, and enjoy all that it has to offer. But last Saturday night, it disappointed. Not so Sunday morning, however. Walking up the Mall towards Buckingham Palace my long sight revealed an aeroplane parked up at the far end: from my childhood Boys’ Book of Aeroplane Spotters I could recognise a Spitfire. We came a little closer and were alarmed to see soldiers in Nazi uniforms standing around aimlessly. There was even an armoured car, and an original Mark 1 Volkswagen (I hope they didn’t lie about the emissions on that one!)
It wasn’t some kind of hoax: it was a film crew making a TV show for the autumn which will be called SS GB, one of those “what if” series about what might have happened if Hitler had successfully invaded the UK.
We joined the huge crowd as stewards tried to keep us out of camera-shot so that we could see an all-of-10-seconds sequence in which the pilot slid back the canopy, climbed out, saluted a Nazi officer, ignored the ground-crew rushing to service his kite (as Biggles would have called it) and marched towards the camera between two period cars.
We marvelled at the number of people involved, the amount of work and planning just to get that ten-second take. We were going to watch the second take, but some twenty minutes later they still weren’t ready, constantly pushing the armoured car forward and back to improve the shot.
Well done, London. You never disappoint entirely. If the Lumière was a damp squib, the unscheduled, unannounced entertainment in the Mall the next day was hilarious.
Oh, and I’ll be watching out for SS GB in the autumn, just to see how the camera creates magic from the humdrum – as the Lumière should have done.