100 years of footage of life on the Thames has been released to coincide with project to light up the river

A treasure trove of films of London’s bridges has been released to coincide with a project to light up the river, writes Toby Porter.

More than 100 years of footage of life on the Thames has been collated by the British Film Institute, on the South Bank, with the oldest, a record of Blackfriars Bridge, dating back to 1896.

They capture the heritage, culture and history of the river, with Londoners at work Thames Division (1955), The Open Road (1926), Drills at Southwark and New HQ (1936) and Railway Bridge Across the Thames (1968).

There are also films of South Londoners at play: We Are The Lambeth Boys (1959) Women’s Thames Swim (1921), Canoe (1961) and Sidewalk Surfing (1978).

Other films showcase the architecture of the bridges: South Bank (1973), Ten Bridges (1957) and Rebuilding of London Bridge (1967).

The collection focuses on their role as vital links using travelogues, news reports, industrial films, documentaries, fiction film rushes and amateur home movies.

The tides of the river and its bridges have been a draw for filmmakers since the earliest years of the moving image, when Victorian pioneer RW Paul set up his camera on Blackfriars Bridge to record the movement of passers-by.

More recently, the bridges have become an iconic part of London’s image abroad – with Westminster Bridge seen in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, the Millennium Bridge in
Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, Tower Bridge in Bridget Jones’s Diary and James Bond’s heart-stopping river chase in The World is Not Enough.

The films also depict the city’s industrial and economic progress, a place to work and live and enjoy, as well as an opportunity to commune with nature and experience the river’s traditions.

It can be crossed by barge, speedboat, sailing boats, rowing boats, canoes, swimmers and even by barrel.

The spans are depicted from the country in the west to central London to Docklands and beyond, from all angles against the flow of pedestrians, horse drawn vehicles, bikes, buses, trams, cars, lorries and skateboards.

The collection charts the changing Thames along the banks of the river, as well as the bridge through demolition, reconstruction and redevelopment.

Making the films available is part of the Illuminated River – a project to give the bridges a new night-time glow.

Artist Leo Villareal has used the latest LED technology to ‘paint with light’ across the structures, producing sequenced patterns using colours from Impressionist and English Romantic painters to reveal each bridge’s individual history and architectural features.

The first phase of Illuminated River has now launched with London, Cannon Street Railway, Southwark and Millennium bridges being lit up.

The next phase of the project, due for completion in autumn 2020, will include Waterloo Bridge and the BFI building in Southbank, as part of a new redevelopment of the BFI’s river front bar and restaurant.

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