27 Jul 2012

From hinterland to Olympics, the journey of a brief city

When filmmaker Paul Kelly first pointed his camera at the Olympic site in east London it was a strange wasteland. Writing for Channel 4 News, he describes what he found seven summers later.

It’s easy to forget that until very recently, an area about the size of the west end, less than four miles from the City of London had become derelict and almost forgotten. But this is where, in July and August 2005, I spent three intensive weeks of shooting a drama-documentary with the band Saint Etienne.

The film What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day? (see clip below) follows a fictional paperboy as he navigates the future Olympic site on his bike, delivering news of London’s successful bid to a seemingly absent community. At the start of the shoot we assumed the IOC decision would go in favour of Paris, although we knew the site would be developed anyway and were keen to capture its unconventional beauty before the bulldozers moved in. Back in 2005 the Olympics seemed a very long way off and we often fantasised about coming back to make a follow-up with the adult Mervyn (our paperboy) returning on the eve of the games astride a Harley Davidson motorcycle.

The site was in ‘lockdown’ and it was soon quite evident that I was not going to get in.

The opportunity to make a sequel presented itself earlier this year when we were commissioned by Create London to produce a new film set in east London. I turned up this May with the naive assumption that I could simply roll up and photograph a series of like-for-like comparison sequences. I suppose that having spent such an intense period of time on site followed by several weeks locked away in an edit suite, pouring over the accumulated footage, gave me a false sense of tenure and so when I returned earlier this year I half expected to be welcomed back like an old friend.

However, the site was in “lockdown” and it was soon quite evident that I was not going to get in! Reduced to traipsing around the perimeter fence, I felt like a planespotter casing a military air base. The security guards I encountered along the perimeter had little interest in my film and even less in the history of the site they now so preciously guarded.

From what I have seen, the Olympic Park with its various stadium facilities looks quite impressive and much as I think we had all imagined, although our paperboy Mervyn doesn’t seem quite as world weary and weather beaten as we had hoped. The likelihood of realising our original concept for a “Return to the Lea Valley” film was now looking somewhat remote and all efforts to gain access through official routes were proving fruitless.

Taking the train from Stratford to Hackney Wick I was eventually able to sneak a brief glimpse of the site and even spotted the Lea Navigation (canalised river) which runs alongside the stadium. This was somewhere we had filmed a fair bit in 2005 but now looks barely recognisable, as most of the old buildings that ran along the west bank seem to have been demolished.

Seeing the gleaming white buildings against a clear blue sky though, brought to mind images of the Festival Of Britain site of 1951.

Seeing the gleaming white buildings against a clear blue sky though, brought to mind images of the Festival Of Britain site of 1951 and for the first time I felt a genuine sense of excitement about the Games. However, If you’ve ever seen the film Brief City – made shortly after the festival was over – you get a pretty good indication of how this place might look by November and my thoughts quickly turned to the issue of the legacy.

For me, the Festival Of Britain provides a more interesting comparison to this event than the 1948 games. Thrown together a great deal faster than the 2012 Olympic Park on the back of a healthy dose of good will and a socialist agenda, it was a great success and is still remembered with fondness. It has also left London with the Royal Festival Hall, a physical expression of where the country’s values and aspirations lay shortly after the second world war.

I realise that schemes on this scale are unlikely to happen without some kind of commercial or military incentive, but I certainly don’t remember a giant shopping centre being mentioned in the original Olympic pitch – although I’m pretty sure it was on someone’s mind at a very early stage.

I am generally in favour of the games coming to London and it’s difficult not to admire Zaha Hadid’s stunning aquatic centre or the beautiful new velodrome, but with the future of the main stadium still in doubt there’s a very real danger of Westfield shopping centre becoming the real focal point of this part of east London once the Games have moved on.

Our new film Seven Summers has now been screened as part of the Create festival but as I still haven’t actually made it into the Olympic park I hope to return after the Games to see what has become of this brief city.

Paul Kelly is a film director and musician. His other films include Finisterre, co-directed with Kieran Evans (2002), and Lawrence of Belgravia (2011).