How We Used To Live is a documentary by filmmaker Paul Kelly, with a soundtrack by Pete Wiggs of London-based band Saint Etienne and scriptwriting from the band’s Bob Stanley and Travis Elborough. Unlike Kelly’s other three films made in collaboration with the band, which use original footage, How We Used To Live is build […]

How We Used To Live is a documentary by filmmaker Paul Kelly, with a soundtrack by Pete Wiggs of London-based band Saint Etienne and scriptwriting from the band’s Bob Stanley and Travis Elborough. Unlike Kelly’s other three films made in collaboration with the band, which use original footage, How We Used To Live is build with archive footage from the BFI. It tells the story of our nation’s capital from post-war reconstruction through to the election of Margaret Thatcher, with sardonic, unquestionably British narration from a fictional character voiced by Ian McShane.

Pete, Bob, Sarah and Debs of Saint Etienne will bring How We Used To Live to Sheffield Doc/Fest this year, playing a live soundtrack to the film for the first time at the Crucible on 12 June. I chatted to Bob, writer and co-founder of Saint Etienne, about the project.

The BFI press release describes How We Used to Live as being “for anyone who has ever tried to understand their city”. What themes and subjects were you exploring through the script and the soundtrack?
The inspiration for it came from Of Time and The City, the Terence Davies film about Liverpool, which was about 85% archive film. Paul Kelly had seen it and invited me over to watch it. We got really drunk and watched it four or five times in a row, and every time we watched it we either thought it was amazing or it was really flawed. We thought we should do a London version. That was the initial idea, but we were quite bound by the footage we had. We were at the BFI for three months going through footage, which was a real privilege, but about 95% of that footage was Piccadilly Circus, the Tower of London or the royal family. We were permanently watching things with our fingers on fast-forward because so much of it was not usable – not for the film we wanted to make, anyway.

I suppose the organisations paying for that footage had their own agendas.
Yeah, absolutely. A lot of it was from the Visit London archives. Their agenda was that people should come to London because of the Tower of London, the royal family and Piccadilly Circus. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who wants to come to London for those reasons. I can’t imagine it being that different now, really. If there was a government sponsored film about visiting London it would probably include a lot of the royal family still.

There are a couple of bits where you are quite sarcastic about that agenda, in particular the bit when the royal family first comes in and it has the kids talking about what they want to be when the grow up superimposed over the top.
Yeah [laughs]. Paul did that. He was really pleased with that. I love that bit. “I want to be [BBC radio detective character] Dick Barton,” the Duke of Edinburgh is saying. Most of the dialogue we didn’t write. It was taken from different films and superimposed. There’s not very much that’s original sound and picture. And then the script – about 10% of what me and Travis wrote got used. You don’t want to fill space for the sake of it and a lot of the music needed to breathe.

You’ve done three films with Paul Kelly in the past. How does this film differ from the London Trilogy?
This one’s different primarily because it’s all archive. I think Paul thought it would be a lot easier to make because you wouldn’t have to film it all first, but it didn’t work out that way at all. It took just as long as any of the other films. Also I think a lot of the time it looks like he’s shot it – like he’s got in a time machine and shot the film – because the kind of shots he likes dictates what’s in the film.

I assume there’s a lot of footage that’s never been seen.
No, I’m sure. There’s this documentary series called London Line, which ran I think from ’65 to ’82. It was made for the colonies and then the commonwealth. It wasn’t made for anybody in Britain, so it’s really weird watching this magazine programme all about London, and nobody’s ever seen it. Most of it didn’t make it into our film because it wasn’t really right, but they were incredible things to watch. And the woman walking around the bombed out buildings at the beginning… I don’t know what that’s from actually. That’s really moving, I think.

Did you and Travis have any other inspirations, in film or otherwise, when you were writing the script?
Travis had a book of this bloke who was an estate agent in London in the 60s, and he used to write these descriptions of houses which were really sarcastic – “a bit of a hovel in Pimlico”. I don’t know how he got away with it. Travis had a book of these house details he’d written, which we worked into the script.

There were some other things as well. I was looking at old telephone exchange names in London. Each area in London had a prefix, but because there were so many a lot of them had absolutely nothing to do with where they were. 485 was ‘GUL’, so 485 became Gulliver, just north of Kentish Town. Blue Bell was South Norwood. Clocktower was East Ham. Fountain was Streatham. We included a few of them. It’s kind of a like a shadow version of London. I quite like the idea of doing a map with the old exchange names instead of the area names.

Was it a case of adapting the soundtrack for performance or was it written with that in mind?
No, it wasn’t written with that in mind at all. Pete did everything himself. He certainly wasn’t ever thinking we were going to do this live, so I think he’s doing a lot of work at the moment, taking it all apart and working out different lines. I think there’s probably going to be more vocals, just because otherwise Sarah and Debs are going to be standing there doing nothing for virtually the whole film. We’ll probably do it again after the Crucible, because it’s quite a lot of work, but this will be the first time it’s been done.

What will the set up be on the night in terms of performers and instruments?
It’ll be me, Pete, Sarah, Debs and Gerard Johnson, who’s engineered a lot of our stuff. He’s going to be playing keyboards. There’s definitely going to be strings, woodwind, guitar, bass and drums. Apart from Gerard I think they’re going to be all new musicians who we haven’t worked with before, so it’ll be interesting.

How do you think writing scores for film has affected the way Saint Etienne make music?
We’ve always loved film soundtracks. There’s quite a lot of stuff, certainly on the first three albums, that is quite heavily influenced by John Barry in particular. Since we’ve been doing soundtracks we’ve only done two albums – Tales from Turnpike House and Words and Music by Saint Etienne – and actually there’s next to no film soundtrack influence on them.  I suppose we were saving it for the actual soundtracks. Instrumental ideas especially are saved up for films. You also end up with a lot more outtakes. Certainly on What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? and This is Tomorrow we wrote a load of stuff we never used. Quite good if you’re short of ideas.

Saint Etienne will perform the live soundtrack to How We Used To Live at the Crucible on Thursday 12 June as part of Sheffield Doc/Fest.

saintetienne.com
sheffdocfest.com

Sam Walby.