Recently I came across this wonderful image from the 1936 Secrets of Life film London Visitors (1936). With films like this one, which have not yet been digitized, we will have to make do for the moment with published photographs like the one above. Luckily, however, I was able to watch a viewing copy at the BFI National Archives last year as part of my research.
I find this film fascinating because it is one of several Secrets that turned the spotlight on urban areas, showing that they were just as worthy of natural-historical study as a countryside field. While programmes like David Attenborough’s ‘Cities’ episode in Planet Earth II might give us the impression that filming urban wildlife is a relatively new thing, London Visitors shows us that it is part of a much longer history.
The film, which was directed by Mary Field and shot by Oliver Pike, takes us to “the North” of England to follow the migration of the black-headed gull down to London (a rather simplified story of the bird’s migratory patterns, it should be said). There, the narrator asks viewers to ‘listen to their gossip’, before demonstrating the bird’s flight in slow motion. We see a polecat feasting on gull eggs, and then a man collecting the eggs for human consumption, with the film telling us that they are considered a “delicacy” in London. Indeed, according to the British Trust for Ornithology, around 300,000 gull’s eggs were sold every year in Leadenhall Market in London during the 1930s, when London Visitors was made.
London Visitors also includes images of a photographer entering a “hide” from which to observe the birds, and a fascinating shot of the bird embryo developing inside the egg – no doubt inspired by the embryology films that were being made by the Secrets team at G.B.I. around the same time.
The birds, we are told repeatedly, “enjoy plenty of noise and crowds”, and in this sense the film ties the black-headed gull’s character to the space of the city. “No wonder they come back to London again”, the narrator goes on, “London, with its old and stately buildings, its busy river, its jostling traffic: especially its jostling traffic”.
Later, the commentary continues as follows: “There is at least one Londoner who isn’t very pleased with the return of the gull and that is the pigeon. Portly and well-fed, its dignity is ruffled by the return of its poor relations from the country.” Pigeons would be the subject of another Secrets film, entitled Living in London (1938).
London Visitors ends with the juxtaposition of a marching band of beefeaters and the riotous, chaotic flying of the black-headed gulls, which are once more described as part and parcel of the city’s fabric:
London Visitors ends with the juxtaposition of a marching band of beefeaters and the riotous, chaotic flying of the black-headed gulls, which are once more described as part and parcel of the city’s fabric: “The roar of the traffic is swollen and sharpened by the shrill notes of the London Visitors. Part of the pattern of a great city: ever changing, ever new, and ever the same.”