All Brits know about “The Knowledge”. In fact, many tourists to England’s capital may know of it too. It’s the legendary expectation of London Cabbies. Even in this Sat-Nav era, Hackney-cab drivers need to know every road in a six miles radius from Charing Cross by heart.
A challenge that takes between two and four years to learn. They need to recall over 400 ‘runs’, between different locations, and over 25,000 roads to speed between. According to a 2012 article in The Guardian, “it takes over your life” – and judging by the four characters in Bob Brooks four-part film, it changes your life forever. The Knowledge, part of the BFI’s season ‘London on Film’ at the BFI Southbank, is a fitting tribute to a profession that proudly celebrates a traditional ‘Lahn-dun’ skill. With the inevitable march of technology and Uber paving its way, this could become a thing of the past in the decades to come.
A playful, comedic script by Jack Rosenthal, our interest is perked as experts discuss routes and pathways in a greasy spoon. Overhearing the conversation too is Chris (Mick Ford) and his girlfriend Janet (Kim Taylforth). Out of work, and out of any ‘how’s your father’ until he finds a job, Chris is pushed into gaining the knowledge by ‘is missus. His examiner is the unforgettable, side-splitting Mr Burgess, played by Nigel Hawthorne. Hawthorne gleefully toys with his role as he is expected to not simply test them on the roads, but also on tackling difficult customers. They could have inhalers stuck up their nose, or they could tease and mock the driver. They could laugh and jeer. The driver’s responsibility is to simply get them from A to B, in the fastest time possible. Alongside Chris is a further three in training. His compatriots are smart-alec, cheeky Londoner Gordon Weller (Michael Elphick), Jewish everyone’s-a-cabbie-in-my-family Ted Margolies (Jonathan Lynn) and down-on-his-luck, eternal pessimist ‘Titanic’ (David Ryall). The latter managing to perfectly portray a man who seems to have lost every ounce of passion he ever had about life.
When a film is set within your home city, it’s always a joy. The film could be absolutely horrific, but if you can nudge your spouse as a car speeds past a bar you know intimately, it’s all worth it. The Knowledge is anything but horrific. It’s fun, insightful and takes great joy in its positive depiction of a working-class profession. Nick James writes in the September 2015 edition of Sight & Sound how British Cinema is becoming accustomed to the same “set of clichés” of poverty, teenagers and council estates (He is broader in his criteria, noting that this is “as much as a tribute as a complaint” due to the success of films such as Fish Tank and The Arbor). Watching a teleplay from 1979 only reiterates this. Where is the modern version of The Knowledge? A unique British, unjudgmental story of the working-class who we feel privileged, engaged and thoroughly enjoy, being in the company of. The modern working-class could be a tale of twenty-something’s making ends meet in a call centre? Or the shifting roles in retail, as checkout-teens and managers meet customers, day in day out? If these environments were created, one can assume it wouldn’t be without a scathing criticism of the harsh, thankless conditions they work within. This is opposed to the pride, happiness and self-fulfilment these men gain from achieving their green badge of honour.
This particular screening was introduced by Maureen Lipman (who plays the put-upon wife of Gordon) who, amongst many touching anecdotes, noted how her husband, writer Rosenthal, always enjoyed “cheering on the underdog” in his films. The Knowledge does this without patronising any of them. Crucially, despite an absolute corker of a song (sang by lead actor Mick Ford) to introduce and close the film, this is a testament to the ambitious drive (forgive the pun) of these men and women for a job that is integral to society. The Knowledge is a rare find, but it is worth the experience and, like the Manor House Station to Gibson Square run, it’ll be difficult to forget.
This was originally written for Flickering Myth on 4th August 2015