Thames Film

Country: UK

‘A visionary film’
Peter Ackroyd

To co-incide with a retrospective at the 61st International Short Film Festival Oberhausen this month we present a new digital restoration of William Raban’s classic experimental documentary on London’s River Thames.

‘Raban’s reflective, ambivalent approach to cinematic Modernism reaches its apogee in Thames Film (1986)…Narrated by John Hurt, it is the closest Raban comes to a conventional documentary, incorporating archive film from 1921-1951, panoramic photographs taken in 1937. Brueghel the Elder’s painting the Triumph of Death and T.S. Eliot reading Four Quartets. Raban centres a study of the sites of modernity, and the meanings that time has inscribed into them, on the Thames, juxtaposing shots of the river in 1986 with readings from Thomas Pennant’s Journey from London to Dover (1787, close to the emblematic date of ‘modernity’, 1789). Modernity is put on trial: Pennant’s links between British imperialism, technological advances and the Thames are juxtaposed with derelict British imperialism, technological advances and pompous voiceovers from post-war newsreels anticipating the collapse not just of the Empire but also the ideals which supported it.’
Gareth Buckell

‘By filming from the low freeboard of a small boat, the film attempts to capture the point of view of the river itself, tracing the 50 mile journey from the heart of London to the open sea. This contemporary
view is set in an historical context through use of archive images and the words of the travel writer Thomas Pennant, who followed exactly the same route in 1787.’
William Raban



Born in England in 1948, William Raban started making films whist he was a painting student at Saint Martin’s School of Art in 1970. Since that time he has made over 40 films, many of which have London as their subject. The feature length Thames Film, made in 1986, is an essay on the changing face of London’s River over three centuries. With the later and more politically-charged Under the Tower trilogy: Sundial (1992), A13 (1994) and Island Race (1996) the images work without commentary, using only richly worked soundtracks of intensified natural sound, About Now MMX (2010) develops this research to discover the extent to which political meanings can be constructed wordlessly by image and sound alone.


Read more:

Peter Ackroyd on Thames Film

Michael Chanan on Thames Film from The Literary London Journal

Interview with William Raban from Ordinary Culture


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