The Empire Strikes Back
In 1984-5, and again in 1985-6, the West Indian cricket team scored a ‘blackwash’ over the English team: i.e. a five – nil series victory. The success was enjoyed by, among others, many West Indian migrants now living in the UK. This was ‘turning the tables’ with a vengeance. It upset the established order of the game. Cricket has always seemed intensely English pastime. Traditionally it is only partially British, played in Wales, but not so much in Scotland. However, it was taken round the British Empire and established there mainly by the colonial rulers. But now the arrival of large numbers of people from the ex-colonies has changed cricket at home.
There are not that many memorable cricketing moments in British film. (Wikipedia has a page on Cricket in Film and Television). However, sport is not generally a dynamic feature in British cinema, For a long time the best footballing feature was Hollywood’s Escape to Victory (1981). Bend it Like Beckham (2002) does offer a successful contemporary footballing story, though it relies heavily on the modern celebrity aspects of the game. When cricket has been addressed in British film the stance has frequently been individual dramas. Thus The Final Test (1951) is centrally about a father/son relationship. Sam Palmer (Jack Warner) is making his final appearance in an English test team, playing the ‘old enemy’ Australia. However, his son Reggie is more interested in writing poetry than watching his father play. So the film also offers an opposition between art and sport. This divide is bridged by Reggie’s poet-hero Alex Whitehead (deliciously played by Robert Morley) who turns out to be a cricket-mad artist. The film is graced by appearances by several famous cricketers, including Len Hutton. Even more beguiling, we hear commentary by John Arlott. However, the bulk of the film is focused on the conflict between father and son: with a sub-plot about widower’s Palmer’s tentative romance with a barmaid in the Local. The central value of the film is patriarchy. Palmer is at first undermined, but finally reinforced in his role as head of the family. And the female interest is clearly subordinate. In fact, a scene, which has Palmer laying down the moral code of the period, feels rather embarrassing today.
The 2003 film Wondrous Oblivion [scripted and directed by Paul Morrison] brings a greater sensitivity to issues of gender and ethnicity. It takes a parallel situation to that in The Final Test: in this case it is the son rather than the father who is the cricketer. And the film addresses this through the discourse of a multicultural Britain. The film is set in London of the 1960s. David Wiseman belongs to a Jewish immigrant family. His father, Victor, works long and hard at his tailoring business. His mother, Ruth, is caught in domestic repression. David attends a middle class school, but his ineffectual performance on the cricket pitch restricts him the lowly position of scorer for the school team.
Then Jamaican Dennis Samuels and his family move in next door. Dennis’ first act is to erect a cricket net in his backyard. It is here that he develops David’s cricketing skills and lays the basis for a developing relationship between the two families. Denis’ coaching transforms David performance and he becomes a star player in the school team.
But serpents soon disrupt the little Eden. Ruth develops an attraction for the vibrant Denis, and he has to gently dampen her approaches. A more serious snare has David succumb to his schoolmate’s prejudices and snub Dennis’ daughter Judy on the occasion of his birthday party.
Now serious racial prejudice surfaces in the local community. Dennis’ house is set on fire by local thugs: It is David who raises the alarm and saves lives; but both the house and Dennis’ cricket net are destroyed. The neighbours stand idly by and the local police do not treat the incident seriously. Victor is appalled by this passivity, and events also suggest a simmering prejudice against the Wisemans that until now has remained below the surface. David and his family help Dennis rebuild his beloved nets: Victor provides materials and Ruth labour. Other neighbours shamefacedly help repair the damage to the house. The new relationships are cemented at a picnic, which in a reversal of The Final Test, has David missing an important school match.
Clearly, like The Final Test, this film is about fathers and sons. Denis offers a surrogate father to the young David. However, by the closure of the film David’s own family and their relationships have been reconstructed. David has not only improved his cricketing skills but also matured in his handling of these relationships. Just as the film is notably more modern in terms of ‘race’, so its treatment of gender is more modern, David mother’s Ruth has a more prominent role and is able to develop as a person. However, her situation is still subservient to that of the males: it is patriarchy that is central in this film. And there is a class dynamic, though this is not developed fully. At the end of the film, the Wisemans’ are moving geographically to north London, socially upwards. Most notably, we meet members of the current West Indian Test team. But they appear at the picnic rather than in battle with the Empire team at home.
Television, which has featured slightly more outings for the game. seems to mirror this approach. Thus an episode of Inspector Morse features the hallowed game in ‘Deceived by Flight’: Morse is essentially about a surrogate father/son relationship. In this drama Morse’s Sergeant Lewis has to play in the ‘old boys’ team. And during the play he is clearly seeking Morse’s approval. As usual Morse is distracted by a woman: in this case two, the traditional woman and the devious femme fatale.
A rather different focus emerges in a number of films made in the context of the colonial discourse which, whilst retaining overtones of father and sons, have more directly addressed and criticised the Imperial master. So films from colonial and ex-colonial territories frequently offer intriguing dramas.
In the 1970s Australian Television produced a mini-series on the notorious Bodyline controversy. (There is a fairly detailed account of this 1932-3 British cricket tour of Australia in Wikipedia). In 1930, the Australian cricket team had toured England with the great Don Bradman. He averaged over a 100 and Australia won the series. The English team captain Douglas Jardine noted that Bradman was not that good at dealing with short balls. Short pitch bowling tends to bounce up directly at the batsman, who can be hit on the body by a ball that may travel at up to 90 miles an hour. Most of the modern protective gear, like helmets, was not available in the 1930s. Jardine worked out a strategy with his fast bowlers, which involved balls directed at the batsman, who was faced with either being hit or possibly nicking a ball which could be caught by a fielder. The tactics had an impact during the tour of Australia both on and off the field. A famous scene includes the lines: “There are two teams out there. One if playing cricket. One is making no attempt to do so.” The row became so bitter that it involved diplomatic exchanges and spontaneous boycotts of goods by fans in home countries. It remains the most controversial event in the history of international cricket.
The mini-series rather sensationalises history, but produces a powerful dramatic retelling. Central to the narrative is the conflict between the superior imperial British and the ordinary colonial Australians. This conflict is about class, but also about colonial dominance and resistance. The Imperial strand is evident early on in Part One. This presents the upbringing of the young Douglas Jardine. A key scene, set in the Indian Raj, has Lord Harris (one-time England captain, MCC President and Governor of Bombay) presenting the young Jardine with a cricket bat. The rich mise en scène emphasises the power and affluence of the Raj. Later, when Jardine joins the English cricket side there is a clear divide between the players like Jardine, who are comfortably upper-class, and the professional, like the fast bowler Harold Larwood, who comes from a mining community. There are also indications of Jardine’s ruthless streak. In one match he instructs his bowler to stump an over-eager batsman out of his crease. This is technically legal, but hardly within the much-vaunted ‘spirit of cricket’. The actual contemporary spirit of the British game is well shown in that Larwood the bowler became the scapegoat after the tour, he was never selected for England again.
The second part of the series follows the actual Bodyline matches. The varied scenes include actual match play: responses by both spectators and journalist: and behind-the-scenes discussions among administrators and politicians. Especially potent are the crowd scenes. These emphasise once more the more proletarian style of the Australian colonials. There are also running gags, one being a fan who smuggles his sheepdog into every game in a Gladstone bag.
All these different scenes emphasise the distinction between English ruthlessness and Australian sportsmanship. When the conflict reaches a climax we see the British government using economic power to face down the Australians. At this point the Australian team consider refusing to play another test: (a sort of prequel to the action by Pakistan players in 2007). Then in a key scene they decide to soldier on and face the British barrage. This is the point at which they acquire heroic status, becoming the representatives of Australian fair play and courage. Clearly in this drama the British are ‘not playing cricket’.
In fact, what is probably the best British film on cricket is Playing Away (1986). The 1980s were a decade when the problems of racist Britain were glaringly visible for all to see. This was a factor in the new, pioneering Channel Four, whose Film Four International produced the film. It was also the decade that saw the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies publish a collection on “race” and racism under the title The Empire Strikes Back (Hutchinson University Press, 1982). As an anti-racist poster of the period put it, “We are over here because you are over there.”
The film was scripted by Caryl Phillips and directed by Horace Ové, both important Black British artists of the period. Ové migrated to Britain in 1960 from Trinidad at the age of 20. Phillips was born on St Kitts, but most of his upbringing was in the UK. Both have produced important bodies of work that address the experiences of Afro-Caribbean communities in Britain.
The main plot mechanism is a cricket match held in the Suffolk village of Sneddington to round off a week of fund raising for the Third World. The village team is to play the Brixton-based Conquistadors in a Sunday league fixture. The film opens on the Friday evening as the two captains marshal their sides and preparations. Sneddington’s captain Derek (Nicholas Farrell, reprising elements of his character in Chariots of Fire, 1981), is a middle class migrant to the rural haven, where he has lived for 5 or 6 years. The Conquistador captain is Willie Boy (a typical Norman Beaton characterisation), He is a Jamaican migrant whose wife has already returned to the island, but who has not quite managed this himself. Horace Ové, in an interview in the Monthly Film Bulletin (December 1987) comments: “It is not the same for their parents – that generation of West Indians who came over in the 40s and 50s. They were encouraged to come here, like Willie Boy in Playing Away. They thought life was going to be great, they worked hard but today they feel outside the gates of society and many of them question what they are doing here and want to go home to the Caribbean. I’ve lived in two worlds ever since I’ve been here.”
The film immediately sets up a series of oppositions as it cuts between Sneddington and Brixton. Clearly there is the contrast between urban and rural culture. But there are also oppositions of “race” and ethnicity, class, gender and a generation gap. These contradictions are not just between rural Suffolk and urban London. They are within both communities. Derek, his wife and best mate Kevin, (the team fast bowler), are marked off from the more proletarian village natives (or Oiks). And Willie Boy has an argument with Errol (Gary Beadle), the young, virile team member who is also dating Willie Boy’s daughter Yvette (Suzette Llewellyn).
In fact, there are a number of sub-plots concerning personal dilemmas and problems. A key character is Godfrey (Robert Urquhart), whose wife Marjorie (Helen Lindsay) is clearly the main organizer of this event. Godfrey and Marjorie have travelled abroad and sojourned in Kenya for a time. However, Godfrey’s knowledge of and sympathy for the Afro-Caribbean communities is slyly undercut in the film. A slide show for the village members with pictures set in Africa clearly includes a still where Godfrey is standing in front of a matte rather than an actual place. (Much clearer in a 35-mm print than on video). Such subversions recur regularly in the film. Some of these character and plot mechanism appear rather like those of television soaps, a genre that Ové also worked in. The development of the sub-plots brings some members of the two groups together, but also exacerbates other tensions. These come to a head in the final match.
Sneddington bat first and score 105. The Conquistadors chase this total but lose six wickets in the process and are clearly struggling. At this point two LBW appeals are turned down by the umpire, Godfrey. (The filming suggests Godfrey’s decision is possibly not impartial). The bowler Ian, (one of the Oiks) storms off the pitch, followed by five of his village mates. The pitch is now set for an easy Conquistadors victory. This is achieved by the partnership of Willie Boy and Errol. Errol, surprisingly, suggest that they take is easy and ‘make a game of it’, but Willie Boy scornfully counters that he is always ‘soft on the white man’.
Thus by late Sunday the Brixton West Indians are more united whilst Sneddington is in disarray. Charles Barr (In Monthly Film Bulletin, November 1987) made a good comment on this point in the film. “In his classic History of Cricket (1938, and much reprinted), H. S. Altham remarked that West Indian teams were handicapped by ‘temperamental weaknesses” when playing away, on tour in England; through all the shifts of on-and-off-field power that have occurred since, the stereotyped opposition of volatile black visitors and phlegmatic white hosts has tended to linger on.” Playing Away subverts it exuberantly, as the hosts from the picture-postcard village of Sneddington, heading for victory over their Brixton visitors on cricketing merit, blow the match through temperamental disintegration.”
Barr clearly identifies the way that the film subverts traditional sporting and media stereotypes. And this extends through the various subplots and characters. Playing Away is a work rich in contradictions. And it is rich in an irony that is usually lacking, not only in UK cricketing films, but UK sporting films more generally.
India seems to have produced more cricketing films than other countries playing the game. The titles include Awwal Number (1990) which combines a one-day series against Australia with a terrorist threat to spectators: and Iqbal (2005) which follows a rural deaf-mute boy who achieves cricketing prowess and a place on the national team. With Lagaan (2001), a major critical and commercial success, a larger dimension has been addressed. The film offers a historical, almost mythic confrontation between the British Empire and the subjugated Indian villagers in the form of a classic cricket match. The film is a star vehicle, produced by as well as featuring Aamir Kahn: plus a guest appearance by superstar Amitahb Bachchan as the film’s narrator. There are star ‘playback’ singers like Lata Mangeshkar, and the music is by the star composer A. R. Rahman.
The film is set in an ordinary village in the ‘heart of India’. It is 1893, the height of the rule of the British Raj. The film’s title, Lagaan, refers to a tax on the harvest of the villagers: officially paid to the Rajah, but mainly expropriated by the British, to whom the Rajah is subservient. And this year the hardship caused by the tax has been aggravated by the two seasons of the little rain. The conflict is embodied in the two leading characters: Captain Russell (Paul Blackthorne), the brutal and arrogant British commander, and Bhuvan (Aamir Khan), a villager living with his widowed mother. Bhuvan is a typical Hindi hero, as central to Bollywood films as the ‘all-American action hero’ is to Hollywood. The film is also conventional in other ways, featuring six large-scale song and dance numbers; a traditional Hindi mother; and Bhuvan’s romance with fellow villager Gauri (Gracy Singh).
However, the plot also has distinctive elements. Captain Russell challenges Bhuvan and the villagers to a cricket match, and wages three years free of lagaan against a triple lagaan payment for the current year. Bhuvan’s task becomes to persuade the village to fight the challenge and to build a team capable of taking on the British. In the course of building the team Bhuvan constructs a representation of an India united against the British. So there are both Hindus and Muslims, and a Sikh member who has traveled to join the team in their fight. Finally, Bhuvan recruits a dalit or ‘untouchable’. Kachra has a withered arm, and (referencing more recent cricket?) has the ability to bowl almost unplayable spin. His recruitment sparks protests from the prejudiced villagers. However, Bhuvan rallies the team and village with a powerful speech: and a song and dance number gives expression to their new unity of purpose.
Bhuvan and the team are also assisted by Captain Russell’s sister, Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley). Initially, she helps the villagers out of a sense of fair play, but it is soon apparent that she is smitten with Bhuvan. This provides a romantic sub-plot, which brings in more conventional references, this time to the mythic story of Krishna and Radha; star-crossed lovers. There is another plot strand when the villager Lakha, jealous of Bhuvan and Gauri, works as a spy and saboteur for the British.
The village team members are subordinate to Bhuvan in the plot, but do develop individually. Like Kachra, most of them have particular cricketing skills. Deva, the Sikh, has played cricket before in the British army. Bhura, who spends his time chasing his chickens is a fine fielder. Bagha, who plays the drum before the village shrine, is a fine batsman. The contrast with the British is also one of class, as that team is composed solely of officers. At one point a vital and dazzling song and dance in the village is contrasted with the cool, formalized and affluent ballroom of the British.
The film climaxes in a three-day match between the British and the Villagers, watched both by the British colonial establishment and a mass of rural Indians. The match is commented on and explained (for both audiences) by Ram Singh, Elizabeth’s servant. The game runs for about 80 minutes of the overall film. And whilst the production has gone to great lengths to produce convincing period detail, the plot also plays on contemporary cricket lore. So, aside from Kachra’s spin. a British bowler indulges in ‘bouncers’ and ‘beamers’. Several village batsmen are injured, including Ismail, who is allowed a ‘runner’, This is the village youth Tipu, who is stumped in a similar fashion to the incident in Bodyline. There is frequent ‘sledging’ by the British officers. And in a moment of rage Captain Russell trashes the British dressing room.
Predictably, the villagers win, but the result is in doubt till the last ball. In fact this is a ‘no ball’, saving the wicket of Kachra, last man in. This enables Bhuvan to hit the winning six. He has, also, carried his bat through the innings. So whilst it is a team effort, the prime focus remains on Bhuvan the hero. The victory enables Bhuvan to win Gauri, and leaves Elizabeth to return to England sadder and wiser. Captain Russell is banished to the ‘Central African desert’, and one hopes that there are not more benighted villagers there to suffer his brutal domination.
The film not only uses the conventions of Hindi cinema, but also subverts those of the Empire cinema. It has a native hero who rallies the ‘troops’, aided by a lovelorn maiden, but a white maiden. And once more it is the British officers who show the least regard for the ‘spirit of cricket’.
These ‘colonial’ films clearly mirror the changing hierarchies of international cricket. But they also consciously dramatise cricket as a metaphor for the larger social and political conflicts.
The Final Test, Playing Away and Lagaan are all available on region 2 DVDs. Bodyline is available on a Region 4 DVD.