The Tory government in the UK is seriously considering the possibility of selling the publicly owned Channel 4 TV corporation. Unlike the BBC, Channel 4 is not funded by the licence fee but by the sale of advertising. However, as well as its commitments as a Public Service Broadcaster (PSB) in the UK, Channel 4 has other commitments that derive from its establishment in 1982 as a ‘publisher broadcaster’. These have been watered down over time and particularly since the early 1990s when the bold, radical style of Channel 4’s operations was severely curtailed and the channel became more focused on mainstream programming skewed towards younger audiences, while retaining a cutting edge on particular forms of programming such as news. I confess that I became far less interested in the station at that point. However, the other parts of its original remit remained in the sense that Channel 4 was required to commission all its programming from other TV channels and particularly from independents. In addition this commissioning should include production outside London and the South East. This became particularly important when ITV ceased to be organised through regional franchises and became a single national network operation.
Film 4 is the film production and distribution arm of Channel 4, commissioning films since the channel’s outset. In the last 30 years, Film 4, alongside the BBC and BFI has been a major funder of independently produced British films. I would go so far as to suggest that if Channel 4 had not funded filmmakers in the 1980s through to the 2000s, the British film industry would probably have folded and become nothing more than an offshore facility for Hollywood productions. It might be argued that in reality that’s all the UK film industry has ever been except for its genuine studio period from the late 1930s to the early 1960s. Nevertheless, Channel 4 and Film 4 have been important in ensuring that smaller independent British films have been made, including films in Scotland, Ireland and Wales as well as English regions. In doing so they have been crucial in helping to develop the careers of filmmakers such as Shane Meadows.
It’s also true that the commissioning of programmes by the BBC and ITV from independents eventually followed the Channel 4 lead. Even so, to take away that possibility that Channel 4 might fund an independent to make Derry Girls in the North of Ireland or It’s a Sin about a group of gay men learning to live with HIV/AIDS in the 1990s would be very damaging to the media ecology in the UK. Both have been big hits with audiences, but would another broadcaster have commissioned them? The companies that made them are now quite large independents, some having been acquired by foreign multinationals, but many others are still small UK companies. On Tuesday this week 44 independent production companies paid for a full-page advertisement in the Telegraph newspaper, a major Tory-supporting media outlet, arguing that privatisation “would cost jobs, reduce investment, and place companies at risk in the nations and regions”. The ad was timed to attract attention at the Tory Conference in Manchester.
The government response has predictably argued that any buyer of Channel 4 would be required to abide by its PSB and other founding commitments. So, it would follow the ‘successful’ model of privatisation of the rail industry, postal service, energy and water etc, all of which are now a national disgrace? If the privatisation goes ahead the only likely buyers are going to be multinationals and these will be mostly US-owned corporations. Can we see Disney, Viacom or Warner Bros, supporting offices in Leeds and Bristol and funding shows like Derry Girls? Perhaps they would, but in the long term they are international capitalist enterprises with only profit as a long-term goal (Channel 4 is currently a not-for-profit corporation). Would Film 4 still exist as a funder? Wouldn’t the already high US content of the channel just increase? Do we really think that the UK government could force one of these corporations to stick to PSB regulation?
There is a second concern here that links the possible privatisation of Channel 4 to the rise in film production from the streamers, principally Netflix, Amazon, Disney and Apple. The Tories will argue that the streamers are producing films in the UK, lured by high quality skilled crews and facilities and tax concessions for ‘high-end television’ as well as feature films. There are several problems with this. First, the government has no clear cultural policy. It cries out for films and TV about ‘British values’, whatever they may be, but The Crown is the only Netflix production I can think of that fits the government request and that’s not exactly social realism. Are Netflix going to fund Shane Meadows (and would Shane want to be funded by them?). Second, dependence on dollar investment in UK film and TV is vulnerable to exchange rate changes and other factors. The streamers could decide to leave for a host of reasons and all the shiny new studio spaces currently being hurriedly built to lure the streamers would be empty. I don’t subscribe to Netflix or Amazon, Disney or Apple TV+. Dealing with multinational capitalist enterprises is a given of modern life but this quartet threaten the very future of British broadcasting. With a government seemingly determined to ‘subdue’ the BBC and create more commercial freedom, UK TV will become as US-dominated as the UK film production. Channel 4 is one of the few organisations striving to protect independent filmmaking in the UK – and to help export the films produced. The privatisation must be stopped.
Vigil is a 6 x 60 minutes serial broadcast on a weekly basis (i.e. with cliffhangers and no prior access for streaming) after a two parter over the Bank Holiday weekend. It has been promoted as being from the production company behind Line of Duty and is running in BBC1’s primetime Sunday 9.00 pm slot. The production company World Productions, founded by Tony Garnett in 1990, is one of the most successful in UK TV and now owned by ITV, but its shows appear on both ITV and BBC channels. The basic premise for the show is that a submariner dies under suspicious circumstances while serving on ‘Vigil’, one of the UK’s four nuclear submarines carrying missiles with nuclear warheads at all times. Because the ‘boat’ is still in British territorial waters, a police officer from the local force for the submarine base is transported to the submarine to investigate. Meanwhile a local trawler has been dragged beneath the waves by a submarine. Is ‘Vigil’ at fault or is there a second submarine in the same waters?
I find this serial particularly gripping for several reasons. It is an intriguing meld of different genre repertoires. It isn’t purely a police procedural because of the compromised status of the investigator DCI Amy Silva (Suranne Jones). The narrative possibilities of the police procedural are compromised by the naval military procedures and especially the strict rules about actions and behaviour on a nuclear submarine. There is a long tradition of generic narratives concerning an investigator who finds himself/herself restricted by the codes of conduct in an isolated community. But this turns out to be a complex case for DCI Silva and much of the legwork ashore has to be carried out by her DC, Kirsten Longacre. The police-Navy confrontation is further complicated by the appearance of MI5 whose interest might be prompted by several different aspects of the case. We are familiar to some extent with the idea of different branches of the police forces in the UK coming into conflict from Line of Duty and other police procedurals, but MI5 interest suggests another kind of narrative. Again there is a long tradition in UK film and TV of ‘secret service’ types interfering with all kinds of individuals who might threaten the ‘national interest’ (a highly dubious concept at best). Finally, in all contemporary thrillers we seem to have a personal story involving the lead investigator and ‘Vigil’ is no exception. From the opening credits I felt that ‘Vigil’ explores the playbook of The Bridge with a similar sounding opening song, aerial and long shot photography and trouble for its prime investigator.
So far we been offered three of the six episodes and without spoiling the narrative, we appear to have what might be termed a ‘peeling the onion’ narrative – everything that Amy and Kirsten discover seems to lead to a new layer of meaning and another possible narrative. Unlike with many of the recent crime fictions on TV I find myself gripped by the tension but not completely bewildered by the narrative. I’m impressed by the setting in and around a nuclear base meant to resemble the real base at Faslane, West of Glasgow on Gare Loch. Episode 3 ends with a chase on the streets of Central Glasgow with its steep inclines and the narrative feels securely located – unlike the the more generic scenes in Line of Duty, shot in Belfast but seemingly meant to be somewhere else. The sense of a recognisable environment carries through to the casting and I’m enjoying seeing Gary Lewis with his wonderful voice as the Detective Superintendent and Rose Leslie as DC Longacre, both highly convincing as are the navy personnel with Stephen Dillane as the Rear Admiral in charge back at the base. Suranne Jones is one of UK TV’s top actors now, vying with Sarah Lancashire for the best lead roles. Amy’s back story, emerging in flashbacks, some long and others literally ‘flashes’, will perhaps eventually reveal how she comes to be in the West of Scotland.
Vigil is written by a small team of writers with Tom Edge listed as ‘creator’ as well as lead writer. Edge has broad TV drama experience and also wrote the ‘part biopic’ Judy (UK 2019). There is a different director for the second three episodes and it will be interesting to see if there is any noticeable change in style. There appear to be two cinematographers as well. The serial is presented in a 2.00:1 aspect ratio, the kind of format I first recognised in ‘Nordic Noir’ productions (though they might have been slightly wider still). Vigil opens with dramatic shots at sea and the wider format gives it a filmic sense of expansiveness. This still seems quite daring for BBC1 (as distinct from BBC2 or BBC4 where different aspect ratios are more common). I should note that as might be expected, viewers with a naval background and especially submariners have criticised all the details of life underwater. I don’t think that authentic detail in what is a difficult environment to represent on screen without very expensive sets is a major consideration here. Instead, the three repertoires of genre elements and how they are used is the central concern. This has been the most watched TV drama of 2021 so far with 10.2 million watching the first episode on broadcast and catch-up.
I’ve been fully engaged for three episodes and I’m hopeful the second half will continue in the same vein. I you haven’t tried it yet, the first three episodes are on iPlayer in the UK.
Like many other appreciative TV viewers I have just watched the second crime serial/long form narrative of Innocent on ITV in the UK. A few months earlier I completed the fourth serial of Unforgotten, also on ITV in the UK, which saw the final appearance of DCI Cassie Stewart played by Nicola Walker. The major figure behind both ‘franchises’ appears to be the writer Chris Lang, who perhaps deserves the US title of showrunner. As far as I can see he seems to be directly involved as a writer for Unforgotten produced by Mainstreet Pictures and as ‘Executive Producer’ and co-writer of Innocent for TXTV which he co-founded with Matthew Arlidge, also a writer on Innocent, and Jeremy Gwilt. These three and Laura Mackie and Sally Haynes of Mainstreet are highly experienced figures in TV drama, mainly for ITV. However, my interest here is not so much in the companies but in the possible innovations in these two franchises.
Crime shows, along with with medical dramas – ‘cops and docs’ – are at the centre of TV drama. My interest is primarily in crime fiction across literature, film and television. I’m interested in what might be a shift in approaches to crime fiction narratives. In TV, the UK tradition has been to focus on either the ‘police procedural’ or the amateur/private detective investigation. ITV tends to call both forms ‘mystery drama’. Some of the most successful series have been based on lead characters from literary crime fiction, others are original. As someone who has decided for various reasons to avoid US TV crime dramas (and mainstream Hollywood films), my main focus has been on European and other non-US narrative forms. The major influence in the UK seems to have been the success of European crime fiction and especially Nordic crime fiction on TV epitomised by The Killing and The Bridge following the initial success of crime writers such as Henning Mankell with his Inspector Wallander stories in print form and then film/TV. At first this seemed to be a general influence in terms of noir and the tone and visual qualities of the crime fiction programmes as well as the increased emphasis on female leads. More recently perhaps we have seen more interest in the crime melodrama aspects – a focus on the emotional lives of both the police investigators and the various people involved in crimes, either as perpetrators or victims, witnesses etc.
There is nothing new in this interest in melodrama. As far back as 1956 and Ealing’s The Long Arm, we’ve seen little glimpses of the home lives of police investigators. Since then it has gradually been increasing, but the approach of Nordic crime fiction was on another level. The Killing (Forbrydelsen, Denmark 2007), the first serial of 20 x one hour episodes, stands out for me because of the interweaving of three major strands – the hunt for the murderer, the melodrama about the victim’s family and the political intrigue. I don’t think any of the later attempts to follow this model have achieved quite the same blend – or the same high quality of writing, performance and overall presentation. However, I was struck by my first viewing of Unforgotten and then by Innocent, both of which I found engaging and compulsive viewing. A comparison of both their shared and different elements is intriguing.
Unforgotten is an example of the ‘cold case investigation’ narrative. A separate police unit in London headed by DCI Cassie Stuart and DI ‘Sunny’ Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar) plus a small team of detectives investigate cases on the basis of new evidence. Each of the four serials comprises six 46 minute episodes (2015-2021). It shares the basic premise with the BBC series New Tricks (2003-15) and Waking the Dead (2000-2011), both very successful but in formal terms mainly single episode cases for the former and two-part episodes for the latter. But New Tricks featured retired detectives working for a serving officer in charge and tended towards a lighter and sometimes comic tone and Waking the Dead emphasised psychological profiling and forensics. Unforgotten focuses more on traditional procedural work and adds the dimension of the personal emotional life of DCI Stuart and to a lesser extent DI Khan. But what really distinguishes these serial narratives is the complexity of the crimes. I’m referring to serials 3 and 4 in which the investigation uncovers an incident several years ago which involved several individuals who have since led separate lives and may have dispersed geographically. Each of these individual histories needs to be investigated and each has the potential to develop into a personal narrative as well as contributing to the overall investigation. The original crime is eventually solved through dogged procedural effort rather than sudden flashes of inspiration (though this may happen at moments along the way). In terms of narrative structure this means each episode could be following two or three personal narratives, some of them emotional in bringing up past indiscretions, injuries, arguments etc. The complexity of the cases and the emotional triggers also impact upon DCI Stuart and the serials were highly praised partly because of Nicola Walker’s performances (and those of the team overall).
The same level of complexity is found in the narratives of Innocent which has so far run as two serials of 4 x 46 minutes in 2018 and 2021. The difference here is that the narrative begins not so much with the discovery of new evidence in an old case, but with the release from prison of a convicted murderer because of a re-trial. This character returns to their community, not surprisingly keen to clear their name but also to find the real killer. The local police have to re-open the case, but this is clearly a different scenario. Interestingly, the two serials have also been set in more rural parts of the UK meaning that the return of the ‘innocent’ has more impact in a small community where the interlocking narratives are more visible and also more emotionally charged.
In the second serial aired Monday to Thursday last week, Sally Wright is released from prison after 5 years following a re-trial with new evidence turned up by a local journalist, a friend who ran a campaign. Sally (Katherine Kelly) had been convicted of killing one of her students, Matthew Taylor, a 16 year-old boy with whom, it was alleged, she was having a sexual relationship. As a result of the conviction she lost her job and her home when her husband divorced her. In a small market town like Keswick (pop. 5-6,000) she is a very visible figure and she provokes some people by demanding her job back at the school. There are several ‘interested parties’ who, for different reasons, are concerned about her release. They include her ex-husband who is now engaged to a woman who was the murdered boy’s social worker and a governor of the school. This woman has a daughter who is still at the school and there is at least one other ex-school student who is involved. Matthew’s parents are also enraged by Sally’s release. There is at least one other possible suspect known to the others so the writers have seven lines of enquiry to pursue, each fuelled by emotional responses. To top off the potential for emotional conflict, the detective assigned to re-open the case is DCI Mike Braithwaite. He has just returned to work after a period mourning the deaths of his wife and daughter in a car crash. Well played by Shaun Dooley, he proves both determined to solve the murder and also capable of treating Sally with empathy.
This then is the distinctive pattern of the narrative structure. Two non-competing investigators and seven potential suspects, all interconnected through emotional relationships, are contained in a small community in a beautiful location. There are scenes shot in Keswick, augmented by Irish locations since the production received Irish public funding during the pandemic. I was worried about this initially but actually the melding of two location shoots works quite well. Is it really a new type of narrative structure? I do think that it could be traced back to the traditional ‘country house murder’ of the 1930s but the inclusion of the previously convicted murderer makes a difference. In both serials so far the central character’s marriage has ben important. In the first serial a man has been released after a seven year internment for murdering his wife. He now has to recover custody of his children as well as convincing them that he didn’t commit the original murder.
Watching Innocent I also thought of the non-procedural novels of the crime writer Ruth Rendell both under own name and as ‘Barbara Vine’. These often feature a network of close relationships at the centre of which is a serious crime of some kind. Many of them have been adapted for TV films or international film features. But the other touchpoint is perhaps the UK history of soap opera. As is common in many British TV drama series, leading players like Katherine Kelly might be recognised by soap audiences who feel that they ‘know’ characters from earlier years on a soap. But the soap link also refers to ITV’s scheduling which saw Innocent broadcast for four successive nights at 9pm ‘peak time’ and then repeated on the same evening at around midnight while also being available on ITV Hub to stream on the same evening. I watched each episode as they appeared on the hub and I’m sure the knowledge that this was possible attracted me to follow the story over the four evenings. The second serial of Innocent is on ITV Hub now alongside the fourth serial of Unforgotten.
Adieu Engrenages! After 86 episodes spread over 16 years, my favourite TV series has come to an end. I’m not going to spoil the ending since all 86 episodes are on iPlayer in the UK and I’m sure there are still fans working their way through Series 8. I wrote about Engrenages when Series 5 ended in the UK in 2015. I’ve only followed the show since Series 5 so I can’t claim fandom as such. With all the episodes available, however, I have gone back to look at the opening episode. The change in the appearance of the actors over 15 years is quite remarkable. It looks to me as if the show must have been gruelling to work on – they look so fresh-faced and young in 2005. Nick Lacey has suggested to me that the shooting style changed after Series 1, possibly because it was a surprise hit and the makers then felt that they had a chance to re-envision the approach. In fact it was an enormous hit that perhaps put pressure on the production team.
I’m not going to repeat my 2015 post here and I will try to go back and watch the other series I’ve missed. Here I simply want to offer an observation about the final series. The long-running cop show has been a feature of US TV for as long as I can remember. In the 1950s Jack Webb starred in 276 episodes of Dragnet, in the 1980s Hill Street Blues lasted 144 episodes and Cagney & Lacey lasted 126 episodes. These were all forms of the police procedural deploying generic conventions not so different from those of Engrenages. Similar shows were produced in the UK and IMDb suggests that there were nearly 800 episodes of Z Cars between 1962 and 1978 – but nearly two thirds were wiped by the BBC. I’m most interested in the concept of ‘seriality’, the idea that that all the episodes in one series are constructed around a single primary crime fiction narrative. All the previous cop shows had recurring elements each week which were subordinate to the single narrative ‘episode story’. American TV developed the idea of a ‘narrative arc’ covering an entire season, sometimes with a ‘season finale’, but I don’t think it was until the early 2000s that the genuine serial form emerged especially in European crime dramas. I haven’t watched US TV for several years and I’ve never seen any of the US cable shows which developed the ‘long form narrative’ so I’m not making any comparisons here, except to note that US shows have generally had much longer ‘seasons’, with more than twenty episodes on occasions. For me the changes came with Nordic crime fiction drama serials such as The Killing and The Bridge. The Killing serial 1 was the key change for me with its twenty episodes of 57 minutes when it ran in 2007 in Denmark, but subsequent serials 2 and 3 both ran for ten episodes. Ten episodes seems about right to sustain interest. Engrenages has shifted from eight to twelve and then back to ten episodes for Serial 8. I’m interested here in how the narratives have been constructed across eight serials and in particular I want to investigate the principal recurring characters or rather ‘character functions’ across the serials.
The two central characters are Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust) and ‘Gilou’ Escoffier (Thierry Godard) with Joséphine Karlsson (Audrey Fleurot) as the only other ever present across every episode (though Gilou is missing from one). Laure is the leader of a local crime team – the equivalent of a CID team from a local police station in the UK and Gilou is one of her two deputies in a total team of around five. Joséphine is an ambitious and rule-breaking avocat who appears in court but because the French judicial system is different, she doesn’t really correspond to an English barrister. Joséphine always has a sparring partner, initially Pierre Clément (Fregory Fitoussi) and latterly Éric Edelman (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing). For the first seven serials the ‘Investigating Judge’ (not that dissimilar to the District Attorney in the US or the Procurator Fiscal in Scotland) is Juge Roban (Philippe Duclos) but in the final serial he has retired and Juge Lucie Bourdieu (Clara Bonnet) replaces him. As a young woman, Juge Bourdieu is a possibly disruptive figure as we will see. Finally we have the characters who fill other senior police roles. The most consistent of these is Commissaire Brémont (Bruno Debrandt) who heads a Serious Crimes Unit – he is also the father of Laure’s baby daughter in the later episodes. Also in the later episodes, Laure has a new local boss, Arnaud Beckriche (Valentin Merlet) and a new deputy, Ali Amrani (Tewfilk Jallab).
I’m going to refer to the last episode here, but I think my comments will also refer to earlier episodes. My feeling is that Engrenages, as fits the various meanings of the title – gears, gearing, cogs, connections etc. – is constructed like a kind of whirling dance, a bit like one of those Scottish country dances where couples take part in what are effectively ensemble dances where first you are all together but at various points you pair off with someone else and at other times dance in a group. This may sound crazy but bear with me. The characters outlined above all work in the policing and judicial systems and by necessity they have to have relationships with each other to do their jobs. But there is also another set of characters, usually changing for each serial, the criminals. In Serial 8 there are three criminal groups – a gang based around a father and son, a drug smuggling operation and a group of of young Moroccan migrants aged under 14 who are used for ‘minor’ crimes by various parties.
My conception of the Serial 8 narrative would be interweaving pairs of characters. Laure holds the whole narrative together because she has working relationships with most of the other characters. Her problem throughout the serial is her long-standing relationship with Gilou. He is now in prison as a result of his ‘unconventional’ policing methods and his refusal to ‘name names’ – he takes the rap for colleagues. In the serial he gets out of prison as part of a deal to become a ‘plant’ in the gang of a major criminal. Nobody must know he is undercover so Laure is not supposed to know or to attempt to see him. But she still cares for him, can she keep away? What is worse is that Gilou is working for Brémont. Laure still has her job to do and in the past she would be working closely with the investigating judge. But the new judge doesn’t trust Laure and therefore Laure finds herself having to work through her boss – who then complicates things by getting involved in a sexual relationship with Lucie. Since she doesn’t have Gilou at hand, Laure finds herself working more closely with Ali (who unbeknownst to her is seeking to join another team in a promotion). Finally, Laure will once again become involved with Joséphine since she becomes the lawyer for the young Moroccan boy who Laure’s team have found is a suspect/witness in the death of another young Moroccan. It is this case that will allow Laure to become involved in the much bigger investigation which involves drug smuggling and the gang that Gilou is now part of. But in doing so she will find herself potentially at odds with Brémont’s Major Crime Unit and the Drugs Squad, not to mention the Armed Response Unit if the big showdown comes. Laure can’t pick and choose which aspects of the investigation to focus on, the investigating judge makes those decisions. On the other hand, Laure is very smart. It’s not until the last couple of episodes that we fully understand what will have to happen when all three cases come together and the major problem will be how will the police operation catch the bad guys without arresting Gilou as a gang member. The last episode is brilliantly staged I think.
While Laure is ‘dancing’ her way through encounters with all the other characters, they too are pairing/squaring up to their counterparts. Two worth picking up are those between Laure and Ali and Joséphine and Eric. The writers found a way to bring Laure and Ali together as teammates just as they found a balance between the impulsive actions of Joséphine and the more calculated actions of Eric. What I really enjoy about Engrenages is how the script is built around the genre conventions of the procedural but is also deeply-rooted in the emotions of the characters. I’ve also found it refreshing that the serials have gradually developed what feels like a genuine engagement with the diversity of Parisian culture. Ali as a character could be seen as simply there to represent the Maghrebi population in the city but his character has several functions. In one sense he represents a more conventional career-orientated younger police officer compared to Laure’s more emotional/committed approach. But he also finds himself caught between cultures and experiences with both the young Moroccans and the dodgy owner of a phone shop. Particularly intriguing are the interrogation scenes when he seems to rely on an interpreter at some points as if his own Arabic is not sufficient to understand the young suspects. On the other hand he is marked by senior officers as a rising star ready for promotion. When he cracks under the strain he’ll learn that on Laure’s team the motto is like the Three Musketeers, one for all and all for one.
The finale, the end of Serial 8, was just about right for me. I didn’t know what I wanted but I’m pleased with what I got. I know there will be different opinions and that’s fine. Nothing will replace Engrenages in my affections and I’ll miss Joséphine as much as Laure and Gilou. But I’d love to see some of the shows that the two women most responsible for the success of Engrenages are producing now. I know that the creative team is very large so I’m just picking out Alexandra Clert and Anne Landois as ‘creator’ and ‘showrunner’ for the majority of episodes. I remember a report of a discussion in New York in which Alexandra Clert was asked questions alongside the showrunner of Mad Men. The event was titled ‘Women, Work and Television’. Clert shocked her American audience by stating: “I’m not a feminist at all, I don’t share the ideology of parity.” Because I don’t watch US TV these days and I gave up on Mad Men after the first episode, I’m not well-placed to make any comparisons. The Mad Men writer Matthew Weiner responded to Clert’s statement by suggesting “Your show is full of feminist philosophy that you take for granted, which is that these women have jobs” and that this was possibly a case of a different generation i.e. Alexandra Clert was taking for granted what other women had fought for. I don’t think this is an explanation. French and American culture are simply different. There is a great deal to think about in Engrenages. I’d better try and watch those early serials before I come to any conclusions. I’ve also just discovered a very interesting take on the show’s representation issues, especially its depiction of ‘peoples of colour’ which points out how over 15 years France has changed considerably. How has Engrenages responded? There is work to do.
This is the fifth and final film in Steve McQueen’s anthology and the most personal. He has spoken about his own experience in his secondary school in Ealing and how he felt he was wrongly placed in a class for underachieving students. This has been a problem for many Black students. The school he attended, a former grammar school which became a comprehensive and is now one of those schools celebrated for its results, had a headteacher who admitted in the 2000s that it had been ‘institutionally racist’. Still dealing with the historical period when McQueen might have been a very young boy (he was born in in 1969), the script (co-written by McQueen and Alastair Siddons) for Education focuses on 12 year-old Kingsley Smith. The film opens with Kingsley enjoying a trip to a planetarium. (Is this meant to be the planetarium next to Madame Tussauds on Baker Street?) Whether he is actually on a visit from school or whether he is dreaming is not clear but Kingsley is a bright lad who is interested in space exploration.
When we get to see Kingsley in the classroom we can see that he isn’t engaged. In what follows, there are two important narrative developments. The first is that there is a growing trend in which Black children are increasingly being taken out of mainstream schooling and sent to ESN schools. ‘ESN’ means ‘Educationally Sub-normal’, a term disguised at the time by the euphemism ‘Special School’. The term isn’t used today but Black children are still disproportionately ‘excluded’ from schools and sent to ‘referral units’. McQueen uses the controversy generated by the publication in 1971 of a booklet written by the Grenadian Bernard Coard entitled ‘How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System: The Scandal of the Black Child in Schools in Britain’ and based on his experience teaching in the UK. McQueen presents the campaign by the West Indian community in London to expose the procedure and to provide ‘supplementary education’ classes in the form of Saturday schools for West Indian children. Education had been highly prized in the West Indies and there were many experienced educationalists in the community in London. Again McQueen draws on his own family memories and presents us with a Saturday school set up by a Grenadian mother that Kingsley attends along with his older sister. Fully engaged, his passion for rocketry re-emerges.
Several reviewers comment on how Education resembles a television play. It runs for just 63 minutes and McQueen and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner opted for a format that recreates the look of the TV plays of the 1970s. Education was shot on Super 16mm film, which was then processed to produce a 1:1.66 aspect ratio – not quite the 4:3 of standard television in the 1970s but squarer than the modern TV ratio of 16:9. The casting means that there are some familiar faces in smaller roles including Josette Simon (a well-known actor on UK TV) as Lydia the woman who leads the campaign against the ESN schools and, as an older man who never learned to read, Trevor Laird, whose roles go right back to the films Quadrophenia (1979) and Babylon (1980) – one of the seminal Black British films, even if directed by the Italian Franco Rosso. The Scottish actor Kate Dickie plays one of the teachers at the ESN school. At least one critic refers to the BBC’s Play for Today and the work of the director Alan Clarke as models for McQueen’s film. I’m more inclined to think of an ITV drama ‘series’, the four film/plays written by David Leland and collectively titled Tales Out of School (UK 1982-3). The last of these was R.H.I.N.O (Really Her in Name Only) which dealt with a Black teenage girl who regularly truanted by turning up for registration and then disappearing from school – a form of self-imposed ‘exclusion’.
What struck me most forcibly about Education was the depiction of Kingsley’s mother played by Sharlene Whyte. She is the epitome of the West Indian mother of the period, working as a nurse but always concerned about the welfare of her children and in particular their educational achievement. She knows her son is bright but she is led to believe that the ‘special’ school to which Kingsley is sent is a school that will improve his education possibilities rather than simply keeping him quiet and out of the way. Of the five films in the anthology, this is the one in which the women come to the fore with the campaigners and the mothers striving to overcome the threat of exclusion for Black children. In some ways I enjoyed this film the most out of the five. Partly this is because ‘education’ interests me as a subject, but also because of the simplicity of the approach here which enables the single issue to be explored in a satisfying way.
Re-watching the film/play I noticed several aspects of the script that I hadn’t thought too much about the first time round. The first is the time period which is marked by a number of references, not all of which add up. Kingsley at one point suggests that he wants to grow up to be an astronaut like Neil Armstrong. Although he had been an astronaut for several years, Armstrong became famous because of the Moon landing in July 1969. Later on, the importance of the Bernard Coard pamphlet, first published in 1971, puts the date as around 1972 and this seems to be confirmed by the reference to Margaret Thatcher as the Secretary of State for Education (1970-March ’74 when the Tories lost the General Election). This is possibly contradicted by the TV animation that Kingsley watches, Roobarb, which was first broadcast later in 1974. This precise timing doesn’t really matter but it does mean that McQueen is not going back to his own direct experience, which would have seen Kingsley at secondary school in the early 1980s, and instead the director returns us to a period ten years earlier, not long after the Mangrove trial. (Note that Kingsley’s older sister Stephanie’s objective is to get herself into Chelsea School of Art, which McQueen himself managed in the late 1980s.) The Small Axe anthology is mainly presented chronologically and perhaps this should have been No. 2?
Compared to the other films in the anthology, we are now in a different part of London. It could be Ealing or another Outer London Borough. Kingsley’s parents have done well to presumably buy this semi-detached suburban house. They are both working full-time and represent an emerging Black lower middle-class, at least in housing terms. But there is tension between the parents. Kingsley’s father believes Kingsley needs a to learn a trade. It’s interesting to compare the breakfast scene at the start of Education with a similar scene at the start of Horace Ové’s Pressure (1974/6). Ove’s family are still in inner city West London and the feel of the scene is quite different. Does it really matter where the Smith household is located? I think it does in terms of the narrative in the sense that Kingsley’s family is a stable family with a strong educational push from Mrs Smith. They are in no way ‘disadvantaged’ and assumptions are being made about Kingsley by the school staff that seem very suspicious. The teachers should recognise that he has a specific learning difficulty but is otherwise a bright, intelligent child. This is supported by Hazel, the psychologist and proved in practice by Kingsley’s progress in the Saturday supplementary school. Coard’s pamphlet demonstrates how this failure to diagnose becomes institutionalised and is impacting West Indian children disproportionately. These are difficult issues to discuss. All teachers are faced with children who appear to be behaving in a way that makes them ‘difficult’, but most teachers will try to understand why this behaviour arises. If the the majority of the class seem to be suffering from poor living conditions and difficult family circumstances, teachers clearly face problems, but that isn’t the situation in Kingsley’s school.
Most of the adults Kingsley meets at school look down on him but I noted a nice little human touch when the bus driver who takes Kingsley to the ‘special’ school recognises the hurt the boy feels and helps him avoid facing his old schoolmates. I’ve seen several comments that Education is a ‘slight’ narrative and presents a ‘tailing off’ of the energy generated in the first four films. I hope I’ve shown why I think that is not really the case. This is an important story that still resonates strongly today. There are many Kingsleys still struggling in English schools and we still need to change the system.
This fourth film in the Small Axe anthology is similar to the third, Red, White and Blue, in being a form of biopic covering the life of a single character, this time up to his late teens. Alex Wheatle was younger at the start of this film’s narrative than Leroy Logan in Red, White and Blue. Both films end around the same time in the early 1980s. The big difference is that Wheatle was on ‘the other side’ as one of the young Black men involved in the Brixton ‘uprisings’ in 1981. The uprising is an important part of his story, as was his recognition of the New Cross Fire in January 1981. These ‘real’ events in the narrative mark it as a different kind of story than Red, White and Blue.
In the beginning of the narrative, ‘Alex’ does not yet know his own name properly and is referred to as ‘Alphonse’ (his given name at birth) by a voiceover statement from a social worker. He was brought to the Shirley Oaks children’s home in Surrey as a young child without any knowledge of his own parents. The children’s home seems to be a hard place with harsh treatment of the children by the staff. The first section of the narrative is not presented in a linear way. We first meet Alex (Sheyi Cole) aged 18, being admitted to prison and meeting his cellmate, Simeon (Robbie Gee), a Rastafarian on hunger strike. A series of short flashbacks then fill in the early part of Alphonso’s time in the children’s home, ending with his transfer to a hostel in Brixton (presumably at age 16?). From this point, Alex is taken up by a couple of the other residents in the hostel and introduced to his new life. I was reminded of another film, Black Joy (1977) adapted from his own play by the Guyanese playwright Jamal Ali and directed by Anthony Simmons. The film is not generally considered as a ‘Black British’ film because it had a white director. Even so, it features a West Indian story which is also the universal story of the ‘country boy’ come to the city. Actually he is a young man straight off the plane heading to Brixton where he will be conned by the great Norman Beaton, a Trinidadian conman. ‘Alphonse’ is lucky that his new mentors are not so interested in relieving him of his money but they do enjoy his naivety and lack of a sense of his own Blackness since he has never known his parents or the world outside his children’s home. Even after six months in Brixton, Alex still speaks with the accent he grew up with in the care home and we do wonder if all his time spent with his new friend Dennis (Jonathan Jules) is having little impact, but two things are possibly responsible for the eventual change in Alex. One is meeting Dennis’ family for Christmas and experiencing an extended Jamaican family gathering and the other is Alex’s love of music which was the one aspect of life in the children’s home that interested him.
Soon Alex is spending all his weekly income (his ‘giro’ or weekly benefit payment) on records and his music obsession shifts up another gear when he meets Valentine, the only other Black boy from his children’s home and together they work to create a sound system which Alex dubs ‘Crucial Rocker’. He turns out to have a knack of writing great lines for a DJ. But life on the streets of Brixton in 1980 is tough and the youth have to look out for the SPG. The antics of the Special Patrol Group meant that most young Black men were wary of ever going ‘up West’ or into areas where police activity was likely to be constant like Brixton. The SUS laws allowed police to stop and search whoever they liked ‘on suspicion’. The SPG appeared in groups in transit vans and often took youth off the street to distant police stations. The level of police activity in Brixton was one of the main factors in the uprising in April 1981. Before that came the New Cross fire on January 18, 1981. After it was not mentioned in Red, White and Blue it was good to see this terrible criminal act given proper treatment. A lengthy montage of black & white photographs is accompanied by Linton Kwesi Johnson’s poem ‘New Craas Massahkah’ which later appeared on his 1983 LP Making History.
Linton Kwesi Johnson (‘LKJ’) was a major figure in South London and a nationally successful dub poet, both live and on recordings and in print. He wrote a useful short summary of events in 1981 which you can read here. I haven’t seen any references to the poem in either the film’s credits or the soundtrack listings. If I’ve missed them will someone let me know where they are? The photographs which range in quality (but some are excellent) are also not credited unless they are copyright of the Archive sources listed. None of the songs are credited and I wonder if this is because this is a ‘TV play’ rather than a film designed for cinema? It just seems disrespectful. The montage of stills is presented in a simple form with images against a black background but it did also remind me of the more artistic/expressionist work of Black Audio and especially Handsworth Songs from 1986. It’s also worth mentioning that Alex Wheatle evokes something of the experiences of the young hero in Horace Ové’s seminal film about Black British experience, Pressure (1974/6). McQueen’s film follows the New Cross Fire (in which 13 young Black Britons died and for which the police failed to make any arrests for arson) with footage of the major march through London protesting about the lack of official action. I’m reminded of just how bad things were at that point and throughout the next couple of years in which the UK’s racist tabloid press demonised Black youth, especially during various protests. These were all justified in my view and the subsequent Scarman enquiry found the Metropolitan Police had acted disproportionately and had lost the trust of the community. Scarman’s recommendations were not all implemented and it was not until the Macpherson Report of 1999 that the police were seen as ‘institutionally racist’ – something which had been widely understood by many London residents for many years.
Alex learns about the history of his people from Simeon’s prison cell library and at the end of the film discovers how he came to be in the children’s home. The end credits tell us about his celebrated writing career today. Alex Wheatle has the lowest rating of the five Small Axe films on IMDb and there are several ‘disappointed’ reviews of the film. In some ways I’m not surprised by these reactions, but I think they are wrong. I would say that this is the most intriguing of the films in relation to ideas about identity and through its prison sequences how Alex uses the books to discover who he is and where he came from. The character of a young Black boy in care was used rather differently, but just as tellingly, in David Leland’s 1982 TV play Made in Britain. In some ways, Alex’s story also sets up the last of the Small Axe films, Education. I would agree with one review I read that suggested the film is just too short and that things seem to happen very quickly. Several sequences could be extended including the music sequences with the sound system. Sheyi Cole is very good in what I think is a difficult role but for me the delight of the film was to see Robbie Gee, the ‘wide boy’ from the Desmond’s sitcom (1988-1994) – and now when I check back, his character in the sitcom was a boy taken into care as a child who is then looked after by Desmond and Shirley. If McQueen intended to make that connection, he made an excellent choice in casting Robbie Gee.