Gilbey on Film: Tory Britain on screen

Our critic picks five films that evoke the spirit of Thatcherism.

Watching the new British film Sus ('Suspect under suspicion'), which is confined for its entirety to a police interview room, I averaged a wince every few minutes. It had nothing to do with the picture's forgivable deficiencies, which fall into two camps: when the director Robert Heath isn't displaying an exaggerated fidelity to the theatrical origins of Barrie Keefe's screenplay, he's trying too hard to shake them off. (In one scene, the camera makes so many 360° turns that it feels like we're trapped on a Waltzer, and the oily-quiffed operator has dozed off.) No, the source of my discomfort was also the reason why the film is being released this year, this month, this week: the action takes place through the evening of 3 May and into the morning of 4 May 1979.

Two white DSIs, Karn (Ralph Brown) and Wilby (Rafe Spall) are betting on the outcome of the general election. Karn has backed "the Thatch" and is all hopped-up on the prospect of what he keeps referring to as the new dawn. "A little bird tells me she's quite the admirer of policemen," he gloats. Every time the men have cause to leave the room where they are trying to pin a murder on their black prisoner, Leon Delroy (Clint Dyer), they return with further news of Labour's losses. Although their manner is aggressively theatrical to a Berkoffian degree, they embody a recognisable 1970s/1980s mindset -- the more abrasive side, in other words, of cuddly Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister) from Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes. I suspect that it is the snarling parochialism of Karn and Wilby that Labour was trying to evoke with its unsuccessful David-Cameron-as-Gene-Hunt poster campaign.

It's a decent movie, and Keefe has already proved with his script for The Long Good Friday (written around the same time as Sus) that he can drop a Thatcherite at 40 paces. But the most pungent reminder in Sus of the horrors of Conservative Britain comes in the opening credits montage, accompanied by the Specials performing "It's Up to You." As a suave-looking David Dimbleby heralds "one of the most exciting election nights ever," and Robin Day reminds us that "it's not a horse race -- it's a human drama and a night of history", we see footage from a National Front march, with its "Don't Knock Enoch" banners, and an excerpt from the dubious sitcom Love Thy Neighbour. (The show actually ended in 1976, but we'll let that pass; there were plenty of repeats in the 1970s, and at least the continuity announcers didn't make out they were doing us a favour by saying, "Here's another chance to see...").

Sus would have worked much better had it been released a few weeks ago. Goodness knows how it is going to look when it reaches cinemas on Friday, when it will be too late to function as a warning or deterrent to anyone considering signing up to the Cult of Dave. (The best we can hope, in the event that the Tories are kept out, is that audiences will be able to watch it and think: "Phew -- that was close.") But should you have forgotten the putrid stench that is "essence of Tory Britain", or if you are too young to remember it, then any one of the following films should bring it flooding back:

Meantime (1983)

Mike Leigh's unbearably sad portrait of an east London working-class family, and the Chigwell-dwelling relatives with delusions of mobility, is one of his most eloquent works. With scorching early performances from Tim Roth and Gary Oldman, who can also be seen in...

Made in Britain (1983)/ The Firm (1989)

In the former, Roth is a violent but palpably intelligent skinhead who has been left to fester in the margins of Thatcher's Britain; in the latter, Oldman is an estate agent with a sideline in soccer hooliganism. Alan Clarke, Britain's foremost chronicler back in the days when it really was broken, directed both.

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989)

Cannibalism, sexual humiliation and costumes by Jean-Paul Gaultier make this one of Peter Greenaway's most superficially extreme works; at its heart is Michael Gambon's towering performance as the gluttonous kingpin who is the embodiment of sadistic Thatcherism.

Bloody Kids (1979)/ Close My Eyes (1991)

Two Stephen Poliakoff scripts bookending the Thatcher era. Bloody Kids, directed by Stephen Frears, details the consequences of a schoolboy prank-gone-wrong; its depiction of a feral England would give Mad Max pause. Close My Eyes, which Poliakoff directed, situates a brother-sister love affair against a backdrop of Docklands developments, Home Counties complacency and Aids.

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

When I think of growing up under the Tories, this film conjures the mood of dread as well as anything by Leigh, Clarke or Frears. But for all the gore on show, there's nothing as gruesome here as the prospect of another Conservative government.


Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Show Hide image

Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

0800 7318496