Gilbey on Film: beyond Harry Potter

Treacle Jr is exactly the kind of British film that needs government support.

I don't know what the Prime Minister's plans are this weekend but should he find himself in receipt of a few idle hours I would urge him to hotfoot it over to a branch of the excellent Picturehouse cinema chain in either Clapham or Greenwich. There he can see the superb new film Treacle Jr, which explores the friendship between an incorrigible (and often comically unintelligible) Irish goofball (Aiden Gillen) and a lanky out-of-towner (Tom Fisher) who is sleeping rough after deserting his wife and child.

I know Mr Cameron takes a keen interest in new British films -- he's quite the cineaste, having expressed enthusiasm recently for The King's Speech. (Never let it be said he doesn't go out on a limb in his tastes.) Oh, the delicious and unselfconscious irony in celebrating a success that would not have happened as it did without the UK Film Council, which Cameron's government then killed off in an act of staggering short-sightedness and philistinism.

That said, what looked like a clueless bit of axe-swinging did begin to assume a certain obscure logic once I listened to a news item this week about St Basil's Cathedral and heard for the first time the story of how Ivan the Terrible was rumoured to have gouged out the eyes of the architects after the cathedral was completed, so that they might never again create something of comparable splendour. Could The King's Speech be to St Basil's Cathedral as David Cameron is to Ivan the Terrible?

But back to Treacle Jr. The Prime Minister will doubtless be aware that Jamie Thraves, the film's writer-director, found acclaim eleven years ago with his debut feature, The Low Down. That picture was an atmospheric tale of aimless twentysomethings haunting the streets, pubs and walk-ups of Dalston, east London. Treacle Jr is shot through with some of the same amorphousness and melancholia, as well as the earlier film's attentive use of locations (south London this time) to nourish characterisation. In Gillen's eye-catching, lapel-grabbing, jaw-jabbering performance, Treacle Jr also features the sort of scene-stealing work on which voters can seize helpfully come awards time. Fisher is also excellent in the much quieter part, effectively the straight man to Gillen's tomfoolery.

I only bring the Prime Minister into all this because it just so happens that Treacle Jr is being released on the same day as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (which I reviewed last week). That's two British films, both admirable pieces of work in their own ways, situated at opposite ends of the budgetary spectrum. One will have a release supported by limitless publicity and advertising before opening with a screen count well into triple figures, as one would expect from a major studio's blockbuster-to-end-them-all. The other is arriving on two screens, with more to come if it proves a success -- which is why, if you are intending to see the movie (and you should), then it's imperative you go this weekend to guarantee it doesn't drop off the circuit.

Cameron could really do his bit for the UK film industry here. It's all very well championing the Harry Potter films, as he did late last year. That's the easy bit. The franchise is already popular and cherished, and it has provided extended employment for hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Cameron's support of it brought to mind Giles Smith's analysis (in his book Lost in Music) of a pre-1997 Tony Blair's admission of musical preference:

[A]sked in an interview what kind of pop music he liked . . . Mr Blair came up with REM, Seal and Annie Lennox . . . If the party had commissioned an expensive advertising agency to spend seven months in collaboration with a public relations firm researching this declaration, it's hard to believe they would have come up with anything so beautifully poised. REM, Seal and Annie Lennox: an American rock group and two British singers, one black male, one white female, with fingers in pop, soul and dance, an ample musical spread, economically achieved . . . Note how the balance tips in favour of the British artists, to avoid the suggestion that Mr Blair might be somehow in thrall to American culture.

Smith goes on to identify the tinge of the mainstream and the modern in Blair's choices (which went on the record pre-Britpop); these suggest implicitly that the future PM was no dinosaur, and no elitist either. Would that Cameron were so sophisticated. All he does is plump for the blindingly obvious, the populist choice that not only needs no leg-up from him but which no potential voter could respond to with belligerence or bewilderment: no Middle Englander, if such a creature still exists beyond the grounds of Hogwarts, would be heard exclaiming "Harry who?" or "Why on earth didn't he promise a generous stipend to Terence Davies?"

Cameron could rehabilitate himself now by coming out in support of Treacle Jr, which would show not only an enthusiasm for vitality in British cinema, but an ideological consistency on his part. After all, what could be more resourceful, go-getting and Big Society-esque than re-mortgaging your own house to make a film? That's exactly what Thraves did to raise the majority of Treacle Jr's £30,000 budget (as he tells Time Out here).

The one very real danger in soliciting Cameron's endorsement is that it could deter audiences from seeing a film they would otherwise have greatly enjoyed and admired. Anyone who was young in the 1980s will remember Margaret Thatcher praising the band Thrashing Doves on Saturday morning television. Chris Briggs, head of A&R at the group's record label, put it best: "What worse thing could happen to a young band than having Thatcher tell the nation's youngsters they were jolly good?"

"Treacle Jr" is released on Friday. To find one-off screenings of Treacle Jr accompanied by Q&A sessions, go to www.nbcq.co.uk

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.

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times