Olivia Colman stars in London Road, a musical about the murder of prostitutes in Ipswich.
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London Road is a musical about the Ipswich prostitute murders - and it's a triumph

In that grey area between documentary and fiction, the movie finds a new kind of truth.

Our cinemas have become impossibly crowded with new films—there are 12 out in this relatively light week, as well as a re-release of Marco Ferreri’s 1973 La Grande Bouffe. (It’s about four friends who eat themselves to death: is this a distributor’s idea of a swipe at the jam-packed release schedules?)

In that context, it is inevitable that some great cinema will be neglected. Though it was released three weeks ago, I only recently caught up with the film adaptation of the musical London Road, which was staged in 2011 at the National Theatre. I was sorry to have missed that original version—I came to the verbatim theatre work of its writer, Alecky Blythe, fairly late with Little Revolution, her play last year about the 2011 London riots. So I can’t comment on the transfer of London Road from one medium to another. The film, though, is nothing short of a triumph.

Blythe had visited Ipswich in 2006 during the investigation into the murders of five women there, and interviewed local residents about their reactions. From these tapes she assembled a piece of verbatim theatre, using only the exact words—every “um”, every “ah”, every repetition and stammer—that were spoken. The addition of a musical element, in which she and her co-writer Adam Cork transformed large sections of this script into song, makes the raw material feel elevated, at times even exalted.

Rufus Norris, who also directed the play, displays a steady hand and a feel for cinematic rhythm that was absent entirely from his previous and highly exploitative film, Broken. He stages shots and scenes with a directness that bulldozes any initial scepticism about whether a verbatim musical can come alive on screen. We detect the first hints of words married to music in the bouncing syllables of newsreaders reporting on the murders. Then a mother, Julie (Olivia Colman), sings the occasional line over her shoulder at us as she walks the streets from which the victims, all of whom worked as prostitutes in the area, were plucked.

The punchiest and most overwhelming musical numbers come back-to-back within the first third of the film. “Everyone is Very Nervous” takes place in the middle of a Christmas shopping spree presided over by an eerie plastic Santa, and hinges on a repeated “um” that you can feel in your chest like a jabbing, accusatory finger. “It Could Be Him”, sung in a kind of breathless gallop by two teenagers (including Eloise Laurence, who stood out in Broken) as they scan the city for the face of the killer, is as crisply choreographed and edited as any action sequence; the techno pulse that gradually emerges from the music is incongruous and urgent. That segues into a tentative song performed by a taxi driver (Tom Hardy) whose interest in the case tips further into the unsavoury with every protestation of innocence that he makes. Hardy, who has been directed to reach charmingly for notes outside his range, is at once comical, creepy and rather sad.

"Everyone is Very Nervous" from London Road.

If the overall effect suggests a Ken Loach remake of The Umbrellas of CherbourgLondon Road is closer in tone and character to Clio Barnard’s The Arbor, another film which explores fruitfully the dislocation between actors and the words emerging from their mouths. (Barnard’s picture, a portrait of the late playwright Andrea Dunbar, featured actors lip-synching to interviews with the real-life subjects.) In that grey area between documentary and fiction, the movie finds a new kind of truth.

Without departing from the words spoken, it uses the emphasis and enhancement available to the musical form to tease out slip-ups, malapropisms and subtle verbal betrayals. And visually it finds some beautiful rapprochements in some unexpected places (the glance exchanged near the end of the film between a prostitute and a young girl at a street party), and chilling ruptures in others (Colman’s final speech is particularly electrifying). The picture is still playing at a few venues, in scattered screening-times. It’s worth the trek to wherever you have to go to see it.

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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The top children’s TV show conspiracy theories

From randy Postman Pat to white supremacist Smurfs, we present to you your childhood in tatters.

We can probably all agree that, these days, nothing is sacred. If you can (as a few very insistent YouTube videos have told me) pay to watch live snuff films on the dark web, there’s probably someone out there – in the thronging nest of perversions that is the internet – ready to take something special from your childhood (say, a favourite TV programme) and make it unclean.

Which is exactly what happened when an internet-spawned theory found history’s least sexual fictional character, Postman Pat, to be a stop motion sex monster. The theory goes that he has fathered a lot of children in the village school, many of whom have ginger hair; Pat is the only red head in Greendale.


Because humans are incapable of not picking at every innocent thing until it goes gangrenous, here are some other childhood-ruining fan theories.

Babar is a colonial stooge


Babar lording it over the colonies. Photo: Flickr/Vanessa

Could everyone’s favourite anthropomorphic French elephant be an apologist for centuries of Western brutality and conquest? Well, yes, obviously. According to the “Holy Hell Is Babar Problematic” theory, the fact that the titular character was born in Africa, raised and “civilised” in Paris, then sent back to Elephant Land to be king and teach all the other elephants how to be French, makes Babar about as suitable for children as a Ladybird introduction to eugenics and a Playmobil King Leopold.

For further proof that this theory isn’t “political correctness gone mad”, but actually political correctness gone quite sensible, just look at some of the (deeply un-OK) illustrations from the 1949 book Babar’s Picnic.

The Smurfs are white supremacists


A horrifying vision of ethnic uniformity. Photo: Getty

Or maybe “blue supremacists” would be more accurate. Either way, they’re racist. Possibly. It’s been pointed out that the Smurfs all wear pointy white hats. Apart from their leader, Papa Smurf (the ultimate patriarch..?), who wears a red one. Meaning these tiny munchkin thingies are (maybe, just maybe) sartorially influenced by none other than the Ku Klux Klan.

This seems tenuous at best, until you look at a few other factors in this theory brought to light by French political scientist Antoine Buéno. Buéno suggests that the dictatorial political structure of Smurf Village paired with some actually quite convincing racism (when Smurfs turn black, for example, they become barbaric and lose the power of speech), equals Nazism.

What’s more, the Smurfs’ main antagonist – a wizard called Gargamel – is not unlike an antisemitic caricature from Nazi propaganda magazine Der Stürmer. He’s dark haired, hook-nosed and obsessed with gold. Oh, and he has a cat called Azrael, which is the Hebrew name for the Angel of Death.


 

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And, in case you’re not already far enough down the “Smurfs are racist” rabbit hole, just look at Smurfette and her long, blonde hair. Aryan much?

SpongeBob SquarePants is a post-nuclear mutant


Forever running from haunting memories of radioactive atrocity. Photo: Flickr/Kooroshication

According to one fan theory, this Nickelodeon classic may have more in common with The Hills Have Eyes than we think. SpongeBob, a talking sponge who lives in an underwater pineapple with a meowing snail, may well be the product of nuclear testing.

In the Forties, the US detonated two nukes in an area of the Pacific called Bikini Atoll. SpongeBob lives somewhere called Bikini Bottom. Coincidence, or an especially dark analogy for the dangers of radiation and man’s lust for destruction? Hm.

Tom and Jerry is Nazi propaganda


Skipping merrily through the Third Reich. Photo: Flickr/momokacma

Either we’re so obsessed with Nazism that we look for it (and find it…) in literally everything, or the antics of a classic cat and mouse duo really do contain coded messages about the futility of the Allies’ war with the Third Reich.

If we’re going for the latter, let’s start with the characters’ names. Tom (Tommies were British soldiers) and Jerry (Jerries were German ones). Now remember, Tom is the bad guy. In every episode, he tries to kill Jerry by any means possible, but is foiled every single time, getting blown up by sticks of dynamite and flattened by falling anvils along the way.

Tom and Jerry first aired in 1940 – the same year as the Battle of Britain. So, if the reference to slang for Brits and Germans was unintentional, it was more than a little bit unfortunate. And, according to some albeit sketchy-looking corners of the internet, this was no accident at all but a message (in that Jerry constantly outwits Tom) about superior German intelligence.

Although this may seem like the least compelling of all of these dark fan theories, it would explain why I always had a gut feeling the painfully smug Jerry was the actual baddie.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.