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Jobs for the boys

Ryan Gilbey salutes a new wave of British film-makers, but wonders: where are all the women?

Typical. You wait ages for a decent British film and then . . . Well, actually that’s not quite true. It’s been only a few weeks since the release of Sleep Furiously, a haunting documentary about a Welsh farming community, and before that there was In the Loop, Helen and Better Things. Now comes an onslaught of new work, most of it by first-time directors. Three titles – Telstar, The Last Thakur and Soi Cowboy – get stand-alone releases; Soi Cowboy joins a further seven films (Beyond the Fire, The Blue Tower, Crack Willow, The Disappeared, Dummy, The Hide and Summer Scars) in the main programme of a season at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London entitled New British Cinema. The effect is largely celebratory, with only a hint of the fire sale about it.

On this evidence, genre film-making is unfashionable among new directors. The Last Thakur transposes western conventions to the Bangladeshi town of Doulathpur, and the writer-director Sadik Ahmed manipulates his stock characters – a lone gunslinger, a corrupt politician, a mistress craving legitimacy – like chess pieces. The film is notable also for being the first fruit of a scheme, run by the National Film and Television School and the distributor Artificial Eye, to fund features by NFTS students and recent graduates.

The Disappeared brings horror to an inner-city setting in the tale of a teenager coping with the kidnapping of his younger brother. The film mixes pervasive eeriness with some effective “Boo!” moments, and would walk off with the 2009 prize for Creepiest Use of a Housing Estate in a Horror Movie if only Let the Right One In had not been released this year. Both Summer Scars, about a group of adolescents terrorised by an ex-military loner, and Dummy, concerning two young brothers coping in their idiosyncratic ways with the death of their mother, cast fresh light on the coming-of-age movie.

Formalist experimentation is even thinner on the ground than genre, which makes Soi Cowboy and Crack Willow all the more valuable. The former is a patient study of the stagnant relationship between a Danish film-maker living in Bangkok and his Thai girlfriend. Near the end, the monochrome photography gives way to colour and the film warps into a gangster yarn in which the main characters appear in different guises. This device is the art-house mannerism du jour (David Lynch and Apichatpong Weerasethakul are among those who have employed it) and is therefore only a film or so away from outright cliché. Crack Willow is more abrasive. What begins apparently as a documentary about a lonely middle-aged man morphs into an expressionistic evocation of psychosis that verges on being an endurance test.

These works are compromised only by their air of homage: Soi Cowboy is a bit Antonioni-lite, while Crack Willow echoes the shock tactics of Harmony Korine and the toxic gloss of the promo director Chris Cunningham.Trying to find a common theme in these pictures is a mug’s game, which is not to say that stopped me trying. At first it seemed that grisly or sensationalist material was the unifying factor. Over the course of the 11 films, I noted one case of adult incest, one rape, one suicide, one instance of child abuse, two examples of cannibalism, and a murder tally deep into double figures (including one decapitation, two stabbings and numerous shootings). Throw in a paternity test, and you’ve got an average episode of The Jeremy Kyle Show.

Any season of work is bound to produce overlaps, and it is hardly the case that British film-makers are unique in gravitating towards provo­cative subject matter. Of graver concern is the male bias in both the gender balance behind the camera (only two female directors in the bunch) and the stories themselves. Time and again these pictures return to fathers and sons, male camaraderie, male identity in crisis. What about that other crisis, the paucity of films in which women serve as anything more than decoration? It was precisely this shortcoming that first drew me, as the father of two daughters, to the animated films of the Japanese Studio Ghibli, in which the protagonists are more often than not young girls who could write the book on resourcefulness and heroism. No year in which Andrea Arnold has a new film out (Fish Tank, released in September) can be regarded as unexceptional, but one director alone can’t represent fully half the population.

In these new pictures, women are reduced repeatedly to symbolic or off-screen presences – a wronged mother whose suffering is avenged by her son in The Last Thakur, one dead mother apiece in Crack Willow and Dummy, a cheating wife in The Hide, a near-mute in Soi Cowboy. There are plenty of female roles in The Blue Tower, but each one – from a tormenting aunt and a disloyal spouse to a scheming mistress – represents some kind of castrating monster for the picture’s harassed hero.

Maeve Murphy is the only director whose film, Beyond the Fire, features a sizeable and complex role for a woman. But for all the hard graft that the actress Cara Seymour puts in, Beyond the Fire is overblown in its treatment of the love story between an ex-priest, abused as a child, and a music promoter who has been raped. Every breakthrough for the woman is eclipsed by another setback in her partner’s recovery, giving the impression of a Top Trumps of trauma. The man wins even that contest.

It would be unrealistic to pick on Telstar in the crop of new films for its absence of women, given that its real-life subject – the hits factory of the 1960s producer Joe Meek (played by Con O’Neill), whose biggest success, performed by the Tornados, lends the film its title – excluded female input fairly comprehensively. In a handbag emporium on the Holloway Road, Mrs Shenton (Pam Ferris) runs a tidy ship, but all is chaos upstairs in Meek’s quarters. You might find a string section rehearsing in a broom cupboard, or musicians dropping marbles into the toilet to achieve the correct consistency of “plop” for the backing track, as the producer presides over banks of switches and dials that resemble a Nasa control desk, or Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory.

Fittingly, he is both Space Age dreamer and monstrous genius. Meek hurls a guitarist down the stairs for daring to request his long-overdue wages, and a songwriter who presents him with a wristwatch looks on as Meek smashes it to pieces when he discovers it hasn’t been personally engraved. As Meek becomes convinced his competitors are out to smear him, visitors are forced to pledge allegiance to him before entering the studio.

There are those films that seem on paper to be dead in the water, and then there is Telstar. It is directed by Nick Moran, an actor best known for collaborating with Guy Ritchie. (Does that make Moran sound like Vichy France?) The cast includes James Corden, whose limited charms have surely been exhausted, as well as cameos from Jimmy Carr, Marcus Brigstocke and Justin Hawkins of The Darkness. How off-putting can one feature film be?

In fact, Telstar is a riot of colour and vitality, from the rickety funhouse set to which much of the action is confined, to the game cast (yes, even Corden). A devil-may-care Kevin Spacey plunges with abandon into the role of Meek’s benefactor Major Banks, who is barking in both senses of the word. O’Neill, who also played Meek on stage, is bravely unsentimental, and there is impressive work from the men in the producers’s unofficial harem: Sid Mitchell as Patrick Pink, his chirpy gofer; J J Feild, looking like a peroxide Jude Law, as the insecure upstart Heinz Burt; and Tom Burke, one of Britain’s most unpredictable actors, as the composer Geoff Goddard, a delicate flower trampled by Meek.

Directing actors is not the only thing Moran gets right. Telstar ironically evokes the soda-pop fizz of a Swinging London romp, and contains at least one unforgettable visual humdinger: a shot of Meek advancing across Hampstead Heath at night, holding aloft a lit piece of paper as a signal to potential companions, only to be met by a line of similarly improvised beacons emerging from the bushes. If that isn’t where the stadium-rock convention of waving cigarette lighters originated, then it should be.

The movie is so almost-great that the temptation as you watch to re-edit mentally the bits you don’t like is irresistible. For a start, the film can jettison those endless flash-forwards to Meek’s breakdown, where he crouches over a bonfire of publicity photos and smashed 45s. And the script is rather smug in its use of hindsight – three instances of Meek badmouthing the Beatles (“They’re a fad”), and one of him bellowing, “The Kinks, my arse!” are too much for one film.

I say these things only because I care. Moran has made a spirited, insightful film that adds to a pop collage that also includes Expresso Bongo, Absolute Beginners, Mojo and Velvet Goldmine. Now for the girl-group version, please.

“Telstar” is released on 19 June, “The Last Thakur” on 26 June
The New British Cinema season continues at the ICA, London SW1, until 9 July. http://ica.org.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.

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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