Men behaving badly


BBC2's chancy new comedy-drama Births, Marriages and Deaths (Mondays 9pm, repeated Fridays 11.15pm) believes you can take the boy out of the Hackney playground but you can never take the Hackney playground out of the boy. Alan (Ray Winstone), Terry (Mark Strong) and Graham (Phil Davis) are middle-aged schoolfriends who would be making their way through life well enough if they were no longer one another's best buddies. In all their years, however, they have never behaved quite as badly as the night of Terry's wedding.

We join them as they set out on a marathon stag crawl, following them into the cafes, bowling alleys and dog tracks of the Essex/greater London border. We think we have seen it all but we have not. The next day a flashback reveals they have behaved worse than we thought possible. After the massage parlour, they paid a midnight visit to a loathed old schoolmaster, frightening the old man to death and, in turn, scaring them, especially when they discovered the malodorous corpse of his wife. The three are now bonded in blood.

Tony Grounds has written a good story here, even if his director, Adrian Shergold, believes in adding layer upon layer of distracting cinema reference. Winstone and Phil Davis were both in Quadrophenia, hence the rock'n'roll songs, but Shergold wants us to know he has watched plenty of movies since then, so the boys head out on the town dressed in Tarantino shades, Nick Bicat's music is a spaghetti Western pastiche, and the corpse scene honours Sam Raimi's Evil Dead movies. It is too much and makes it harder for the men's wives to make their mark - a terrible mistake since the women are the most interesting and original part of the story.

This cannot happen very often to Winstone, but Maggie O'Neill, as Alan's attractive, heavily done-up wife Alex, steals every scene she plays with him. An odd mixture of forcefulness and insecurity, she has strong views about female propriety. Dressing her daughters as bridesmaids, she takes the precaution when presenting them to him of Elastoplasting their mouths so they do not ruin the effect by talking. But she knows how to bawl out Alan for visiting prostitutes. "I've never had it with anyone I haven't paid," he pleads. "Men are a shambles; men are so pathetic," she concludes, but not in a forgiving way. Her belief in the sanctity of marriage is as strong as his in male comradeship and the beliefs may not be compatible. Will his Night of the Living Dead wreck their home even more certainly than the builders of his prized In-Out driveway? If Births, Marriages and Deaths sufficiently concentrates on the Reservoir Bitches of north-east London, it will be worth keeping with to find out.

The first of Peter Taylor's three-part Loyalists (BBC2, Sundays, 8pm), another exemplary chapter in his 25-year career humanising and explaining the Northern Ireland conflict, was a story with no women in it all; they were off-camera, grieving their dead. Taylor's intention was to remind us that, contrary to decades of "When Will This Madness End?" headlines, sectarian killing did not start with a leak of loony gas over the province. The conversion into ruthless killers of the resolutely ordinary-looking middle-aged men he interviewed (I wished the camera had allowed us to see their homes as well as their faces) was told with rueful economy that made it seem inevitable.

Taylor asked Jim Light, a former Ulster Freedom Fighter, why he chose a 17-year-old student to kill. "He was selected," he replied, "for no other reason than he was a Catholic." Did he hesitate before pulling the trigger? "Actually no. I wouldn't say I had any hesitation at that moment." Yet even this was not madness, but part of a strategy to intimidate the Catholic community into disowning the IRA. Although none of the terrorists vocalised any regret, you imagined you saw it in some of their eyes - as well you might since the film was punctuated by captions recording the long sentences they all received.

If, in these days of peace and reconciliation, anger is still permissible, mine would be directed at the politicians who stoked these men's passions, while disowning their crimes. David Trimble - in one caption "The Deputy Leader of Vanguard 1976-78", in the next "First Minister of Northern Ireland" - praised his old boss Bill Craig as the "only major figure in unionism who had any coherent thought and analysis". We then saw a 1972 clip of this intellectual giant telling a crowd: "If the politicians fail it may be our job to liquidate the enemy." Trimble held Taylor's gaze. The speech, he conceded, was "a bit over the top".

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London "Evening Standard"

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The police force we deserve?