Andrew Billen - The failed fascist

Television - An unexpectedly fascinating portrait of a far-right bully

England Expects (BBC1)

Single-issue dramas are usually doomed to fail because they are more interested in the issue than the drama. Their plots serve their author's argument. Their protagonists are allegorical. When the single issue is the rise of the far right, you can expect these faults to be exacerbated, and that cardboard cut-outs will perform well-meaning propaganda to liberal acclaim and more general apathy. The modest success of England Expects (5 April, 9pm) was due almost entirely to the central character being fascinating. Ray, brilliantly played by Steven Mackintosh, was not likeable, not someone most of us could identify with, but he was interesting, a small but poisonous insect that we were allowed to examine under the magnifying lens for two hours. Even in physical terms, he was intriguing. Stick-like, with a boyish moustache, Ray couldn't even wear the blazer of his security firm convincingly, let alone the designer suit he later stole from his stalkee's boyfriend. He was, in every sense, a misfit.

It was only fair that we should scrutinise him, as his job at a Canary Wharf commodity traders involves him scrutinising everyone else, generally through his firm's CCTV system. (Without CCTV, incidentally, most television crime dramas would these days be quite lost.) His other delight is examining staff identity cards in order to pick off intruders in the building. Given that his personal problems are bound up in his own nebulous sense of identity, and that his politics begin and end with expelling foreign intruders from England, it's an entirely appropriate job for him, artistically speaking. Since it also requires little in the way of brains and a capacity to play the bully, it's a job to suit the world's Rays in any case - which doesn't mean, Ray being Ray, he isn't going to screw up at it.

Ray fails at everything he tackles. As a schoolboy he failed his trial for West Ham, as a husband he lost his wife to a slob, as a father he cannot protect his dim daughter from becoming a smackhead. She remarks to him that he has no friends - and she's right. The picture on his wall is of Alison, a trader at work, whom he creepily and unsuccessfully pursues until she files a sexual harassment complaint against him. He is even a failed fascist, having ended up in jail back in the 1980s, disowned by his own side. Welcoming him back to the local branch of the party (presumably the BNP), its leader, Larry, reassures him that he was a leader of men back then. "No," Ray says with miserable self-knowledge, "I was a hooligan."

Twenty years on (at 36, Mackintosh is technically a little young for this role), Ray is tempted back to the party when he fails to get his estranged family rehoused out of their council slum. Blaming the housing shortage on the influx of Asian immigrants, he takes up Larry's kind offer to be a hooligan again. Soon he is encouraging the teenagers he coaches at soccer to set upon a defenceless Muslim boy. Soon after that, he has unpacked his crossbow.

There are so many people he could target. There is Alison's trader boyfriend, whom, with the sixth sense of a natural racist, he quickly identifies as Jewish, offering him a ham sandwich from the canteen. There are the gangs of young Asians out to avenge their mate's duffing up. There is the local Merc-driving drug lord who, to Ray's irritation, is another Asian success story. In the end, however, he chooses to fire at blameless Assma, a Muslim banker who has as much difficulty protecting her brother from London's street culture as Ray does his daughter. If Ray wasn't so busy being a racist, he would be an excellent misogynist.

England Expects was a psychologically convincing portrait of how the powerless prey on the powerless - not unlike, really, Robert Carlyle's recent portrayal of the young fuhrer in Hitler: the rise of evil. The writer, Frank Deasy, displayed a good ear for evil's disarming banality. I liked the half-hearted protests of Ray's ex-wife to the local housing officer - "Hello?" and "This is a joke" - and his father's hoary complaint that "ten stops down the Tube and I feel like I've landed in Calcutta". Only occasionally did you feel Deasy was colouring in the picture by numbers. The speech by Ray's dad about his son's childhood incontinence and wetting himself in front of the West Ham coach at his trial was overdone. So was Ray's suggestion to his daughter that she go blonde in order to look like "a Norse goddess".

I'm not sure, either, if the sub-plot about Asian drug gangs was properly integrated into the story. The point Deasy was making may have been that poor blacks and poor whites face similar social problems, but it also highlighted the difficulties that the second generation of Asian immigrants is having assimilating - a point the BNP will doubtless appreciate being made. As the drama pointed out, it is getting enough help from the tabloid press, whose lurid front-page headlines make its case for it every day. Deasy kept putting in the mouth of the party leader, Larry, the words "We're mainstream now". As Larry, Keith Barron looked every bit the cuddly elder statesman fascist. As Angela, his young council candidate, Kate Miles presented the party's reasonable, attractive, middle-class face. Deasy and Mackintosh reminded us what lies beneath.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times