Twisted tales

Television - Andrew Billen sizes up two 'urban' dramas set in Leeds

For "gritty", realist dramas about life on a council estate in Leeds, Penny Woolcock's two Tina films are extraordinarily ungritty and unrealistic. The captions that went up before Tina Goes Shopping (first shown by Channel 4 in 1999, repeated on 16 May) and Tina Takes a Break (23 May) insisted that they are "inspired by true stories" and that the actors are local residents. Yet, instead of taking us towards grim cinema verite, Woolcock led us into a world of almost baroque poverty, wonderlands of summer sunshine where life is lived outside on the streets under blue skies. Instead of the usual trembling, hand-held cameras, the production values ran to tripods and Steadicams. Breaking another naturalist convention, the characters addressed the camera directly.

The premise was economic despair, yet the overall tone was jaunty, survivalist. The characters were capable of Dickensian flourishes. An empties collector down at the pub had a voice like Domingo's, and serenaded the ladies with arias from The Barber of Seville. Tina's father had been overeducated by TV documentaries. In Goes Shopping, Tina explained: " Dad says we are like the Vikings, pillaging neighbouring villages. I think we are more like the marauding Huns." In fact, as a local hood, Don described himself most often as a Don Corleone.

The plots are not so much plots as tall stories, synthesised. The best scene from the first film showed our heroine coming home from a hard day's thieving (stealing to order being what the "shopping" of the title refers to), only to find that her boyfriend, Alan, had slaughtered a cow in her kitchen. "There's a fucking cow's head in the sink," she said, and here was another nod, surely, to The Godfather and its horse's head pillow. In Ken Loach's 1993 film Raining Stones, out of similar economic desperation Ricky Tomlinson attempts to steal a sheep. Perhaps this is what really goes on. Or perhaps such tales are part of an emerging collective myth about our very own underclass. Either way, such touches make Woolcock's film-making lurch towards the worked-up jokiness of Bill Forsyth's early work.

In the first film, Tina wanted to make it clear that she had made choices about her life. "It's not to do with how you're brought up," she told us. "My brother has never been in trouble." Two years on, socio-economic determinism has proved her wrong, making for a gloomier second film. The whole estate seems to teeter on the edge, like the young man in Y-fronts who is poised to jump from the top of a high-rise in the opening moments of Takes a Break, and who, in its closing moments, does. The pub is now a venue for drug dealing, not arias. Tina is a junkie who - her shoplifting skills apparently having deserted her - is reduced to pulling a stocking over her face and robbing the local shop to pay for the trip to Blackpool that she promised her children.

Tina's "break" is thus in a rehab centre, and her children, Tyler and Kimberley, fall into the hands of the father of one of them, the alcoholic Kev, who resides in a living room decorated with empty beer cans and satellite porn, and whose great boast is that his children eat a proper hot meal at night (that is to say, Pot Noodles). But they do get to Blackpool. Muffy, a 13-year-old hooligan, the estate's youngest twocker, takes them there, having stolen a big bag of dosh unaccountably left by a gang in Kev's safe keeping. There, on the Big Dippers and death rides, they are allowed to be children again. In the end, Kimberley and Tyler are taken away by an avuncular PC Plod, who holds their hands as he would William and Harry (as in Crompton, not Windsor).

"Me and Tyler got sent to the same children's home where Mummy went when she was little to teach us a lesson," Kimberley explains, telling us what happens next. This is writing about as crassly manipulative as Old Father Time's suicide note in Jude the Obscure. And Woolcock has not lost her weakness for Ealing comedy touches, such as having gang members throw things at one another. Just as Goes Shopping ended flippantly with Tina's father being caught by police halfway up a tree when his mobile phone went off, so this time he reappears in an ice- cream van doling out 99s to children and tabs to the adults. Funny, surreal. Grandad Don (the engaging Gwyn Hollis) has not quite grown up and we are meant to like him for that.

Woolcock's work, not having fully matured either, similarly touts for our indulgence. We grant it, up to a point. As yet, her plays do not compare with the regular portrayal of sink estates in The Cops or in Tony Marchant's Never Never last year. But her technique discovers promising actors and gets refreshingly unactorly performances out of them: Kelly Hollis is apparently auditioning for Emmerdale. Most importantly, she makes an original observation: that being one of the "excluded" can be rather exhilarating. Woolcock's characters neither pity themselves nor ask for our help; they are too busy generating whopping great urban myths out of the raw material of their desperate lives. If she buys these myths wholesale, it is, at least, better than pinching them for Rada students to recite down on the London fringe.

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 28 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, And men shall speak unto men