“The Riot Club” is based on Laura Wade’s Bullingdon Club-inspired Royal Court play “Posh”.
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If only the lads of The Riot Club were a little less revolting

Lone Scherfig’s film adaptation of the 2010 play Posh feels unbalanced: we want to see a bit of naughty fun before the nastiness kicks in.

The Riot Club (15)
dir: Lone Scherfig

In Buñuel’s sticky 1962 film The Exterminating Angel, a group of wealthy dinner-party guests are holed up for days on end in the home of their host. The plush apartment becomes increasingly degraded, with livestock even straying in at one point, but for reasons the diners cannot fathom, no one can bring themselves to leave.

In The Riot Club, we are trapped once again at dinner with the overprivileged, only this time it isn’t that they can’t leave but that they won’t. These are ten Oxford undergraduates convening their hedonistic society in the dining room of a village pub. It’s another dinner party that will end in destruction and derangement. Buñuel’s meaning was tantalisingly opaque but The Riot Club couldn’t be any clearer if the pub was called the Dog and United Kingdom. For an appetiser, the picture serves up metaphor. It is metaphor also for main course. As for dessert – more metaphor, anyone?

The film is adapted by Laura Wade from her play Posh, which was a hit at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2010. In both cases, any similarities to Oxford dining societies attended by members of the current cabinet are intentional. In the absence of testimony from actual members of the Bullingdon Club, Wade has had to imagine what must have gone on. Her screenplay falls between two stools, neither fictional enough to float free of its biographical moorings, nor able to exploit the gossipy buzz that would arise from knowing that a character is based on David Cameron or Boris Johnson, or that the snivelling wretch in the corner whom nobody likes is George Osborne.

It is freshers’ week and Miles (Max Irons) is singled out as Riot Club material by some of the old guard, including the president, James (Freddie Fox), who looks like an albino cherub, and the fencing champ Harry (Douglas Booth), with his oil-paint eyes and cheekbones visible from space.

We know that Miles is a decent sort, because he converses freely with Lauren (Holliday Grainger), who is from the north and is therefore an authentic and principled person. She upbraids a fellow student for recounting a joke in which the punchline involves someone getting a place at Bristol. And her idea of post-coital conversation is to compare her working-class vocabulary with Miles’s upper-class one: she dabs her lips with a “serviette” after “dessert”, whereas he would reach for a “napkin” after “pudding”. It is no reflection on Grainger to say that even the most temperate viewers may find themselves picturing Lauren drowning in a sea of foie gras.

Language is certainly important in the film. One toff receives a harsher beating from a cashpoint mugger after pointing out the flaw in the phrase “PIN number”. But the problem of characters functioning as symbols, rather than as people, extends beyond Lauren. Had greater effort been made to coax out likeable qualities from the posh boys, there would have been so much more at stake once their behaviour went from bad to brutal. (I would have settled for them being distinguishable from one another. It’s hard not to nod sympathetically when a witness says: “I couldn’t tell them apart.”)

The audience might even have been made to feel complicit if we had some emotional investment in these people who are shown doing unspeakable things. The Riot Club can’t countenance that ambiguity. The nearest it comes is in the character of the pub landlord, played by Gordon Brown (oh, if only). His attitude to the rich is subtly obsequious in a way that helps facilitate their appalling behaviour. So eager is he to curry favour with them that he overlooks their insults and is even willing to be paid off in the early stages of their debauchery.

A more strident film might have made the case that he is the real villain of the piece – that he stands for the rest of society, the rest of us, willing to brook endless inconvenience and discomfort so that the wealthy can enjoy their liberty. When he turns the sign on the pub door to “Closed” after his guests have left for the evening, the thought that he may be calling time on Britain as a whole is enough to distract you temporarily from realising that it’s news­agents and bakeries that tend to have those sorts of signs, not pubs.

The Riot Club is the third British adaptation by the Danish director Lone Scherfig, following An Education (from Lynn Barber’s memoir) and One Day (based on David Nicholls’s novel). It shows her to be in possession of her usual mix of a sympathetic eye and an uncertain sensibility. She might have looked for pointers in Patrice Leconte’s 1996 film Ridicule, which told a similar story set in the court of Versailles but had the good manners to indulge in some naughty fun before the nastiness kicked in.

The Riot Club is caught uneasily between the humane and the Hogarthian, too middlebrow to throw in its lot with either camp. Scherfig gives us the worst of both worlds: there is none of the infectious glee of bad behaviour but plenty of hand-wringing in the morning after. Her film is all hangover. 

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.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?

PHOTO: URSZULA SOLTYS
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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist