Talking Pictures

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London’s Burning, LWT 1986.

Posted by keith1942 on December 20, 2014


This was a television film produced by London Weekend Television and screened on December 7th 1986 and again on Saturday January 2nd 1988, [which is when I saw it].  It was written by Jack Rosenthal.  It ran for two hours (including adverts). It was later followed by a television drama series using the setting and characters of the original film. The series ran successfully from 1989 until 2002.

LWT presented the original programme as follows:

“Black comedy set in an inner London fire station. The story follows the lives of the firemen on and off duty. As Blue watch B25 assembles at the beginning of the night’s Watch, Station Officer Tate (James Marcus) is nervous about the expected replacement due at any minute, Josie Ingham’s (Katherine Rogers) arrival in what was previously an all-male preserve makes for conflict and comedy. Outside, in the inner city sprawl, other tensions are manifesting themselves; tensions which will have a shattering effect on the lives of each member of the watch,” TV Times 2 – 8 Jan 1988, page 41.

My initial response was as follows:

Jack Rosenthal has written a number of film dramas for television, they are usually funny, well observed portraits of the East End of London and larded with biting social comments. This film started well, it was funny and I settled down for a pleasant two hours entertainment. But as the story developed I found it increasingly disturbing.

From the opening shot of the film with Ethnic (Gary MacDonald – the black member of the watch, known like the others by his nickname) off duty it was clear that the programme would concentrate not just on gender, but also ‘race’. As the story develops we find out that Ethnic is one of the few black people in the high rise flats where his family lives to have a job. His family is respectable and hard working; they like traditional values represented by the social club where they play and dance to ‘old fashioned music’. His love life is normal and respectable, confirmed by his mother’s comment, ‘that’s allowed’.

But from the opening sequence Ethnic is contrasted with a group of youths, mainly black but with the odd white member who are obviously unemployed, antagonistic, anti-social, and associated with drugs and probably crime. This group is always shot through fences, behind walls or in open spaces filled with debris and junk, such as abandoned motor cars. The reason for their presence becomes clear in the finale of the film, when they plan and lead an attack on police that explodes into a full-scale riot, with petrol bombs, armed police squads, and Blue Watch called out to douse burning motor cars. The firemen themselves are now attacked by the mainly young and black mob, it is in this melee that Ethnic, off duty and at home, rushes to help a fireman colleague and is then killed by a falling paving stone, hurled by one of the gang with the word ‘traitor’.

The closing scenes of the film return us to the fire station where an Afro-Caribbean meal planned to celebrate Ethnic’s promotion becomes a wake by his colleagues, thankfully interrupted by an alarm call. The last shot shows the watch reporting once more for duty with its new replacement member, young and black.

While the film appears to be plugging good ‘race relations’ what we have here, as a sub-text is ‘Thatcherite racism’. Ethnic and his family are set up as the acceptable black people; they work hard, behave morally and keep out of sight. And by the manipulation of scenes and camera shots the villains are also black people, the unemployed drifting youth who both frighten and intimidate.

The film makes no attempt to understand or sympathise with the lot of black youth. They are simply there, malevolent and frightening. It is true that the film depicts white racism, particularly by the police who are harassing black people, including Ethnic, and who pointedly ignore a bomb attack on his family’s flat. But these incidents are minor compared to the orchestrated violence which the black youth are shown inflicting on police and civilians at the crisis point of the film. Moreover the film slickly reverses racism, as the firebomb through Ethic’s letterbox has been posted by black youth not white racists.

This negative portrayal of the more oppressed members of our society is extended to the unemployed. The unemployed black youth we see are presented as trouble. This applies equally to the only white unemployed character, Josie’s husband. He is shown in a negative light, failing to understand or support his working wife, also failing to play his part in the home and his main preoccupation is jealousy of Josie’s work in an all-male environment. One scene suggests he is contemplating infidelity as a revenge. The story initially suggests that the oppression of women will receive sympathetic treatment, but we are soon disabused. Josie tells her new male colleagues,

“I’m not a dyke, a women’s libber or a nympho — I’m good at putting out fires. When I’m not at work I’m just like any other women”.

She confirms this by getting involved in sexist practical jokes with the men and by dressing herself up (including make-up) for a shopping trip with Bayleaf (James Hazeldine), another main character in the Watch. He is both cook and father figure in the group.


The negative images of women continue in the fire fighting activities of the watch. Before the riot only one fire ends in disaster, a house fire where one child dies and two are injured. At the height of a very dramatic scene the mother returns home from a night out at a disco; she is clearly the head of a one-parent family. She is roundly abused by Bayleaf (a good father both to the watch and to his own child living with his separated wife). Again the viewer is not asked to understand the predicament of women forced to manage families on their own, only to condemn the mother as feckless.

Thus this film holds up all the bogies of right wing value systems and carefully sets them over and against decent hardworking people, who can also be black. It privileges the stereotypical  `good, ordinary folk’ against the undesirable black youth, unmarried women and unemployed men. This is done throughout the film, but most powerfully in its final crisis. Ethnic’s death provides a calculated shock to the viewer. The horror of this sequence is followed by the wake/dinner, where the Watch’s own racist member (Vaseline – Mark Arden) mourns for Ethnic. Commonly in melodrama the death of a key sympathetic character provides a base for a development and resolution of the action, so it is in London’s Burning, where Ethnic is replaced by a new black fireman, thus symbolising a continued commitment to the social order privileged by the film, and including within that social order those people prepared to follow its mores.

London’s Burning superficially presents itself as a play about both women and black people attaining equality of opportunity, the great liberal cause of the eighties. But by its dramatic manipulation of stock characters and situations it turns equality into conformity. Women’s liberation becomes both overt and covert acceptance by women of men’s treatment of them as objects, both of male sexual pleasure and of male irresponsibility. For black people their liberation is based on conforming to white values in the home and at work, so at least their blackness is the only unfortunate difference about them. And unemployed people are reduced to the adequate and resentful, unwilling to accept their necessary place in the social order. In the process of setting up these myths the film reinforces in a covert fashion racist and sexist images these groups. By selecting a group of people sure to receive public sympathy and approbation, especially in the wake of the King’s Cross fire, this transmission milked the fullest emotional mileage for its caricature of the social problems of our society.

Looking back it would seem that the drama was also influenced by events on the Broadwater Farm Estate only a year earlier. It certainly seems to me to typify the dominant representations to be found on British television during this period.

There is a fan Website at

And Wikipedia has pages on the Television series.

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