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Tony Garnett – 3rd April 1936 till 12th January 2020

Posted by keith1942 on January 17, 2020

So Tony Garnett has ended his career as a major critical force in British television and film. He leaves behind an impressive body of work which stands out for its political content and for its successful creation of a distinct British social realism. The tributes on radio and television have tended to refer to the famous productions: Cathy Come Home (BBC 1966), Kes (1969) and Law and Order (BBC 1978 ). For me the most memorable work which he produced was the BBC mini-series Days of Hope (1975).

I was fortunate to see and hear Tony Garnett at an event organised by the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom (North) at the Unity+Works in Wakefield. The Unity+Works was a converted Co-op building close to the railway station; now sadly gone. The event was well attended, say close to a 100.

The afternoon opened with Tony Garnett talking about his new ‘autobiography’: ‘The Day the Music Died: a Memoir’ (subtitled ‘A Life Lived Behind the Lens’, Constable, London 2016). This was the first time I had heard Garnett live and he was an able speaker with a passionate concern for working class expression. He was the most interesting contributor to the film Versus:. . . (2016) on the life and work of his regular collaborator Ken Loach. At Unity+Works he talked about the book and certain sections from it. It opens with his early life in Birmingham, I recognised many of the settings he mentioned. To learn about ‘the day the music died’ you need to look at the book, but it clearly was a significant event in Garnett’s life. As you might expect he talked about some of the deservedly famous television and film productions on which he has worked. These included Up the Junction (BBC 1965, in ‘The Penny Drops’ in the memoir), Cathy Come Home (BBC 1966, in the Chapter with same title), Kes (1969, in ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’) and The Spongers (BBC 1978, in the Chapter of same title). He included some droll stories about the people he worked with on these. He also talked about the BBC and in particular the MI5 vetting system that operated there.

He then took some questions. The most intriguing concerned his relations with the Socialist Labour League, later to morph into the Workers Revolutionary Party, (see ‘Protest and Confusion’). It seems that Tony hosted a series of discussion evenings at his place for people on the left in London. Gerry Healey, the leader of the SLL came along. His organisation was famous for some of the members, including Vanessa and Corin Redgrave. Trevor Griffith describes something of this ilk in his play ‘The Party’ (1973). I saw it at the Oxford Playhouse, a witty presentation. All of the audience laughed at certain lines, but some other lines only received laughter from one part of the audience: my friend and I identified, for different responses, groups from the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Socialist Workers Party.  Garnett’s was a fascinating and rewarding talk. In the break the CPBF stall sold and unfortunately ran out of copies of the Memoir. Mine later arrived in the post.

The second part was a tribute to the writer and activist Barry Hines, who died in . We heard from his widow Eleanor, from fellow writer Ian Clayton, from Granville Williams of the CPBF and again from Tony Garnett. He summed up Barry’s stance to his work:

“Socialism without art is dead: it is also dangerous.”

Whilst the speaker paid their tributes a montage of stills from Barry’s television and film work played on the screen behind: including Kes, The Price of Coal, and Threads (1984). The CPBF has  produced a pamphlet Celebrating his Life and Work (CPBF (North) with pieces from his fellow artists and activists.

The afternoon was rounded off with a screening of Meet the People (BBC 1977), the first part of The Price of Coal. The Hall had  a large screen and good sound. The play was full of recognisable tropes from the work of Barry Hines, Tony Garnett and Ken Loach. There was the authentic voice and sense of culture of the northern working class. There was the pointed but well dramatised class conflict, embodied by believable characters. And there was also a wry sense of humour and irony, more so that in many the productions authored by this talented trio.

‘The Price of Coal’

Now Ken Loach is probably the most well-known name of this group. I do think that Loach’s most political work, alongside Days of Hope, we had The Big Flame (1969),. was with Tony Garnett and writer Jim Allen. But all three were collaborative film-makers rather than ‘auteurs’; an aspect that has been strong in British film over the years; combining craft and political discourse.

Tony Garnett actually had a sojourn in the USA and work connected to Hollywood. I have only seen Handgun (1983), which aimed to dissect a relation between rape and gun culture. It unfortunately tended to the voyeuristic, the result of Garnett attempting to marry a social realist style, a political theme and the demands of mainstream film company EMI who re-edited the film..

His British work suffered from censorship and prejudice. Days of Hope actually was attacked in a Times Editorial. Conservative members of the BBC hierarchy and of the political parties often held forth. And believe it or not, when Tony Garnett was the producer of Loach’s The Save the Children Fund Film (1969) their work was suppressed for 40 years.

Garnett’s ‘Memoir’ is the best obituary to his life and work. He combines fascinating personal memories with descriptions of his production for film and television. Hopefully the works of Garnett [and of Barry Hines] will continue to circulate in the years to come. A major voice has been lost in the British media.

NB Part of this tribute is from a post on the CPBF meeting in Wakefield.

Posted in Obituary, Television film, UK filmmakers | Leave a Comment »

Red Riding, Channel 4, 2009.

Posted by keith1942 on March 2, 2015

Red Riding

This trilogy was produced by Channel 4 and transmitted at least twice in the 2009. I wrote this response at the time. I was immediately struck with the way that the films crossed over with serial killer films and how their gloomy style replicated the dark, dystopian world so common in serial killer films and in the film noir genre. The article contains detailed plot information for all three films.


It is best first to make a clear distinction between the labyrinth and the maze. The former is a network of tunnels, chambers, or paths, either natural or man-made. The latter is a complex network of paths or passages, especially one with high hedges in a garden, designed to puzzle those walking through it. Commonly I think mazes refer to external networks, labyrinths to internal and usually subterranean networks.

The most famous labyrinth, which has acquired mythic status, was that designed by Daedulus for King Minos of Crete. The myth tells of a monster begatted by the union of Minos’ wife, Pasiphae, and a sacred bull. The half-human, half-bull offspring, the Minotaur, was imprisoned in the labyrinth. Meanwhile Minos’ son Androgeos was slain by the Athenians. Minos won the war that this provoked and then compelled the city to send seven young men and seven maidens to Crete every nine years, where they were fed to the Minotaur. Theseus, son of the Athenian king, killed the Minotaur by successfully penetrating the labyrinth with the help of Minos’ daughter Ariadne.

Expressionist and noir films

Labyrinths have become potent motifs and signifiers in cinema. They usually bring their dark associations with them, providing settings for danger, violence, murder and a frightening monster. One early example would be the German expressionist horror, Nosferatu [1922]. This is one of the earliest vampire films, and the castle of Count Orlok [Dracula] presents a dark, gloomy setting, where corridors and staircases lead peril and horror. Suitably, the coffin in which the vampire Count rests is to be found below ground, in a cellar. This early example has set the tone for many of the subsequent genre films, with heroes and heroines descending into darkness and a ‘fate worse than death’.

Expressionism was a major influence on the Hollywood film noir cycle, where labyrinthine plots took the protagonists and the audience into a dark and dangerous world of chaos. A classic example made in the UK, The Third Man (1949), has a potent labyrinth. The film’s villain Harry Lime (Orson Welles) is finally hunted down in the sewers of the city of Vienna. The protagonist, Holly Martin (Joseph Cotton), tracks him down, through a series of tunnels, dark and running with the waste of the city. Their final confrontation is an apt reversal of their earlier meeting in the film, where Harry and Holly surveyed the world from the height of a Ferris Wheel.

Monster movies, whether terrestrial or alien, frequently contain a labyrinth. In Them (1954) giant radioactive ants move out of their anthill networks. By the climax of the film they are being hunted down in the storm drains of Los Angeles. The final peril is the destruction of a new Queen deep in the network.

More recently we have seen the development of the serial killer cycle, whose combination of film noir style with a psychotic killer provides the most frightening modern monster. An early example, (1930) has the child killer hunted down in an apartment store. The searchers [other criminals] comb the whole set of rooms and corridors before tracking him down in a dark storeroom. In Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) Lila Crane searches the old house at the motel, and finally discovers the monster in the basement. Clause Chabrol’s Le Boucher (1969) features a labyrinth cave with drawings by the pre-historic Cro-Magnon man: the film develops this as an association to Popaul, the butcher and killer of the title. In Silence of the Lambs (1990) Clarissa Starling has to visit Hannibal Lector. She finds him in a cell deep inside the prison, at the end of a dark, dirty basement corridor. And when she finally tracks down the actual killer he also hides in a dark and subterranean network.

Many of these serial killers/monsters hark back to the earliest example on Crete. Sexual aberrations are common. The killers devour the young and innocent. Most commonly the hunter/investigator is male and a female helper occurs on occasions. And the idea of punishment for usurping authority frequently reappears. Se7en [1995] is a classic example of the genre that presents this last aspect. John Doe resides in a lair that is all in black. And he recites the ‘sins’ for which his victims suffer, working through the seven most grievous. At the climax of the film he kills the innocent wife and unborn child of detective Mills, and fuels wrath!

Yorkshire Noir

This long-running motif has returned powerfully to the screen in Channel 4’s adaptation of the Dave Peace quartet of novels, Red Riding. The novels mix recorded events with fictionalised characters and crimes over a period of nine years. [In fact only three of the novels were dramatised; a friend who has read the quartet found the plot of the second, 1977, indecipherable]. The three stories in C4’s Red Riding offer a world of chaos, where crime and corruption are rife and where innocence is sacrificed. They do this by appropriating many of the techniques of modern US film and television noir. David Peace, in an online profile, listed Dante as a major influence. And Dante’s Inferno is a key reference in Se7en, another work singled out by Peace.


The films utilise dark gloomy lighting, dramatic and restless camera work, and muddy soundtracks, with dialogue that is frequently difficult to follow. And they rely on plotting which constructs a narrative labyrinth for the viewers, shot through with ambiguities, puzzles, teasers and unexplained events or motivations. There was one scriptwriter for all three films, Tony Grisoni, though each feature had a different director. A common narrative is maintained by the settings and by recurring characters who re-appear as the dramas move from one period to another. And most notably the narrative only offers an overall though tentative meaning at the conclusion of the third feature.

Red Riding adds another myth to that of the labyrinth and the monster: a fetish with swans. This ties into the myth of the swan maiden, found in a variety of forms. A hero sees a flock of swans, and finds they are really a group of beautiful women bathing. He steals one of the dresses on the shore, and that maiden is unable to fly away. The hunter marries her, but at some point his wife finds her original feathery dress and reverts to a swan and flies away.

Red Riding I

In the Year of Our Lord 1974 opens the trilogy. The majority of the film appears to be an extended flashback by journalist Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield). In full noir fashion the film opens with shots of a young girl with wings followed by that of Dunford holding a gun. The plot then fills in the events leading up to a shooting, though in an extremely fragmentary fashion. Eddie is following a story of child molestation and murder near Leeds. In the course of the film he becomes the lover of the mother, Paula (Rebecca Hall), of a missing young girl, Jeanette Garland. He meets property magnate John Dawson (Sean Bean). Paula lives on the Fitzwilliam Estate; Dawson has his own estate nearby. The settings are mainly south west of Leeds from Morley to Castleford, Wakefield and the above run-down estate near Pontefract. The latter becomes familiar, as do the six cooling towers visible en route from the road.

Dunford’s colleague and friend Barry Cannon (Anthony Flanagan) dies in a road accident. Eddie then he discovers that senior police are involved in corruption with Dawson and have ‘fitted up’ an innocent man for the child murders. One young girl found dead has been tortured and raped before murder. The torture includes sewing ‘swan’s wings’ to her. It is this connection that finally leads Dunford to realise that Dawson is the monster whose ‘private weakness’ is child molestation. Dawson’s house is designed in a swan-like outline. Barry comments (rewriting Balzac); ‘behind every great house there lies a great crime!’ And we later discover one room contains a hanging swan, (evidence of the abuse).

The dialogue has frequent references to swans and wings, though the connection to the plot is not usually clear. Later features return to this as well as references to other animals. The film also provides frequent visual set-ups that suggest labyrinths, in tunnels, corridors and alleyways. Dunford is assaulted by police in a multi-story car park.  But the clearest parallel to a labyrinth is when Dunford is taking into custody after gate-crashing Dawson’s reception. We find him in a blacked-out dungeon. When the lights go up it is grim and damp: the basement below the Police HQ. The police torture Dunford, at one point introducing a line that will become familiar: “put your hands flat on the table.” And he is later dragged down a corridor into another dark room, a morgue in which lies the body of Paula.


The trio of officer involved, Detective Superintendent Bill ‘Badger’ Molloy (Warren Clark), Sergeant Bob Craven (Sean Harris), and Police Constable Tommy Douglas (Tom Mooney) will re-appear in the subsequent dramas. In Red Riding it is these police who are also monsters. The complications of Paula’s death lead to the police stuffing a loaded gun in Dunford’s pocket and throwing him out a van with the words that re-appear again and again in the series: “This is the North, we do what we want!”  Dunford convinced that Dawson has killed Paula searches his house and see the swan. He then finds and shoots Dawson. After which, and the end of the flashback, he dies in a suicidal crash with a police car.

Red Riding II

The second drama is set in The Year of Our Lord 1980. It is the height of the Yorkshire Ripper hunt, whose 12th or 13th victim has just been discovered. The opening credits feature stills of the victims and newsreel footage from the time. The key protagonist is Assistant Chief Constable Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine); a senior officer from the Manchester Force charged with examining the long running, and so far, failed Ripper enquiry. He brings with him two assistants, Chief Superintendent John Nolan (Tony Pitts), and Detective Sergeant Helen Marshall (Maxine Peake).

Whilst Hunter starts to examine the Ripper investigation it gradually becomes apparent that this is not the primary focus of the film. Hunter has been here before. Five years earlier he investigated the shooting at The Karachi Club in Wakefield. This turns out to be the incident when Eddie Dunford shot John Dawson. But that was followed by further shootings, including Craven and Douglas. The investigation is premised on robbery and murder by an unknown gang: Dunford’s death listed as a road accident. Hunter’s investigation remained unfinished: one complication being a short-lived affair with Helen. The events of the past still haunt him, and feature in dreams and flashbacks. They also start to turn up in the background of the Ripper investigation.

Hunter’s liaison officer in Leeds is the now promoted Superintendent Bob Craven. And the office of Hunter and his team appears to be in the same basement as that where Dunford was tortured. The passage to the office passes the pound of the barking police dogs: summoning up tones of the mythic beasts that guarded Hades. As in the first feature we have scenes frequently set in passages and on stairs, now interiors rather than the exteriors of the earlier drama. Hunter finally receives evidence that the Karachi Club shootings were carried out by police led by ‘Badger’ Molloy. The evidence is provided by BJ (Robert Sheehan), who we saw in 1974 as a source for Dunford and his journalist friend, Barry. Hunter and BJ meet in what seems like a monster’s lair: a disused garage in Preston where BJ claims that the ’13th’ victim of the Ripper died at the hands of Craven.


Hunter is already in trouble with the police establishment. He arranges to meet John Nolan in the basement office, and after Hunter has explained the new evidence Nolan tells him that Craven ‘is out of control’. We follow Hunter down a labyrinth of corridors and stairwells to a bare basement room, where lies Craven, bloody and shot. Nolan now executes the coup de grace on Hunter: backed up by his corrupt fellow policemen. The film ends, after footage of the captured Ripper, at the grave of Hunter in a Yorkshire cemetery.

Red Riding 3

The final film opens with a flashback to 1974. At the wedding of Bill Molloy’s daughter a group of policemen gather for a tête-à-tête – there is Molloy, Maurice Jobson (David Morrisey), Bob Craven, Tommy Douglas, Dick Alderman (Shaun Dooley) and Jim Prentice (Chris Walker). In the background is Chief Constable Harold Angus (Jim Carter), who clearly is implicated in the corruption. They are joined by John Dawson. Once again the audience hear the now familiar line, ” To the North, where we do what we want.” The scene explains the conspiracy that lay behind events in the 1974.

The Year of Our Lord 1983 also returns to the central plot of 1974, missing children. We see stills of a young girl, Hazel Atkins, missing from the Morley area. As with the earlier case, that of Clare Kemplay, the investigation is lead by Detective Chief Superintendent Maurice Jobson [promoted from Detective Superintendent], assisted by Detective Inspector Alderman. Jobson receives help from a medium, Mandy Wymer (Saskia Reeves). With nice irony, at one point she instructs him and Alderman to ‘put your hands on the table’. Later she leads him to remains that may be those of Jeanette Garland.

Jobson’s central role is shared with another character from earlier features, BJ. And a new protagonist, solicitor John Piggott (Mark Addy), joins them. Jobson is haunted by memories of the earlier investigations and we see frequent flashbacks to that time. BJ also has memories of that period, as a victim. Piggott becomes involved at the request of the mother of Michael Myshkin (Daniel Mays), wrongly imprisoned for the earlier crimes. But Piggott also has memories from the past. Various characters at different times, including Myshkin, claim ‘you know, everybody knows!’

The style of the film is familiar, with a dark and drear mise en scène, disconcerting close-ups and jump cuts, and characters framed by doors, walls and passageways. We revisit haunted locations like the gypsy encampment, the run-down Fitzwilliam Estate and the disused garage in Preston. In the latter BJ unearths a shotgun: presumably a relic from the Karachi Club shooting. One flashback shows Molloy and Jobson interrogating Martin Laws (Peter Mullan), a minister seen in both 1974 and 1980. Once more a prisoner is told to ‘put your hands flat on the table’. However, Laws, whose white van was seen near the crime scenes, was given an alibi by John Dawson. It is clear that Molloy and Jobson realised that Laws and Dawson were probably guilty of the child murders. But the police corruption meant that Myshkin was ‘fitted up’ for the crimes. An enigmatic exchange between several policemen makes sense when related to the plot of the 1974: they set up Dunford to dispose of Dawson without wrecking their financial interests. The subsequent shootings were either punishments or covering up evidence: or both.

All three central characters of 1983 are caught in the past and guilt. Jobson broods over the corruption and cover-ups. His increasingly awkward questions and investigation lead to enforced early retirement. Piggott was bought up on the Fitzwilliam Estate, and his father was an ex-policeman. The father was also a member of a paedophile circle involving Laws and Dawson. A flashback offers glimpse of the abuse with the words, ‘Piggott is king today, be nice to Mr. Piggott.’ This is John Piggott’s flashback: hence his guilt. And BJ also has flashbacks with glimpses of abuse as he returns to avenge the past wrongs. The climax of the third film comes on The Fitzwilliam Estate: crosscutting between number 7, Law’s house, and an allotment on open ground above the estate.


BJ arrives at the house with his shotgun. He confronts Laws but is unable to pull the trigger. As Laws prepares to mutilate or kill BJ Jobson shoots him with another shotgun. [Also from the Karachi Club shooting?]. Meanwhile Piggott is investigating the allotment. He enters what appears to be a disused pigeon cote, full of feathers. Laws discovers Piggott and knock him down into the passage below the cote: returning to his house, [and death]. When Piggott awakens he explores the dark, subterranean labyrinth. And at the end of this Piggott find the missing girl, Hazel. As he emerges from the cellar to the waiting Jobson, shafts of light pierce the gloom, amid a ‘confetti’ of feathers. The writer, Tony Grisoni explained: “we might save one of the children. I just couldn’t have them all die. I wanted to be released from hell by the end.” (Interview in Sight & Sound, March 2009).

And indeed Piggott does carry Hazel off home on his shoulder. BJ also survives, and 1983 ends on him, ‘the one that got away’. However, as is frequently the case with film noir and serial killer films, the ending is hardly optimistic. In each of the three features a monster is slain: Dawson by Dunford: Craven by his colleagues: and Laws by Jobson. But the central monster, the focus of all the corruption and violence: whose victims outnumber the innocents saved: the Red Riding police mafia, survive or at least go unpunished. Molloy and Jobson have both retired, but others remain, including the Chief Constable Angus. This would also seem to be in keeping with the original myth: for whilst Theseus kills the Minotaur, Minos, who was ultimately responsible, survived: though he came to a nasty end later. One sub-text of Red Riding would appear to be that the Police have acquired the prerogatives of ancient royalty, both the power and the invulnerability.

David Peace’s Yorkshire

I have only read the first of the four novels from which the trilogy was adapted. I tried the second and could not follow its ‘narrative’. I then tried the final novel, but I found it very repetitious: which seems to me a common feature of Peace’s writing. The films do seem to recreate the novels fairly accurately, though they also make changes. Roy Stafford, who has worked his way through the books, thought that the female characters are more developed in the films. The books certainly use recognisable events and places from the West Riding of Yorkshire. Max Farrar, a local expert in Chapeltown, spent quite an amount of time showing the production team round places that still exist. However, in the end these are fictional characters and events set in recognisable locales.

What is interesting is how closely the novels and particularly the films adhere to the conventions of noir and serial killer movies. The labyrinths are the central and most mythic element, but there are many more. This is a world of darkness with dank interiors and bleak exteriors. The villains are ascribed believable motivations but at the same time their world reeks of what common parlance defines as ‘evil’. Moreover the chiaroscuro is not just visual – light and shadow predominate – this applies to the possible meanings, we are left with ambiguities and unresolved questions.


A friend just loaned me a Blu-Ray of the Home Box Office series True Detective (2014). I was struck by a number of overlaps between this US series and the UK trilogy: this is as likely down to recurring tropes and motifs in the serial killer genre. We have a massive and nasty set of serial killings: and there is a strong relationship to corruption in the political and police establishments. True Detective has all sorts of recognisable features and the investigation ends in a labyrinth. In relation to Red Riding I was struck by the presence of a lock-up garage, and flashback involving a young girl in a circle of abuse being led to a chair or throne. And near the end we also encounter an abused boy who has turned into a hustler.

Notes: Revolution Films produced the three Red Riding films for Channel 4. It seems Channel released the films abroad on 35mm. There was one screening of the films on 35mm in Leeds. The first film was actually shot on 16mm, the second on 35mm whilst the third used HD digital. Though filmed in anarmorphic ratio the television transmissions were somewhat hit and miss, with some broadcasts being in 1.85:1.

Originally posted on ITP World,


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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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