On Newsnight Review Kirsty Wark discussed the BBC Two series about what it is like to be white and working class in Britain with Sarfraz Manzoor, Kerry Shale, Rachel Campbell-Johnston.
Friday 29th February 2008
Race and class are also the foundations of the White Season, a series of programmes on BBC TWO, exploring why white working class people feel increasingly marginalised, and the possible connection with the rise in support for far right parties in some sections of society. In a moment we'll be reviewing the drama White Girl.
But first among the documentaries in the season is Last Orders, made by the American film-maker Henry Singer who spent three months living in a white area of Bradford, observing the Wibsey Working Men's club, once the heart and soul of - and support for - the community but now deeply in debt and in an area with a rising ethnic minority population.
Last Orders kicks off this season, what did you think of it?
I wish I liked it more. I felt that it was the club, was clearly past its sell-by date and there was nothing they were going to be able to do to salvage it. There was no dramatic tension, the dramatic tension was from the character called Graham, who was wonderful. His face was terrific.
What he had to say was interesting, he was the most articulate. That was a good reason to watch it. But unfortunately it's 90 mins and there isn't 90 minutes of good stuff in it.
I think it's an important film. And it's great the BBC is showing it. What I thought was that it's really an elegiac film.
The film is an elegy for a certain kind of life, it's not really about a working mens' club, it's about a certain type of people who feel besieged by the city outside their door.
What Sarfraz is saying about them feeling besieged, they are not necessarily feeling besieged about their race, about - but about their time and place. It's like there aren't Victorian music halls out there anymore because their time has passed…
I thought it was completely this. They were treated like a rare species. There was a David Attenborough mood to this. 'It's winter at the Wibsey club and the club is going through a hard time.'
They never pushed these people into any questions. They would make these outrageous statements and they would blame - I had lost count of the times "I'm not racist, but I just hate Muslims" and they never pushed these people to say - they never asked them, why do you think these Pakistanis are here?
Are they not the people who made the running of the woollen mills possible in the first place? There came the irony when one man said, 'I wish I could be happy again.' They said "When were you happy?' He was happy when he was an immigrant living in Germany.
I think it's a good thing an American director made it because there is the sense that if a British director had made it they'd just laugh at these people but I think he's lost some of the subtleties.
New Labour gets a rough deal in the programme. Everything is blamed on New Labour, but the 18 years preceding it when manufacturing industry was decimated and all these people lost their job, is hardly ever mentioned at all.
There is the majority of the film which is more observational and it's these ageing guys there who can't seem to get the crowds in partly because the younger generation doesn't want to come.
There is an 84-year-old chairman.
But what happens is then there is a rush at the end of the film where we have deeply, heavily racist BNP stuff which comes firing in at the end of the programme.
That was a mystery to me because they did keep the gloves on at the whole time with the "I'm not racist" then they decided to show the racism but he wasn't a member of the club but his father was a member of the club.
I thought it was fudged. Maybe the fact he was American didn't work in its favour and this plinky plunky emotive sensitive music.
My big worry with it was, the last half hour I thought it's good for people to be able to express their views but when you're not challenged in any way, what you're doing is giving a free hit to people about things which may not be actually true.
I thought the whole was running from the premise as if there was this working class of people who went dog racing versus people who smacked their children if they say toilet and go to the theatre. It wasn't that.
The problem is it was an underclass, a completely different problem. It wasn't to do with the working class.
Let's leave that one there. Moving on, White Girl by Abby Morgan about a family who are in danger of being written off and writing themselves off as white trash. Starring Anna Maxwell Martin as the battered and illiterate Debbie and newcomer Holly Kenny as her 11-year old daughter Leah.
The story unfolds as Debbie trying to escape her drug abusing husband moves her children to an entirely Muslim area of Bradford where Lea finds comfort in Islam.
Rachel, this is a story - this is about a window onto a world. What did you think of it?
I have to say that clip was to me about the best and most psychologically accurate bit of the whole film because I found the rest of it a cliche from the moment we had the Coronation Street opening with the cat and a whole lot of Muslims looking over the wall to the pit bull terrier, the fags, the abused mother.
The whole thing just rolled ahead like a series of cliches which taught me absolutely nothing. The little actress just on the whole stares at you with her pinched miserable face. The lighting is bleached and drained. I learnt nothing from it. It was pointless.
Well, I completely disagree. I thought it was absolutely wonderful and an award-winning film. That was probably the most on-the-nose scene where people were saying what they think. In general it was incredibly subtle.
I thought Holly Kenny is her name - the little girl has more screen technique than I have certainly managed in 30 years of acting. I thought she was brilliant. I couldn't take my eyes off her. Aside from the acting it was for me very acute and quite moving.
I'm with Rachel on this, to be honest. I think what was quite interesting about it, this was based on a Channel 4 documentary from five years ago so that is real family it was inspired by. I felt quite uneasy about…
That adds a lot.
It does, but didn't even credit that in the thing so I found that slightly uneasy. What is interesting is there is a parallel with this and Last Orders where the Muslims aren't the problem. In one sense the working class are depicted awfully in this drama.
In a way so - this season, presumably is not about some kind of eulogy. No, it's not. So this is about an experience, isn't it?
It is. But what's interesting is the idea this girl has become interested in Islam. It seems to me the reason she has become interested in Islam is because her mother is an alcoholic and her father is violent.
She's looking for something. I am saying she could have found that in pop music...
But she happened to find it in Islam because she was in Bradford. I mean, I don't think the drama is saying that Islam, per se. It's about a comfort and a shelter and just...
One thing it's actually quite a benign portrayal of Islam but it's not as politically potent as a way - it just happens to be Islam she fell on.
They happen to live beside the mosque. As she says in that scene, she just wants a place she can think and be quiet, and there is no place where she can think in that house. I thought it made good psychological sense.
The hijab was her magic blanket.
But what did that film show us? That was new?
Well, what it - it was an exploration of how education can help, I suppose for a start, and then the overwhelmingly the Muslim school - it may have been idealised, but she certainly found some hope and a teacher found hope in her.
One thing I found irritating is the director, Hetty McDonald also directed Bangla Town - it's not all Asian taking the jobs. It's the whites taking Asian stories and whites as well. The portrayal of the Asian community was all ethnic via Laura Ashley. There was no energy there.
That's true. There was no exploration of the - it was about the white people.
Ethnic community by Laura Ashley aside, what about the whole idea - it's been quite provocative and there's been quite a lot written about the idea the BBC is having a White Season. What did you think about that?
I found Last Orders a provocative film and trouble making. I think they kept on suggesting there was going to be an undercurrent of violence interviewing people under a swastika on a union flag.
I think most of the other programmes are documentaries and I am looking forward to the documentaries. There is one about Polish immigration, which will hopefully be - I haven't seen or read that much about that. I think most of the other ones are more interesting than Last Orders which is a damp squib.
I've seen all the other ones and they are all really good, but every documentary claims the whites being besieged. The immigrants are taking over.
It would have been nice to have a documentary about working class people working with blacks and Asians against things which has also happened.
Well, BBC Two's White Season begins next Friday with Last Orders at 9.00, and White Girl is on Monday 10th And Newsnight has a special programme about the white season next Thursday.