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The roots of the riots: found in translation

Forget British TV’s feeble attempts to explain urban disarray - look to Scandinavian drama instead.

David Bowden

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Given the increasing domination on screens both big and small by all things Scandinavian – with the US remake of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Danish political thriller Borgen following in the footsteps of such phenomenal successes as Wallander and The Killing – it feels like a failure to have spent several days there without getting horribly murdered or seeing something nice on the telly.

Since the seemingly placid population of Tromsø – Norway’s most northern city – balances an absence of notable homicidal tendencies with a quite understandable refusal to provide English subtitles for their own TV dramas, neither came to pass. Even their standout visual feast, the Northern Lights, was visible to much of the UK this week.

Still, perhaps they avoided confrontation because they’ve seen what’s on British TV, in which young men aren’t coming off very well at present. Perhaps aware that London’s Burning – a dramatic reconstruction of last summer’s London riots – wasn’t best placed in the middle of the Christmas TV schedule, Channel 4 sensibly repeated it in the middle of January. One wonders whether it would have been better to let them have the extra month to work on content, given the obviously tight filming strictures the project must have been under. This toothless portrayal of Britain’s capital city collapsing under the menace of a handful of angry teenagers and opportunist thieves could have been written after a quick survey of the morning papers.

Following a cast of characters – based on eyewitness reports – in Clapham as they fought for their safety while disorganised police commanders squabbled over how best to manage their officers and the media, this was the cream of British socially aware drama (the cast featured David Morrissey and Samantha Bond) at its most futile. Clunking dialogue, as characters argued over racist policing, consumerist society and government cuts, just avoided cliché, but only at the expense of saying something incisive, original or persuasive.

There is a place for drama attempting rapidly to reflect on real-life events through the critical distance that fiction affords. For instance, the new film version of Barrie Keefe’s 1979 play Sus, which premiered on BBC1, at least offered a grim depiction of the police racism which pre-empted the Brixton and Toxteth riots. But London’s Burning – with its intermingling of reportage and hand-wringing – offered few meaningful insights. If you wanted drama, the astonishing images of London on fire offered it. Truth can be stranger than fiction, but this drama-doc didn’t quite have the gumption to go for either truth or fiction.

A similar failing was at work in Channel 4’s Gypsy Blood, which explored violence and masculinity in Britain’s Traveller community. Aiming for the kind of serious documentary ethos that many complained was lacking from the smash-hit My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, Leo Maguire spent two years filming men and boys as they learned how to fight, either as part of community ritual or simply for the hell of it. Nonetheless, despite being superficially shot in a grittier fashion with shaky hand-held camerawork and an absence of jaunty voiceover, this did not necessarily offer much more insight than its televisual fellow Traveller.

We learned that fighting is brutal and bloody but makes young men feel good (if they win) and that fathers are proud of their children if they grow up to be tough fighters so they encourage them. This is undoubtedly true, and confirms what many people would know from watching Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, but little analysis was offered in this first episode, perhaps for fear of upsetting sensibilities. It wasn’t just the less-successful fighters who were toothless.

In fact, a more penetrating insight into the events of last summer came from my Scandinavian adventures. Ruben Östlund’s feature Play, one of the heralded films of the Tromsø International Film Festival, has generated some fierce debate in its native Sweden for its controversial depiction of black immigrant teenagers targeting and mugging wealthy white kids in and around Gothenburg. Yet, at its heart, it is a film less concerned with race relations than with the breakdown of community solidarity and adult authority: its depiction of the blind panic which descends when one tougher group of kids outnumbers a smaller one is neatly treated as a universal one, bringing to mind Dennis Potter’s chilling TV film Blue Remembered Hills. What is more contemporary is the absence of adults, who are largely disinterested passers-by to the menacing and unnerving (but never schlocky) events going on around them. When they do occasionally intervene they are hamstrung for fear of accusations of racism or inappropriate behaviour, or explode in bursts of retributive violence (pointlessly, as the one thing street kids don’t fear is a beating).

Evading much of the hyperbole seen in the aftermath of the riots here in London, Östlund delicately reminds the viewer that the line between teenagers being friends and being in a gang is their ability to win fights and stick up for each other. It manages what London’s Burning and Gypsy Blood do not: asking probing questions about how adult authority is undermined and how public space becomes lawless without a community to back it up. And it does so without feeling the need to come up with easy answers. Unlike recent urban dramas such as Top Boy, it doesn’t need to paint a horrifying picture of gun-toting gangsters and extreme violence to unsettle. More importantly it keeps matters in perspective: why is a modern, wealthy European society so scared of confronting a group of misbehaving kids to the point they’d rather not even discuss them?

Although perhaps slow and ponderous – and a little quick to fall back on pointing the finger at consumerist society – it was difficult not to walk away from Play feeling as though it had more to say about life and violence in contemporary Croydon, Clapham or Tottenham than anything British TV has offered to date. It won’t be the next Big Scandinavian Thing, but hopefully someone will consider it a worthwhile import.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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