thu 01/10/2020

Opinion: Why can't the British make urban movies? | reviews, news & interviews

Opinion: Why can't the British make urban movies?

Opinion: Why can't the British make urban movies?

A movie trend more resilient than Rasputin rises again, twice in a week

A spectre is haunting Britain - the spectre of a film called Big Fat Gypsy Gangster. Poised for release in just over a week’s time, this Ricky Grover vanity project is described generously as “Monty Python meets Snatch”, chronicling the life and times of Bulla, apparently “Britain’s hardest man”, as he roams over London with a shotgun, blowing the heads off his gangland opponents. It’s a crime comedy-drama for the ages, boasting performances from Peter Capaldi, Steven Berkoff and, less illustriously, comedian Omid Djalili, Tulisa from The X Factor, Big Mo from EastEnders as “Aunt Queenie” and a cameo appearance from fraudulent "psychic medium” Derek Acorah.

The very same week the comparably silly Turnout is released; a crime flick about a cash-strapped couple who decide to fund a romantic holiday together by peddling an ounce of cocaine, incurring the wrath of street hoodlums as they go. Its most notable supporting player is musician Plan B, presumably searching for street cred amidst the familiar blarney of knife play in inner-city tower blocks, and its strapline proudly declaims the film is one “every man should see”, as if manufacturing methamphetamines to bankroll a jolly to Faliraki should be any red-blooded male’s aspirational goal.   

Both films are part and parcel of the now-ubiquitous Brit-flick-ghetto, one that ostensibly houses films that are "urban" and “gritty”, but in reality are as street as the Smurfs, invariably cobbled together by directors that make Dick Whittington look like The Wire’s David Simon, and clutter multiplex and bargain bin alike with reckless impunity. It's a genre that casts London’s Soho as a fetid mass of human beings with more erotic perversions on their mind than David Carradine at a belt sale; and dictates its myriad cheeky-chappy protagonists are less likely to learn the error of their ways than be tarred, feathered, called a "cunt" 60 times, and be dumped in a canal with the decapitated corpse of Victoria Silvstedt. Since 1998, it’s a trend that's proven more resilient than Rasputin's cadaver, exalting football hooliganism in the process as if it were a subject of breathless anthropological import. The films it produces are offensive, egregious, misleading, over-exposed and, so it would seem, totally unstoppable.

Watch the trailer to Turnout

Big Fat Gypsy Gangster and Turnout are just two of several mythical experiences available from your local branch of HMV should you be inclined to bum-rush the part of the crime section earmarked “British”, and gorge on the collective filmic oeuvres of Danny Dyer, Tamer Hussain, Craig Fairbrass and a mass of lazily stereotyped hooded youths beyond the wildest peyote hallucinations of Melanie Phillips. To wit: Outlaw, Shank, Rise of the Footsoldier, The Kid, Cass, Awaydays, Bonded by Blood, Essex Boys, London Boulevard, Harry Brown, Zebra Crossing, City Rats, Straightheads, The All Together, The Crew, Jack Said… It’s a depressing litany of titles, as interchangeable as they are lousy.

This sordid panoply has now reached such a point of mania it transcends even the witless Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Back then, in the halcyon days of the late 1990s, Vinnie Jones was simply known as an idiot footballer with a forthright personality. But Guy Ritchie and Matthew Vaughn assembled all the constituent elements (lairy Loaded readers live out masturbatory fantasies in a brazen flurry of tits, guns, diamond geezahs and mountains of cocaine that would make Peter Stringfellow’s heart explode) then let their dim beast loose about the land like Colin Clive cattle-prodding Frankenstein’s Monster out of its lair. Now it stomps flat-footedly on our filmic heritage with all the decadent fancy of Marie Antoinette if she’d formed her own production company called Urban Funk Ghetto and had a Rolodex of has-been British 'hard men’ at her ready disposal.

Dyer is the totemic presence in all of these films. The man is a pathology, toxic as an envelope stuffed with ricin, a chubby-cheeked menace inseparable from the genre. If you were to drag your sorry carcass from one cinematic endeavour to the other (as I did, in preparation for this article) chances are the images of Dyer blowing a wet raspberry in your visage, Dyer drunkenly roving towards you grasping a Stanley knife or Dyer otherwise gawking at the upskirt thong of some dozy “bird” like he were Scrappy Doo on Ritalin, are tattooed onto your brain and you’ve begun the slow, inexorable descent into Dyer-provoked babbling senility. 

What began as a rinse-repeat formula involving Dyer as a brainless goon who affects a breezy East End persona amidst a cacophony of violence (The Football Factory, The Business), quickly developed into an unstoppable, skin-searing acid shower. In Pimp Dyer played a porn baron called Stanley who observes via security footage a woman being sexually violated by a man in a gorilla mask. He behaves like Monty Don upbraiding a fellow gardener for accidentally knocking over a pot plant. In Malice in Wonderland, Dyer played a latter-day version of Lewis Carroll’s white rabbit (no, seriously) who sports a comedy hat whilst guiding Maggie Grace through a magical mystery tour of Britain’s pornographic hot spots.

In one film, Just for the Record, an effort so embarrassingly amateurish I’m surprised the makers had the bravery to even show it to their own parents, Dyer stars as a lascivious film producer called Derek La Farge and demonstrates the sort of comedic and improvisatory skills you’d expect from Vanessa Feltz were she to hypothetically get trapped in a public toilet. Refreshingly the film’s tagline reads, “They made the worst film of all time… Let the trial begin!” One hastens to add it’s not – more’s the pity - a latter-day recasting of Nuremberg.

Occasionally the deck is shuffled and a supernatural element is thrown in, pitting the East End against a legion of zombies or – the hilarity – cockney vampires. But Dyer has a monopoly on those titles too. Sometimes Sean Pertwee will join him and they’ll fend off the forces of evil together. As one of Ritchie’s disciples, director Nick Love once pointed out to an interviewer, “I think in the past I've been guilty of making films that are unimportant.” No kidding. 

All of this was parodied in Adam Deacon’s Anuvahood, but it’s less a film than a sensory assault. Aside from the abject horror of hearing Birds of a Feather star Linda Robson outline details of her sexual history, the net result is something baffling and, in parts, vaguely comedic - though some would argue the pseudo-intellectual ponderings of Revolver had much the same effect in 2005.

It’s not even the films’ brazen inauthenticity that is their largest problem. Even the so-called “British New Wave” films of the late 1950s/early 1960s such as Saturday Night, Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner were a bohemian sop to the lower classes made by privileged men cannibalising pre-existing literary sources. But their themes ran deep and were filmed with obvious conviction.

One wonders what the commissioning process on these films is exactly. Blackmail? Extortion?

There is a way to tackle themes of urban criminality, threatened masculinity and disaffected youth correctly: witness the Hughes Brothers, Melvin van Peebles, Larry Clark, City of God and Mean Streets. For British films produced in the last decade, few have aspired to similar designs: I count only Shifty, Bullet Boy and Attack the Block. Directors of all three have abandoned the genre and moved onto pastures new. Only Shane Meadows (This is England) soldiers on, though in running concentric circles around Thatcher-era Britain, his films feel more like historical artefacts. Noel Clarke, meanwhile, who provoked a second-wave of these films with Kidulthood, services his own ego as much as his apparent commitments to sociological exactitude.    

But there’s life in the old dog yet, as the existence of Turnout and Big Fat Gypsy Gangster bear out. One wonders what the commissioning process on these films is exactly. Blackmail? Extortion? If the representations of criminality in the films themselves are anything to go by the writers behind them couldn’t fleece a blind man in a Karrimor factory. The truer answer is probably stupidity – if not in IQ, then in calculated cynicism. Anyone could aimlessly doodle the most ridiculous premise that tumbled into their head, pitch it to the right people, drop some platitudes about social media, and be duly rewarded with a fat bag of money to fritter on some pointless waste of celluloid. For example: 

Pop-star-turned-actor Dane Bowers stars as James “The Big Dog” Coulfax who finds out his mother (Oxo Mum Lynda Bellingham) is actually a crack cocaine dealer named “Babooshka” out to gun him down. Bowers has 24 hours to board “the gravy train” before he’s assassinated by a jive-talking street pusher named Sub-Mentalz (Big Fat Gypsy Gangster star Ricky Grover). One of the most iconic actors of his generation, Danny Dyer, stars as the mellifluous Joshua “Douchebag” Makepeace – a one-eyed war-torn refugee from Cuba enlisted by Bowers to help take down his drug-running matriarch. Unfortunately Dyer begins a volatile sexual relationship with Bellingham as things begin to spiral out of control…

And so on. You get the idea. Frank Capra once famously said, “Film is a disease. When it infects your bloodstream, it takes over as the number one hormone; it bosses the enzymes; directs the pineal gland; plays Iago to your psyche. As with heroin, the antidote to film is more film.” True at the time maybe, but the man never lived to see Pimp.

Watch the trailer to Big Fat Gypsy Gangster

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Spot on, well informed and hugely entertaining - thanks. When will the Gervais juggernaut finally crash? At least they stuck the stupendously pretentious and silly In Bruges in...well, Bruges, and probably thought they were being subversive going against the grain of its prettiness.

A fantastic article, strong and witty, and some really good points made. I only hope that the release of Martin Kemp's directing debut, 'Stalker' can help to drag our poor country's film industry out of the gutter of egotistical and self indulgent 'vehicles' for 'British Talent'. But I'm not gonna lie to you - I can't wait for Strippers Versus Werewolves XD

Enjoyable article - I've long despaired at the drivel of British Gangster films full of the same old casts, uttering the same ol' 'frets. Could you possibly write a similar article on costume / period dramas as well please? If I see another country mansion / servant / debutant flick I might turn into Danny Dyer and go looking for some payback...

@David N: What's Gervais got to do with any of this?

My apologies: I skim-misread 'Ricky Grover' for 'Ricky Gervais'. Which I hope I would not have done going into official print rather than shooting off a comment. Funny how he's linked in my head with Bad British Movies, though it seems he's just as capable of being in Bad American Ones too.

Grover's Bulla character was always a joke at the celebrity gangster culture and one of the finest comic characters of recent years. And whoever says that a film needs to be important needs to switch off their affected mode once in a while, stop stroking their chin and just enjoy something for what it is.

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