Film 4 have this week been having a mini Ken Loach season to celebrate the premiere of his documentary Spirit of '45. Now I've seen quite a lot of Loach's work, but on sitting down to Riff-Raff, I have to admit that I was not actually sure if I'd seen it. If I have I presume it must have been around the time it was released/when I was very young, as it's the kind of film my dad would have probably watched. So, with this uncertainty in mind, I'm going to have to class it as a first watch. I'm very grateful to Film 4 for 'introducing' me to it.
Riff-Raff is essentially Loach's attempt at updating/making Robert Tressell's The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, a landmark and polemic piece of classic literature depicting the building trade of the early 1900s. It is Loach exploration of the same manual work and working class conditions in the death throes of Thatcherism that proves that the novel's resonance and reaction to the unjust society of it's day hadn't gone away some 70+years later and, sadly, it still remain with us now.
Loach's ability to nurture some genuinely realistic and understated performances is just as striking here as it is in any of his films. The breakout ones are of course Robert Carlyle, then largely unknown, and Emer McCourt as the two leads. Ricky Tomlinson (a former builder himself who was sent to prison for strike action for better working conditions in the 1970s) shines in a strong supporting role as the Scouse politically aware builder.
Tomlinson has since become an actor I baulk at whenever he appears in film and TV as he's become something of a stereotype and insulting cliche. Tomlinson of the last 15 years is a short hand for the worst kind of excesses of sentimental Liverpudlian and/or working class male that probably doesn't really exist beyond the media's depiction, but he's absolutely genuine here perhaps because he's largely playing a version of himself. Not for one moment do I cringe at his appearance in this film, as I'd normally do, because I actually know the kind of rough, honest, gentlemanly keen for fair play scousers (or working class blokes in general) that he represents here. Not even the big comic scene he gets here - that one could argue created the mould for him, pictured above - detracts from this, in fact it serves to enhance it. This is no heightened imitation and as such it's rewarding to see. It's also interesting to spot an incredibly young looking Peter Mullan.
Ultimately like much of Loach's work the film treads a familiar path, indeed for anyone who has seen his later film The Navigators (which looked at the conditions of railways workers during the last days of nationalisation and subsequent privatisation) this may feel rather like Déjà vu, especially as both feature an avoidable, unfair tragedy as a key dramatic plot point towards their respective climaxes. But the message is still a clear and sympathetic one, and a thought provoking and entertaining 90 minutes will be had. Certainly it puts one in mind of just how healthy British independent film was in the early 90s with Loach and Mike Leigh at the helm and with Carlyle serving as a kind of buffer here with Danny Boyle just around the corner.
Just one thing, as much as I admire Stewart Copeland (as previous Theme Time blog posts will testify) I'm not sure his score works here. I keep expecting Edward Woodward's Equalizer to wander onto the building site!