Monday, 30 September 2013

SUS (2010)

Sus was on the TV again last night. I'd seen it before, but it's a film I like so I thought I'd watch it again, staying up til gone 1am for the privilege. I'm glad I did.

Sus is a savage, harrowing and occasionally blackly comic polemic from The Long Good Friday scriptwriter Barrie O'Keefe regarding the controversial Sus laws. 

The play was written in the year it is set, 1979, a lost Play For Today that details, on the night Maggie Thatcher was swept into office, one young black man's wrongful arrest and interrogation regarding the death of his wife by two coppers who would give Jack Regan and Gene Hunt nightmares; a case of psychological bad cop/bad cop.

In 2010 this film version was mounted to chime with O'Keefe's fears for  the country in light of another newly installed Tory government. One would hope that the horrors of Sus -  so strikingly depicted in the film here - are a thing of the past, but the resonances are still here; the law has been repealed but in the post 9/11 landscape, anti-terrorism laws allow suspects to be detained on similar flimsy evidence, and as the closing caption of the film states, a young black male is seven times more likely to be stopped on this law than anyone else. 

The film, like most theatrical adaptations, never loses its stage trappings but the setting is so claustrophobic that it actually benefits the piece.  A tense and engrossing three hander between Clint Dyer, Ralph Brown and Rafe Spall, it is fantastically acted with perhaps Dyer and Brown getting the best parts, with Spall - good as he is - playing the sniggering muscle. Dyer is especially effective and utterly empathic as the hapless wronged man, Delroy; abused, threatened and harassed by the standard policing methods of the two bullying detectives, all because of the colour of his skin - of 'looking suspicious'. As a viewer, one gets a real sense of nightmarish claustrophobia and what it is like to be in his shoes. Meanwhile, Brown - in the flesh, one of the most easygoing and approachable actors I've ever known  - is part Alf Garnett, part sadistic cruel monster as the senior copper Karn; the irony being this is a man whose surname suggests he is equally not from Anglo Saxon stock, and who openly admits to enjoying travelling to abroad with his wife and learning languages like French and Spanish to converse with locals whilst there.  The scene  where he discusses archaic laws and history to the increasingly bemused and terrified Dyer, all captured by carousel camerawork around the interview table, is especially terrifying, involving and brilliantly delivered.

Throughout the film we are reminded of the night the action takes place, the Conservative victory in the 1979 elections. It forms a prop to hang the film on, the attitudes of the ruling government to come allowing Brown and Spall et al a free pass for their institionalised racism, ignorance, intimidation and thuggery. Between the brief voice overs of Thatcher, you can almost hear the SPG rolling up on the horizon. Dark times ahead indeed.


  1. Mark, I can't help feeling that you've misjudged the political background in this review. Stop and search had been in place long before Margaret Thatcher's government came into office (as your review implicitly acknowledges) so I struggle to see how a play written 1979 could possibly be a reaction to events which had yet to take place. In fact, Mrs Thatcher's government abolished stop and search in 1981 and standardised police arrest procedures in 1984. And the anti-terrorism laws you refer to post 9/11 were the product of the Tony Blair/Gordon Brown governments.

    In my opinion both the play and the film are reflections on the criminal justice system as it operates under a Labour government, as may be deduced from the positive reviews from the Mail and Telegraph quoted on the poster.

    1. Sorry mate but I think you're missing the point. I never suggested SUS was unique to Tories - and if that's how the review comes across I can only apologise as that was not my intention at all.

      You fail to see how a play could be a reaction to events yet to take place? Seriously? The very best plays take the temperature of society and are created in the here and now to get the audience to be aware of what state we're in and that if something isn't done soon, it will only get worse. You seem to be forgetting or are oblivious to the fact that this film and the political aspect behind it acts as a portent of what was to come; the years of oppression (under both Labour and Tory rule) culminating to a blistering event; Toxteth, Brixton etc etc. All of which occurred in Maggie's reign and led to Sus being repealed, finally, in 1981 - a direct action of those riots/the countries wake up call. All the same, did it seriously improve the law in this country? When Maggie allowed a police state to occur in relation to the miners strike? Watching the film, or the play or even reading the dialogue you can see that Karn and Wilby the two officers are itching for a Tory govt because they believe they'll have even greater remit in doing what they bloody well like. That's not me, that's O'Keefe's writing.

      I'm well aware of the anti terrorism laws being put in place under the contemptible New Labour govt, but the fact still remains that as of 2010, young black men were more likely to be arrested under that law than anyone else. I can't be criticised for misjudging the situation when the facts are clear, both those stats and O'Keefe's decision to remount the play for the modern audience. I'm afraid if you disagree with his stance on the political aspect of his own work, you;ll have to take it up with him. Don't shoot the messenger, kid.

    2. Martin, I think such a reading would require you to believe that there's any appreciable difference between Labour in the Tories. By 2010, when this adaptation was produced, the two had long since lost any sense of being on opposite sides of the political divide, to the extent that (and I'm afraid I forget who I'm paraphrasing) the only real distinction is that one lot stab you in the back while the others stab you in the front.

      For me, your claim that the play was meant to be about the criminal justice system under Labour is about as fanciful as they come. If that was the case, then they would hardly have made the two loathsome coppers such blatant apologists for Thatcher and everything she stood for, would they?

    3. Eloquent arguments gents but I'm not persuaded that a play written and set in 1979 could in any way be a reaction to events which had not yet happened. You cannot react to something that does not yet exist. O'Keefe may have been a very accurate predictor of what was to come but the fact remains that both the play and the film occurred at the fag end of Labour governments and reflect the situation the protagonists were in at that point in time.

      Michael your point about about the difference between Labour and Tories is a good one and I didn't intend my original message to read as a political one. It simply seems to me that a play set in 1979 cannot but reflect the actuality of the time (if also setting out the playwright's fears for the future).


    4. That's a shame, because as I say it is undeniable that O'Keefe wrote it as a reaction to Thatcher and the right wing elements in the police force at the time. It has nothing to do with the Labour govt - there's a reason it is set on the election night - beyond the fact the laws were in operation under Callaghan's stewardship, as indeed they were under Wilson's and under Heath's. You seriously can't see how reading the Tory manifesto, hearing their soundbites on what they would do if in power etc etc cannot shape a play? I'm very surprised. The real fact remains that the film, by the makers own admission, reflects the situation at the time via Thatcherite eyes. The sadistic glee each copper has of knowing their era is to come. The coppers are right wing fascist bullies and O'Keefe knew that Thatcherism and Toryism was the ideal regime for them. When it comes to politics I'm the first to express my absolute disgust for what the Labour party has become, but I am equally anti Tory and stand by my original review and refute the allegation it's in anyway misjudged, given the statements from O'Keefe and fellow reviewers.

  2. Got to agree with Michael, both about the lack of distinction between left and right now (though I believe left to their own devices the right still have the potential to become far, far worse - as I suspect O'Keefe believes too) and that it is a rather misjudged belief that this was about Labour. Look to Time Out for their review, which treads the same ground and makes the same points as I do;

    With the election looming, ’80s anti-fascist demonstrations back in the news and controversy over stop-and-search still raging, the release of ‘Sus’ is auspicious. Based on Barrie Keefe’s 1979 stage play, this claustrophobic, intense three-hander was inspired by the late ’70s law that gave police officers the right to detain on suspicion anyone they saw fit, usually young black men. Betraying its theatrical origins, the film takes place in a single police interview room on election night, as thuggish Thatcherite cops Karn (Ralph Brown) and Wilby (Rafe Spall) attempt, by any means, to extract a confession from unemployed labourer Delroy (Clint Dyer) following the unexplained death of his wife. It’s morally one-sided and the dialogue and acting tends towards the mannered and overblown – Spall in particular comes off like a ‘Fast Show’ bad-cop parody at times. But overall this is a well structured, emotionally rigorous piece of filmmaking, and a timely reminder of the dangers of unchecked police power.

    Or failing that, straight from the horse's mouth itself in the author's notes on the film's site

    Lastly, the reason the Mail is up there on the poster has less to do with their rightwing stance and more to do with the fact that the film critic is Baz Bamigboye, a black British writer with a natural interest and connection to the film.