Saturday, 5 October 2013

Bloody Kids (1979)




Bloody Kids, directed by Stephen Frears from a screenplay by Stephen Poliakoff, can all too easily be placed in the camp of 'state of the nation' pieces. The kind of thing that Alan Clarke or Ken Loach and Tony Garnett would produce, taking the nominally slight storyline of two bored children staging an elaborate practical joke for thrill seeking purposes and using it as a statement on society as a whole, in this case the winter of discontent ear of late Callaghan/early Thatcher.

But there's something more at work here. Poliakoff, even at this early stage in his career, produces a nihilistic narrative that owes more to a New Wave European sensibility than it does to the kitchen sink. It's a heavily stylised piece of near hallucinatory tableau, with Frears making much of the night time setting, an Essex bathed in a neon glow and scenes shot in perpetually stark, brightly lit institutionalised corridors. 



It's certainly true that the film is infused by a downbeat post punk ennui. A mood pervades the piece which suggests that the characters have not just the punk mantra 'No Future' to look forward to, they also have 'No Present'. Like the Buzzcocks song of the same name, 'Boredom' is key to the characters in Bloody Kids.  Everyone is bored, from the gang of new wavers and punks led by Auf Wiedersehen Pet's Gary Holton and Only Fools and Horses' Gwyneth Strong, aimlessly prowling the twilight shopping centres, smashing shop windows and nicking cars, to the listless dancers in Mel Smith's soulless disco, and to the hard nosed Detective Ritchie (Derrick O'Connor) too busy being too bored to summon up a kind word or moment of affection with his patiently waiting wife (Geraldine James)

Then of course there are our two 'leads', the 'Bloody Kids' themselves; the 11 year old boys, Mike and Leo. They are so bored they hatch a plan to stage a knife fight between one another outside a football ground. And when Leo is accidentally stabbed for real in the scuffle it sets off a chain of events that only further their thrill, rather than frighten them into explaining it was all a joke ('One Joke Too Many' was to have been the film's original title) It certainly doesn't frighten Leo, seduced by the attention from Ritchie, his fellow officers and the hospital staff he spins a web of lies that serve to bump Mike up to the kind of kid that one imagines Clyde Darrow may have been at that age - allegedly daydreaming of notoriety, multiple killings and a life on the run. "Mike's a bit weird you see, sometimes he talks about killing people... I've seen weird things he's drawn" he tells the assembled attentive adults. A curious game of follow my lead plays out as the unblinking child leads Ritchie a merry dance.

In reality Mike's adrift exploring Essex at night, having been picked up by Gary Holton. In an interesting contrast to Leo's antics it is he who has no option other than to follow this older man's lead. Mike's suddenly an Oliver to this new wave Artful Dodger, and he's worried sick wondering why Leo hasn't told them it was a prank. A prank he wasn't even sure about from the off; "Won't they be angry?" he asks Leo, trying to picture the reaction of the authorities "They haven't got the time," Leo replies. Then, somewhat chillingly, he adds "We're too young, you see. We can do anything."



The film comes alive with Holton, the former punk singer showing the natural flair he had in front of the cameras, a flair he would later go on to display brilliantly, but all too tragically briefly, in ITV's Auf Wiedersehen Pet. He's utterly magnetic, walking the fine line between mercurial and menacing as he takes Mike under his wing, car jacking and flitting from Chinese restaurants, pointing out the newly installed Orwellian CCTV cameras perched high on the town's buildings and street corners, watching their every move and waiting to take people to task . It's a gobby, vibrant performance but capable of great depth too thanks to some splendid thoughtful silent exchanges between him and Strong.



Likewise Derrick O'Connor walks the equally fine line between presenting a realistic copper and playing to the perceived tropes of the TV policeman at the time. The type of Sweeney-esque copper Leo expects. Leo's literally a child of the 70s after all, and Leo knows policemen through what he's seen on the TV; "You walk like them I suppose" he says appraising the detective, "Oh, so now you know where they get it from eh?" Ritchie replies. 

Despite O'Connor's capability in the role, I cannot help but wonder what might have been where it not for the tragic premature death of Porridge and Rising Damp star Richard Beckinsale at just 31. It was he who was originally cast, against type, as the angry young copper but his death from a massive heart attack midway through filming led to recasting and several scenes having to be reshot. Some footage remains of Beckinsale as Ritchie and has subsequently appeared on TV in the tribute documentary 'The Unforgettable Richard Beckinsale'. It looks electric and one cannot help but wonder what path this still young and talented actor's career would have taken in the 1980s and beyond.



However praising Holton and O'Connor should not detract from the perfomances of Peter Clark and Richard Thomas in the challenging roles of Mike and Leo. Clark's Mike is all stoney faced impassivity, despite his innermost concern or fear; the type of boy one could easily imagine parroting 'no comment' in police interview rooms just a few years later, finding himself there for a similar impressionability he displays here. Whilst Thomas is a chilling revelation as Leo; a cold and menacing Devil child, totally bored with and utterly disdainful of a world with rules he is expected to cowtow to. There's something about the pair of them, something which means the film never falls into the trap of being a poorly acted and uninvolving child drama (like a marginally bigger budget Public Information Film for example) It's not just their capable acting or the psychologically richly written roles. No. I'll actually leave it to another reviewer, Ali Catterall to explain; 'More uncomfortably, in Leo and Mike we might also see future echoes of two other emotionally damaged boys who, like our juvenile screen pair, were also once picked up on a CCTV camera, leading a trusting toddler through a shopping centre'

The film is well directed by Frears, naturally and if you're familiar with Poliakoff and better, if you like his work, you'll be able to find your feet in the detached, stylistic entropy he presents here. The only thing in the film that does irk me is the score. Provided by George Fenton (famous for TV themes like Shoestring, Bergerac and would go on to score many films, including Ken Loach's later work) there's nothing necessarily wrong with it, it's just that it is wrong for the film and very intrusive. A western inspired track, it is totally at odds with, and highly inappropriate for, the action presented on screen. Bizarrely, it won a BAFTA! It's a great shame neither Frears, Poliakoff or the money men at British Lion were savvy or financially flush enough to ask The Clash or Joy Division to score the film. Now that really would have been something, and a way to elevate this engrossing curio into a minor masterpiece.

2 comments:

  1. I used to have this on VHS. I wonder if it will ever become available on DVD. I was drawn to it because of Gary Holton. I'd love to have seen Richard Beckinsale in it. Such a shame

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    1. Good news - it is available on DVD thanks to Network. I picked it up quite cheaply (under a fiver) on ebay :D

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