Saturday, 7 February 2015

Sweet Nothing (1990)

Sweet Nothing is another Screen One film from 1990 that rings a vague bell. It is written by Vincent O'Connell (who would later provide the screenplay for the Clarke style football hooligan/undercover cop drama I.D) and directed by Tony Smith, who is still turning up the goods to this day with the recent Timeless in Sky Arts Playhouse Presents strand. 

It's a drama that tackles the issues of homelessness during the Thatcher government but it does so in a rather unusual, original angle. As the film's leading lady, Charlotte Coleman, said at the time "Usually, homelessness is treated with pity, but this drama has optimism and strength."

Whether that works or not is up to you. Indeed I'm still not sure what to make of Sweet Nothing. At first I thought I thought it was rather naive to depict this community of homeless people living in their own self made shanty town on a patch of overlooked wasteland in London as colourful eccentrics (there's the obligatory dwarf and an appearance from the film's composer, Barbara Thompson, blowing her sax as an impassive silent giant of a Scotsman, the communities self appointed protector, played by Ron Donachie looks on from his vantage point) who all come out of their boxes and shacks at night to watch the sun set, but then I wondered if I was being naive in expecting all homeless people to be suffering so terribly that they have lost the very things that make us individuals and human.

And yet the drama is stylised which rather detracts from the hard hitting message it could so easily have had. Granted the premise of the piece, which sees Lee Ross' teenager return home from school one day to find his parents have abandoned him for a new life in Canada, could immediately seem a little far fetched but I guess stranger things have happened and, given that initially it's seemingly suggested in both Ross' performance and the lack of dialogue he's given (he barely speaks until about twenty minutes in and his first words then are, ironically, cries of ''shut up!'') that he may be on the spectrum of autism or educationally challenged in some way, it actually adds a darker reason behind his parents' flit.

No, it's around the film's half way mark, when O'Connell decides to move away from the central duo of Ross and Coleman and concentrate a little more on the ruthless and strange property developer Janet McTeer who has plans to turn the wasteland into luxury apartments and Alan Stocks' Liverpudlian homeless man Tone, who effectively becomes her slave. It gets really theatrical here, not helped by Stocks' plaintive stagebound performance style, and decidedly odd with him being made to dress up as both a woman and in what appears to be Adam Ant's cast offs for McTeer's benefit whilst being driven around in the boot of her car. This kind of bizarre supervillainy (she even laughs at the end when a tragedy occurs) belongs in Hollywood and isn't really what you expect from a Screen One drama about homelessness. Again, perhaps these moments could have worked on the stage more (Stocks has a double act with Andrew Tiernan's character which sees them finishing one another's sentences in rhyme and say obviously script dialogue style things like "be free and join me as my brother" at moments of drama) because the overall impression it left me is the film had rather gone up its own bottom.

It's a real shame as Charlotte Coleman and Less Ross do rather well with the material when it focuses on them and there's a rather nice argument they have just before it all goes tits up which neatly turns the idea of homeless people being the invisible population of our cities on its head, with Ross claiming Coleman doesn't know about the good people who live ordinary lives in houses, watching TV. When she refutes their existence, claiming there cannot be any good people or else they'd help it really speaks volumes, just as a previous scene does featuring a well to do elderly woman shoving spare change in Ross' hands with the words "Anyone who votes for this government should be ashamed of themselves. I don't know why you aren't burning down my house. I know I would"

In the end corporate greed is seen to win out and the community become even more homeless and disband. The final scene sees a small number of the community including Coleman, Ross, a young infant girl called Moonbeam and two OAPs of the road (Victor Maddern, in one of his final roles, and Joan Heal) heading out of London intent on a new life in the country; an unusual self made family of 'grandparents', 'parents' and 'child' determined to look after one another. Given that Thatcher once said there was ''no such thing as society... only family'' perhaps Sweet Nothing saves its biggest and most ironic punch for the final reel; because when her governed society has resolutely refused to observe your very existence, all these people are shown to have is each other.

Seeing that caption roll up at the end credits (over Barbara Thompson's sax score which she would later use as the theme tune to David Jason's policier A Touch of Frost) really caught me unawares and added an extra resonance given that I'm currently going through something of an Alan Clarke marathon/project.

As with a lot of these gems from the archives, this has not been given a commercial release on either VHS or DVD, though it is available to watch on YouTube. 

To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic Play For Today's please sign the petition I started here


  1. I remember watching the beginning of Sweet Nothing in 1990. Witnessing a young man in the opening minutes abandoned by his parents was very unsettling for my 9 year old eyes. I was young so had to go to bed and never finished the film. It left a mark and I’ve been looking for it ever since and only recently discovered it thanks to your brilliant letterboxd list on homelessness. Now I've watched the whole film and I admit the first 20 minutes are the most powerful. Loses its nightmarish mood when the guy starts shouting ”shut up” to passing cars and meets the homeless community. Good point in your review that his parents might have abandoned him if he was educationally challenged. What a horrid thing to do to a son.
    I subscribed to your site, and maybe you'll check out mine? Can see on your profile you like some of the music I'm blogging about!

    1. Hey Chris, I am so happy that my little efforts managed to unlock a mystery for you which led to you rediscovering this film that meant so much to you! Looks like we're not too different in age as I would have been 10 going on 11 when this was broadcast and can vaguely recall it as my dad would watch all the Screen One, Screen Two's back in the day. It's not a bad film but you're right that it's best stuff is in the first half. Like I say, once it moves away from Ross and Coleman and more about the others in the homeless community it gets a bit naff really. I shall most certainly check your blog out and follow, and have just done the same re your LB profile!