The shadow of Alan Clarke's seminal films The Firm and Made In Britain loom large over England Expects, a hard hitting 2004 BBC drama about racism from the pen of Frank Deasy. It's a shadow that is perhaps unsurprising when you consider that producer Ruth Caleb had won the award for Creative Contribution to TV given in Clarke's name just three years prior to this film's broadcast.
Like Clarke's best work, England Expects takes the temperature of the nation at the time. The early 00s were a hotbed of racial tension with riots in Bradford and Oldham and a growing post 9/11 suspicion, hatred and demonisation of Islam which extremist political parties like Nick Griffin's BNP milked for all its worth as a propaganda tool. This previously considered lunatic fringe organisation of violent hooligans, neo Nazis and racist thugs began to hoover up votes in the deprived and disadvantaged working class areas of the UK, wrestling their traditional political sympathies from the incumbent Labour party - a government such frightened and angry residents no longer believed represented their interests - and bringing them perilously close to the mainstream.
Steven Mackintosh delivers a strong and compelling performance as Ray Knight, a security guard at the trading floor of London's Canary Wharf, whose life begins to spiral out of control following a series of family problems, ultimately drawing him back to his violent, far right past.
The first cracks in his rigid controlled existence starts to appear when his ex wife and daughter (Camille Coduri and Sadie Thompson) are refused a flat on a new estate. Angry that they have to remain in their ill equipped slum housing, Ray begins to notice that much of the flats on the new estate seem to be going to Asian families - though in his far right paranoia he naturally chooses to ignore that these families lived in the same slum flats as his former wife and teenage daughter do, or that they're specifically being rehoused in flats and houses with five-six bedrooms, abodes which are just too big for his own estranged families circumstances. His sense of frustration gains a sympathetic ear from an old friend and arch manipulator played by Keith Barron who is effectively the head of a BNP like party hoping to put a candidate forward for the local council elections and promises to do all he can to highlight what they perceive to be the unfair practices of the housing association via the local media and their own political campaign.
Ray's world further disintegrates when he discovers that his beloved daughter Nikki is involved with the wrong, predominantly Asian, crowd and is using heroin. Lastly, he develops a sexual obsession with Alison (Susan Vidler) one of the traders at work who's colleague and boyfriend just happens to be Jewish.
All these things bubble up and boil over, putting Ray back on the path of violence with disastrous consequences.
Unfortunately I think the film overeggs the pudding a little and ultimately gets a little too melodramatic in places, especially in its final stages. I'm also not convinced at all that it needed the subplot with Susan Vidler, as I don't feel it adds anything to the story and just muddies the intentions elsewhere. It is at its best when exploring the Machiavellian like nature of these far right organisations and how, those members in the public eye ensure they keep their hands clean by using the younger generation to do their dirty work by spoonfeeding them just the right amount of vitriol and sense of unfairness. In many ways it's a practice not too dissimilar to the hate clerics who convince young people to become suicide bombers that so often fuel their argument for 'keeping Britain white'. England Expects shows us how these racists have become more intelligent and more media savvy through the years, using and manipulating racial tension to highlight their cause. Barron's character discusses the days when he would campaign door to door flanked by football hooligans to be met with spit and flying bottles and bricks, but now he's the respectable face of a 'mainstream' political party. At the time of broadcast the BNP was 'evolving' in exactly the same way and the fear was they would gain a foothold in our democracy. Thankfully that proved not to be the case, but have they really gone away or have they just got more media savvy and morphed into the equally threatening UKIP?
Equally the film benefits greatly from a great central performance from Mackintosh who, in donning a deeply unfashionable 'tache, puts us in mind for better or worse of Gary Oldman's Bex from The Firm. It's a performance of lethal, barely suppressed anger as Ray edges towards breaking point and a complete breakdown. The scary or accurate thing is Deasy presents a man who is, despite his abhorrent views, surprisingly easy to relate to - he just wants the best for his daughter and wants her kept from harm. It's how he ultimately goes about this though that is totally inexcusable and the irony being that, in trying to keep and protect all he holds dear, he is actually moving further and further away from it and allowing it to slip through his fingers.
The film is available to watch on YouTube though be advised to ignore the comments below it as its full of the usual 'blah blah blah typical left wing woolly liberal propaganda blah blah blah....'