Thursday, 16 June 2016

Stars Of The Roller State Disco (1984)

"I'm Jim. Let's look at bricks, shall we? Can we think of a brick as summink socially useful? 'Course there are types who like to throw bricks...we know what they're called don't we? Others talk about bricks in well-know phrases, such as 'Cor blimey, he's a brick"

This quirky, quasi-futuristic satire of Thatcher's Britain is a seldom seen curio of Alan Clarke's that I've been wanting to see for ages. I first heard of it back in '99/'00 when I was working in a dole office. One older guy that worked there would very often regale me with tales of his younger days in the '70s and '80s. These included the time when he worked at a benefit office alongside the then largely unknown Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis, whose day job was a disability advisor (he told me about how he would wear a donkey jacket with the legend HATE painted in thick letters on the PVC patch on the back, which was later so perfectly recreated in the film Control) and his memories of a long-forgotten TV play that he really got a kick out of, called Stars of the Roller State Disco; "It's got all these kids out of work with nowhere to go, just going round and round all day on fookin' skates, waiting for the latest job vacancy to come in. I really thought it might've gone like that at one time" It's no surprise he recalled this fondly - this eccentric polemical piece is the kind of thing I imagine shaped much of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror fiction and outlook on life too. 

Of course, what he failed to tell me at the time, but I discovered later was that this was an Alan Clarke film, and it gave the tubby bespectacled cockney Perry Benson his one and only shot at a romantic leading role. Those omissions aside, he gave a fair account of Stars of The Roller State Disco, which genuinely depicts the mundane and bleak cycle of mass youth unemployment in the Thatcher regime via the visual metaphor of them circling round and round a giant youth club-roller-disco-holding-pen. Out of work, parents unable to support you any further or living on the street? The the Roller State Disco is the place for you; a concrete sealed-off bunker, covered in graffiti, where our forlorn and literally abandoned youth receive endless patronising YTS style instruction videos and little hope from the DHSS clerks stationed there, or the 'Big Mother' figure Voicespeak (Christine Greatrex) whose vaguely Germanic tones boom down from large screens in the wall.

Perry Benson stars as Carly, an apprentice carpenter with a knowledge of and love for Chippendale. He remains utterly certain that his skills of craftsmanship will one day return him to the outside world even though the jobs are clearly few and far between. Arriving one morning is his girlfriend Paulette (Cathy Murphy) who tries to convince Carly to take the next available job and open his eyes up to how institutionalised he has seemingly become (his parents want him back, but he refuses to leave til the dream job he's qualified for appears) but to no avail. Its ending is grim, but remarkably pointed in getting its message across, depicting an acutely desperate, pessimistic act during conflicting messages of optimism. 

Shot entirely on videotape and completely in the studio (a specially designed, cavernous set at BBC Television Centre brings writer Michael Hastings' vision to life and is exactly right in its part bleakly Ballard-like monolith/part early '80s Top of the Pops 'enforced fun' atmosphere) Stars of the Roller State Disco would share some DNA with Clarkey's later film Billy The Kid and The Green Baize Vampire in the way he accurately depicts a very real universe against - or perhaps precisely because of - its stagey limitations. The kinetic visual of circulating disenchanted youths ideally fits his directorial style too. Hastings' script may be a little too right-on and earnest for some, but there are some achingly poignant characters here, played by many Sylvia Young/Anna Scher types such as the aforementioned Benson and Murphy, Kate Hardie as a poor young mum whose baby has been taken away from her leaving her with a rolled up blanket as a substitute whilst at the mercy of the emotion controlling drugs doled out by shady doctor-on-call David Sibley, Gary Hailes as a kid besotted with Voicespeak, talking fondly to her on the monitor, kissing the screen, Gary Beadle who dreams of palm trees, and Nula Conwell and Gillian Taylforth as DHSS and kiosk staff.

Just one of the many treasures on the brand new, long awaited Alan Clarke at the BBC DVD boxset, released this week. To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these plays, please sign the petition I started here

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