"It's the same the whole world over, It's the poor what gets the blame, It's the rich what gets the pleasure, Isn't it a blooming shame?"
Taking its cue from that chorus from the traditional music hall song 'She Was Poor But She Was Honest' is Richard Woolley's final feature film, 1988's Girl From The South. It tells the story of the rich and sheltered, Mills and Boon obsessed teenage girl Anne Thompson, who travels up to her grandparents in Yorkshire for the holiday with the hope of being the central character in her own real life romance with the kind of a tall dark and handsome stranger from the wrong side of the tracks she's been reading about. Venturing into the town's urban sprawl, she literally bumps into an impoverished old woman and, in aiding her, finds her daydreams come to life in the shape of her grandson Ralph, a mixed race teenage boy.
However, Ralph doesn't totally match up to her expectations. For a start his tastes are more finessed than her own; whilst she enjoys pop culture and the music of Madonna, he prefers art galleries, museums and Elgar. As she begins to spend time with Ralph and his grandmother, Granny White, and their mutual romantic interest blossoms, the naive Anne comes to realise first hand and for the first time that society is by no means fair and equal. She begins to consider that Granny White who lives in a house that she, on first glance, considered 'sweet' and 'quaint', is in near penury with an arthritic hip that incapacitates her and a place on a seemingly ever-increasing NHS waiting list, whilst it becomes clear that the avenues open to her are just not available for Ralph because of both his class and the colour of his skin. He's viewed with increasing mistrust by Anne's grandmother for example who is constantly referring to him, in barely concealed wary tones, as 'that coloured boy'. Her eyes widening to the injustice inherent in the world, Anne hatches a plan to deliver her burgeoning beau and his frail grandmother a happy fairytale ending; her grandparents have everything they could possibly desire and are insured to the hilt, so if Ralph were to burgle them, they wouldn't actually be at a loss, whereas Ralph and Granny White's lives would be instantly improved. She assures Ralph that should anything go wrong, she will take the blame. "They'll never believe you" an unconvinced and more worldly Ralph asserts - and fate reveals that it is his prediction which comes true.
This is my second Richard Woolley film from the BFI boxset An Unflinching Eye. Coming off the back of his 1980 feature Brothers and Sisters, I'm afraid to say this is something of a disappoint. That disappointment is doubled when you consider the origins behind this film. As Woolley relates in an interview that forms the DVD's extra features, he had devised a similar project in 1984 entitled Bread of Heaven, a film which would take a somewhat light-hearted, but politically attuned look at the then ongoing miners strike. The story concerned itself with a Welsh miner (David Jason) and his family, including his skilled trumpet playing teenage son who, following victimisation at the hands of the police, would be billeted in the home of a a 'volunteer family' who supported their cause, which consisted of a well meaning academic woman (Judi Dench) and her husband, and their ballet dancing teenage daughter. From there, a romance would develop between the two teen children that broke down the cultural barriers against the backdrop of their respective parents actions within the strike. Unfortunately, the film came to naught when a new broom (including Salman Rushie) swept through the BFI and froze their funding scheme. Returning to the drawing board, Woolley chipped away at the idea to fit a more modest budget for potential backers until all that remained of the story was the teenage love story between the rich girl and the poor kid.
Away from what might have been (and Bread of Heaven really does sound like it would have been something really special; a precursor to Brassed Off, Billy Elliot and Pride) and on its own terms Girl From The South is perhaps best described as an arty and earnest version of a Children's Film Foundation production. It continues to point in the direction of the more mainstream projects Woolley was aiming for, but is hampered by the understandably stilted deliveries of its juvenile leads Michelle Mulvaney (Anne) and Mark Crowshaw (Ralph). At its heart I guess the main message is to teach the next generation about the unfairness of the class system and the inherent racism at its core (in the film's most shocking moment, a detective gives Anne three bits of advice; "One, don't make up silly stories to help your friends. Two, stick to your own kind, and three, don't get involved with coloureds. T'int worth it") in accessible and entertaining terms, perhaps as an attempt to stave off the influence of Thatcher who presided over the UK at the time, but it occasionally feels a little too wet and soppy for this old cynic to truly appreciate. That said, Woolley's use of music (specifically Elgar's Nimrod) and his ability to frame a shot (the closing image of the crumpled Coca Cola can in the gutter and the torn photobooth polaroid is really effective) continues to impress.