Thursday, 29 March 2018

Playing Away (1987)

Horace Ové's 1987 comic film Playing Away tells a culture clash tale of inner city, urban contemporary black Britain with rural picture postcard village olde (and exclusively white) England through the game of cricket.

The fictional Suffolk village of Sneddington is our location, where the charity minded, ultra conservative residents have been staging a Third World Aid week. To round the event off, the village team have invited the Brixton Conquistadores to a 'friendly' game of cricket which quickly proves to be anything but friendly.

Screenwriter Caryl Phillips claimed that his aim with the film was purely to entertain rather than address any deeply ingrained social issues, however I think he's being too modest. There's a really sound commentary going on here that shows the divisions not just between the Sneddington hosts and the visiting black community of Brixton, but also the divisions that occur in each group: it's clear that there's a line drawn between the middle aged Conquistadores such as team captain Willie Boy (Norman Beaton) and his deputy Robbo (Joseph Marcel) who arrived in the UK some twenty odd years earlier and their younger counterparts like Gary Beadle's pugnacious Londoner Errol. Willie Boy and Robbo are now at an age where they've realised their hopes and ambitions for a modern life in 'the mother country' have come to nothing. They're now considering making the move back to the West Indies, whereas Errol, who is undoubtedly a product of Brixton, represent the contrast and conflict between generations defining himself as he does as Black British. Likewise, there's a class division to be found in Sneddington, as best exemplified by the fact that the village has two pubs; one for the well-to-do captain Jeff (Nicholas Farrell) and one for the imposing ruddy faced real ale drinking farmer Fredrick (Bruce Purchase) and the local mullet-headed, disenfranchised youth who have seemingly just heard about punk some ten years too late, as represented by a pre-fame Neil Morrissey and Ross Kemp.

What's interesting to watch is just how quickly the friendly veneer falls away, largely through a fug of alcohol as resentments and racial prejudices come to the surface. The local yokel boys, incensed by the sight of Errol getting friendly with a busty young blonde they've clearly long since set their own sights upon, pick up Willie Boy's daughter Yvette (Suzette Llewellyn) in their Starsky & Hutch white-striped cherry red Ford Cortina and drive her to a secluded spot with the vague intention of raping her. It's a jarring moment for a film whose main aim is - as Phillips stressed -  to amuse and entertain, but it feels palpably real. Mercifully nothing comes of it, but it says a lot about the impotent frustrations of  such young men and the bitterness they feel towards outsiders. Meanwhile Willie Boy himself strays drunkenly into the 'better class of' pub and is soon given short shrift. Only the somewhat aloof and dreamy Godfrey (Robert Urquhart) proves to be an ally to Willie Boy and the visiting team, thanks to his time spent in, and lifelong appreciation for, Africa and the West Indies.

My favourite scene has to be the moment in the vicar's garden party where Errol, having watched a rather humble looking villager waiting on and handing out sandwiches, goes up to him and rather glibly asks "Can't you see they're oppressing you?", "What's oppression?" comes his suitably bemused reply.

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