Monday, 9 July 2018
United Kingdom (1981)
United Kingdom - a deliciously ironic title if ever there was one - was the last major work for television by the socialist playwright Jim Allen. Epic in scope, this is an expansive, two and a half hour tale influenced by the political events of the day and concerns a Labour run council in the North East of England's refusal to implement the harsh cuts of housing and social spending imposed upon them by Margaret Thatcher's newly elected Conservative government. Their unwillingness to comply leads to their barring from office and a commissioner from London is parachuted in under Home Office instruction to implement the policy. In retaliation, the Labour councillors become a council-in-exile, picketing the council offices, organising selective rent strikes on the derelict housing estate they reside at and hijacking the computer files relating to the commissioner's proposed budget. Determined not to lose face and reassert their authority, the Establishment subsequently employ the usual dirty tricks; surveillance and intimidation from Special Branch, arrests of councillors on the spurious charges of theft and incitement, smears in the media with the inevitable hoary old lie of Moscow funding the protest, and finally - when the residents of the estate barricade themselves in - the brutal deployment of the SPG.
It should come as no surprise to you to learn that United Kingdom was broadcast only once and has never been made commercially available. It's only availability now lies in the form of occasional screenings among politically sympathetic groups or, as in the case of a couple of years ago, at Home in Manchester as part of a season celebrating the work of Allen as a son of the city. However, we should be grateful that United Kingdom was made at all. Delivering a talk to a workshop for Channel 4 about the possibilities of engaging working class audiences in the 1980s, Allen explained that the play was originally commissioned by Michael Grade at LWT (presumably for the 1980 series of plays that ultimately became a Dennis Potter series) to make the play in Manchester but, with just weeks to go before shooting commences, Grade cancelled the film. His reason was that it was too costly but, as Allen points out, £150,000 was already spent on the production and it is his belief that the powers-that-be in Manchester simply didn't want the film to be made there. Undeterred, Allen and his director Roland Joffé returned to the BBC where they had previously made The Spongers in 1977, and relocated the storyline to the North East.
Deeply critical of not only the Tory government but also a Labour party leadership who refuse to come out and pledge support to the exiled council and housing residents in their hour of need (and, as one character points out, it was a Labour government who initially began to implement cuts in social spending and housing anyway), United Kingdom is an epic story about the class struggle which seems to replicate the events such as the Kirkby rent strike (and indeed, the events depicted firsthand in Nick Broomfield's Behind the Rent Strike documentary film - there's even a moment in the film - one of its most blistering and best presented - that depicts two police officers interrogating an eleven year old boy for the names of his friends who have shoplifted that seems to owe a lot to Broomfield's subsequent Juvenile Liaison documentary too), the blacklisting of politically active workers, and the Brixton riots (much commented on throughout the play, most specifically in one scene which sees an honest copper appeal to his Chief Constable, played by Colin Welland, to rethink his plans to roll out the SPG; "It's not a race riot" he says, to which Welland replies "Isn't it? These people aren't the same race as me") as well as prophosising what was to come in its depiction of the harsher measures of policing - often from outside constabularies such as the Met - against the working class and political action, such as the miners' strike. It's not always subtle - the scenes of our heroes drinking and enjoying old fashioned barroom sing-a-longs behind the barricades are interspersed with scenes of Welland and his Masonic authority figures enjoying a grand Elizabethan banquet complete with a costumed host choir serenading them - but its authenticity is key and it boasts some damn fine performances from the likes of the aforementioned Welland, Ricky Tomlinson, Val McLane (Jimmy Nail's sister) Bill Paterson, Peter Kerrigan, Peter Copley and Rosemary Martin. United Kingdom is a play that deserves to stand alongside the likes of Boys from the Blackstuff as a searing indictment on Thatcher's Britain - a position it rightfully earns from anyone fortunate enough to see it.