Photo by Mareks Steins, Pexels
In a previous blog (Docs & Drugs & Rock & Roll) I bemoaned the lack of genuinely Bristolian films, as in films that were actually ABOUT Bristol, and not just shitty rom-coms like Starter For Ten, The Truth About Love or the slightly grubbier Eight Minutes Idle, which all use the most “photogenic” parts of the city (i.e. Clifton) as a backdrop without even acknowledging where they are. I said I wanted a film of Ed Trewavas’ sordid and disturbing novel Shawnie, which is set in Knowle West, with all the drugs and prostitution and casual violence you’d expect, but really I wanted something like In The Dark Half , which I just watched again and now really like, in spite of the sub-Sixth Sense “twist” at the end.
Where Shawnie panders to the horrified middle-class stereotype of white working-class people best exemplified – or worst exemplified – by Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard, In The Dark Half offers an alternative view of life on a South Bristol housing estate, a chavvy take on magical realism. Rabbits loom large, and the film might have been called The Curse of the Were Rabbit, had that title not been taken.
First time director Alastair Siddons made the film on a budget of £300,000 as part of the iFeatures scheme set up by South West Screen, with the help of the BFI, BBC and Bristol City Council, to nurture low/micro-budget filmmakers and forge “a stronger, more confident on-screen identity for the English regions,” as they put it on their website, focusing initially on Bristol.
I should declare a personal interest here, because my film-maker friend Andy Lambert and I also submitted a proposal to iFeatures for a Bristolian take on Taxi Driver, in which a madman, fresh out of Barrow Gurney mental hospital, leads a motley assortment of impressionable cider punks and squatters on a violent crusade against the city council, or at least against one of their councillors, who they subject to a palpably undeserved revenge at a party in St Paul’s. Little wonder the city council decided not to pursue it. Happily, our rejection meant that In The Dark Half got the green light and I don’t think our film would have been any better.
ITDH is set in a psychological edge land (coo-ee, Matt Gilbert!) half way between the run-to-seed council housing of Hartcliffe and the rural mystery of nearby Dundry. The ghosts of Ken Loach and Shane Meadows (minus the jokes) are never far away. Indeed, the film which In The Dark Half most reminds me of is Dead Man’s Shoes, Shane Meadows’ least funny and most unsettling film. There are other ghosts too, and it’s the mix of natural and supernatural that make the film work. Think Ingmar Bergman in his monochrome 1960s God-is-dead phase, slumming it somewhere on the unloved and neglected outskirts of Bristol. Doesn’t that get you excited?
Siddons makes repeated use – one might almost call it a motif – of the same night-time shot, gazing down over Bristol, as if these people’s lives, with their pagan practices, were not quite of the city. And how true that is, for these are people living, literally and metaphorically, on the edge, marginalised by the media, by popular culture and by politicians. There is no room for the picture postcard view of Bristol, no twinkling shots of the Suspension Bridge, but nor is there recourse to the chavvy stereotypes of Shawnie. This is folk horror without the folk devils (shout out to Stanley Cohen!).
Shawnie, by contrast, is Bristol’s Trainspotting, written not by a former heroin addict but – how very Bristolian – a social worker. There seems little chance of it ever making it to the big screen, although Danny Boyle could have a stab, if he can penetrate the regional argot. Shawnie is, like Vicky Pollard, overweight, her dad is in prison, and her alcoholic mother, Lisa, works as a prostitute. Candide-like, Shawnie greets each humiliation with a half-indifferent, half-innocent shrug. “I knows it’s naughty and that,” she says, “but sometimes I dooz stuff with our Jase.” From cuddles with her brother, Shawnie “progresses” to hand-jobs, blow-jobs (“E calls it a blow-job but I don’t know why cos you don’t blow, you sucks and uses your tongue an’ that…”) and sexual favours for Jason’s friends.
Shawnie almost threatens to end “happily”, when brother and sister are taken into care, and embark on a new life with their foster carers in Redland, where, according to Shawnie, “Sophie works doing circus costumes and stuff. She’ve always got stilt people and circus people and that coming round. I ain’t got a clue what to say to em so I just goes to me room.” Shawnie comes to love her new life, but Jason has no intention of changing: “Shawnie says she ain’t doing that stuff no more but when I shows er what she can be earning, she’ll do what I says, whatever. I just gotta put up with Sophie ‘understanding my anger’.”
Shawnie is consistently depressing in a way that In The Dark Half, with its transformative mysticism, isn’t. Defending his book, Ed Trewavas told The Guardian that he had written the novel in order to make sense of the “casual, stomach-churning degeneracy” he witnessed on a daily basis. He used a pseudonym because he didn’t want the families concerned to know that he was writing about them. But I can now reveal that Ed Trewevas is in fact Liam Fox, Conservative MP for North Somerset, so off you go, Knowle West residents, with your Rottweilers and Stanley knives, and sort him out, the way me and Andy’s madman sorted out the councillor in our unmade iFeature.
I blame Little Britain, and those public school twats David Walliams and Matt Lucas, looking down their noses at the shell suited single mums they took pains to avoid in Broadmead when they were drama students at uni. For once, I’m with Julie Burchill, who described the term chav as a form of “social racism”. Although it was somewhat ironic that she said it in The Times, a proponent of such “social racism” if ever there was one. Her article, Yeah but, no but, why I’m proud to be a chav, could just as easily have been called Yeah but, no but, why I’m relieved to have something I actually know about to write about for once. What would Burchill make of In The Dark Half? Probably not her cup of champagne. She’d dismiss the paganism as a romantic, middle-class fiction. I’m not so sure. I think there be dragons. Or at least rabbits.