Fragile dreams on a building site

Issue 

Riff Raff
Directed by Ken Loach
Written by Bill Jesse
Starring Robert Carlyle, Emer McCourt, Ricky Tomlinson
At the Kino, Melbourne, from late September
Reviewed by Bronwen Beechey

Ken Loach has been responsible for some widely acclaimed films and TV plays since the mid-1960s — including Cathy come home, Kes and Days of Hope. Like these, Riff Raff takes on serious social and political issues, but adds a touch of comedy.

The film follows the fortunes of Stevie, a young Scot just out of prison who, along with thousands of others, is sleeping on the streets of London as the film begins. He finds work on a building site, converting a former hospital into a block of luxury flats. The site is a melting pot of itinerant labourers from different parts of England and beyond (subtitles help us through the thicket of accents and dialects).

The workers are employed as subcontractors on low wages, the site teems with rats and the equipment is unsafe. However, Stevie finds support and friendship from his fellow workers, particularly Larry, Shem and Mo, three likely lads from Liverpool who know all the tricks of survival on the fringes. He also meets Susan, a young Irishwoman trying to make a name for herself as a singer. The two begin a relationship, but poverty and Susan's inability to get a grip on her life doom it to failure.

Riff Raff has some great sight gags, but much of the humour comes out of the earthy banter with which the workers get through the day. The film has an authentic look and sound to it — not surprising, as writer Bill Jesse based it on his experiences as a building worker, and all the actors had to have worked on building sites to get the roles.

Riff Raff makes some hard-hitting points about life in Britain today. It shows the erosion of workers' rights and conditions and the way Thatcherite free-market capitalism has condemned thousands to an impoverished and marginalised existence.

In the absence of a strong political alternative, all that is left for people like Stevie and Susan is petty crime, drugs and dreams of escaping. Stevie plans to make it in business with a market stall selling boxer shorts, Susan tries to break into showbiz despite her lack of talent, Desmonde the young black worker dreams of going to Africa. Perhaps the most powerful message of Riff Raff is that capitalism encourages these fragile dreams, then cruelly destroys them — often along with the dreamers as well.

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