I may have dreamt this, but I seem to recall the graffiti “CLASS WAR,” or possibly “CLASS STRUGGLE,” scrawled on the side of a building that Steve (wonderful Robert Carlyle, departing his twenties), a London construction worker from Glasgow, passes by in the course of Ken Loach’s affecting Riff-Raff. Power does not belong to laborers on the construction site in question, where affordable rentals are being replaced by luxury apartments; as Tom Zaniello points out, the workers themselves could never afford to live in what they are building, or scarcely anyplace else. The precariousness of their existence finds a perfect metaphor, because the detail is utterly realistic in terms of what poor workers must put up or fall down with: safety precautions are nonexistent at the work site once one gets past the token requirement that everyone wear a hard hat; the scaffolding is perpetually, and it turns out tragically, insecure. (Frustrated by their powerlessness, workers eventually torch the construction—a witty proletarian translation of the central event in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.) What difference? These are disposable persons—although their quarrelsome comradery, achingly human, disputes the soulless conviction held against them by a presumably pre-dementia Thatcher and her Thatcherites. (Funny that Thatcher and clone Reagan would have ended up in so similar a fog.) “CLASS WAR”: What might have been a sign of hopes for a better future looms here as epitaph.
Larry, one of the workers, presses for unionization and apprises management of bare wires and the need for goggles. As a result, he is fired. Playing him is Ricky Tomlinson, whose own politics and experience match his character’s, and who was tried and imprisoned in the 1970s on trumped-up charges.
Both Steve and the girl he hooks up with, Susan, an ersatz singer who is called “Karen” at an audition (what difference?), have a past: as Patrick, he was incarcerated for theft; she has attempted suicide. The latter revelation effectively spanks Steve for the Doinelish complacency of these killer remarks: “[D]epressions are for the middle classes. The rest of us get up too early in the morning.”
This is terrific dialogue! The script’s author, Bill Jesse, was himself a construction worker. Dozens of websites note his death in 1990, prior to the film’s release, but do not state the cause of his death. One wonders whether it was work-related. (See my piece on Loach’s The Navigators, 2001.)
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