Aug 08

There Ain’t No Cure For My Somers Town Blues

FT15 comments • 388 views

A Daily Mail reading of Somers Town:
-London is full of yobs and foreigners: The only characters in Somers Town from London are the three (white) kids who mug Tommo, the café owner and Graham the spiv. And you can see this clearly in the way that Graham is holed up in his survivalist bunker of a flat. Everyone else is either from the regions or foreign.
-The foreigners are getting crafty. In the old days it was easy to spot an immigrant, they were a different colour. These days the Frenchies and the Poles which fill up Somers Town LOOK LIKE US. At least no Black or Asian people live in Somers Town.
-Isn’t social housing nice? Well not nice, but surprisingly quiet for Central London, when apparently only two flats are occupied. Though one by an immigrant.
-Kids are running wild, not just the yobbos but the care by-blow Tommo and the Pole Marek are on the streets all day causing mischief, stealing clothes and cross dressing. Shouldn’t they be in school?
-Look how easy it is to get on the Eurostar without a passport! No wonder we are over-run by immigrants over here, literally stealing our jobs.

Ok, as a Daily Mail reading that is slightly over-exaggerated. But as someone who knows Somers Town as an area, someone who works five minutes away from it, there was much of Shane Meadows advertilm for Eurostar that I really couldn’t stomach. And much of it which made no sense to me. Why would a camera happy kid with the run of the city spend all his time in London within two hundred yards of his flat? Why would Tommo run away to London, and not move more that two hundred yards from the station that spewed him out? And where are all the PEOPLE?

I know its a whimsical fantasy. But its a whimsical fantasy dressed up as kitchen sink or social realism (there is no aesthetic reason for the dishwater black and white cinematography). Having Tommo as a care runaway makes this character potentially realistic, but does that fit in with this coming of age comedy. Meadows’ Somers Town is whiter than Richard Curtis’ Notting Hill, but at least in Notting Hill we knew we were getting a rom-com, not a genre that suggests it will be dealing with reality. Meadows has a desaturated, ugly eye for a beautiful part of London. Which maybe makes sense for his characters, neither of whom really want to be there, but having Marek as a photographer and ignore the genuine majesty of half the sites ignored in this part of London – yet again within 200 yards of the site*. It is a London hating film, which has no reason to hate London. The city offers this characters the anonymity, opportunities and girl they desire, and yet its PARIS which is the fantasy. And the advert fantasy ending, with all its clearly made up whimsy in its Super 8 colour is yet again a boot ground in the face of London, and its byblow Somers Town. The only point of Somers Town, the only point of London is as a point of exit, YOU CAN GET OUT OF HERE, the film shouts, leave this hellish ghost-town and go to PARIS where its sunny, you can find the girl of your dreams and its in Colour. EUROSTAR COLOUR.

I went in thinking that the Eurostar aspect of it, know I am aware of it, would annoy. Oddly though it was almost my favourite bit, this unspoken negotiation between funding and filming – where I think Shane indulges his funders more than they expected (great employers!) But what degree of the aestetic choice come back to the funding. Where are the 60% non-white occupants of these Somers Town blocks, where is Chalton Street Market? And where did Meadows get another fucking acoustic guitar songwritten soundtrack from that was as ugly as the visuals. Meadows first film outside the Midlands? Nottingham, please take him back. I’ll buy him the train ticket.

*He gets the Pancras gasometers, but they were done better in Cronenberg’s Spider.


  1. 1
    Stevie on 28 Aug 2008 #

    *And The Ladykillers.

  2. 2
    DJ Punctum on 29 Aug 2008 #

    What, no Flowered Up?

    Probably have got in a lot more whimsy if Laurence Corner hadn’t shut.

  3. 3
    pete on 29 Aug 2008 #

    Yes the Ladykillers does a (slightly more soundstagey) Somers Town better as well.

    The only whimsy in the film would have been spoiled by Laurence Corner (and they never go that far west!) – namely Tommo being reduced to wearing an old lady skirt as a shirt. Which is funny and all, but makes no sense as one of the only other plot points in the first ten minutes of the film has Marek giving up his Man Utd shirt for an Arsenal one. He could have given Tommo the Man U shirt.

  4. 4
    DJ Punctum on 29 Aug 2008 #

    Meadows missed a trick by not casting TV’s Bradley Walsh as the cheeky Cockney fruit and veg barrow boy.

  5. 5
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 29 Aug 2008 #

    yes, i didn’t read it quite as brutally as pete — i rather liked it, in fact, and plenty of london is as unpeopled* as this plenty of the time, most of the working day in fact — but he’s right to say that meadows has transferred his mounting “have to get out of this place” frustration at non-london locations to london; he sees it as a junction between coventry and europe

    i think the point about not straying more than 200 yards from where you land up is good observation, actually (possibly this is not so obvious to someone who’s been visiting london** all his life; but this is what we outlanders do, i promise you, until we meet someone who can show us round, and marek and tommo meet each other) — actually the trick meadows was bribed by eurostar to miss is that he should have made this a advert for (eg) the north london line rather than eurostar

    also i really liked the weird dysjunction of tommo’s and marek’s make-do friendship — if they had their heads screwed on it would indeed be a different film

    *it’s an auteur tic: his midlands and his north are also strangely empty
    **i didn’t have time in SS to expand on me “what happens when you expand kitchen sink londonwards = something REALLY strange viz straight to india and the maharishi”, which is fact london-hating, bcz the uk is in fact (in its angry back-to-back heart) london-hating!

  6. 6
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 29 Aug 2008 #

    it’s not a coming-of-age comedy, any more than the knack or billy liar are: it’s a comedy about the space you’re in supplying you with a useable coping strategy (for good or bad)

  7. 7
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 29 Aug 2008 #

    actually i must totally repitch my “kitchen sink: london” project to s&s — it’s a bit daft making this film review the repository of the entire thing!

  8. 8
    Pete Baran on 29 Aug 2008 #

    I think it does borrow a number of coming-of-age tropes:
    -Marek’s unwanted independence (stranger in a strange land)
    -Making unsanctioned friends

    Its got all the bits of coming of age without having the time or inclination to follow through with it. Meadows may have though coming of age to be a bit old fashioned, much like he has decided that much plot or conflict (with the exception of the Dad scene) is also not needed. I get what you are saying about the “space they are in supplying a coping strategy”, but that space is wholly constructed within the film. Given more than ten minutes of this tedious existence any thirteen year old worth their salt will go throw stones at some cars – but then a possible whole other Eurostar edict is THERE ARE NO CARS IN THIS FILM (hence no roads).

    Plenty of London may be this unpeopled, but Somers Town ISN’T! Indeed its geographical cul-de-sac nature means you have to leave it via the front door (ie the Euston Road) to go anywhere.

  9. 9
    Pete Baran on 29 Aug 2008 #

    Actually, note to self – must see The Knack and see if that annoys as much!

  10. 10
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 29 Aug 2008 #

    i haven’t seen it for years — i suspect it’s 20 times as annoying!! one of the characters is frank spencer!

    obv my line on meadows is that he is not and has NEVER been a realist, but in an age of Oligatory Disenchantment™ you need to set up that kind of pseudo-social promise bcz no one would go see a film that’s “about nothing much happening to half-sketched ppl in a likeable way” — which i think is a pity, everything is distorted by the need for Higher Justification

    i am not sure these two teenagers were even meant to be worth their salt — that’s kinda the point

  11. 11
    SteveM on 29 Aug 2008 #

    no Kylie, no Eurostar ad cred

  12. 12
    Pete Baran on 29 Aug 2008 #

    I agree Meadows is not trying to be a realist, but he dresses up in those clothes (why else would you make an already drab film seem drabber). There are possible clames for him coming from a more miserablist Eastern European bent – I wonder how the film will play in its other obvious market: namely Poland. But then the fantasy coda, so clearly flagged as fantasy by the cinematography undermines all that goes before. (A trap he falls into in This Is England too. Indeed his only film that I think really works is Dead Mans Shoes, because its fantasy aspects are the point – the madness in the lead actually asks the audience interesting questions).

    Its all well and good claiming some sort of quality for making a film where not much happens to mediocre characters, and that Meadows can make that tolerable for 73 minutes is perhaps a positive thing. But its not much to write home about, when that hand is really just about missed opportunities (and missed trains).

  13. 13
    a logged out p^nk s lord sukråt wötsit on 29 Aug 2008 #

    black-and-white doesn’t make it drabber! it is anti-london — i think this is your strongest argument by miles — because SM thinks the colour version of somers town is uglier than this version

    (i have been infected by lindsay anderson here obv: b/w is “poetic” he sez abt 20 billion times) (and in fact come to think of it, this film reminds me of my favourite bits of “the white bus”, which are also the mainly unpeopled bits) (i just like films which are really more about forgotten and unloved buildings than people i guess)

    they’re not mediocre characters, they’re just unformed — graham has a certain dotty charisma; the girl is a wisp; marek’s dad i could have done with more of

    a better comparison for yr argument — which it will come off way worse against — is “stranger than paradise”: it has the same plot (more or less) and was a founding movie in self-financed indie cinema, so you get the moral high ground re the funding here

  14. 14
    pete on 30 Aug 2008 #

    B&W does not make it automatically drabber, yr right – B&W can be more striking (and yr If….ness is certainly going to distract you), but this B&W is DRAB. It is dull greyness: the shots of St Pancras churchyard miss all of John Soanes architecture and goodness.

    I think the B&W signifier has changed post Clerks, when it became clear that B&W is no cheaper than colour. Therefore it is always an aesthetic decision, which needs to have reason. “It looks pretty” is a good reason – not used here. “It looks ugly” is a reason too but if that is really Meadows’s choice here then it really is just knee jerk anti-London (or pro-ADVERT).

    Hadn’t thought of Stranger Than Paradise and that is a Manchild version of this child-MAN play. But the real problem at the heart of all of Somers Town’s issues is that its slight running time apparently does not seem to let it do anything of worth with its characters (even Tommo and Mareks first meeting is 90% bullying, 10% affection). Which is odd considering most syndicated TV shows can do a hell of a lot of character work in a 40 minute TV show. As a TV play, ST would be roasted ALIVE!

    (STP has a much better B/W contrast on its cinematography and goes out of its way for the odd striking image. And B&W was cheaper back then. But STP walks in with its inconsequentiality on its sleeve. Wheras ST walks in with a abuse care home kid in muddy proto-realism B&W, THE CINEMATOGRAPHY IS BAD BECAUSE IT IS REAL : AND REAL LIFE IS SHOT BADLY).

  15. 15
    a logged out p^nk s lord sukråt wötsit on 30 Aug 2008 #

    it’s true that what i probably liked about this film is exactly what you’re most disliking: viz the idea of a holiday from the Endless Tyranny of High Concept (“at last a portrait of london”; “narrative arc for character”; “something er happens plz thx”) — i liked that it was just a fragment, a snapshot of the hoping moment of coping freed from the cruelty of the indication of why this would fail — i liked that instead of the actually really annoying little-man-comes-of-age ending of TIE, it just punted into a “why not” fantasy — i think meadows has an affectionate rather than a disdainful eye for present-day functional architecture (portakabins; social housing forecourts, balconies and walkways); he likes the transient feel of london-as-a-waystation and has no interest in london-the-great-multiculti-wen-of-ages… hence OF COURSE slides right past john soane, heritage that would mean nothing to people who don’t really why they’re in london, except that they don’t want to be somewhere/anywhere else (which IS irrationally unfair to london, but this wasn’t a film about people with the luxury of long-view rationalism)

    it struck me as i watched, what i distinctly warmed to that i was missing from films, that i felt i had once been promised, was exactly this sense of flimsy provisionality that the nouvelle vague long ago held up against anglo-film; and free cinema held up against Classic British Cinema; and the early amerindies briefly held up against hollywood

    what has always happened to these challenges — why the promise is never maintained — was a kind of creeping formalist aestheticisation, which replaces Justification By Moral Intent and/or Outcome, with Justification by High-Concept Technique (great cinematagraphy, for example)

    i guess what i was reminded of was a kind of punky throwaway i-don’t-careness — eg don’t care that turgoose isn’t that good of an actor — which is the thing that would quickly congeal into post-punk indie anti-quality, and become intolerable and fearful of ambition or commitment to achievement; but was/is an incredibly liberating impulse when it comes to hand-me-down stuff about What A Film Ought To Do…

    meadows is at his worst when he’s moralising; i really like it when he cuts away from that and just lets the camera follow what might happen, the oddity and the semi-randomness of that (ie tommo ending up as graham’s bitch; or marek’s dad so crestfallen at the lame crappiness of marek’s “party”) — this is vanishingly tiny stuff, and SM swamps it quite easily (less here than in TIE) when he starts to worrry about the “point” of what he’s doing; but i really really wish more people would do it… of course as soon as there’s a formalised space for it, it would stop being what i like about it, i guess

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