Circling a Fox, BBC Scotland, BBC iPlayer, Writer and Presenter Matthew Zajac, Director Brian Ross.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000s083/circling-a-fox

Matthew Zajac is an actor. Acting is a precarious profession. The same old faces crop up with regularity. Trying to make a living from acting is akin to trying to make a living from writing. I’ve did a few shifts as an extra. I’ve no interest in being the next what-ever-you-call him/her. Writing, well, that’s a different story.

Writing is my game. I don’t expect to make a living from it. And with over one million self-published books appearing on Amazon every year if you’ve been paying attention, as I have, then you’ll know why.

Matthew Zajac in his downturn between acting and being invisible wrote his own play, The Taylor of Inverness. He took it to the Edinburgh Festival, and with the help of a fiddler, and some projections acted out the part of his dad. It received plaudits. Plaudits don’t pay the rent.

Next his—let’s call it an award winning play, because if it didn’t win something Edinburgh’s culture elite have fell asleep at the wheel—is taken up by BBC Scotland. The peasants up North, us, receive a fraction of the BBC budget to produce content for the fraction of the British population that are interested in that type of thing.

Matthew Zajac gets to play his dad again, for the cameras, in his award-winning play. But he also gets to travel to the Ukraine where his da was born, to put on the same performance for the natives of his father’s home town. But the programme also becomes one of those finding about your past kind of road trips where the viewer see nice scenery and meets quaint folk that don’t speak our lingo.  Money for old rope.

One of Zajac’s Ukrainian relatives tells him (and us) how a fox is hunted. Cornered in a field in every decreasing circles until its captors can bludgeon it to death. Money for old rope is a cliché. What it refers to is the rope hangman such as Albert Pierrepoint in Britain used to sell to members of the public per inch, as a trophy, after they have used it to hang convicted criminals.

Ukraine used to be thought of the bread-basket of Russia. Soil so rich that to plant a stick was to grow a tree. I’m going off at a tangent here as Zajac did with his da’s story. His dad was buried in Inverness. Whisper it, as a head mason. He’d given up his Roman Catholicism to join the order and risen through the ranks. (My understanding is you can be both a Roman Catholic and a Mason, as my da’s pal, Jimmy Mac, was). Zajac’s dad, despite coming from the Ukraine, fought with the Polish army for Britain in the second world war against their common enemy, Nazi Germany.

It all kind of adds up. Before the first world war Glasgow was booming and growing at a rate faster than London. In the interwar years this growth declined, but it was still enough of a metropolis to take a refugee from the Ukraine and for him to find a job as a tailor in Glasgow. And then head to the back of beyond to Inverness to find a shop of his own, a life of his own, a new life and kids. It’s the refugee made good narrative.

The Ukraine of the interwar and postwar years was one of bloodshed. Let me fling some figures at you. 20 million dead. Stalin brought the Ukrainians to heel by mass starvation. Most children under ten would die first. Millions more sent to gulags such as those in Siberia. Ukrainian nationalists fighting the Soviets who had ‘liberated’ them shot and their families deported. Acts of savagery, mass murder and rape. Teenagers, in particular, in the vanguard.

Let’s remember the death camps in the East and the Jews. Jewish tailors that had trained Zajac’s dad. We know around six million Jews were exterminated. But around half, as they were here, were taken into forests and fields and shot.

Zajac finds in the old reels of his father’s tape something unnerving. His story of being swept up by the Soviet machine and being deported to Uzbekistan has a facsimilia of truth. His escape along the Soviet railway, with its own gauge system for train that took three months, seems possible. Syria and up into India an incredible journey in which the good guy prevails. He joins the British Army.

An alternative story and shadow self emerges that is completely compelling as narrative, as history, or as drama, and a combination of all these.   This is much-watch TV. It shouldn’t be given a graveyard slot on BBC Scotland, but a Sunday night slot at 9pm. The kind of slot Small Axe: Mangrove demands and gets because Steve McQueen is a somebody. Zajac is a Scottish yokel, he’s give what he’s got and likes or lumps it territory. Listen up, I watched both and Zajac is better.  Watch and learn what a thing man is.

Small Axe: Mangrove, BBC 1, BBC iPlayer, written Alastair Siddons and Steve McQueen, directed by Steve McQueen.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p08vy19b/small-axe-series-1-mangrove

In my day Steve McQueen was the go-to guy if you wanted ride a motorcycle over barbed wire to escape the Germans, or rescue screaming women and children from a building skyscraper. We’re still waiting for the enquiry into Grenfell Tower, but we all know the score. Nothing much will be done, while the issues of class and race hatred will be quietly shunted into a side-line of something been seen to be done offscreen.

The black Steve McQueen is the new king of cool. He can do pretty much anything, (apart from ride a motorbike over barbed wire) and won pretty much everything, including an Oscar for best film, 12 Years a Slave. He’s part of the establishment and being given an OBE.  He edited The Guardian’s The New Review to publicise his film anthology about historical injustices involving racial discrimination. BBC gave him a prime Sunday night slot for his drama.

Steve McQueen claims, ‘With Small Axe I want to reshape history’.

That sort of stuff doesn’t make me think of invading Poland, but of a joke in which Jesus answers a parable with a parable in which adulterous woman are going to be stoned.

‘If anyone is without sin, let them fling the first stone.’

And the Virgin Mary lobs a big rock.

Steve McQueen can’t walk on water.  In the first episode of his series, Mangrove, depicts a true story about what happened in Notting Hill in early 1970s. His aim is to get under your skin.

Mangrove is the name of a West Indian restaurant opened by Frank Chrislow (Shaun Parkes)  and closed, nine times in three weeks by the Metropolitan Police. Chrislow was following the dictates of the Enlightenment written in black and white in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations which extolled the righteousness of free enterprise, free from political intervention, government interference or legal restraint, ‘ruled by divine law for the ultimate being of all’.

Enoch Powell’s River of Blood Speech 20th April 1968 in Birmingham. ‘If they’re black-send them back.’ Remember that? Pre-Brexit, the threat of the black invasion. They were over here threatening our British way of life. ‘No blacks, No Irish, No dogs.’ It’s just as well we’ve moved on since them and we have Priti Patel as Home Secretary enforcing a policy of deporting refugees, equally, regardless of skin colour. Anyone sleeping rough can be deported back to their country, even if they’ve not got a country. It’s just best guess.

A cameo in Mangrove shows how that works. The rookie cop at Notting Hill station is playing at cards. He picks out the Ace of Spades. The other cops josh him, ‘you know what that means?’

He’s told that he needs to nick the first black man he spots.

‘What if he hadn’t committed an offence?’ the rookie cop asks.

In case you don’t get the Ace of Spades reference, we see the cops chasing a black guy and arresting him.

Frank Crichlow has committed even more of an offence. He’s opened a restaurant that sells spicy food such as goat curry. Worse than that it’s full of British people of West Indian descent that play cards and listen to music. In cop parlance that’s dealing drugs and running a prostitution ring.

Fling into the toxic mix Altheia Jones-LeCointe  (Letitia Wright) mouthy student, and leader of the British version of the Black Panthers. Add in Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) whose study into black oppression suddenly includes his lover Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall) and their child threatened with being taken into care.

Show don’t tell is one of the rules of screenwriting (and writing in general). We can’t taste spicy food or curry, but we can listen to the music. We can see how the community lived. The before and the aftermath of police brutality and cover-ups.  The laws that are suddenly dragged out of retirement home for white people to confront a lippy West Indian community. New laws made on the spot for troublemakers.

We see the ‘riot’. We follow the arrests. There’s even time to nip off and get a screenshot of Chrichlow’s white girlfriend in the mirror telling him to come back to bed. That’s a double-dunt, in case you missed it, he’s not racist—they are. The establishment is.

Nine black men and women, including Chrichlow, are tried at the High Court, the Old Bailey. Incitement to riot and affray. They face serious prison time. Judge Edward Clarke (Alex Jennings) is described the Defence Advocate as your typical bully boy. In a different age he might well have become Prime Minister. Here he’s presiding over a case where no one will admit they’re guilty. Cops are always right, even when they’re wrong. And it’s not the Mangrove Nine who are on trial but the British establishment.

Viewers know how it ends, but we watch anyway as all wrongs are righted, or something like that. Rishi Sunak occupies 11 Downing Street, he’s looking to upgrade and evict the buffoon next door, all the better to deport even more refugees, wanting something for nothing. Even Steve McQueen OBE would find it difficult to write that script. It’s got to be Grenfell, that would be my cry. Grenfell puts these stories into the shade.