As part of the Doc n’ Roll festival at FACT, Getintothis Del PIke sees a side to Britain that is otherwise hidden in Sleaford Mods’ essential documentary, Invisible Britain; a manifesto for a better Britain more effective than any party political broadcast. Director Paul Sng was on hand to answer questions.
In 1971, Black Panther Huey Newton wandered into an empty cinema in Oakland to see Melvin Van Peebles’ ground-breaking Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. He reported back to HQ and demanded that the film be made required viewing to all members. This was a film that spoke to the Black community, the first film to see a black guy get one over on the white cops at the end instead of dying.
Sleaford Mods – Invisible Britain might not pack the same punch as Sweetback but the term “required viewing” applies just as much. This is a film for the disaffected youth of Britain, to all those who feel so jaded by contemporary politics that they would rather play Halo on the Xbox than cast a vote. Directors Nathan Hannawin and Paul Sng, alongside Nottingham’s Sleaford Mods themselves, Jamie Williamson and Andrew Fearn, present to us a story of our country, told through the voices of the people who live here.
The majority of the talking heads in the film remain nameless which works well to present them as everymen (and women). The narrative is simple, but tremendously effective; a road trip with the band, stopping off at all the places that generally get left out of national tours, towns like Scunthorpe, Barnsley and Southampton. We also see footage from Cardiff Uni and our own Kazimier to add contrast. Williamson wanted to walk a similar line to The Sex Pistols and The Jam in the 70s, playing similar types of rooms, or “The venues that Britain chooses to forget”, as he describes them. In each town we get a song and a connected story.
The tales reveal how apathy has led to poverty, abuse, ignorance and injustice. This is a film that begs us to wake up and smell the bullshit. The Barnsley story for example focuses on how the town has failed to pick up the pieces three decades on from Thatcher’s assault on the miners. The statue of a proud yet dejected miner with his wife and young children appears, juxtaposed with a shot of jaded families visiting a local food bank. Residents talk about how the rest of Britain thinks that the mining communities have moved on, when in fact, they are as worse off now than in the 80s.
The arrival in town of the Sleaford Mods is regarded by a member of UNITE as one of the best things to happen in Barnsley for years and it’s easy to see why. The crowd are united as the bellowing Jason Williamson bleats out his sharp lyrics about Cameron’s Britain in The Wage Don’t Fit. His clarion calls are accompanied by Andrew Fearn’s surprisingly infectious grooves, played from a lone laptop on a chair at the front of the stage. His jerky movements, interrupted by swigs from a lager bottle, draw comparisons with Jason Mews’ Jay of Jay and Silent Bob fame.
They sometimes resemble a pumped up, no frills, Bez n’ Shaun version of the Pet Shop Boys, yet their lyrics couldn’t be more different. Liberally peppered with expletives, acid barbs at the ruling class and recognisable working class adages, they SPEAK to the people. It’s difficult to imagine anyone speaking to these communities for a long while with such clarity and candour. One fan describes the experience as “Like being shouted at for half an hour.”
Liverpool is shown as a city that might have been seen to recover from the Toxteth riots of the early 80s, but the film suggests that the inherent racism of the police may still be there. It’s not just the black community however who are falling foul of the lazy justice system, but youth in general. Screenwriter Jimmy McGovern pops up to contribute to the cause of grass roots campaign JENGbA (Joint Enterprise: Not Guilty by Association) and supports parents who tell, on camera, how their children have been imprisoned for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The mother of one of the victims, a blind boy accused of kicking a man to death, sentenced to life, believes that the justice system simply couldn’t be bothered working through the incident to find out who was responsible, a sense of, as McGovern says “Contempt for the British Working Class”. This is a heart-breaking section of the film, as is the story of Mark Wood, a young artist with severe mental disabilities that the government deemed not severe enough to class him as unfit for work through their ineffective ATOS scheme. His inability to find work and the pathetic benefits he was allowed led to him dying of starvation. Sadly, statistics show that Mark Wood is one of very many who has suffered a similar fate.
As each story unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear what a state we are, in musically and economically, and of how much the voices of Weller, Lydon, Morrissey and Strummer are missed. 44 year old Williamson explains that he is out there, trying to remind the youth of Britain the importance of political and social activism, because the 21 year old singers are not saying anything. As the charts are saturated with American imports and X Factor saccharine pop, Sleaford Mods could certainly fill a much needed gap. Songs such as Jolly Fucker, Jobseeker, McFlurry, Tweet Tweet Tweet and Tied Up In Nottz say more than anything about Britain since the first wave of The Jam. Williamson’s delivery is as eloquent as Mark E Smith; his words are louder than bombs and just as powerful.
This is not a film about Sleaford Mods; this is a film about the country they live in, seen through their eyes. It is a film that shows how music can still have a voice and how passionate a crowd can become when they are actually spoken to by the right people. The film touches on how the Tories maintained their reign of terror due to the apathy of British voters and how, to an extent, we got what we deserved. It’s a shame that the film narrowly missed the rise of Jeremy Corbyn; it would have been interesting to hear what the Mods thought of the man who turned politics a lighter shade of grey (for the record, a recent Channel 4 News piece found Williamson rejoicing in Corbyn‘s thoughts “Reeking of compassion.”) Williamson‘s thuggish delivery is deceitful; when we see him being interviewed, we see a comfortingly sedate, clearly intelligent conversationalist. As one talking head says in the film “Once we get under the bonnet it’s very articulate.“
On the evening, due to a delay in the film being shown, Paul Sng gave only a very brief Q&A before rushing off to catch his train. He clearly is a man who believes in Sleaford Mods and his intentions felt admirable as he spoke about how he had to take time from his job to shoot the film. It was good to hear him say how he has refrained from interviewing drunken fans, for fear of exploiting them. It would have been good to have heard more from this compassionate director
Whether fans of Sleaford Mods or not, for anyone who cares about the state of our country, and even more so those who don’t care, this really is required viewing. The final line in the film, Williamson’s cry of “Smash the fucking windows in”, sums the film up succinctly. Seek it out.