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(Re)Mapping the centres Membership and State

Trevor Harris

The Autumn of the Matriarch: British Cinema and Fading Thatcherism in My Beautiful Laundrette, Priest and The Full Monty

Bernard McGuirk

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1The ostensibly dominant politics (Thatcherite), economics ("loadsamoney") and metaphysics ("there is no such thing as society") of the United Kingdom during the 1980s and early 1990s have been widely represented in British cinema. How have some of the most commercially successful and popular films of the late- and post-Iron Lady age screened the multi-layered conflicts at work, and at play, in a far from homogeneous (dis-) United Kingdom? How have the sometimes complex modes of contestation within a nation been explored not to the exclusion of, but alongside, those strong interventions between states (contra Argentina, the Soviet bloc, Libya, the European Union, for example) so characteristic of the governments of the autumn of the Matriarch? In such box-office hits as My Beautiful Laundrette, Priest and The Full Monty, cinematic signs of political erasure may be shown to be variously but stubbornly inscribed on even the most realistic representations of Thatcherism.


2What do we hear when the word "London" is pronounced? What do we see when the capital city is portrayed? What is spoken, what is shown, in and through "London" insofar as it has operated, and operates still, as a site of historical specificities and of cultural differences? What insights might derive from, what risks might be run by, even a provisional juxtaposition of white Establishments and of black resistances, of familiarities and of exoticisms? Can there ever be (again), has there ever been, a black and white picture show? If we are to believe Stuart Hall, it is perhaps as well, from the outset, not only to mark out but also to interrogate positions in-between:

I have centred my remarks on an attempt to identify and characterize a significant shift that has been going on (and is still going on) in black cultural politics.... Culturally, this analysis formulated itself in terms of a critique of the way blacks were positioned as the unspoken and invisible "other" of predominantly white aesthetic and cultural discourses... in order to pursue that movement further, we will have to re-theorize the concept of difference.... Such a politics of criticism has to be able to say (just to give one example) why My Beautiful Laundrette is one of the most riveting and important films produced by a black writer in recent years and precisely for the reason that made it so controversial; its refusal to represent the black experience in Britain as monolithic, self-contained, sexually stabilized and always "right-on" – in a word, always and only "positive", or what Hanif Kureishi has called, "cheering fictions".... Laundrette is important particularly in terms of its control, of knowing what it is doing, as the text crosses those frontiers between gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality and class. (Hall, 1996, 441-49)

3The era and dimension of the third term are the time, the space and the other we inhabit. Consciously or not, and whether the filter of our awareness be Einstein or Peirce, Bakhtin or Derrida, the provisional binaries in which we are locked are constantly unsettled by the relativities, the interprétants, the dialogics, the differences whereby the play, the shuttle effects, are to be conceived before the dualities, the seductive polarities of our thoughts, the parentheses of our disciplines. Thus, the first strategy I shall operate in response to the questions I have raised will be that of juxtaposing three short extracts from the 1985 Stephen Frears film of Hanif Kureishi's My Beautiful Laundrette and the insights of a number of contemporary thinkers on literary, critical and cultural theories. What will have been seen, what will have been heard, and what specific differences between that same London and that other London (the one of our cultural imaginaries) will have been exploited in this mosaic of citations? A second strategy will be to pursue, more briefly and by extrapolation, later cinematic instances of the Thatcher effect on Liverpool and Sheffield of the 1990s.

4I begin with My Beautiful Laundrette's location and setting of the story of Omar and Johnny in the South London metropolitan village of an Indian subcontinent community structure. Omar and Johnny are constructing inseparably their beautiful laundrette and their identities against a backcloth of the recent race-riots of early-Thatcher Britain (pre-1985). What we see and hear in the opening sequence are the revolving credits, linear signatures/identities subjected to the spin-drier drum rhythms of the laundrette of the film's title. There follows the eviction from a South London squat of Johnny and his white companion by a black heavy employed by the landlord/racketeer Salim (cousin of Omar). Now Omar, son of Papa (Ayam), is cleaning a flat overlooking railway tracks. Trains pass, the first pair East-West/West-East, the second pair West-East/East-West. Alcoholic Papa (former teacher of Johnny and Omar) attempts to get Omar a pre-college summer job at his brother Nasser's garage/car-wash. He also mentions the need to provide Omar with a "nice girl" to guarantee that "his penis is in full working order".

5The apparent content of the opening sequence is one of violence, of racial confrontation and inversion of white-black/black-white class/property-owning stereotypes of London as the capital city of "one Nation". Unemployed Omar ("on the dole") is being fixed up with a job and a potential wife within a village community of immigrant Pakistanis, prior to the college education planned for him by Ayam, his virtually bed-ridden, sozzled, early-retired, teacher/father. Ayam is portrayed as failed, imprisoned in the city of an other culture, determined to deliver his son from a similar brutal othering but, paradoxically, also to smother him in a sameness of dynastic protection. The apparent form of the sequence is that of a binary shuttle-effect of horizontal camera-shots playing with East-West/West-East constructions and inversions via trains. The scene is interspersed with a mordant humour ("he's on the dole... like everyone else in England") in Papa's voice, the chi-chi of an educated sub-continent, switching between Hindustani (to Bilquis, his illiterate sister-in-law) and English (to his successful businessman brother). Papa communicates by telephone within a foregrounded network of the (absent) village support system set against the constant (present) but ignored background network of TV as wallpaper. In short, the opening sequence sets up themes and structures deriving from possibly and provisionally polarised perceptions of cultures clashing in such encounters as City/Village; West/East; unemployment/enterprise; and so on. Yet the presentation of binaries occurs amidst a potential unsettling of terms, of text, and of identity construction. Such disturbance is performed by the rhythms of a laundrette, nominally the site of washing one's dirty linen in public but simultaneously the sign and cipher of an ethnic cleansing spun, no less, by the swastika-pulsions of the inner-city race riots of the early Thatcher years.

6A second sequence in which overt play is made with instruments of erasure of social stereotyping occurs just prior to the official opening of the beautiful laundrette Omar and Johnny have re-constructed together. They face the possibility of consummating their relationship, but Omar hesitates... First he must confront Johnny's past, his participation in the Lewisham race-riots (and the impact of racial conflict on Omar's disillusioned Papa and on his victim mother who, in despair, has committed suicide by throwing herself under a train). Cut to Uncle Nasser and Rachel (his white, South London mistress), pushing through the crowd which awaits the opening ceremony. In a transformed dream-setting of what she calls "this wonderful ship", Rachel and Nasser embrace their own illicit, extra-marital status as rule-breaking, but traditional adulterous other halves. They momentarily escape their own precarious state (the Empire of Bilquis is about to strike back, with acid effect) and dance to the music of The Skaters' Waltz. Meanwhile, Omar and Johnny – behind the security-screen of the one-way mirror – perform their champagne celebration by making love, only interrupted by Omar's sight of Nasser and Rachel. As they dress, Nasser appears, having asked Rachel "but where are those two buggers?". Omar's excuse for their delay is the physical exertion they have expended in order to be ready for their special day – they're "shagged out". Nasser holds his nephew's gaze. For the official opening, Johnny invites Rachel to cut the ribbon; he stands triumphant during a change of music to Fanfare Of The Common Man; he then approaches the one-way mirror to be seen, full (rather than, as before, National) frontally, by Omar.

7A content/form analysis is still possible but an alternative approach to Johnny's telling/showing suggestion – "There ain't nuffin I can say to make it up to you. There's only fïngs I can do to show you... that I'm with you" – is via dance, and an amended rendering of Jacques Derrida's "Choreographies":

This step only constitutes a step on the condition that it challenge a certain idea of the locus [lieu] and the place [place] (the entire history of the West and of its metaphysics) and that it dance otherwise.... The most innocent of dances would thwart the assignation à résidence, escape those residences under surveillance; the dance changes place and... has actually brought with it the chance for a certain risky turbulence in the assigning of places.... Is one then going to start all over again making maps, topographies, etc? distributing sexual identity cards?... The lack of place for [atopie] or the madness of the dance... can also compromise the political chances of feminism and serve as an alibi for deserting, organized, patient, laborious "feminist" struggles... an incessant, daily negotiation – individual or not – sometimes microscopic, sometimes punctuated by a poker-like gamble; always deprived of insurance, whether it be in private life or within institutions. Each man and each woman must commit his or her own singularity, the untranslatable factor of his or her life and death. (Derrida & McDonald, 1982, 68-9)

8From what has the scene of opening the laundrette, as "beautiful" artefact, been constructed? From a "patient, laborious struggle" in fact (Nasser says: "Johnny did all the physical work"); but, in fiction, from a choreography whereby the site of identity-construction is the beautiful laundrette re-transformed, unsettled again, by The Skaters' Waltz, into a potentially risky, indeed, slippery surface of signification. On which – far from that misreading of poststructuralism which persists in characterising deconstruction as a textual rather than a political operation – the lovers perform "without insurance" for, as Rachel admits: "We're learning... Dance with me". Rachel's invitation to the waltz beckons Nasser not only to the traditional libidinal, bourgeois lovers' prelude but also to the commitment, à la Derrida, of his (and her) "own singularity" – that "untranslatable factor of his [and her] life and death".

9Yet private life is inseparable from institutions – even as viewed from behind a one-way mirror or screen. For the controlled and choreographed performance on the cryptically icy surface of the site of pairing leads not just to the pastiche of the heterosexual wedding – "let's get spliced" as the ribbon is cut – but to an alternative, differential reading of the scissors as sign of erasure, disrupter of the horizontal line, cipher of access to opening, (be) coming. Beyond the would-be "security" mirror lie, lay, other possibilities, as the stereotype nice, straight, Asian boy Omar/(H) Omo ("washes grey out, washes white in") and the cliché punk-fascist Johnny ("never travel without one") are transformed not so much by the giddy whirl of the waltz as by the heady choreography of their spin dryers, the fun-fair of their Fanfare. A marked shift of score? Certainly, never "right on", in Hall's terms, never "cheeringly" – Kureishi's word – innocent of a scandalising, sacrilegious, potential disruption of boundaries. Politically, the inside/outside, private/public division of gazes is blurred, tantamount to the televisual illusion of a local, domestic, space, separable from the manipulating, national-cum-global panopticon forces which are channelled into and through it. Privately, the taboo of the homosexual kiss also bears the forbidden fruit of the grape, transmitted from unclean Aryan to unsullied Muslim lips. Difficult to swallow?... but then, as Derrida claims, "there is always something sexual at stake in the resistance to deconstruction" (1984, 12).

10In a third sequence, the despondent brothers Nasser and Ayam seek consolation in a familiar village dynastics by trying to marry off the next generation, as embodied by their problematic, defamiliarised or "othered" offspring. For Uncle Nasser, "Rachel's left me and I don't know what I'm going to do". For papa Ayam, ostensibly less alert than his younger brother to the "working [rather than the symbolic] order" of Omar's penis (ipse dixit), up pops the solution of consanguinity: "Is Tania a possibility?" For each patriarch, no woman means no protection (no racket, no ball-game?). But the brothers' trigger-binary doesn't work... this time the railway (cross)-cuttings fail to bring the village values of concealment to the city, or the city's suicidal despair to cousin Tania. She, unlike Omar's dead mother, will not fall victim to the twin track-narratives of the difference between East and West. For she occupies the space and the trajectory of a "third term", located beyond the trains but also in the shuttle effect's capacity to spirit her away, out of a confining, binary structure. She moves beyond "possession" and – as Levinas reminds us, since "there is nothing further from Eros than possession" – towards potential siting/re-situating of her identity in the difference within cultures. In fact, just as Omar has done with, and within, Johnny. The parting figure of Tania, shot at a remove from the double male gaze of projected convenience, is married rather with the complex cuttings of the film's narrative devices. She might be seen as engaging in what Stuart Hall has outlined as a war of positions in which one needs to break out of the limiting terms of a given model. As he explains, however, "metaphors of transformation" are not in themselves sufficient to change the frame: "typically, the critiques of the binary-andinversion structure of the classic metaphors of transformation have been followed by ditching them in favour of more lateral or horizontal metaphors – a movement now so fashionable in critical theory as almost to have acquired the status of the banal" (Hall, 1996, 301). In an adjacent context and in a perspective which might be said to address Hall's implicit dissatisfaction with poststructuralism's perceived formalist limitations, I have recently suggested how a radical application of the ciphers of deconstruction can be read in a manner calculated to resist such banal flattenings of West East, East West encounters:

The Foucauldian notion of double representation is too harmonious to capture the encounter of the two worlds without coming to constitute another kairos, another instance of an occasion overruled by its own disclosures. Disclosures... disapertures, (non)-openings...(non)-closings, cross-cuts, scissorings.... It is never a question of either/or. The mirror (just as the metaphysics of presence) must exist in order for its suppressed other to be conceived. The scissors function as the sign of erasure... which (pre-) figures the scandalous "absent" term, not as nothingness (as in the "representation of a vacuum, an absence") but as the discontinuity of shattered, flashing, reflecting fragments, smithereens. As the encounter of Old and New Worlds occurs, representation consists of the clash, the smash of mirrors colliding. Separateness is no longer (re-) presentable. (McGuirk, 1997,170)

11Concomitantly, in playing with a series of never black-and-white rescreenings of "London", principally through erasures of its stereotyped images, I have sought to appropriate, but also to supplement, the challenge posed by Frears and Kureishi, no less than by Derrida. There is always something not only sexual but also cultural at stake in the resistance to deconstruction.


12What do we hear when the word "Liverpool" is pronounced? What do we see when that city is portrayed? What is spoken, what is shown in and through "Liverpool" insofar as it has operated, and echoes still, as a site (a Cavern?) of historical specificities and of cultural differences other than the clichéd consumer versions thrown up by, and back to, the Mersey beat of a 1960s never-never band? Is it the unresolved threat of a permissive society inseparably indulged in and subsequently inculpated by the right-thinking wrinklies of the Maggie and Majordom generations? Though focussing attention, again, on the need to resist different "banal flattenings", in this case those of North-South/South-North encounters, Antonia Bird's 1994 film, Priest (screenplay by Jimmy McGovem), performs sometimes less subtle operations of erasure than was the case in My Beautiful Laundrette. The opening sequence introduces the pensioned-off, the discarded, Father Ellerton – an echo of Father McKenzie in The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby", or just a visual thròwback to Ζ Cars in the face of the actor James Ellis? He contemplates the crucifix only to mobilise it as a contestatory instrument, a battering ram against the burly gates of the diocesan residence of his urbanely political bishop. Throughout the film, the sign of the cross, apparently pointing to the transcendent metaphysics of an absent but Divine Presence, is subjected to multiple deconstructions. Not least in young Father Greg Pilkington's head-and-celibacy spinning reconstruction of it as a bearer/barer of what he confesses is "the totally desirable naked man" of his newly discovered, inner-city, vocation... physical consummation with the very Graham to whom he will yet refuse communion.

13Superficially, the film's social realism seems ready-made for a fashionable 1980s hic et nunc cultural studies analysis, or even that other re-invented wheel, positivism. In a word, the historical moment is that of Thatcherism; in a phrase, the milieu is one of inner-city decline and deprivation; and, as for race, it is an Irish Catholic working-class heritage which provides the congregation for Fathers Matthew (a 1960s trendy) and Greg (an 1980s prig). The ideological posturing of the priests' first encounters, however, it soon becomes apparent, has tenuous relevance to a Liverpool long removed from the Toxteth riots of 1981. Hyperbolically, Bird now has street bonfires burn to keep the kids warm. Her film proceeds to set grandiose political generalisation against particular ethical dilemmas. Global versus local juxtapositions raise issues such as incest, celibacy, homosexuality, sin, the seal of confession, faith, miracles, all posed against the individual backdrops of Greg's and Matthew's contrastive playing out of their respectively troubled vocations. Dogmas are at first debated either in the void or, scholastically, in the Times versus Guardian ping-pong clichés of the Thatcher era. Tenets of Marxism, Monetarism, Social Security, Individualism. Dependency and the Nanny State are mouthed to make capital out of words. Yet it is lower-case studies and sub-texts which most effectively undercut the clerics' scapegoating. In turn, trite binaries of North/South, Irish/English, working class/middle class, drunkenness/sobriety, sex/celibacy, Liberation Theology/Vatican idolatry, hetero/homo, are posed but deposed from any authoritative status.

14McGovern's script is typically littered with puns, not least in the use of names. The traditionalist Greg (orian?) Pilkington, though close enough to St Helens, is but a (partial) man of glass. Matthew Thomas combines evangelising with doubt, but has no scruples about the functions of his namesake John: "Do you think God gives a damn about what men do with their dicks?". His housekeeper-lover, Maria Kerrigan, is seen to double as black Madonna and Irish whore by Greg and parishioners alike – while being neither. The name of the father of the Unsworth family, unworthily belying its loving resonance, is Phil. He incestuously abuses his daughter Lisa, turning her into a sexual object (Mona?) behind the back of his wife, the Christ-besotted Maggie (Magdalen?). The fiery Father Redstone brims with invective, in a poser's Latin, while ill concealing his blushing fascination with what he misreads as Greg's and Matthew's homo-eroticism. All the while, Graham, archetypal Scottish outsider, is othered socially and sexually every time he is discarded, disregarded or transubstantiated, by the beautiful hands of a priest, into the living body of the Christ so longed for by Father Greg. Yet he is allowed no access, no contact, no communion. Homosexuality, in this Catholic enclave, is not so much closeted as (re)-cloistered. Despite a soundtrack finale of the Liverpool anthem's pulsating insistence, he'll ever walk alone, at least while Greg enforces Her (i.e. not His) dictum that there are only individuals, no such thing as society.

15Maggie's last word (she always had it) is perhaps best ciphered, in Priest, by the sign of the crane, which lifts and confiscates – as the bishop's spiteful riposte to Father Matthew's translated-to-Liverpool Latin American Liberation Theology – the overtly non-celibate latter's (second-hand?) vehicle. The oh-so-English, yet far from unworldly Bishop, is as contemptuous of the Liverpool Irish as he is wittily indifferent to the impact of the crane's functions. It might as well operate both as a sign of physical erasure and as the metaphysical hand of God. "My car!", exclaims the dispossessed Matthew. "Just one of the trappings of power, you bloody hypocrite", retorts the avenging Angle.


16Finally, what do we hear when the word "Sheffield" is pronounced? What do we see when that city is portrayed? What is spoken, what is shown, in and through "Sheffield", insofar as it has operated, and operates still, as a site (a foundry?) of historical specificities, of cultural differences? Might it be portrayed as other than the stainless image, cast in steel, of the capital of that 1970s "Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire", later so demonised, demoralised, and then devastated, by successive Thatcher governments of the 1980s, weaned (intoxicated?) as they had become on their own PR versions of "loadsamoney London" and "The Garden City of Liverpool"? Far removed from the opening sequence, taken from a 25 year-old publicity film on that 1972 city of gilt-edged promise, the modern Sheffield, as projected by the film, has become the locus of petty theft. Iron girders of potential construction are now but debris of the dole-queue's supplement... at £ 20.00 each. Gary and Dave, the latter-day likely lads of Peter Cattaneo's The Full Monty (screenplay by Simon Beaufoy), pass from Harold Wilson's white-heat-of-progress Utopia into Margaret Thatcher's damp-roofed atopia (no society, only dry individuals?). Yet they are not granted a straight-line crossing. Their material hopes sink, with the girder, into the canal, simultaneously depriving Gary's son Nathan of another week's maintenance, and the duo is left to see-saw on the unstable, midstream stage of a half-sunken motor-car, fulcrum of an existence long bereft of the functioning vehicles of man-made wealth.

17Gary's past is a catalogue of loss: of job, of wife, of son, of house, of face, of macho mien. A series of reversals ensues whereby the resourceful child, Nathan, is father of the man, and it is now the women who run the city's service-economy. For manufacture, read man you fracture, Mrs Thatcher. In a not wholly tongue-incheek socio-psychological reading of The Full Monty, Dea Birkett, in "Stand up for the penis", seeks to historicise not just industrial slump. Asking the question: "Whither the penis?", she reviews the same quarter century of shrinking economies: "the penis's long, slow, decline into relative redundancy began in the late 60s. The 70s saw a further downgrading.... Even in The Full Monty it's the only bit of the anatomy which we don't get a glimpse of, in any condition" (Birkett, 1998, 7). Superfluity, however, is not confined to the sexual function. Early in the film, even the urinals at the local Working Men's Club are taken over by women. Most tellingly by the brassy ex-Girl Guide who demonstrates to her impressed female cronies, and to the hidden, goggle-eyed, male onlookers, the New Age Woman's art of pissing against (or pointing, per se, at) the porcelain whilst standing up. Superfluidity.

18Though its plot might be viewed, utopically, as the non-working men's forging of new links of male bonding, a restorative amidst the bleakness of postmodernity, the film's treatment of the keeping up of appearances points to a somewhat less upbeat reading. Famously, the choreography exploits the men's instinctive knowledge of football. Thus, Gerard, the failed foreman, overcomes the lads resistance to him, as class enemy, and to his petit bourgeois dance-class routines, by having the would-be performers step out together like the Arsenal defence. "Offside!" But their ageing stance, like their time, is out of joint, set firmly in the past. The bottom line is that they cannot afford to watch even their fallen, local, heroes Sheffield United. To Nathan, Gary can only offer access through "a gap in the fence".

19The aporia is illusorily to be masked by their one-off performance of a "full" Monty. The quest for plenitude will never be more than a staged, a helmeted, projection of their dystopian, still dysfunctional, show. It will be inscribed, in memory, always in inverted commas. Unrepeatability is both the deconstructors' term and the ex-constructors' fête-cum-fate. What has been momentarily erected, in a 1990s celluloid Sheffield, is but another city of desire.


20In a recent BBC interview, the geneticist Steve Jones addressed one of contemporary Britain's smugger misreadings of "men as surplus to requirements", specifically in relation to the hit television series Men Behaving Badly. Had it not become fashionable to debate the genetic roots of men's perceived future as, at best, pranksters and, at worst, perpetrators of nothing more imaginative than inner city crime? Jones demurred. He had no time for "bad science", especially in the context of "280 million handguns and poverty". "Genetics answers all the questions except the interesting ones – the societal. Fate encoded into DNA pales absolutely in relation to what we can change. Society" (Jones, 1998).

21Even in an era of indelible imprints, erasures will go on... and decodings will be made. As the State executes its macro-political decisions, the communities affected continue to perform in difference but never with indifference. The micropolitics which underlie, and underpin, even the most imposing ideologies are habitually represented by complex and multi-layered performances of a social imaginary to which such films as My Beautiful Laundrette, Priest or The Full Monty give, albeit never full, access. Why have I used the technical and literary devices of poststructuralism to foreground what dominant discourses, such as those of Thatcherism, often seek to obliterate (or "handbag")? Because, I believe, and as Jones has argued in respect of the hypotheses of bad science and its resignation to individual and collective fates, that what "we" – and our re-readings – can still change is society. Because that supposedly "no such thing" called society will ever strike back, will ever resist a dubious metaphysics of imposed absence, contesting the bad politics of such a corrosive assertion – that of the fast corroding "Dame de Fer" herself – that "there are only individuals". Because it is possible to make a difference. And because cinema, like literature, continues to highlight the differences that political and cultural studies explore.


Works Cited

Birkert, Dea. "Stand up for the penis." The Guardian, G2, 10 March 1998: 7.

Bird, Antonia & Jimmy McGovern, 1994. Priest. Electric Pictures/BBC Polygram. Cattaneo, Peter & Simon Beaufoy, 1997. The Full Monty. TCF/Redwave.

Derrida, Jacques & Christine V. McDonald, 1982, "Choreographies [Interview]." Diacritics 12: 66-76.

Derrida, Jacques, 1984. "Women in the Beehive: A Seminar with Jacques Derrida." subjects/objects2: 12.

Frears, Stephen & Hanif Kureishi, 1985. My Beautiful Laundrette. Working Title/SAF Channel 4.

Hall, Stuart, 1996. Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies. Ed. David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen. London & New York: Routledge.

Jones, Steve. Interview. The World This Weekend. BBC Radio 4.11 January 1998.

Levinas, Emmanuel, 1969. Totality and Infinity. Trans. A. Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

McGuirk, Bernard, 1997. Latin American Literature. Symptoms, Risks & Strategies of Post-Structuralist Criticism. London & New York: Routledge.


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