Glasgow’s dustcart workers went on strike in June 1975. As they fought for parity of pay with other HGV drivers 60,000 tons of rubbish built up. The new film Ratcatcher is set in the slum tenements of Glasgow during the strike. James, a young boy, ekes out a miserable existence. His home is an overcrowded slum. His family has no money. He accidentally drowns his friend and has to watch his family mourn.
This realistic film has met with critical acclaim. The Guardian called it ‘maybe the best film of the year’. With thousands of children still living in dire poverty, this film could be a story about today’s children. It portrays the grinding effect of poverty on the whole family and the community. Is it any wonder his dad drinks? Is it any wonder his friends’ first sexual experiences are so horrible?
James discovers a new housing estate being built when he escapes the city for a day. He asks his mum, ‘Can we have a big house with a toilet and a bathroom and a field?’ Fun and affection are in short supply in this battle for survival. But a few tender moments shine through, showing that even in the most desperate circumstances people can struggle to make some happiness.
Capitalism boomed for two decades after the Second World War. Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan said in 1959, ‘You’ve never had it so good.’ The film shows that some people had never had it at all. The style of the film reinforces the story. The people do not look good. They look tired, even the children. Every day James’s friend has a new bruise. The documentary style, the lighting, even the music that sounds like it belongs in The Godfather, create a sense that this is the frontline. This is a film in the best traditions of Ken Loach.
Unfortunately the film does not give any context. You do not know who is in government. You do not know why the strike is taking place. The Labour government brought in the Social Contract in the mid-1970s. It claimed that by keeping down the wages of the better paid workers it could increase the pay of the worst off. In practice the ‘social con trick’ drove down the living standards of all workers.
The government won the trade union leaders to support the con trick. This meant the dustcart strikers were left almost alone. The children played in the rotting rubbish. The Labour council was prepared to risk their health to beat the dustcart workers. The press and Labour blamed the strikers for the health hazard. Yet, as Socialist Worker said at the time, ‘Where did the rats come from? The stinking council tenements.’
The Labour government eventually sent the troops in to clear the rubbish. This caused a big split in the city at the time, which is reflected in the film. If this is the new wave of British films, it is another sign that Blair’s ‘New Britain’ is not even convincing the film makers.
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