The Black Country born photographer and artist Richard Billingham first came to fame in the mid to late 1990s, when his award winning photographic collection of his working class parents formed part of Charles Saatchi’s YBA exhibition, ‘Sensation’. At the height of what was known as ‘Cool Britannia’, Billingham’s uncompromising look to the recent past, via snapshots of his alcoholic father and obese tattooed mother’s bleak existence in Thatcherite poverty, stuck out like a sore thumb alongside the forward-looking, chi-chi works of Damien Hirst et al. The art critic Julian Stallabrass described it best when he said that Billingham’s work provided “what is in legend a particularly British stoicism and resilience, in the face of the tempest of modernity.”
Ray & Liz, Billingham’s debut feature film, based on his own impoverished childhood and those candid photographs (which formed the 1996 book, ironically entitled Ray’s a Laugh), is something of a timely one in that the modernity Stallabrass suggested existed in the last days of the twentieth century no longer exists in a present day which now to has more in common with the society Billingham’s parents endured in the 1980s. In a recent interview with the BFI, Billingham has said “I think the story and setting do resonate with what’s going on today. If you go outside London, it feels like Thatcherism all over again… I lived through the Thatcher era, and it was horrible if you were poor, and that’s the case again today” and, although he stresses this was not his motivation and that the timing was incidental, the comparisons are nonetheless there to be drawn. Of course, some critics may praise Ray & Liz on the same artistic terms as the earlier photographic collection, whilst others may sniffily dismiss it as little more than voyeuristic ‘poverty porn’, drawing comparisons with controversial reality TV shows like Benefits Street which are, frankly inevitable, given that the star of that series, Deirdre Kelly (aka ‘White Dee’) appears here in the film’s latter stages as an older version of Billingham’s mother, Liz. But to dismiss the film as bleakly depressing or voyeuristic is to miss the point of a body of work that now stretches across the decades. The uncomfortable feelings you may experience from watching Ray & Liz (or from looking at the photographs that inspired the film) is wholly intentional – Billingham wants you to question your impressions of a world that may be alien to you, or simply one that you may turn away from and pretend isn’t happening. It is a film that depicts a brutal and ugly situation full of equally uncompromising and unflatteringly depicted characters but, as the story progresses, you will start to question the real brutality of a society that allows such people to fall through the cracks in the first place.
For me, Ray & Liz offers a stark glimpse of a reality that I am, as a working class man who still lives in the deprived, post-industrial town he was born in, all too familiar with. More, given that I grew up in the era that the film is set, it offers a Proustian rush of memories and feelings that is almost exclusively down to Billingham’s training as a photographer. He has this uncanny ability to latch onto an image here (be it a vast glass jar of red cabbage or the livery of a long forgotten boardgame or jigsaw puzzle) and asks you to reconsider such bland, seemingly innocuous detail as if for the first time, or as how you may have viewed it as a child. Indeed, much of the film is told from the perspective of a child, either Richard himself as a ten-year-old (played by Jacob Tuton) or, later in the film, from the point of view of his younger brother Jason (an impressive debut from juvenile Joshua Millard-Lloyd).
The film is structured in three, intimate-to-the-point-of-claustrophobic vignettes. The first is especially expressionistic, depicting an older Ray (Patrick Romer) whose solitary existence is played out in the squalid little bedroom of a high-rise flat. Through a series of leisurely paced, virtually dialogue-free scenes, we begin to see that this little boxy room is a prison cell for the ailing old man, a place that is enlivened only by the radio and the occasional visits from Sid (Richard Ashton) a neighbour whose features are hidden by long hair, a beard and large glasses and who delivers three 3 litre bottles of disgusting looking home brew that the alcoholic Ray will diligently work his way through, one glass at a time, links in a chain as secure as any gaolor’s handcuffs. Left to his own devices, Ray has only his memories to turn to and this leads us into the second vignette, which takes place in a dilapidated terrace in the 1980s. Here, Ray is played by Justin Salinger (previously seen in Crowhurst which I reviewed on this very site), as a newly-redundant, weaselly-faced family man; husband to the matronly, chain-smoking and fiery tempered Liz (Ella White), and father to the ten-year-old Richard and the two-year-old Jason. A visit from Ray’s brother Lol (Tony Way), a slow-witted chatterbox and butt-of-everyone’s-jokes that we’d now diagnose as having learning difficulties, initially plays out like a lost Mike Leigh production but, when the family depart to leave Lol with the young lodger Will (Sam Gittins), the full extent of Lol’s perpetual victimhood is harrowingly revealed in scenes that point towards Billingham’s other clear inspiration, the semi-autobiographical films of Terence Davies which seldom shied away from violence, neglect or abuse.
It is this shadow of neglect and dysfunctionality that looms large over the final vignette that focuses on the eight-year-old Jason. The family now live in the high-rise that we have seen in the sequences with the older Ray. Like so many millions of others, it’s clear that Ray has been unable to find further work in Thatcher’s Britain and spends much of the time sleeping in bed alongside Liz, leaving the children to their own devices. This is fine for the sixteen-year-old Richard (Sam Plant) who has discovered a whole new world of books and the arts from his back bedroom, but for the younger Jason’s inquisitive mind and restless energy there is to be no such respite, leading to dangerous consequences. Just like the hindsight we now have in relation to Lol’s character, it’s easy to understand now that Ray and Liz are, at this stage, simply too far ground down by the realities of a life of penury and just too clinically depressed, to provide an acceptable level of parenting for their children. It is here that Ray & Liz as a film has something over Ray’s a Laugh – a film can explore the reality of such lives in more depth and, as such, can elicit a greater understanding and ultimately a compassion for a family falling apart before your very eyes. It’s not a film that deals in black and white characters or premises, it’s a film that firmly occupies the grey territories and is all the better for it.
Despite following a tradition that can include the aforementioned Leigh and Davies, as well as Bill Douglas, Shane Meadows, Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold, Ray & Liz stands out as a unique and unforgettable film experience. Shot on 16mm and in 4:3 ratio, it conjures up the spirit of the era it is set in without falling back on convenient needle-drops (though there is a fantastic one from Siouxsie and the Banshees and the credits punch their way out to Fine Young Cannibals) and corny Peter Kay-like nostalgia-fest – only one scene with Liz patiently proclaiming herself to be ‘on the side’ over a CB mic falls into the chucklesome ‘remember that? How mad was that?’ territory. It is an incredibly tactile experience that immerses you into the bleak and grubby world of breadline families and alcoholism that it so unflinchingly depicts. It’s a hard watch and one that was so inclusive that I felt like I needed a damn good shower afterwards, but make no mistake this is a very good film.
RAY & LIZ IS PLAYING AT SELECTED CINEMAS NATIONWIDE
ALSO FEATURED ON EPISODE 196 OF CINEMA ECLECTICA