The Films That Made Us: Riff-Raff

Riff-Raff (1991)

Growing up, I spent the majority of my school holidays on building sites at work with my father. Rising at the break of dawn, we’d rustle up a carb-heavy lunch before climbing into his pick-up, dust pluming from the seats as we sank into them, filling the van with a grainy haze that would settle on our skin and stay there for the remainder of the day. All the men on my dad’s side of the family work in construction. I was never really cut out for it, but by the time I saw Ken Loach’s Riff-Raff I had spent many years surrounded by the world it depicted. I could see my dad, his colleagues and friends in the characters Loach and screenwriter Bill Jesse brought to the screen, their place of work, their humour and their spirit.

Released in 1991, probably around the time I first stepped foot on a building site, Riff-Raff was directed by Ken Loach from a screenplay by the late Bill Jesse, a construction worker himself who died at age 48 before Riff-Raff was completed, it remaining his only writing credit. It tells the story of Stevie (played by a 30 year old Robert Carlyle), a Glaswegian labourer who has travelled to London in search of work. He finds employment on a construction site, joining a merry band of bricklayers, plasterers and carpenters, a full outfit of skilled and unskilled workers. The un-unionised crew are at work on a new housing development, turning a derelict hospital into luxury flats, a bitter legacy to the soon-departed PM, Margaret Thatcher. Conditions on the site are unsafe and unsanitary, but with no one to represent the workers’ rights, these dangers persist.

Despite a romantic sub-plot, Riff-Raff is really about an everyday man trying to better his standing in life through hard graft. He drinks, he smokes and he has a temper. He runs a slightly dodgy sideline in multicoloured boxer shorts, and he hangs around with an honest-to-good tribe of roustabouts and renegades who are liable to get themselves in trouble now and then, either with the boss or with the law.

Through Ricky Tomlinson’s Larry, Loach and Jesse give an empowered voice to the working-man - “I never voted for Margaret Thatcher… Margaret Thatcher got 41% of the vote. There was another 59% who voted against her,” (lamenting voter margins will always feel relevant). Politicised and on the ball, Larry speaks up for his fellow workers’ safety and is swiftly fired for his trouble, setting up the tragic incident that closes the film.

The bold, brash and sometimes crass characters seem drawn straight from my memories of work with my father and uncles, where lunchtime was a showcase of bombastic wit. A workforce of dirty-faced comedians cracking wise in wild pursuit of the wind-up, all laughing from the pits of their stomachs in a binding display of camaraderie. Ribbing was your initiation and insults are terms of endearment. And it’s there on screen in its theatrical glory, true as it was. I recall a time when one bricklayer was putting the finishing touches to a low wall. He stood back to admire his handiwork saying “now that looks good, doesn’t it?” Another agreed with “yeah, it does mate,” before breaking into a few bars of Bette Midler’s ‘From a Distance’ as he sidled off laughing to himself.

When I returned to work with my father for a brief period following university, things seemed jaded on the site. A little less raucous. The recession had hit and, of course, everyone had grown older. They’d been doing this for a long time now. Any criticism that Ken Loach has never developed his shtick is a reflection on how, it seems, time doesn’t change for everyone. There are clear parallels to be drawn across all of his films, of course, but return to any one of the characters in Riff-Raff now, 25 years on, and you could well be looking at Daniel Blake. I could see for myself that drama can be found in some unlikely places, in the commonplace and in the rubble beneath my feet. But Riff-Raff had long before proved it, as has I, Daniel Blake again.

The film is a product of its time, dated in its aesthetic but many of its then contemporary reference points still ring true - the development the crew are working on and Larry’s exasperated proclamation that “No one should be without a home in the 1990s” echo what we hear today about the lack of affordable housing in the country’s capital. On a weekend the men all head to Stoke Newington to hear Susan sing at an ill-fated gig, just as people flock to that same trendy part of town now. And to this day Ricky Tomlinson is still up for a fight with the powers that be.

I’d urge anyone who connected with Loach’s latest to seek out Riff-Raff, a pertinent companion piece from a filmmaker who has consistently seen the drama of a quotidian life, leaving marks throughout our history for us to return to and consider what has or hasn’t moved on, always sure to raise the alarm again and again as need be. 

[Ryan Hewitt, Curzon Head Office]

This piece is part of our ongoing series The Films That Made Us. Follow us on twitterFacebook and Instagram to discover more!