England Expects

Monday, April 5, 2004 by

It seems more than a coincidence that this two-hour drama suddenly appeared on our screens just as a new round of immigration and asylum issues are currently making the news. As a consequence of the Twin Towers attack and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the demonisation of Islam is finding sympathetic ears amongst white people in certain areas of the UK and in this drama, scriptwriter Frank Deasy seeks to highlight these tensions.

England Expects tells us the tale of Ray Knight, a working class white man whose life is in turmoil. His family life is in ruins, his ex-wife is an alcoholic, his daughter is a heroin addict and he is obsessed with a female work colleague. Angered at the unwillingness of the council to rehouse his family and at the dealers who have destroyed his daughter, Ray finds himself drawn back into the murky world of race hate. He meets up with Larry, the leader of a far-right political party who is aiming to have his puppet candidate elected as a councillor at the forthcoming local election.

Despite promising trailers, this is no King of the Ghetto and the drama fails to deliver satisfactorily as it tried to tell two entirely different stories which are linked by the flimsiest of threads: that of Ray’s disintegration. His identity crisis, his failure as a husband and father, his own father’s taunting of him, and his feelings of inadequacy and injustice all contribute to his downfall as does the fact that he loses his job over the woman he is obsessed with. It is when she makes a complaint of sexual harassment against him that finally pushes him over the edge. He feels particularly aggrieved over this as she had (drunkenly) egged him on in the company car park and came very close to having sex with him until her telephone rang.

The play has a schizophrenic nature and does not appear to know entirely what it wants to be. Is the main thrust supposed to be about racism, or the breakdown of an ordinary man? Just as the viewer finds themselves absorbed in the racial aspects of the story, things change and you suddenly finds yourself watching Ray spying on the woman he works with. This aspect of the story has a particularly disturbing and unsettling feel to it as we see Ray intruding on Alison while she is using the toilet, poring over the contents of her handbag, watching security tapes of her at home and even giving his daughter the same kind of perfume she wears. Because of this aspect of his behaviour, it is difficult to have any degree of sympathy with Ray at all.

The workings of the far-right are not explored fully either. Other than a brief public meeting, and the beating up of an Asian kid by some white youngsters, we see little evidence of why they act the way that they do. Larry appears to want to ignite a race war in Britain, and his means of achieving this is to present the far-right as respectable political animals, such as his candidate Angela Swain. Racial issues do not appear to be the prime motivation for her political career as when we see her on the campaign trial most of her chat involves the state of the street lighting and refuse collection – problems associated with inner-city living wherever people are from and whatever the colour of their skin. Swain has to be pre-prepared by Larry prior to the meeting on the racial issues, and if it were not for him diverting her along the path that he wants her to travel, she would most likely make a fairly decent public servant.

Despite its problems, England Expects raises some interesting points, perhaps most notably about the attitude of the coloured security guard who doesn’t like “Pakis” and the fact that Ray’s football training group looks to be a breeding ground for future BNP fodder (as well as future football hooligans in the making). The fact that Ray is initially friends with this security guard serves to highlight the absurdity of his attitudes. We see that the problems that Ray feels aggrieved with also affect the very people he hates so much: his daughter’s Asian friend Russell is a heroin addict too. Again, both are victims of a problem of deprivation and inner-city living rather than anything to do with race. Two or three times Ray expresses his disgust at Jewish people, so it is clear that his racial attitudes are not only set against people who are not white. Like Larry, Ray believes that England should be for the English. He is so mixed-up that he sees Alison’s boyfriend Daniel as a symptom of what is wrong with Britain simply because he is a well-to-do businessman: it is not explicitly stated that Daniel is Jewish, but this does not stop Ray from making him a target of his venom (as well as his urine).

Steven Mackintosh, no stranger to the role of the broken man, is the star of the show and gives a great performance as Ray, even if he does sound at times very much like David Brent with his frequent “yeah” vocalisms. Despite all of the terrible things that have happened to him, for most of the play he has an otherworldly, detached appearance. It is only toward the very end that we see him lose this facade and go berserk with a crossbow, shooting an innocent Asian woman in the shoulder. Keith Barron as Larry has very little to do for most of the time, but comes into his own when he smarmily denies in front of the television cameras that he ever had anything to do with Ray.

Had the writer elected to cover a single storyline fully (preferably the race one), rather than dealing with two separate ones, England Expects could have had much more impact than it ultimately does.


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