Uprising review – Steve McQueen’s series on New Cross Fire is angry and destructive TV | TV and radio
The is New shoot, which happened on January 18, 1981, passed through Steve McQueen’s small ax A series of films, two of them in particular. There was a silent counterpart to rock lovers, a kind of negative photography of the collective joy and celebration of a house party, filmed live in Alex Wheatle, as one of the sparks that ignited the Brixton riots in uprising (BBC One), McQueen and its co-director James Rogan tell the story of the fire and its aftermath in documentary form, over three prime-time episodes. She’s gorgeous, angry, and human.
Thirteen black British youths were killed at a communal birthday party that night, in a fire widely believed to have been an act of arson committed by racists. The approach to the uprising is twofold. First, it establishes the cultural context, painting an unflattering picture of Britain in the 1970s and early 1980s. The National Front is on the rise and running. The police are widely racist. George Roden, who joined the force at the age of sixteen and was branded a traitor by his friends because of it, remembers a fellow officer who brazenly flaunted the FN insignia he attached to his raincoat from the inside, just as they were about to police the front march. Thatcher’s 1978 speech is ugly and exploitative. “People are really afraid of this country being overwhelmed by people with a different culture,” she says. Newspapers reported that robberies are crimes committed exclusively by black young men against older white women. “I felt like they wanted to purge us from the streets,” says the real Whittle, who appears here as one of many interviewees.
McQueen and Rogan spoke to police officers, counselors, activists, family members, and survivors, and were given space to tell this oral history from all sides. It’s expertly made, and pieced together in a relay, with each person picking up a thread and weaving it into the overall picture. He carefully chooses his details, adds personal touches, and layers the kinds of anecdotes that culminate in a whole life picture. Wayne Haynes was one of three DJs at the party that night, and the only one who survived. His story doesn’t start with the party, but with his upbringing. It “wasn’t part of the plan” for him to end up living on a property in New Cross, but family circumstances turned it around. He recalls that police tactics at the time were to patrol notorious estates, pick up young black children, and then “kick the hell out of you and then let you back on the street.” Talking about Battle of Lewisham, in 1977, when anti-racist demonstrators fought the National Front, the moment when “people began to respond.” There were arson attacks in the area. A club, a theater, each burned. There were no arrests.
What makes the uprising so fascinating is how intimate it is. Many of those interviewed survived the fire. Some left the party early. Others fled and are still not sure how to manage it. Brothers Dennis and Richard Gooding and their mother, Ina, talk about the community they grew up in, about New Cross, where doors are left open for people to get in and out, music is always on, and their dad plays dominoes. “We didn’t have much, but we were happy,” Richard says. It’s evocative, even in its quietest notes. Richard sarcastically says he was in and out of the party that night, because it was a sixteenth birthday party, and at 18 or 19, he felt too old for it. Denise talks about how happy she was to be invited. “Boy, I was so excited,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘This party is great.'” Just like Lovers Rock, the atmosphere is straightforward: good music, plenty of food, a tight-knit network of friends, family and acquaintances, all partying until the early hours. We don’t know that Denise was only 11 years old until she talked about trying to escape the thick, dark smoke, thinking she hadn’t yet lived enough of her life.
Watching this with knowledge of the horror to come is almost unbearable, but he has a clear determination to show the true and full human life of the people who have died. Sandra Ruddock tells the story of meeting her husband Paul, of his show, of how excited he was for her to be pregnant. She leaves him at the party to take her little daughter home; She describes, quite simply, a knock on the door at 8:30 a.m. the next morning. Andrew Hastings, a friend of Paul’s, recalls the arrival of the firefighters and asks if anyone is inside. ‘It’s full of little children,’ he told them, his face still betraying shock now. In the final moments of this first episode, as described by those who suffered the horrific chaos of the fire, black and white images of the victims flash one after another on the screen. It’s a touch simple and totally devastating.