Riff-Raff (1990)




Director:  Ken Loach. 

Starring:  Robert Carlyle (Steve), Emer McCourt (Susan), Richard Belgrave (Kojo), Jim R. Coleman (Shem), David Finch (Kevin), Garrie J. Lammin (Mick), Dean Perry (Wilf), George Moss (Mo), Willie Ross (Gus Siddon), Ade Sapara (Fiaman), Ricky Tomlinson (Larry), Derek Young (Desmonde).

British working life under Prime Minister Thatcher


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie.

Rats run around in the streets around the Prince of Wales Hospital, which is undergoing construction.  A young man named Steve sleeps on the street by the hospital where he works on the reconstruction of the building.  One of the more union-conscious men says that nobody should be without a home.  When challenged by one of the three black workmen, the man says "I never voted for Margaret Thatcher.  She only got 41% percent of the vote."   A group of the men help Steve "squat" in an apartment in a huge complex. 

Management complains about the working men who they regard as so much riff-raff.  The main supervisor says "Look at them lousy bastards."  He tell his assistant that now they got a card deck and are playing cards.  He tells the assistant to fire the "smurf man". 

The men kill a big rat and then some of the baby rats found in a nest of rats.  Steve finds a lady's bag and takes it home with him.  He looks up the address and goes to the house.  At first the woman will not let him in so he starts walking away.  Then she invites him in .  Her name is Susan Miles and she is trying to be a singer.  He tells her that he wants to have a shop where he can sell boxer shorts.  Steve and some of his work buddies attend one of Susan's gigs and sees her shouted off the stage by a hostile audience shouting "get off" over and over again.  The union laborer gets up on stage and tells the crowd that they should not have made the poor girl cry.  He calls her back out on stage and she does much better with the song about "I get high with a little help from my friends".

Steve wants to be romantic with her but she tells him that she does not want to complicate her life at this time.  But she does agree to move in with Steve.  There she admits to Steve that she tried to kill herself once and that "I really want this to work". 

Steve sells a piece of equipment from the job site and the guys split the money amongst themselves.  One of the workers almost falls off the scaffolding.  The union man tells the other workers that there are no safety codes in place and that without a union there will be no money for any of the workers if they get hurt on the job.  He adds:  "We should get organized."  The labor fellow takes the workers' complaints to the supervisor, who gives him a vague promise about how this will all be sorted out by Thursday.  At pay time, the labor man finds himself out of a job. 

On the radio Steve hears a message to Patrick (now Steve) to contact his home in Glasgow, Scotland.  Steve tells Susan that he is going home for a few days.  Susan wants him to return the next day.  She asks him:  "Please don't go.  I love you."  Parts of Steve's Glasgow look pretty run down.  Steve attends the funeral of his mother and is present at the rather comical spreading of the ashes ceremony. 

Susan sings for money in the subway.  Steve returns home to find Susan injecting her veins with drugs.  He had a terrible experience with a relative who was a druggie and he wants no part of that world again.  He asks Susan to move out of his apartment.  The next day Susan tries to talks with Steve at his work but he will not budge.  She complies and leaves the apartment. 

One of the workers pulls a joke on the supervisor.  He uses the supervisor's communications gear to put in a local call.  The supervisor sees him and has him fired for being a wise-ass.  The  worker gets angry and throws the communications gear off the roof.  The assistant supervisor tries to push the worker along and he gets head-butted instead by the still angry worker. 

One of the black workers leans against the scaffolding and it gives way.  He is left hanging onto the roof calling for help.  Steve and another worker try to come to his rescue, but they can't hold him and he falls many a story down to the road.  He does not die immediately, but does die.  Steve and the fellow who tried to help him save the man who fell from the roof set fire to the old hospital.  The whole building burns while the two arsonists look on.


Pretty good movie.  It presents a picture of bad working conditions, nasty managers and an unchecked profit motive.   The managers fire workers for almost any kind of insubordination no matter how small.  It almost seems completely arbitrary at times.   The men are afraid to organize so they take out their anger in joking about management, stealing and selling company equipment and finally arson.  Perhaps Thatcher did do some good for the British economy, but part of it was on the backs of the workers.  (She and her buddy Ronald Reagan will never be my idols.  People are not usually famous for creating greater inequality in their respective nations.)

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


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