This absorbing, eerie expedition into a forgotten world of working men’s clubs, enhanced by beguiling photography and cinematic flourishes. Yet this glossy grime couldn’t fully conceal the absence of analytical substance.
But the glossy sheen of Last Orders was dazzling. It exquisite cinematography that transformed Bradford into a vision of a parallel world. Flickering train journeys from London were intercut with images of the multicultural “experiment” of 60s Bradford that segued into a parade celebrating that multiculturalism before settling on the glum faces of the regulars of the Wibsey Working Men’s Club. One of the most striking scenes saw the silhouetted figures of the club secretary and assistant club secretary debate the future of the club, such as whether to turn on the heating, yet such was its beauty that it distracted from the conversation.
Documentary maker Henry Singer confessed to his ignorance of working men’s clubs and the working class culture before his several months sojourn filming at the Wibsey Working Men’s Club in Bradford. And this ignorance instilled the film with an aura of innocence as he ingratiated himself with the regulars, who gradually opened up to him.
And it was these chats with the regulars of the club that gave the film a personal attraction, so you were drawn into the struggle for the club to stay open against the odds. Less perspicacious were the reasons for the decline, you could have guessed these before the programme even began – unfashionable, unwilling to change, smoking ban, belief of bias towards immigrants – and Singer did little to offer a more profound explanation than the fact that Wibsey, like working men’s clubs across the country, were essentially the preserve of the elderly and conservative who, without a new generation keeping them up to date, will soon become extinct.
Despite the smoking ban was hastening the decline, working men’s clubs were, as you knew beforehand, a relic of a bygone age, and while this was sad, especially as Singer showed the dispossessed generation that would succeed them, it is an inevitability. Far more heartening and inspiring, at least at first, were the efforts of the committee to find someway to keep the club open. Yet even this was tarnished when it became apparent that the committee refused to modernise, and instead tried to cut costs by bickering over leaving the lights on at 3am when the club was being cleaned.
What Singer best achieved was to illustrate that the rift between the “indigenous” white population that inhabited the club and the Asian immigrants has been widened not by a particular schism between the older generation regulars but by the estrangement between their generation and their sons and daughters who have failed to follow their tradition of spending evenings in the club.
And it would be their sons and daughters who would mix with the Asian population, and who would introduce them to their parents as friends and even partners that would dispel the fear and prejudice that had infested the minds of the regulars of the club. Instead, many of the people Singer interviewed – all of whom were past 60 – spoke vaguely of how “they” had encroached on their village, and typically for this kind of ignorance particular to an older generation isolated from the world around it, insulating it against change, failed to offer any concrete examples of how the Asian population had damaged their lives.
Singer’s film also fell down badly in his presentation of how once he had established that the Wibsey regulars’ blind prejudice towards the Asian population was, of course, based on the root of all prejudice, fear, he then failed to find any member of the younger generation, offspring of the regulars, who could counter this perspective.
Instead, the only voices we heard from the younger denizens of Wibsey were a youth who was frustrated at not being able to find a job and so repeated the ignorance and bigotry of his antecedents – “It’s all Polish and Ukraines, they work for a pound a day and they’re happy that” – or extolling the trite delusional woe distinct to an obsolete generation – “This country’s gone to tatters” – of extrapolating their own frustrations, and perceived reasons behind this frustration to the rest of the nation.
The other younger voice Singer heard from was Paul, an unpleasant son of Eddie a regular at the club. Unlike the youth who seemed to blame immigrants as a vent for his own frustrations, Paul seemed to savour and revel in his bigotry and spite towards Muslims. And it was only Muslims he generously told Singer, he didn’t have a problem with anyone else – when his main gripe was that he could no longer smell Sunday roast in the streets, as if this was a favourite Indian dish. This made the crude swastika crudely etched into the Union Jack above his bed even more risible as he evidently didn’t understand what that totem of the terminally moronic actually meant.
He even embellished his antipathy with: “I hate Pakis that much I wouldn’t blink an eye if one of them was knocked down.” Singer observed correctly that Paul’s bitterness and sense of isolation – “It’s their country now, there’s more of them than us” – rang hollow when compared to the sense of community to be found in the club, a place Paul thought fit only “for old codgers”.
Although, Paul did seem to be a more belligerent and less tolerant version of his father’s generation who were dispirited by the betrayal of the Labour Party – who knew they would have to ‘modernise’ to survive even if this meant detaching its core vote in the belief that they would vote for them anyway as there was little alternative. Paul was proof that there was an ‘alternative’ to the Labour Party, professing his support to the BNP (although thankfully he is so slothful and apathetic he can’t be bothered to actually vote for them, yet).
However insightful the accounts of Paul and the youth were, they crystallised the central flaw of Last Orders – an alternative point of view. As there was no balance, no counterweight to the arguments put forward you were forced to bring your own opinions to bear on the film.
For instance, we found it impossible to believe that the white and Asian communities were so divided that there was no contact at all between the two to melt the ignorance on both sides. And once you began to apply your opinions to one aspect of the film, you applied them to others.
We speculated why the cross of St George that fluttered above the club had been cut down by about one-third. Singer kept focusing on it periodically as if urging us to draw some significance from it and by the end, after he had established the inherent racism of some regulars, we could only see that the severed portion represented the one-third of Bradford’s population in that wider area who weren’t white.
And when a sentence begins with “I’m not a racist…” it is the inevitable preamble towards a racist statement. One regular said: “I’m not a racist, I’m a Catholic. But I think there’s too much immigration; you can’t get in your own hospitals.” While another remarked: “I’ve no problem with racialism, but they’ve put their country on its knees.” And: “I’m not a racist but I do the ethnic community do seem to be favoured a lot, lot more than the indigenous community of Wibsey.”
The last of these comments was made by Bryn, who was painted elsewhere as a decent man fighting against the decline of the club. He was utterly adrift from any aspect of Asian culture, so how had he come to this conclusion – through hearsay, pub gossip or from a younger generation who appeared actively prejudiced against the Asian community? We weren’t privileged to any insight into Bryn’s reasons for his views, thus forcing us to regard him as just another ignorant old man despite the way in which he’d earlier been portrayed.
And when Singer asked Bryn who he had voted for at the last election, Bryn refused to say. Given that the regulars at the club, Bryn included, had earlier castigated the Labour Party, the intimation you formed was that he had voted for the BNP.
And while this opinion you formed seems crass and as prejudicial as many of the regulars had been about the Asian community, it was the only option on offer.
Perhaps Singer was trying to lull the viewers into making snap judgements as irrational as the people featured in the film to illustrate how easy it was to fall into bigotry, but as he didn’t offer the wider, more balanced view a film such as this requires it would be unfair to entrap the viewer in that same way that the Wibsey Working Men’s Club is locked in to a spiral of inexorable decline.