by Allan Fish
(UK 1978 90m) not on DVD
It’s nothing to do with us
p Tony Garnett d Roland Joffé w Jim Allen ph Nat Crosby ed Bill Shapter
Christine Hargreaves (Pauline Crosby), Bernard Hill (Sullivan), Peter Kerrigan (Peter), Paula McDonagh (Paula), Gertie Almond (Gertie), Elaine Lindsay (Mrs Johnson),
As I write it’s only a month or two after the riots that spread from London to other British cities, in which people saw the chance to loot and pillage in the way they flock to a cash machine once news gets out that it’s overpaying those who stand in line. The copycat acts that took place were shameful, and yet opened up that old cancer at the heart of modern Britain. Watching The Spongers now in the aftermath of these events only makes any piece one can write about it seem like Anton Walbrook in Colonel Blimp when he teaches about the lessons not being learned and the school fees coming round again. And you’d better pay those debts, or else you may lose your furniture.
Pauline is a single mother, abandoned by her husband, with four children, her eldest, Paula, suffering from Down’s Syndrome and attending a special care centre. She owes over £250 rent and the bailiffs have come round with an order to take her furniture for non-payment. She gets a week’s delay while she tries desperately for a contingency one off payment from social services, but they and the council are only interested in making their budget deficits and to hell with the consequences.
Just as the police numbers are taken off the streets and riots result in 2011, here the cuts have only one aim; to make financial sense. So poor Paula is taken from her specialist care to a home largely populated by old people, simply because it’s nearer to her mother and easier to get to. Like telling an old woman with a sick dog that she can’t take it to the vets 10 miles away, she’ll have to make do with the kennels a mile down the road, and then expect to be pleased about it.
In truth it was far worse back in the late seventies, where social services and benefits staff all seem to speak like they had a plum up their backside and had ‘A’ levels in patronisation. Where they always knew better and could go home to their cosy semi-detached at the end of the day without feeling anything. A world where you had to make do and chin up, even as your couch and TV were making their way out of the front door; furniture taken not because the council would get money for it, but purely to humiliate and belittle. The whole notion that if you were on benefits you were a scrounger, a parasite, is faced head on by Allen in his fearless drama. Right from the opening credits it makes its points, such as celebratory hoarding boards of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh being pictured as the title comes up. Communities celebrate the Silver Jubilee of a couple who, it may be argued, are the real parasites. And from that opening it’s impossible to see anything other than despair for its protagonists, and one would feel despair if it were not so crushingly familiar. Watching The Spongers is like a television equivalent of those stress kits sent by email, of a circle to be printed off, placed on a wall, and used to bang your head against. The cast are superb, especially Hargreaves and Hill as the exasperated community worker who tries so desperately to help and is left utterly powerless. All of this was under a labour government, and only a few months later another writer would make another statement about the working class in and around Liverpool, about a group of tarmac layers doing a foreigner in Middlesbrough. Hill would be there again, and lay the seeds of something equally special a few years later. Years later, Chris Eccleston recalled seeing The Spongers as a child with his mother and how it made him want to work in television, championing Jim Allen as a hero. At the end, after the devastating final act, one recalls Eccleston himself waking in Jude to find his children dead and a note reading “we was too menny.” It’s still the same, deaths merely a statistic in a logistic proposal for politicians. It’s still not on DVD, as if the shadow-of-its-former-self BBC were ashamed of it. No better back-handed compliment could be made, for this should be seen until the word ‘expedient’ is removed from the dictionary.