James H.F. Lloyd reviews the new hard-hitting new television drama from the pen of Alan Harris, The Left Behind.
Four people in pig masks burst into a Halal butchers, whooping and hollering. The two men behind the counter look scared and confused, feebly trying to defuse the situation while the thugs storm about the place. One at first cowers away from the violence. Even behind the grotesque mask you can see a hesitance, a faint tremor of horror in what he is doing. Until goaded by the camera in his face, he picks up a chair and smashes it through the window.
This is not the beginning or the end. Alan Harris’ The Left Behind follows the story of Gethin, just another face in a queue of others waiting for council housing, up for eviction along with his pregnant sister and her family. Their house is damp and dilapidated, but it’s better than the homelessness they are threatened with. They work zero hours contracts, scrabbling for extra shifts they find out about through texts from their bosses. They have no money and no time. All they want is a little security and a place to live, but these things seem to be too much to ask for. Meanwhile, a Muslim family moves into the house they had hoped to have across the street, triggering a slow descent into alienation and bitterness.
Where Gethin and his sister go for housing, they are statistics first, people second, as their numbers are sounded with a buzzer that would mean “Wrong!” on a gameshow. There is no mention of where they are, but it is unmistakably Cardiff, and the drama is undoubtedly a critique of the city. This Cardiff is a neoliberal wet dream. It doesn’t shy away from the contrast of glittering shopping centres and streets lined with the homeless. The local haunts feel haunted, peripheral. Gothic, austere lighting peers through gaps in the curtains. The social club, some memory of community and pride, is empty; too big for Gethin stooped over his pint.
Gethin himself is reserved and quiet. There’s a boyish innocence to him. The gentle way he looks at his new friend Yaz is endearing. It could easily be the beginning to a sweet and unlikely romance against a backdrop of growing racism and discontent. We get to know him and his simple struggles to take his niece to school while also arriving at work on time. The world is tough, but there is always a glimmer of hope that everything will turn out okay. A cynic might call it naivety. But this is not the Gethin we first meet in a brief flash-forward; withdrawn behind his grotesque, demonic pig mask, whooping and hollering into a Halal butchers. How did he get to this?
That is the question that inspired this drama, which is being released at a time when hate crimes have grown exponentially in the past few years, directly correlating with austerity and neoliberal policy. Like director Joseph Bullman’s other dramas, Killed by My Debt and the Murdered by… series, and similar to the films of Ken Loach, The Left Behind was based on research into the plight of working class communities and the evolution of the far right. The drama opens with a grim statistic that in 2018 there was a 36% increase in the number of far-right referrals to the UK Government’s Counter-terrorism programme. Screenwriter Harris, whose best dramatic work has always focussed on the working classes of Cardiff, articulates the state of precariousness and desperation of those who descend into hate-filled violence. He brilliantly explores the consequences of the death of the working class, replaced by what the economist Guy Standing calls the precariat; isolated, insecure workers. (Gethin’s boss attempts to mask it by calling him an “associate”). The characters at times speak for the voices of a whole class of the disenfranchised and embittered. We have all heard these people as vox pops on the news, as audience members on Question Time or, more copiously, as enraged voices on Facebook comments. What The Left Behind illustrates is that these sentiments are not born of hatred, but fear and desperation.
There were times when The Left Behind evokes Taxi Driver; a film that critiqued the gutting of social budgets by Reagan, who alongside Thatcher paved the way for today’s crisis of austerity and neoliberal policy. Gethin is similar to the lonely and isolated Travis Bickle, wandering the streets of a home city he no longer recognises, dangerously ruminating into desperation and violence. The camerawork isolates Gethin from everything around him as he becomes more reclusive, drip fed a warped reality through the internet. His vision is stunted to his immediate surroundings. He cannot see far. As he sinks deeper into despair and anger the blurring out-of-focus camerawork mimics his inability to think clearly. The eerie music, reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s haunting choir song around the monolith, marks his slow deterioration.
For a drama about hate, The Left Behind is filled with a remarkable amount of compassion. It is made clear throughout that everyone is struggling to keep their heads above water, and the immigrants or Muslims or anyone that gets the blame for Gethin and his friend’s plight are also in precarious situations. But this compassion and understanding become further from Gethin’s mindset as he loses control with frightening speed. It is clear to us watching that this is not the fault of an immigrant in need of shelter: it is of some distant government body, who even the people that work for them feel far removed to the point of frustration and inaction. Their compassionate words feel truthful, but hollow.
It’s frustrating to watch, not least because Gethin is unable to be heard through the wall of bureaucracy, but because the problems could be so easily solved. It’s this simple solution of decent housing and job security that stops it tipping into despair. It’s hard not to empathise with Gethin and the others surviving in Cardiff, struggling to obtain basic decency from a government that seems unwilling to do anything about this crisis. The collaboration of director Joseph Bullman and writer Alan Harris works brilliantly to bring this bleak reality of Britain to the fore. What we glimpse is a small shaft of light into the unseen neoliberal Britain, and onto our own prejudices.
Alan Harris’ The Left Behind is available now to watch on BBC Three