Riff-Raff (1991) – Film Analysis

riff raff

Nuran Yıldırım

Middle East Technical University

Throughout the 1980s, the United Kingdom has been challenged by a political and economic transformation from state-centered into a neo-liberal form. Neo-liberalism arose with the election of ‘new right’ political leader, Margaret Thatcher in particular. Then neo-liberalism spread in various parts of the globe especially under the influence of the World Bank, the IMF as well as the European Union. Since the neo-liberalism is defined as a set of policies to promote the political economy of capitalism which based on deregulation, privatization, globalization and a laissez faire economy, Margaret Thatcher in the light of these policies aimed to promote an equality of power and wealth throughout the society in the United Kingdom. Thus, taking Thatcher’s policies into account, in this essay, I will try to analyze Riff-Raff (1991), a film directed by Ken Loach and starring Robert Carlyle and Ricky Tomlinson[1]. Apart from being a best picture award winner film in the 1991 European Film Award, Riff-Raff is an important film to show living conditions of Britain’s working class in the Thatcher era. In this context, my focus will be on the consequences of the neo-liberal policies on characters and events of the film, particularly immigration and multicultural policies, the collapse of trade unions and the alienation of the workers. Additionally, I will point out several shortcomings of the film and finally a conclusion will be made to summarize the key points made in the main part.

Initially, it might be argued, the film ‘Riff Raff’ was written by Bill Jesse who is a former construction worker and it is directed by Ken Loach. It builds a portrait of every day life of workers in a construction site. The construction site presented throughout the film is a colorful one with different lives, dreams, and so forth. Robert Carlyle plays Stevie who is a young Scotsman just arrived to London. While all the workers differ one way or another and each have their own stories to tell (e.g., one of them was dreaming to go to Africa), they have one thing in common: the misery. All workers were working under an abusive and unsafe atmosphere where anyone can get injured or even die any time. In addition, wages are so low, living conditions are bad, for example, the construction site was full of rats. Since most of workers are not able to afford taxes, they use false names, have no bank accounts and get their checks under false names. Sometimes in order to receive their checks, they ask other workers to receive their checks in exchange with money.

In this context, it is worth to recall Thatcher’s Britain in terms of its immigration and multicultural policies. In other words, an analysis of the role of neo-liberalism in conceptions of immigration and multicultural policies is necessary. During the 1980s, ethnic minorities became geographically segregated and they constituted as part of the ‘miserable British’. Furthermore, the entry of ethnic minorities for settlement was controlled and limited to close relatives. In the 1988 Immigration Act, the Thatcher government went further to remove the family reunion right. In the 1988 Education Reform Act, Thatcher opposed positive action to aid integration or to encourage multicultural diversity by emphasizing the importance of British history, English language and Christianity. Therefore, despite its all freedom policies, neo-liberalism did not tolerate cultural diversity and rather than recognizing difference, erasing is supported to bring justice for minorities as well as majorities. Inequality mostly associated with individual ability in the free market. However, the situation was so this, it is questionable how and why most of the workers still voted for Thatcher repeatedly. Even one of the workers, Larry, tries to criticize this situation, but the film does not have a didactic overtone and it just mirror the life of workers, the question stays without an answer.

Additionally, the film presents the collapse of the trade unions due to policies that are introduced by Thatcher in the 1980s. One of the important reasons is why she was called ‘Iron Lady’ is that the way she crushed the UK’s trade unions and weakened the powers of the unions, particularly by making it more difficult to strike legally during her reign. For instance, in a famous speech Margaret Thatcher says:

“We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty,” (Thatcher, 1984)

In the film, when Larry (Ricky Tomlinson) complains about the unsafe and hazardous conditions, he is easily fired from his job without any explanations or payment. Therefore, the labor union movement had been weakened and led to a decline in union membership. Union membership plummeted from a peak of 12 million in the late 70s to almost half that by the late 80s.

Lastly and the most importantly, the film give voices to worker’s alienated life under the construction site of a hospital into luxury apartments which they can never afford to live in. According to theory of alienation formulated by Karl Marx, people lose the control of their lives through losing control over their work under capitalist conditions, e.g., workers do not work autonomous, they lose their know-how and technical skills and become like machines. While Stevie is presented as a model for daily routine of workers’ life, the film switches between his relationship with Susan who is an untalented singer and life scenes demonstrating Stevie and his fellows – workers of the construction site. When Stevie and Susan were discussing in one scene, Stevie famously states that: ‘Depressions are for the middle classes, the rest of us have got an early start in the morning.’ And this clearly shows how alienated life is for workers. In addition, the advertising campaign used during the 1979 general elections by Thatcher’s conservative party, ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ poster should be also noted to show the situation throughout 1980s.

Overall, the film directed by Ken Loach as a drama with a political overtones shows Britain’s working class reality. The dialogues among the workers are so thick and full of ironies throughout the film[2]. Despite its dramatic conclusion, the film included funny moments such as taking a bath in a show house by Larry. It is also a remarkable by a political punch, performances of the actors were so good and even the cast selected from the actors who have construction experiences so the scenes of the film were far from being unrealistic. Despite all these features of the film, I would like to point out minor shortcomings of it as well, for example the film has a cliché storyline. Additionally, it lacks from excitement. Even so, these are all very minor problems which do not affect the film’s strong influence. Therefore, the film gives a voice to workers who never benefited from prosperities that are provided by Thatcher’s policies.



[1] In real life Tomlinson is a political activist and a long-time member of the Socialist Labour Party. Additionally he worked on building sites for many years becoming actively involved in politics and even he went to jail following a building strike in 1972.

[2] The film is subtitled because the accent of the workers is very thick and difficult to understand.