Alex Jennings

Small Axe: Mangrove

20/11/20

BBC iPlayer

The first release in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series, Mangrove, plays a little like a British version of Aaron Sorkin’s recent American project, The Trial of the Chicago 7. It relates an all-too-familiar story of police persecuting black people, in this case, the proprietors and customers of Mangrove, a West Indian restaurant in Notting Hill, established in the late 60s.

Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) sets the place up in an attempt to give his neighbours a community hub, where they can enjoy traditional Jamaican cuisine, the odd game of cards and some playful banter – but, as the new decade looms, he regularly suffers at the hands of the local Metropolitan police force, in particular PC Pulley (Sam Spruell), an unabashed racist who seizes every opportunity to raid the establishment, beating up customers and gleefully trashing whatever comes to hand, simply because there’s nobody to stop him.

But Pulley has reckoned without Black Panther member Altheia Jones (Letitia Wright) and her activist friend, Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby). Together, they encourage Frank to organise a peaceful protest march to complain about the rough treatment they are receiving. When the police’s heavy-handed attempts to control proceedings ensure that the march erupts into violence, it soon becomes clear that the only way the matter can be properly resolved is in court.

McQueen manages to capture the heady atmosphere as the inhabitants of Notting Hill spread their wings and take their first flights in the direction of a perceived freedom, little realising what a long and arduous trip it is going to be. There are strong performances from an ensemble cast, with Kirby and Rochenda Sandall particularly impressive as Howe and his girlfriend, Barbara Beese, and Spruell brilliantly loathsome as the odious Pulley.

There’s a vibrant soundtrack of early 70s hits, ranging from ska classics to the mellow tones of Jim Reeves, and McQueen’s team has a good eye for period detail. At times shaming – Alex Jennings’ portrayal of Judge Clarke offers a toe-curling depiction of a privileged white man seemingly oblivious to his own innate racism – Mangrove is a timely reminder that, though things surely have improved to some degree, there’s still a very long way to go before the UK achieves anything approaching equality for all.

With another four episodes to follow, each one featuring a different story, this is a powerful opening salvo in the Small Axe series, and makes it clear that McQueen is determined to take no prisoners. Bring it on.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Lady In The Van

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14/11/15

Based on Alan Bennett’s memoir and adapted from his 1999 West End play, The Lady In The Van features Alex Jennings as the great man himself, and is the true story of Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith), an elderly transient who parked her beaten up old Bedford van in Bennett’s driveway and ended up staying there for fifteen years. The film’s a total delight, offering Maggie Smith a gift of a role as the obstinate, curmudgeonly and sometimes downright rude, Miss Shepherd, while Jennings’ assured turn as Bennett is so much more than just an uncannily accurate impersonation; indeed, here we get two Alan Bennetts for the price of one – the man who writes about his life and the one who actually lives it. With this simple but brilliant device, the film has a lot to say about the very nature of writing and the way in which real events are sometimes adapted for the purposes of entertainment. ‘But that didn’t really happen,’ writer Bennett will occasionally announce, like some glum member of a Greek chorus lurking in the background.

The story opens with a brief glimpse into Miss Shepherd’s past, the single traumatic event that initiated her deterioration into vagrancy, and then we witness her arrival in the street in Camden Town where Bennett has just purchased a house. We meet the other inhabitants of the street and witness their reactions to having this tragic creature parked nearby, an interesting mixture of liberal guilt and open disgust. Miss Shepherd’s toiletry arrangements are rudimentary to say the very least, while her open disdain for anyone who tries to help her, would probably move Ghandi to violence.

There’s so much to enjoy here. Bennett’s wry asides are sometimes cripplingly funny, Maggie Smith gives a triumphant performance in a role she was born to play and there are cameos from some big names, including one from each of the boys in the film of The History Boys. While much of the emphasis is on comedy, the film’s latter stages are deeply affecting and more sensitive viewers may find they have occasional recourse to a pack of tissues, and yet the script easily resists cheap sentiment.

Perfectly judged, beautifully acted and cannily scripted, there’s really not much here to criticise – just plenty to enjoy.

5 Stars

Philip Caveney