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Riff-Raff (1991)

Courtesy of Channel Four Television

Main image of Riff-Raff (1991)
35mm, colour, 96 mins
DirectorKen Loach
Production CompaniesParallax Pictures, Channel Four
ProducerSally Hibbin
ScreenplayBill Jesse
PhotographyBarry Ackroyd
MusicStewart Copeland

Cast: Robert Carlyle (Stevie); Emer McCourt (Susan); Jimmy Coleman (Shem); George Moss (Mo); Ricky Tomlinson (Larry); David Finch (Kevin)

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Stevie, an unemployed Glaswegian, gets a job on a building site in London. He moves into a squat and has a relationship with a young aspiring singer, Susan.

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Ken Loach made few feature films in the 1980s due to lack of funding, and felt that the opportunity to make Riff-Raff (1991) gave him a second chance. Bill Jesse's script was based on his own experience working on building sites, and most of the actors, including Robert Carlyle and Ricky Tomlinson, had also worked in the building trade. Tomlinson was imprisoned in the 1970s for organising a strike. The film shows the camaraderie and humour of the main characters as much as their oppressive work situation.

Riff-Raff's low budget meant there was only five weeks' shooting time. Loach said this meant that "people had to move fast, and when they do that there's a lot of energy around which makes the performances better." Loach developed a technique of giving actors very little advance information about their roles, and during the filming he arranged events to generate spontaneous reactions.

The film blends styles associated with feature films and with documentaries. There are point-of-view shots in which the camera and the audience share the view of the main characters, usually Stevie (Carlyle) or Larry (Tomlinson) - a dominant dramatic style in film and television. However, there is also use of an observational style more commonly associated with documentaries. When the building site labourers are on their tea breaks, they often talk over each other, and the overlapping lines cannot all be heard. This is a realistic touch reminiscent of 'fly on the wall' documentaries.

Music is used sparingly. Loach has said that he doesn't care for music that underscores the emotions of a film, finding it "glib and manipulative". However, he has also acknowledged "I think music can sometimes steer the audience into a way of looking at a scene, as a kind of signpost along the road". As with other aspects of Loach's technique, it is a fine distinction, and any steering or signposting can easily be seen as manipulation. Music is used in the early scenes on the building site, when an accident nearly happens, and also in the climactic scene, when the building is set alight. In the latter case Stewart Copeland's score adds a sense of high drama in striking contrast to the atmosphere of the rest of the film.

Ros Cranston

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Video Clips
1. Home sweet home (2:40)
2. No more thieving (3:44)
3. Caught short (2:58)
4. Glasgow funeral (2:37)
Production stills
Price Of Coal, The (1977)
Ackroyd, Barry (1954-)
Carlyle, Robert (1961-)
Hibbin, Sally (1953-)
Loach, Ken (1936-)
Morris, Jonathan (1949-)
Mullan, Peter (1959-)
Tomlinson, Ricky (1939-)
Channel 4 and Film
Ken Loach: Feature Films