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Drinking for England (1998)

Courtesy of Century Films / BBC

Main image of Drinking for England (1998)
Century Films for Modern Times, BBC2, tx.10/11/1998
50 minutes, colour
DirectorBrian Hill
ProducerBrian Hill
Series EditorStephen Lambert
VerseSimon Armitage

The British people and their relationship with alcohol, explored in verse and song by some of those whose enthusiasm for drinking can cause them problems.

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Brian Hill's unforgettable Modern Times film 'Drinking for England' had the effect on viewers and critics of reaching parts other television documentaries couldn't reach.

Hill pursues his theme - the bond we Brits have with booze - by mixing straight-up documentary aesthetics with bracing shots of experimentation. Parallel case studies, drawn from across social classes, marry interviews with hard-drinking protagonists, and camera-observation of their boozing, to stylised sequences in which they address the viewer in rhyming verse, in two cases set to music and sung with gusto by Hill's subjects. Simon Armitage's stanzas distil the speech patterns and feelings he had detected listening to pre-production audio interviews with Hill's subjects. A regular Hill collaborator, the poet had written verse narration for 'Saturday Night' (tx. 3/4/1996), also shown in BBC2's Modern Times (1995-2001). In Feltham Sings (Channel 4, tx. 17/12/2002), Hill/Armitage would take the 'docu-musical' moments of 'Drinking for England' to undreamed-of feature-length heights.

These contrasting techniques blend to something more than the sum of their parts. A retired gent, who starts every day with a G&T, is revealing when he speaks spontaneously ("my drinking isn't a problem... It just slightly governs the way I lead my life"), but the rhythm of his consumption is better expressed in his reading ("steady flow and a constant stream"). The film's one self-confessed alcoholic is shown with her young son and mother, before heading off to rehab, where she performs a Lloyd-Webberish production number to camera ("Sherry and me, we're a fact of life / I'm a widow to sherry as well as a wife"). The former scenes are conventional, desperately moving indications of the effect of her disease on others. The latter suggest drink's transformative if ultimately destructive power over her inner life, and her latent power to fight back.

The filmmakers never judge or condemn, and celebrate the joy as well as mourning the misery. Sometimes, as if under the influence, spontaneity and choreography collide: two well-bred ladettes slur their recitation while spilling onto the street at closing time. A pub philosopher has an engaging enthusiasm for excessive consumption, even if, in his song, laced with melancholy ("Thinking's a beautiful thing for a man / Thinks from a bottle and thinks from a can"). A young woman who appears just once, reciting verse but not contributing an interview, supplies the film's bleakest lines: "Know it's true / Tell you why / Mother drinks / So do I".

Patrick Russell

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Video Clips
1. 'Sean - that's me' (1:55)
2. A thinking man who thinks like a fish (3:12)
3. 'A steady flow and a constant stream' (2:57)
Feltham Sings (2002)
From Moscow to Pietushki (1990)
Hill, Brian (1955-)