The pride that swept the nation after the England cricket team’s famous 1968 Test series win in the West Indies masked the rising racial tension blighting a country absorbing its first wave of Caribbean immigrants.
Back then, in the swinging (and seaming) Sixties, the ‘Y’ and ‘N’ word were common pub parlance and modern British values of tolerance and integration seemed as distant as a Jonny Bairstow century.
This turbulent time is the setting for writer-directorSteven Morrison’s second film, which celebrates the civilising influence of cricket at a time when London’s melting pot threatened to bubble over into an all-out race war.
David Wiesman is a Jewish schoolboy whose world is turned upside down when the West Indian Samuels family moves into his all-white south London neighbourhood and erects a cricket net in the back garden.
The street is soon split between the intolerant curtain-twitching natives and white immigrant Wisemans who share the same skin colour, if not suspicions, as the rest of the road.
For Morrison this cultural tension was recalled from childhood: “When the first West Indian family moved next door to my grandma in Cricklewood during the 1960s, she worried about what the neighbours would think. Jews during that decade learned from black migrants to be proud of their culture and stand up for themselves.
“The Holocaust left anglo-Jewry very quiet in those early post-war years so, in many respects, Jewish liberation followed on from black liberation. Cricket helps David blend in at school and helps the West Indian family ease into British life.”
Not that David gives a second thought to such issues. Wonderfully oblivious, despite a shop owner accusing him of being “jungle happy” after he proudly buys a Garfield Sobers cricket card, David’s only concern is caressing another cover drive in the next door net.
Jewish newcomer Sam Smith plays the 11-year-old cricket nut. A gifted sportsman, Sam spent months being coached to play like the klutz his character is.
Morrison said: “His challenge wasn’t the emotional scenes but learning how to look clumsy with a bat and ball. When you’re co-ordinated it’s quite hard to swing a cricket bat and miss. The instinct is always to try and hit it, and often he would. We even hired a professional clown to teach him to look inept.”
When David’s ability finally matches his enthusiasm, he is promoted into the school team and fires off some swashbuckling scores. To transform his feeble strokes into Lara-like cover drives, Morrison signed up former West Indian coach Phil Simmons: “He gave Sam all the shots so by the end of the film he really looks the part. The West Indian team watched the film while they were touring South Africa so I hope they approved of Phil’s coaching methods.”
As the families unite in adversity, the distance between them and the neighbours widens. Both are victims of verbal abuse and hate mail, until a horrific arson attack compels the street to confront its petty-minded prejudice head on.
Morrison also alludes to the Wiseman family’s fate during the war, revealing that David’s grandparents were victims of Hitler. But it wasn’t until he screened the film in Berlin last month that he realised the Shoah inadvertently provides the subtext to his story. “The Holocaust is still at the forefront of Germany’s collective memory. What to us feels like a distant mention of that era was enough, in that audience’s eyes, to transform the entire narrative. Listening to it with a German ear I realised how many of the story’s themes and references went back to that time.”
Tackling such lofty matters in a sports film is no mean feat. By recreating the social upheaval and pride and perseverance of new immigrants in 1960s Britain, Morrison pinpoints the dawn of new era on the Wiseman’s quiet south London street.
As he says: “It was a time that saw us become a truly tolerant, multi-coloured society and signalled the start of a new age that we’re still living in today.”
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