Okay. Imagine Werner Herzog’s doctrine of “ecstatic truth” taken to the extreme in the documentary form. Imagine a documentary where the subjects are interviewed, said interviews are reshaped into poetry and song lyrics by Yorkshire’s favourite probation officer turned versifier, then handed back to the original subjects who either recite the poems or sing the lyrics … while cameras follow them through their own personal hell (or otherwise) in a frank and unsparing look at drinking culture, denial, chauvinism and alcohol dependency.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Brian Hill and Simon Armitage’s ‘Drinking for England’. Made in 1998, the year before Armitage delivered arguably his best work as a poet with ‘Killing Time’, his thousand-line deconstruction of millennial angst, ‘Drinking for Britain’ already shows its age a bit with scenes of smokers chugging away in pubs (was the smoking ban really a post-millennial construct? it seems a lot longer since I walked into a pub and the ceiling was obscured by a fog of nicotine) and the spit ‘n’ sawdust joints that a couple of the interviewees favour and probably owned by Wetherspoons now.
‘Drinking for England’ clocks in at just under an hour and follows twenty-somethings Ami and Kerry, who get sloshed in their flat before heading out to a winebar where they freeload off oiky lads; middle-aged incapacity scrounger Shaun, who treats his wife as a pub-to-house taxi service; single mum Jane, whose decision to enter rehab gives the documentary at least a glimmer of hope; unrepentant booze-hound Duncan, who seems to be the only participant who enjoys being an alkie; and moneyed retiree Denis, whose world-class case of denial is frankly staggering.
As a cross-section, this not-quite-wild bunch range across half a century in terms of their ages and Hill’s immediate achievement with the documentary is to explode the myth that binge drinking, stupid behaviour and the exponential capacity to make an utter fucking prat of oneself is solely the mandate of the young. Ami and Kerry slur their words as they try to recite Armitage’s deliberately simple cadences, they giggle and stumble and fall over, but in their more reflective moments they realise that this is merely a case of something to be got out of their system during their twenties; they see little point to intoxication for its own sake beyond their thirties. The others, however …
Jane has made it to thirty-eight and is bringing up her thirteen-year-old son almost single-handedly. Her tipple of choice is sherry and she talks of it both as a constant companion and a guilty secret. Her account of frequenting different retailers in order to disguise the amount she’s buying is a sad but telling moment. Armitage responds with a lyric that turns sherry into Sherry, an alter ego who is both Jane’s tormentor and dependent. Jane performs the song with what I can only describe as weary gusto. I know that doesn’t make sense as a turn of phrase, but watch the documentary.
The next best song is ‘Thinking and Joking’, in which these two words replace “drinking” and “smoking” in a witty romp through Duncan’s devil-may-care lifestyle. Duncan’s story is the least cautionary of these tales – he’s loquacious, witty and charming in a rough diamond sort of way, and all too easy to like – but what he lacks as a role model, he makes up for in raw honesty. He’s certainly better company than Shaun, who is basically a wanker on a cosmic scale. He neglects his wife for the company of boorish chauvinists, downs lager like he’s not just drinking but trying to swallow the glass, orders his ten pints per night in halfs, and he huffs out tired self-pitying rhetoric as if he were the victim. Shaun is the most odious character, fictional or non-fictional, that I’ve seen onscreen in a long time, and this is coming from someone who’s just sat through two months of venal exploitation movies.
Denis is more companionable than Shaun, but no less boorish albeit that he speaks in a cut-glass accent rather than Shaun’s fags-and-terrace-chants sandpaper rasp. It’s when he comes out with these two particular statements that Denis shows his true colours. The first is in respect to drink-driving legislation, which he thinks should allow for long-term drinkers who can demonstrate tolerance and a low-accident history. His rationale? That he’s unable to drink as much as he’d like down his local because he has to drive there. The second deserves quoting in its full head-in-the-sand glory: “I wouldn’t say I have a drink problem personally, but it does govern the way I live my life.”
Although the film’s title suggests a correlation of drinking culture and geopolitical history, Hill steers clear of obvious or moralistic point-scoring, nor does he try to make some big overarching statement. Armitage’s poetry and lyrics distil (bad word; sorry) the subjects’ experiences and voices into poignant vignettes sculpted to their personalities. It’s a small triumph of director and writing completely shelving their own egos and agendas so that what remains is purely a record, never mind that it’s arrived by the most curious artifice.