Merlin Betts reviews Oi! For England’s Green and Pleasant Land,
Robin Hayter’s documentary on youth subcultures, political unrest and the play he once performed in

L to R, Paul McGann, Robin Hayter, Peter Løvstrøm, Paul Moriarty
PICTURE: Nicola Joy

On Thursday 14th February the Kino Teatr in St Leonards held the first “live” event of its 2019 DocFest: a showing of Robin Hayter’s Oi! For England’s Green and Pleasant Land, followed by a Q&A session with Robin and the other cast members who performed the original play Oi! For England. Olga Mamonova introduced the DocFest as “celebrating the art of documentary making and the documentary makers themselves”, and so it seemed entirely appropriate that Robin should be present to discuss his work with colleagues and an engaged audience.

The play, Oi! For England, was written by Trevor Griffiths and had first been performed in Manchester. It was then adopted by the Royal Court Theatre and toured through a series of youth clubs, mainly venues in parts of London where National Front supporters were thought to gather and seek recruits. It follows the story of a band modelled along the likes of Cockney Rejects, who are approached by a suited stranger about performing at a large event. Initially a step-up in their social lives, it soon becomes clear that the event is a National Front rally, and the band begins to split as they try and define why their music and their culture is being associated with, or hijacked by racists and neo-Nazis. The story, it turns out, is very real: one of the film’s producers, John Carnell, was offered the same deal as a young skinhead, and since he knew the roots of ska music and The Specials, he recognised that racism was nothing he wanted to be a part of.

Robin’s film examines Oi! music, his own and his colleagues’ experiences as young actors, and the political environment that inspired Griffiths to write his play, which seems relevant still today. We see revealing interviews with Griffiths the playwright and Mickey Geggus of the Cockney Rejects, while Beverley Martin recounts the racism she was exposed to on tour, often being the only dark-skinned person in a room full of angry young whites, some of whom had National Front sympathies. She might be spat at, shouted at, or otherwise tormented, and was often neglected by other members of cast and crew who were lost in the room’s atmosphere in their own ways: still terrified but also feeling their roles and the safety of their “uniforms”, their shaved heads, boots, jeans and skinny braces.

L to R: Paul McGann, Paul Moriarty, Andy Roberts, Dorian Healy, Beverley Martin, Richard Oriel, Peter Løvstrøm, Antonia Bird, Robin Hayter, Malcolm Heywood
PICTURE: Ravi juneja

During his research Robin Hayter went to the British Library to get a recording of one of the cast’s original performances, including four Oi! songs played and partially written by the actors. To hear the samples included in Robin’s film…you can tell it’s the heyday of Thatcherism and young, working class unrest, pure anger and bile, serious frustration…and you can’t help but get excited. There’s a feeling of energy and purpose that no one can quite work out. Is it a good kind of rebellion, about fairness, social justice, about building a better world? Or is it rotten, malicious, racist? You don’t know, they don’t know. It’s the visceral reality of skinhead subculture in 80s England: young people, shaved like prisoners, collaborators, concentration camp victims and prowling the streets, looking for a place in a society that seems to reject them. Robin ultimately asks whether in today’s Brexit England, we might be ignoring much the same struggle playing out, albeit with more hair. 

• For more information about the film, and announcements of any future screenings, check out its website: 

• For more of my take on the film and the Q&A that followed its screening, check our website’s Arts section. You can also find Emma Harwood’s excellent preview of the film’s release here

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