I Am Urban


When you’re at a film premiere in 2023 of a 2014 film which had its premiere in 2015…All of this adds to the tangled history of the novelised auto-biography of Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew and its author Bernard Hare. In general it’s like watching a cheerier version of searing and excellent work The Dark Heart: The Shocking Truth About Hidden Britain by Nick Davies and Leeds doesn’t come off well. It’s also a period piece as the setting is 1996 — when everyone from Take That to the Prince and Princess of Wales were splitting up, and a time of hidden social deprivation and loss of work as the mines, heavy and factory based industries of the UK continued to close down. What would a film about austerity, Brexited, post-COVID Britain look like now?

From what I’ve read it sounds like more hope has been added into the film and it’s been cleaned up a lot, but it’s hard to tell having not read the book. In a Trainspotting, episodic style, we’re in an East Leeds council estate where drugs (soft and hard), drink, crime and disruption are all in plentiful supply; stable loving trustworthy adults are not. Richard Armitage is Chop, a working class man made good, who’s passed through Grammar School, been a social worker, lived in London for ten years and yet returned, for reasons unknown, back to be a man with a van. There are a lot of questions raised here which never get answered. What happened?

Chop encounters Greta (Anna Friel) in deep distress about a loss social security book and they start a relationship. Greta’s family are lost to her, scattered to social care and she longs to have them back again — only at the same time she shows that she’s struggling to care for them or herself as she ricochets from one man to another, takes off randomly for who knows where and drinks and takes drugs. Deep down she longs for nice treatment as shown in a pub scene later. A lover of chess, an educated, literary man, seen as posh, Chop can’t help but care, and he bonds with Greta, unleashing his inner social worker powers to help her get her kids back. Which she keeps messing up and derailing.

Without a structure, the local kids make a structure for themselves — a shed, drink, drugs and ‘tok(k)ing’ (stealing and ‘joy riding’ cars, before often smashing up them or setting fire to them). The girls and young women look painfully vulnerable as do the boys and young men — some of them are very little. But they don’t want to be at home — school, work, qualifications, adult life seem to be irrelevant — though one girl is doing the best she can to survive all the madness. As an insider, like Chop, it’s really easy to go horrified middle class southerner and be really judgy and I don’t want to do that. Though to an extent we are invited to do that because we just see events, and behaviours and rarely get inside the heads of characters such as Greta or her eldest son Frank (Charlie Heaton). What’s noticeable is that men aren’t around apart from Chop — where Urban’s dad is is never addressed. But he’s not there. Other men are. And that’s one of the problems, we’re in a social group where no-one is really there.

There are some beautiful moments where the kids become kids again — through a story telling session or when Chop takes Urban to Scotland camping. Chop gets them writing poetry and their lyrics about what they’ve seen are heart breaking. Equally heart breaking is Urban’s reaction when Chop (just like all the other adults in his life) lets him down, fails him and rejects him, literally cutting off and shutting him out. He so desperately wants to be safe, seen — and loved. Then there is Chop being rejected and heart broken by Greta, just as Urban warned him — ‘she’ll destroy your life’. Only at one point does anyone (Chop in this case) think about what their lifestyles are doing to themselves, their health — and in this point, the film does fall into a bit of a stereotype that soft drug taking is long term ‘ok’, that there are no associated health problems. Apart from Greta’s painful frailty, they mostly still look ok.

In spite of himself, Chop can’t help but care, notice and get involved. It is odd that a thirty something man is hanging around with teens and tweens, even joining them in a tok(k)ing session, but this seems to be his inner social worker coming out — his desire to help, restore and rescue lives — rather than anything creepy. Somehow he wants to protect these kids from the lives they’re seeing (such as when he and Urban come across Greta in his flat) — although he is unable to effectively do this, even with his own.

Sadly the police are shown as irrelevant — comedy stooges to be out-witted and ones who break up a community event which turns into a localised riot with thuggish heavy handedness. This seems unfair to community police trying to do a good job and make a difference, but maybe I want to believe that Law and order is better in the UK than the media suggests. More sinisterly Chop models the same kind of violence which Urban has seen so much of all of his life — threatening Greta and a bloke with a knife when he finds them in his flat; being the first to cast a stone when a rightly angry neighbour finds him using it (rather than delivering it as agreed and paid for) for a fun local street party; beating up a local dealer to get him to leave the area and the kids alone; getting into fights with one of Greta’s sons and even in chess matches. His anger and violence are only addressed once — when he weeps with despair at his own inability to be different from everything and everyone around him. Yet, somehow, he is what Urban needs. He even ends up caring for Urban’s dog Tyson.

Here the film ends on a cheery illegitimi non carborundum note as Urban heads into a different school. Chop has noticed his quick wit, sharp brain and propensity to muddle letters up. A bright future of shocking mums at the school gates and education achievement are ahead for them both. Chop has made an effort and cleaned up — shown in the cleaning of his flat, that he wants to be better than he is. But the truth is different — Bernie Hare has gone onto write other books, the real life Urban (Lee) is no more as he continued to struggle in life, doing well and then not.

The performances are excellent — Anna Friel’s Greta wheeling everyone into action when she finds them slumped all over her home and peeing in her kitchen sink is tremendous. Though we don’t see enough of who Greta is, we do feel compassion for her desire to be a mum, have her children around her, and in a throwaway line from Urban we learn that it wasn’t always this way. She was different once. Richard Armitage’s Chop is a man fighting himself — wanting to be a rescuer and social warrior, mature but often backsliding into immaturity, irresponsibility, anger, self-pity and avoidance. Fraser Kelly’s Urban makes the movie — he is vulnerable, angry, incredibly knowing, cheeky, witty and wanting more than anything to be around a safe adult who cares about him. Another beautiful performance comes from the actress playing Urban’s older sister — who has clearly grown up too soon before her time, and yet at times can be so radiant, so child-like, so beautiful and caring. But Dead Poets Society this is not.

Compassionate though it is, I’ve still come away wondering what today’s version of the film would look like. Much of UK society is broken as are our systems, especially social care, and it takes footballers, such as Marcus Rashford, to make our leaders and government systems even look to those who are experiencing economic and social disadvantage. The lack of access to basics — food, utilities, safe space, youth clubs, work, data — is huge and often we seem not to care. Until a Pandemic comes along, it’s easy not to see or care about people’s lack of access to resources. Shown here and hinted at is the food poverty Urban experiences as well as how unsafe he feels a lot of time. Never addressed is how people exist outside of systems and the Law — where is all the money coming from to feed their addictions and how are they continuing to live day to day? The Midlands has also experienced a huge grooming scandal involving vulnerable girls and intimidation of their families. Older to younger grooming is hinted at here in the hidden lives of the Shed kids, but never fully developed. There are also no county lines here, yet.

Another issue is how information is shared in this age before phones. As well as being ‘outside the Law’, Urban keeps telling us that he’s too young to be locked away and suggests that it then almost doesn’t matter what he does. Although he knows that people matter really and how he’s being treated and treating others isn’t right. He evens shocks Greta’s man of the moment to get rid of him — as he knows how his Mum and his home is being treated isn’t right either. At one point a young girl has been horribly abused and the kids all seem to know who’s done it and details of what went on — but no-one is doing anything. Young people can disappear — like Greta’s older boy and oldest daughter — into drugs, crime, uncaring and teen pregnancy — no-one knows where they are or how to find them. The cycle starts again as we see Greta’s baby being taken away from her — the powerlessness people feel against systems and the Law is immense, and in their way, they fight back.

The movie tagline celebrates resilience, grit and wit of a community — but I’m not sure that’s it. It’s more an indictment of our lack of heart and practical care as a society, as a government, for others; of the removal of decent paid jobs and community facilities. Above all we are invited to care and to do, to connect.

Some interesting East Leeds thoughts on the book here:

For a much deeper look at the same time period, people and issues: Dark Heart: The Shocking Truth About Hidden… by Davies, Nick (amazon.co.uk)

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Cultures: Arts Reviews and Views by Susan Tailby

By Susan Tailby. Appreciator of arts and culture; things I've seen and enjoyed and you might too! Reviews all my own opinion....Theatre, Movies, Dance & Art!