Thursday, 9 October 2014

The Mancunian Friend

I was tempted to watch BBC1's The Driver by memories of the 1978 Walter Hill film of the same name. I've always been a sucker for films, like Scorcese's Taxi Driver and the recent Ryan Gosling vehicle Drive, that use driving as a metaphor for alienation and the role of the skilled worker, even though I'm no petrolhead and I find the reality of being behind the wheel closer to Alan Partridge. The obvious problem with a British setting for a classic US genre is the relative mundanity of driving here, particularly in a rain-drenched Manchester, which the series tackled head-on (so to speak) with a high-energy car chase in the opening minutes. By the end of the three-part series I was reminded more of Wim Wenders The American Friend, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley's Game, a far superior meditation on free will and obligation with a little driving along the way.

The car chase was utterly implausible. The police appeared to have been reduced by cuts to a squad of just two bobbies in one car, unable to call up reinforcements to block the narrow streets of central Manchester. Neither of them appeared able to note the registration number of Vince's BMW, which he later left in an open-air car-park with CCTV. The Beamer was a mid-life crisis on wheels, and Vince's dexterity in handling it after a career driving a crappy people-carrier went unexplained. With this red herring out of the way, the character of Vince, well played by David Morrissey, was drawn as more of a Travis Bickle than a cool specialist, though one reduced to washing the vomit off his minicab mats rather than the scum off the streets. Much of the first episode resembled the trials of Job, as everything that could go wrong did go wrong, culminating in Vince getting mugged by two pissed-up teenage girls. In truth, this just showed him to be an idiot, albeit a sympathetic one, and nothing subsequently suggested an alternative reading.

Browned off with his life, Vince meets up with his boyhood pal Colin, played by an excellent Ian Hart, who has just got out of prison. Improbably, no one has told Col that his ex (who does not appear to have moved house) had shacked up with his twin brother and was now pregnant. That might be plausible in a Thomas Hardy novel but jarred in a programme where mobile phones were ubiquitous and the impossibility of keeping secrets was central to the plot. Col introduces Vince to The Horse (I was half expecting him to introduce a partner, The Cart), the local criminal mastermind, who suggests a few driving jobs. Again, Vince displays his idiocy by taking him at his word - just driving. To cut a long story short, it all starts to go horribly wrong as Vince is dragged deeper into criminality while trying to save his marriage and family from disintegration. He finally agrees to be wired-up by the police to entrap the gang, though the "wire" turns out to be a small stud (technically nonsense - you can't transmit without a power source) that Vince accidentally loses behind a sink (the man's hopeless).

As well as implausibilities and improbable coincidences, such as phonecalls occurring at the worst possible moment, the plot was riddled with soft misogyny. The central idea seemed to be that men go off the rails when not properly looked after by women. Vince is neglected by his wife, Ros (Claudie Blakley), who is distracted by her job (woman, know your limits!) and her passion for marathons (she's running away!) He is treated with contempt by his selfish daughter who dates a knobhead and later insists she can't enter the witness protection programme because she has 500 friends on Facebook (all over the land, millions of disgruntled men are simultaneously exclaiming "she needs a good slap, that one!"). Colin's mum is summed up as "if it doesn't come with ice and lemon, she's not interested". Even Vince's cabbie mate, who has left his wife and now indulges in Internet hookups, is literally "sorely used" by women, though he brings the blessing of a proper shag into their dull married lives. Apparently.

Women routinely appear as figures of authority and constraint: a doctor, who judges Vince insufficiently depressed for pills, and a warder at the local nick. Ros's sister is unsympathetic towards her brother-in-law (itself a dramatic cliché) and encourages her to desert him. His son has run away to some sort of cult, apparently under the influence of a girlfriend ("she needs a good slap, that one!"). When Vince attempts to extricate him, he is baffled by the non-violent men and women of the commune who marginalise him as the boy's "birth father" (echoes of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys). In the final episode, the police warn him that if he doesn't cooperate he will do 10 years inside, during which his wife will "take up with another man" (because apparently they all do - just ask Col). Vince sees the witness protection programme as a way of re-establishing a happy family, a fresh start. Perhaps crime does pay.

The underworld milieu features standard tropes (card games, wads of cash, the flirting moll), but is humorously undermined in the first episode through a bathetic tea ceremony, The Horse's philosophical pretensions, and a moronic dialogue on the geography of Hartlepool (the influence of Tarantino is felt throughout). But the key feature is that this is a male world where masculinity can at least defend itself through violence. Though this is shown to be problematic, and Vince comes to appreciate the value of an "ordinary life", it is still representative of a life that is fully alive (that small existential flicker in Vince's psyche). By the third episode, the gang's characterisation has been reduced to the one-dimensional, the humour replaced by formulaic thuggery and stupidity. Though Colm Meaney's Horse increasingly views Vince through narrowed, suspicious eyes, he still goes ahead with the climactic robbery, even though Col disappears at the eleventh hour, tipped-off by Vince about the police surveillance.

With the gang arrested in the act, the series ends with Vince reunited with his son, driving off to find his wife and daughter, suggesting that the two men may be able to reconstruct the family, standing up to the demands of the womenfolk on the one side and a hostile world on the other. Perhaps they'll head for the Australian Outback or the Canadian Rockies, stocking up on guns and tins of corned beef along the way. In The American Friend, the central character, having driven off and left his troubles behind, drops dead at this point, which would have made a lot more sense for Vince too. The loose end is Col, the Mancunian friend (though like Morrissey, Hart occasionally lapses into Scouse). Does he use the cash that Vince gifts him to head off to an ordinary life, or does he become a working class Tom Ripley?

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