By Leslie Stewart. A public swimming baths in Coventry is the opening scene for this ragged tale of inner city indolence and youthful vigour. Mohawk-sporting mixed-race latchkey kid and brother of a policewoman Billy Two-Tone befriends shy, lank-haired, polio-stricken Adrian over the latter’s attempts to impress a poolside gaggle of nonplussed girls, and offers his gregarious friendship as he takes Ade on a tour of a kids’ Coventry.
Various other members of the gang are introduced – Billy’s hairspray-addled girl Lectric, Debbie, the apple of Adrian’s eye, disconsolate rude boy Elvis, and gormless skinhead Boz. Ska runs through the soundtrack, from Enjoy Yourself, which tops and tails the play, through to the overwrought New Romantic reggae sound of Fashion, who the assorted waifs queue up to see at The General Wolfe. The assortment of youth tribes and their various allegiances and rivalries are the main subject of the film, from the fast dying rude boys (‘Two-tone’s dead,’ taunts Adrian) and retro-quiffed rockabillies to the Cortina-driving, wad-flashing ‘casuals’ and braced-and-booted malevolent skins (Boz is a hapless recruit to the cause of the leaflet-distributing British Movement).
In trying to give a voice to the increasingly demonised inner city kids, the play’s heart is unquestionably in the right place. Its brain, however, is somewhere else entirely. From the outset the thing’s a mish-mash of ‘streetwise’ verite, Alfie-esque to-camera banter, musical fantasy and clumsy symbolism. The opening shot pulls out from a piece of graffiti art to reveal it’s not on the side of a high-rise, but a canvas (the Art of the Streets, get it?) in the middle of a field. Then the camera takes off for a lingering aerial view of Coventry, while Lectric and pals dispassionately discuss hair products and that evening’s entertainment prospects.
The fact that this goes on for some minutes is just as likely down to the fact that the budget for the helicopter came to so much the producer decided they better use as much of it as possible, as it is likely to be part of any artistic design. Similarly, two pop video-style dance numbers, clumsily hoofed by Cornell ‘Lion King’ John’s Atmozphier Danze collective. To the strains of The Specials’ (Dawning of a) New Era, the mixed race troupe goosestep in DMs and braces while the various cast members play pinball in a studio limbo, and later, shoe-horning the atomic threat painfully in, a post-nuclear nightmare is re-enacted, with the newly-built Warwick Arts Centre standing in for a fallout shelter, as the dancers march Billy and Adrian into a dry ice-filled prison as Fun Boy Three sing The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum. Neither is much cop as a performance piece or social comment.
The ‘real life’ segments are similarly unconvincing – the technique of casting amateur actors for realistic performances has worked wonders elsewhere in the strand for the likes of Mike Leigh and Roland Joffe, but with the best will in the world there really isn’t a single solid performance in the whole play. Stewart’s script is also largely diabolical – yes, kids do say ‘dunno’ a lot while staring into the middle distance, but a handful of mumbled clichés does not convincing dialogue make. Billy’s supposedly witty and arch quips (‘I’ve got a colour TV, and black and white parents’) fall similarly flat.
Towards the end, the skins beat Adrian up outside a chippy, and Billy carries him in his arms back to the swimming pool for a restorative midnight dip. The final message – live your youth while you’ve got it, and, er, don’t be racist – was far more eloquently and succinctly put over in a few lines of the title song than the ensuing, often tortuous, hour. The whole thing resembles not so much a Play for Today as a pedagogic, semi-workshopped ‘issues’ drama of the sort that was gracing the schools’ television schedules at the time, though that would be doing a disservice to the sometimes very fine productions Scene and the like were turning out.
The failure of 3 Minute Heroes can perhaps be traced to a shedding of the strand’s original remit. In Play for Today’s pomp, such a work as this, purporting to shed light on a social voice usually denied a place on the small screen, would have been commissioned from the bottom up, so to speak – a young writer from Coventry would speculatively hand in a rough draft for the series producers’ consideration, perhaps, which would be worked up into a hopefully authentic piece of work.
3 Minute Heroes has all the hallmarks of a ‘top down’ production – it’s by no means a given that Stewart’s years (mid-’30s) should preclude him from finding a convincing voice for the kids in his play, but on this evidence it’s certainly no help. Endless shots of people milling about in Coventry city centre, a well-worn signifier of Play for Today entries from The Land of Green Ginger to The Spongers, are here deployed not so much for local colour as to pad out a wafer-thin story.
The use of new, showcase buildings and the arbitrary inclusion of dance sequences point to a producer-led, rather condescending treatment of the subject, little different to the scaffolding-and-bean-bags ‘youth magazines’ of the same period that were rightly regarded with derision by the majority of their target audience. In all, it’s closer to the box-ticking automatism of modern drama commissioning (Youth? Check. Music? Check. Race? Check.) than the writer-led tradition Play for Today had proudly upheld for so long. Two-Tone may have been dead by this point, but this sort of wrong-footed output would help speed Play for Today towards a similar cultural oblivion before too long.