Sunday, 23 January 2011

NEDS - Cineworld - 21/1/11

"Tongs Ya Bass" was the unofficial motto of 1960's Glasgow.  When young gang members from Calton watched the Hammer film "Terror of the Tongs" about the Chinese gangsters of that name it was adopted as the gangs own moniker.  The "Bass" part wasn't, despite what some people will tell you, an abbreviation of bastard but was taken from the Gaelic war cry "aigh bas"...battle and die.

Cumbie, Toi, Fleet, Shamrock and many more provided myriad headlines for tabloid writers and struck fear into the hearts of young men from further afield too.  My own father, no stranger to gang culture in Edinburgh, found himself isolated from his friends and being hunted by a group of Tongs who had decided to visit the capital...the end result was a land speed record from my father who was not known for avoiding a "pagger" or "square go" but the reputation of the Glasgow gangs and their propensity for using "blades" meant running was a much safer option.

Gangs have been part of Glasgow culture since the 1800s but it was in the 1960s with Mod culture and on into the 1970s that they enjoyed their most memorable and terrifying era.  The combination of the classic working class obsessions with fashion and music alongisde the uniquely divided nature of the city and its "hard because they had to be" attitude led to the creation of a gang culture during those two decades that still leaves scars across many communities today.

There has been at least one attempt to cover gang culture from this period already in Gillies MacKinnons flawed "Small Faces" but with "NEDS" director Peter Mullan gets much closer to the truth and the reality of life for many young men growing up in Glasgow during that period and, sadly, for many living there today.  Unlike the gangster chic of the likes of Guy Ritchie or the entire career of Danny Dyer there is no attempt at presenting this life as glamorous or desirable, instead the truth, the brutal truth, of what gangs offer, what drives young men and women to behave in such violent and destructive ways and the toll on the communities they inhabit is laid bare.  What we are given is an, at times, depressing, shocking, hilarious and uncomfortable experience that will resonate long after you leave the cinema.

In "NEDS" Mullan takes us into the life of John McGill (Conor McCarron), a bright, hard working young man who has to contend with a drunken, abusive father and the burden of his elder brothers reputation as one of the top boys in the local gang, the Car-D.  Finishing top of his class and looking forward to life at high school and beyond John has a chance encounter with an older boy that acts as the catalyst for his descent into gang life and that gives the audience its first taste of the random nature of the violence to come.  Threatened by this older boy as he walks home John turns to his big brother for help which arrives in the shape of a beating and humiliation that will scar the boy for a long while to come and which gives John a taste of the power associated with position inside the gang.

At school John is forced to join a lower set due to his brothers reputation but manages to focus on his studies and climb into the top set.  On his way home one day John is confronted by a small group of boys who take his money, threaten him and humiliate him...during this one of the attackers recognises him as the younger brother of one of the most violent boys in the estate and John is welcomed into the body of the kirk.

From this point on John begins his journey into a life of violence, fear and loathing.  Drink, fighting, girls, clothes and music are brewed into an explosive cocktail that allows some terrifying set pieces to take place, most noticably when John finds himself deep inside enemy territory, running for his life and finally taking refuge in a place that proves to be potentially very dangerous...the home of one of his would-be attackers.

In the background lurks the presence of Mullan himself as the drunken father, shouting obscenities, abusing his wife and creating an atmosphere of tension that is palpable inside the cinema itself.  He is a booze soaked, foul mouthed, vicious character who is, I have no doubt, the birthplace of the alpha-male attitude and actions of both John and his brother.  Thankfully Mullan doesn't overstate the case here, NEDS isn't a film that attempts to offer glib answers to these social problems and it is all the better for that.

The young cast are, in the main, untried and untested but they are all magnificent.  Each of them has the right air of desperation, nihilism and aggression required to carry a film like this.  McCarron is particularly impressive in his portrait of a young man drowning.  His physical presence is menacing but it is in his low, rough, Glasgow burr and in his eyes that the real power of his performance lies.  This isn't a young man play-acting, this is a young man living and breathing what he is presenting.

It isn't for nothing that Glasgow "enjoys" a reputation as no mean city, recent research shows that 9 out of 10 of the most violent streets in Scotland are to be found there.  Unemployment is higher, life expectancy is lower.  It is a tough place and, consequently, the people are tough.  It's easy to take the moral high ground over anti-social behaviour of the sort presented here but, in truth, when there is no hope and when life is cheap it is understandable, if not excusable, that people behave this way.  Mullan knows this only too well and in "NEDS" he has managed to create a film that, without ever preaching, conveys that message very clearly.


  1. Not seen the movie, and probably won't bother.
    I wish someone would make a movie about Glasgow that is not about gangs/neds or bigotry.

  2. "Orphans", "Red Road", "Young Adam", "Rat Catcher"...all set in Glasgow and none of them about gangs, violence, neds or bigotry Rab. "Young Adam" does feature "sex people" though!

  3. You have to admit that most of the movies about "Glesga" are depressing.
    It's not all crime and grime through there.

  4. I'm not sure if you can use orphans as any kind of defence of glasgow-in-a-good-light. It's not a pleasant picture of Glasgow that's given in the film.

    That being said, maybe it's a good thing that so few films are made about fife.