Playing Away Horace Ove (UK; 1987) Norman Beaton; Nicolas Farrell
viewed Star and Shadow Cinema 4th July 2021; ticket £7
We won’t be back
The final sequence of Horace Ove’s ‘Playing Away’ sees the black cricket team pile into their minibus, leaving the leafy white suburban village to return to the streets of Brixton from whence they came. The last shot is an impressionistic shot taken from the front seat of their vehicle: back in Brixton, driving under Brixton Road railway bridge. They are home. And that is where they’ll stay. As the two teams say their respective ‘goodby’s’ there’s been no indication, either from the black cricket team or from their white hosts that there will be a return fixture. Held together by the force of convention, the interaction between the two groups has remained mostly polite and amicable; but the underlying fissures and tensions experienced by both parties mean there will be no repeat event: no return invitation. And that’s not cricket.
‘Playing Away’ is often described as a ‘comedy of manners’. This description does little justice to Ove’s film. It’s not a comedy. Yes it has humour, but it is a polished insightful probe into race and class interaction. To my knowledge it is one of the very few films that take on the subject of everyday race interaction. ‘Playing Away’ is not set up as the usual oppositional police/gangs sort of context; but as its obverse; the ordinary, race in the everyday flow of life. Ove’s scenario plots the interactions between people which are governed by the informal social rules and norms which have of purpose of easing day to day business between people and nullifying potential sources of conflict. These rules are typified by but not exclusive to the interactions in White Middle Class society. Using the device of the cricket match ( Cricket is an oppositional game but it is grounded in etiquette) ‘Playing Away’ tests out the boundaries of race and class. Cricket with its rules and protocols, is an arch exemplifier of a ‘bounded world’, participation in which is mediated by agreed standards of behaviour. As one character in the film points out: its not the game that is important, nor how well you can play the game. What’s important are the rules, the rules of the game. Shades of Renoir here, as the rules of class and cricket collude to provide a micro study in how these different groups relate, and who actually obeys the rules.
‘The rules of the game’ are designed to create the conditions that put all players on an equal footing; this might apply to cricket but not to the processes of life as ‘Playing Away’ itself testifies.
One of strengths of Caryl Phillips’ and Ove’s script is that it is a collective piece. The opening sequence of ‘Playing Away’ is set in Brixton, presenting the West Indians as a community, with shared values, shared understanding of a way of life and the hostile conditions their life style must endure because of their colour. This generates a film that has a strong ensemble feel with each of the cricket team members, both the men and women, representing something more than themselves, the particular ethos of their culture, understood not so much from what they say, but from the manner and style of their being ‘present’.
The structure of the main body of the film is built on a series of intercut vignettes. Individual members of the team split off and take up with various of the white villagers, engendering narratives that interweave and intersect as strips of action on the eve of the match. This splitting of attention allows ‘Playing Away’ to untangle some of the different threads represented in the script: class race gender sex. Phillips’ script defines both the White and Black communities as natural populations, each with their own gender sexual generational and class tensions. Although all the West Indians experience racist attitudes, whether from the condescension of the upper middle class toffs or the aggro of the country boys, race prejudice is overlaid by class prejudice. The West Indians are not only black they are also working class, foreign bodies who are doubly different from their hosts. The exception is one member of the Brixton team, who as a race relations officer, has taken a significant step into the bourgeoisie. He’s still black, that is where his roots lie, but his movement into white collar world sets up significant raw areas of distrust and concomitant tension between himself and his team mates.
In the interactions between the races there is little overt violence in ‘Playing Away’. What Ove does communicate is an underlying feeling of a repressed violence in the psychic make up of the teams. But this submerged current has quite different roots in the whites and blacks and violence and aggressive assertion whilst mostly under control is provoked in quite different ways. Amongst the white population the unrestrained psychic and actual violence of racism is mostly, but not certainly not exclusively coming from the poor whites, the rural underclass. It is important for their white self image to be able to assert racial superiority to denigrate blacks as inferior degenerate types. The poorer or more insecure the greater the need to pull racial rank, culminating in ‘Playing Away’ in the attempted assault on one of the black accompanying women; and at the climax of the ‘match’ itself when a group of the white village players walk off the pitch, breaking the very rules of the game rather than lose to the Brixton team.
The underlying violence of the black team comes from a different place. As Baldwin once commented the blacks don’t really care about the whites. What they would like is just to be left alone by them. But they are not left alone. They are derided, subject to white prejudice, judged and hounded blocked and frustrated by the white man. And as recipients of all this abuse, they have to stay in control of themselves, or risk vicious retaliation. But it’s life lived on the edge of an eruption of resentment. And at certain points a relatively trivial incident will set the fuse for an explosion of emotional rage that that will rip the lid off the situation. And it is this feeling of living with suppressed anger that Ove and Phillips represent in ‘Playing Away’ that connects the characters to the real challenge of surviving as a black in a white world. The idea embedded in the title of their film, its script and scenario is that ‘the black team’ is always in the situation of ‘Playing Away’.