Don’t Expect Roses: Growth, Transformation and Illusion in Tony Blair’s Britain

Tony Blair Essay - Croupier

This Tony Blair essay contains spoilers for Croupier, Three Businessmen, Wonderland, Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry and Sexy Beast. Check out VV movie reviews, along with cast/character articles, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings, at the home page.

The Labour Party’s 1997 landslide election victory ended 18 years of Tory rule in the UK — it was a moment of intense optimism and expectation. Britain had a young, dynamic prime minister whose rhetoric spoke to the possibility of national transformation. Since Tony Blair became Leader of the Opposition in 1994, a cadre of ambitious modernizers sought to create a clear distinction between the bold, optimistic reformism of New Labour and a Conservative government mired in sleaze and internal division. The New Labour project sought to master public sentiment through intensive focus grouping and assiduous media manipulation. It was an attempt to create a definitive break with the party’s fractious past and offer a vision of a new Britain that looked resolutely to the future. Blair’s charisma was sufficient in allaying any doubts about the veracity of the agenda, but as the party began to govern, it became clear that the scrupulous presentation was an attempt to deflect from the void at the core of New Labour. They spoke as radicals but governed as pragmatists — continuity was sold as revolution, power assumed its own momentum as Blair’s inner circle attempted to hollow out the old structures and refashion them into a presidential vehicle for the Blair brand. “Spin” entered the common lexicon as Blair sought to be all things to all people, uniting historically antagonistic sectors — around a nebulous set of precepts that spoke to a general disengagement from ideological struggle — towards a stage-managed spectacle whose aesthetics repulsed as much as they enticed.

This illusory new order came to be symbolized by the Millennium Dome; a misbegotten project which was envisaged as a monument to Britain’s new ambition and creativity, but ended up being a shabby assemblage of half-baked attractions contained within a marquee on a strip of dockside land that had been contaminated by toxic sludge. The Dome exposed the big lie of “Cool Britannia” that the media had been eagerly promulgating — it was an impressive shell containing nothing of value. Culture became one of New Labour’s most potent weapons, as Blair sought to attach himself to the aura of celebrity, sensing that Thatcherism’s elevation of the individual and the displays of public grief in the wake of Princess Diana’s death had changed the British psyche. The people of Britain had cast off their stoicism and recognized the weight of their feelings, and nobody was more skilled at leveraging emotion than Blair. There are films from this period that are quintessentially New Labour in their message of social mobility and personal transformation. The Full Monty (1997) and Billy Elliot (2000) both feature working-class characters in Labour’s traditional industrial heartlands who transcend the old class distinctions through the force of their skill and initiative. Be they strippers or ballet dancers, the meritocracy looks kindly upon everyone. But there were other films that tapped into the tension that grew as New Labour struggled to reconcile public expectation with the realities of governing. The ghosts of the divisive past that New Labour set out to consign to history’s trash heap reared their heads, presaging a politics that would cast off the Blairite technocratic order.

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Many of the films released in the years of New Labour’s ascendancy (1997-2000) find characters searching for self-definition, but coming up against specters from a less hopeful past. There is equally a sense that these characters have been languishing in a state of delusion that will be abruptly exposed by avatars for the old recriminations and restrictions. In Croupier (1998), Jack Manfred (Clive Owen) is an aspiring novelist in search of a marketable subject. When his gambler father (Nicholas Ball) secures him a job as a croupier in a middle of the road casino, Jack realizes that the perfect story had been staring him in the face the whole time. He grew up in a casino in Sun City, South Africa, and thus understands organized unfairness all too well. The trick for Jack is to reconcile his creative urges to the knowledge that comes from being raised in such a milieu; he has no illusions about a publishing world in which books are “piled like chips” and gimmickry reigns supreme. Jack is at ease in a world where everyone is a resource; he is “the still center of that spinning wheel of misfortune,” a “detached voyeur” who is left “miraculously untouched” by the sight of meritocracy floundering with each roll of the ball. His blonde hair becomes black and he tells himself, “Welcome back, Jack, to the house of addiction.” Jack sought a way out of this world, but every exit was barred; he must renounce the possibility of escape and accept the terms of his old life; the writerly affectations give way to the croupier’s tuxedo — he becomes ‘”a man in love with his uniform,” dwelling in the spaces between certainties. Jack finds a new focus for his unblinking gaze in subjects like fellow dealer Matt (Paul Reynolds), who suggest that “the whole business is bent, the casino’s nothing but legal theft — it’s the system.” Narratives become intertwined and difficult to disentangle as Jack turns Matt into “Jake” — the ruthless, cynical protagonist for the novel the protagonist begins working on.

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Tony Blair Essay - Croupier

The casino is its own moral universe; it is a heightened environment in which an inflated sense of self-interest is essential for the gambler’s survival. The roulette wheel is a machine belching out solitary disappointment and personal ruin. Jack understands all the angles — he bears witness to the secret arrangements and private connivances, he has come to terms with the grim exhilaration of being hooked again. Jack is comfortable with the contradictions he embodies, telling everyone a different story, striving to be the version of himself that fits the situation. But Jack’s girlfriend, Marion (Gina McKee), is troubled by the ease with which he has surrendered his professed romanticism and become “an underground man,” stating that “I want to live with a writer, not a fucking croupier.”

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Jack’s renunciation is as much a blow to Marion’s sense of self as his own. Like Matt, Owen’s character is “an escape artist,” contorting himself into self-justifying shapes, burying dimensions of himself that strike a dissonant note with the observer. Jack lives in the shadow of the environment he grew up in, a space where all orienting symbols are trampled in the clamor for advancement. This leaves questions as to who he really is. Jack tells Marion that “gambling’s not about money. It’s about not facing reality, ignoring the odds,” and when he gets wrapped up in the life of one of the gamblers, Jani (Alex Kingston), his world of illusion becomes so overpowering that he begins to believe that luck is on his side, that he can manipulate events to his liking, that he can spin reality into a satisfying resolution. The writer in Jack loses sight of the odds, but the story will have its revenge, and he sees with blinding clarity a world where only strength and calculation are valued, a world divided into conjurers and subjects, and Jack is quite content to have “acquired the power to make you lose.”

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The characters in Alex Cox’s Buñuelesque Three Businessmen (1998) find themselves lost in a landscape where all the markers of stability are gone, where “all the old moorings” have “rotted completely away.” Art dealers Bennie Reyes (Miguel Sandoval) and Frank King (Cox) embark on a quest for a private panacea that will ease the problems of global competition — they begin in Liverpool, that redoubt of working-class solidarity depicted so powerfully in Dockers (1999), whose faded Victorian pomp serves as a fetish object for its past glory. The city slowly merges with Amsterdam and Tokyo to become an indistinguishable whirl of illuminated windows — the global destination offers a passport to a universal experience; the demands of “the bottom line” cross borders with zero friction; the denizens parrot the same business truisms. Liverpool’s rain-spattered concrete gives way to Tokyo’s dazzling neon veneers, but the distinction no longer matters to the businessmen; authenticity is discounted as a display of cultural exchange, originality as tasteful reproduction for hungry consumers. Bennie and Frank trade in fragments of the real, they specialize in indigenous art which lends the homogenous settings of their upscale clientele a dash of cultural specificity. In the global marketplace, symbols collapse in on themselves, legacies are traded as assets. As with the casino in Croupier, the Liverpool hotel suspends them in a dream of security and art deco opulence. Only the distant sound of sirens suggests the revenge of a story which resists absorption and clings to its patch. Away from the safety of their hotel rooms, time and place for the businessmen become elastic.

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Tony Blair Essay - Three Businessmen

Traversing the mediated spaces of late capitalism, Bennie and Frank represent the two poles of the neoliberal disposition. Bennie has a Panglossian faith in salvation; he carries a “Plutonium Card” which promises to rescue him from any predicament; he speaks of “conscious machines” and subscribes to a kind of techno-determinism which places great stock in “the future.” Yet for all his faith in the flow of information, Bennie is a low-information voter, scorning politics and declaring that he never consumes any news media, sharing outlandish conspiracy theories about the government’s impending war on the obese. Frank, on the other hand, is a wounded romantic who has had to shed his ideals to get ahead; he wears a mask of weary cynicism and jokes with Bennie that the Labour Party no longer sings “The Internationale” but instead hums the theme to Chariots of Fire (1981). The backdrop the businessmen travel through is designed to stamp out chance, to eliminate the possibility of random occurrence in a flurry of identical signs. But as the international language of commerce comes up against the crude slang of provincial priorities, the promise of salvation is revealed to Bennie as an answering machine message in an empty office. As the duo wanders the Spanish wilds, they are joined by Leroy Jasper (Robert Wisdom), another businessman who completes the triumvirate of kings — King, Reyes and Leroy — thrown off course in their pursuit of the promised land of prosperity. Frank begins to see the fulfillment of his assertion to Bennie that “we’re on the verge of absolute chaos”; he concludes that “we’re not in Liverpool anymore” as he surveys this barren expanse. The truth is these men have never been anywhere — they exist in a facsimile of place, beholden to something disembodied and ubiquitous; they shrug off the possibility of transcendence when they stumble upon a child who may be the new Messiah and scuttle off to their next meeting.

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Wonderland (1999) finds three sisters from a working-class background waiting for the big transformation. Nadia (Gina McKee) is a waitress who finds her answering machine glutted with messages from lonely hearts offering a thumbnail sketch of their personality, Debbie (Shirley Henderson) is a single mother and hairdresser struggling to take care of her son (Peter Marfleet as Jack), and Molly (Molly Parker) is expecting her first child with Eddie (John Simm) while trying to build a respectable middle-class lifestyle. Like so many in Britain at that time, the sisters exist in a state of heightened expectation — they are filled with the illusions that had been instilled in everyone on the back of the country’s big step toward the future. But there is equally a sense of foreboding, as Nadia is constantly looking for an exit from the string of first dates she attends, Debbie must contend with Jack’s feckless, headstrong father (Ian Hart as Dan) and Molly finds Eddie straining under the weight of impending parenthood, signified when he brings home a VHS copy of Eraserhead (1977), the ultimate nightmare of birth and trauma. Being on the cusp of change is thrilling and frightening in equal measure — there is a feeling that things are moving, but the destination remains a subject of intense anxiety; the contours of the change have yet to take decisive form, allowing for tension to mount and mistakes to be made. The sisters’ parents, Eileen (Kika Markham) and Bill (Jack Shepherd), feel this change most intensely, as they sense it will leave them behind. Director Michael Winterbottom provides glimpses of those who will be cast out of the wonderland: the rough sleepers who exist cheek by jowl with the gangs of partying City boys, the groups of kids gathered on the streets of the crumbling housing estate where Eileen and Bill live. Everybody is vying to secure their place. 

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Tony Blair Essay - Wonderland

This winner-takes-all attitude is symbolized in Wonderland by English football, which — by the end of the 90s — had become a national obsession and mammoth investment vehicle. Jack supports perennial strugglers Crystal Palace and is taken to a match by Dan, who asks Jack why he can’t support a “useful” club. In Dan’s eyes, to stick by a loser is a sign of a faulty mindset; one must project the optimal version of oneself onto the world. The act of willful dreaming is an essential tool of survival for those who grow up disadvantaged — Nadia tells one of her dates, Tim (Stuart Townsend), that she used to pretend she was an orphan, that “I really wanted to believe it.” But when things progress with Tim, she realizes in their post-coital unease that it is all fantasy; as the night bus ploughs through driving rain, she understands that their encounter had been a mere transaction, detached from the bands of revelers as the version of Tim she had constructed dissolves.

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Nadia is not alone in feeling this insufficiency. Franklyn (David Fahm) lives in a cramped house on the housing estate with his mother, Donna (Ellen Thomas), who tells him “I wish you’d get a girlfriend” as he sits in his room listening to media dispatches from a life that is seemingly beyond his reach. Molly and Eddie’s life seems fixed in place, but they equally struggle to live up to the ideals that require them to be the dependable breadwinner and the glowing mum-to-be, chafing under the rituals they are expected to perform; they represent a country unsure of where to turn next, waiting for salvation to come. The life that is “just like the ads” to which Molly and Eddie have worked to attain begins to unravel, but their bond is renewed by the birth of Alice, the newest occupant of a wonderland that promises so much excitement but is fraught with so many hidden dangers. Wonderland ends with the clarity of spent euphoria, as Nadia and Franklyn stumble into each other’s worlds.

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Tony Blair Essay - Wonderland

Christie Malry (Nick Moran) is a malcontent office drone whose only desire in life is for money, sex “and loads of it” in Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (2000) — an adaptation of B.S. Johnson’s cult novel. But the character remains unable to decode the mysteries of money until he is advised to take an accounting course and learns the intricacies of double-entry bookkeeping. From this, Christie constructs his “own personal double-entry system,” entering individual credits and debits into a moral ledger that divides the world into “aggravation and recompense.” Within this “machine for calculating the world,” Christie arrives at the conclusion he is owed a substantial sum of recompense, and sets about calling in his debts. He progresses from acts of monkey-wrenching at the candy factory where he works as an invoice clerk to full-scale terrorism, upending the world around him. Christie is a one-man insurrection, espousing a form of libertarianism which can only see salvation stemming from within; the world will die with him so he may as well blast through everything that stands in the way of getting what he wants.

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When Christie’s dying mother (Shirley Anne Field) says, “There is no God, no Judgement Day, no Day of Reckoning,” he is set free from all constraints. The man is perfectly within his rights to pursue his rational self-interest and impose his own “mathematical order” on events. In Christie’s eyes, the world is simplified into a series of exchanges, and those who accrue the most are free to set the social agenda. He strives to get himself some capital and start competing in the market; until then, he will deface the cathedral and poison the well.

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Tony Blair Essay - Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry

Christie strains to cultivate a veneer of normalcy — he works his dull office job as he plots his atrocities; he gets a girlfriend, Carol (Kate Ashfield), who cooks his dinner and indulges his penchant for sadomasochistic sex — but all the time, he is “a cell of one” attached to nothing beyond himself, appropriating the tactics of political struggle for ends no more profound than power and prestige. In the end, Christie gets what he wants, but not in the way he’d envisaged; he is engulfed by the cycle of nihilistic violence he has set in motion, and in death becomes a catalyst for public reaction akin to Princess Diana. Carol’s flat is festooned with framed pictures of the secular saint who opened the floodgates on British performative emotions. The character states that “it was us who killed her,” as if the paroxysms of conspicuous grief were a means of expiation. Christie has no time for such sentiment; to him “it’s not personal, it’s war,” and he vows to “go on until I have everything.”

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But Christie gets lost in the fog of war — he fails to remember that we are neither angels nor monkeys, but doomed to reside in the space between absolutes, mired in ambivalence. Christie’s skewed valuations leave no room for a fair appraisal, as his faith in the immutability of the system he has devised reduces people to obstacles. Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry features songs from Luke Haines, who — with his band, The Auteurs — served as an acerbic rejoinder to the triumphalism of 90s Britpop (as documented to delightfully splenetic effect in his 2009 book Bad Vibes: Britpop and My Part in Its Downfall). The musician’s songs feel like forewarnings of impending cataclysm — violent epistles from a future where the sound of breaking glass rings out across the city and everyone is engaged in their own obscure crusade.

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Moran rose to prominence in Guy Ritchie’s charming crime caper Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), whose success spawned a slew of mockney imitators. The genre proliferated throughout the late 90s, ranging from stylish outliers like Gangster No. 1 (2000) to tiresome self-aware retreads like Love, Honour and Obey (2000). The gangster became a symbol of a new braggadocious spirit that had gripped British culture. Well-dressed, wise-cracking thieves practicing strength through violence in pursuit of power and control — performers as much as any politician — were the purest expression of the ruthless ambition and rapacious acquisition that had been set free in the wake of the Thatcher counter-revolution, and New Labour were chary of attempting to gainsay. But the British gangster film also proved to be fertile ground for subversion, a useful point of entry for filmmakers like Jonathan Glazer, whose Sexy Beast (2000) picks up its conventions and contorts them into unsettling shapes. Retired con Gal (Ray Winstone) is a lump of inert, satiated flesh as he lounges by the pool of his Spanish villa, luxuriating in the spoils of victory, content to rest on his laurels, a sunburnt testament to a kind of British expat complacency which retains its imperial arrogance. As he boils in the midday sun, the film’s signature set-piece begins: a giant boulder comes tumbling down the hillside, offering a rude awakening as it narrowly misses Gal’s head and smashes through the pool’s tranquil surface. It is a premonition of the turmoil that will sweep aside the torpor Gal and his wife — former porn star Deedee (Amanda Redman) — have constructed as a means of escaping who they used to be in the “grey, grimy, sooty” environs of gangland London.

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Tony Blair Essay - Sexy Beast

Gal describes England as “a dump, a shithole, a toilet” that he succeeded in escaping by sheer force of will, dragging himself from the depths of the murky water to build his Mediterranean idyll. But the elements are conspiring to upend his content — he cannot fight the forces that are arrayed against him. As the boulder is transported away, Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) arrives at Gal’s villa to convince him to come out of retirement for a job. What could have been a tired trope is leant a much more unnerving dimension by Kingsley’s portrayal of Don, who swoops in from the darkest recesses of the toilet bearing all of England’s grievances and grudges. Gal comes to learn that England will find you and drag you back down. Don’s contempt for Gal’s condition is palpable — he views him as a flabby and complacent predator who has forgotten to hunt for his food and turned his back on “the charge, the bolt, the buzz, the sheer fuck off-ness of it all.” Don is a figure of austerity and coercion, a solider who cannot see anything beyond the war, a blunt-force object who arrives to discordant music. But for all his swagger, Don is merely an emissary for the real power behind the job — the corrupt elites who administer the remnants of the empire, the forces of capital that swim below the surface. For a pact with history to be struck, Don must be eliminated. Gal knows he will have to be submerged again in England’s turbid waters. Back on home soil, he must learn to breathe underwater and swim with the predators again, to fight off England’s hungriest sharks with all due ferocity. Gal and Deedee begin a process of casting off illusions and living with the scars that are left by their encounter.

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It was the invasion of Iraq in 2003 which definitively broke the spell that Blair had cast over the British consciousness. In an oddly prophetic twist, Christie’s homegrown acts of terrorism in Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry are blamed on Iraq and serve as the casus belli for an invasion. For many, Blair’s push for war was a vindication of the growing skepticism regarding the true face of New Labour. His conviction in selling the necessity for war revealed a Manichean streak which belied his progressive posture. Like Gal and Deedee in Sexy Beast, many Brits saw the scales fall from their eyes and the true shape of their reality confront them. They are introduced to the “black magic” that unites a titan of industry like Harry (James Fox) and a crime lord like Teddy Bass (Ian McShane), a coalition of the willing who burrow into the heart of the country’s establishment and divvy up the rewards among themselves. Like Jack in Croupier, many cloaked their pain in cynicism about the true nature of the game. Like Frank and Bennie in Three Businessmen, they searched for recognizable landmarks. But even as the echoes of D:Ream’s election anthem “Things Can Only Get Better” were still reverberating in people’s ears, there were those who sounded a note of caution. In their 1998 song “Don’t Expect Roses,” Northern Irish rockers Therapy? pointed out that “you can tell yourself everything is fine / but don’t be fooled by the sunshine / and don’t expect roses.”

D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.

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