Amber Films’ LIKE FATHER — a longer look

Films produced by Newcastle’s Amber collective are years in the making, so the similarities between Like Father and Billy Elliot are probably accidental — but comparisons remain unavoidable. Both movies use almost identical geographical settings – the post-industrial east Durham coast in and around Easington – as a specific socio-cultural background for the challenging dramatisation of issues.

The main characters in Like Father are even called Elliott, but here the focus is spread across three generations: 10-year-old Michael (Dent), music teacher Joe (Armstrong) and curmudgeonly pigeon-racer Arthur (Kelly), who’s 70. And it’s Joe on whom the story pivots: turning 40, he’s commissioned to write a piece of music commemorating the rebirth of his area as it moves from post-industrial deprivation towards a supposedly brighter future of tourism and service-industries.

But the regeneration project depends on relocating some long-established pigeon lofts, and when Arthur ferociously resists the plan, Joe must try to change his father’s mind – or face losing the commission. The intense pressures cause Joe to neglect long-suffering wife Carol (Gascoigne), while young Michael looks on in confusion as his family, his cultural heritage and his own future hang in the balance

Balance is always a crucial consideration while watching every Amber film: the balance between telling a coherent, watchable story, and the group’s stated agenda of reconnecting with (working-class) communities, living and working in those communities and “putting something back in”. This is bracingly unapologetic political film-making, and if nothing else Like Father does work as a riposte to what the group sees as Billy Elliot’s fundamentally dodgy message: “What it says is that if you want to be successful get out of the north-east; there’s nothing there for you.”

Thus we see Joe, in Like Father, specifically located within this geography — when Carol kicks him out of the house, he takes up temporary residence in a trailer-park perched on the very edge of the raging North Sea. He moonlights as a booking agent for the local working-men’s club scene, and the film’s at its strongest during documentary-style sequences in the clubs — there’s even a rousing rendition of football anthem ‘Cheer up, Peter Reid.’

The film nimbly captures aspects of the culture rarely seen even on TV, let alone films, such as the ritualistically precise pigeon-racing procedures of Arthur and his colleagues (living legends Jackie Surtees and John Reid appear as themselves) that recall the mysterious ‘chirrup-sport’ sequences of Bruno Dumont’s small-town chronicle Life of Jesus. The pigeons provide a euphoric visual coup as hundreds of racers are released simultaneously from both sides of a long wagon, flooding out in impossibly vast numbers to mass and swoop in the skies like the CGI sandstorms and insect-clouds from the Mummy pictures – except here it’s real, it’s much more spectacular and, it’s directly connected with the story and the people involved.

There’s another striking image when we see some bairns “surf” down a mucky slag-heap, echoing a virtually identical moment in the regeneration group’s “farewell to the bad old days” video presentation. But this isn’t a film that’s especially bothered about visual flourishes, and attempts to spice up the prevailing realistic tone fall embarrasingly flat. Joe repeatedly recalls a childhood incident when his father expressed violent disapproval of his musical leanings — and every time he does so, we cut back to a grainy home movie recreation of the scene. Once is fair enough, but this repetition yields rapidly diminishing results.

Joe, struggling with the composition in his clifftop caravan, has a clumsy vision of his father back in his coalmining days; later, straining to come up with the third movement (The Future), Joe looks out of the window and sees a rainbow cutting through the slate-grey skies. Amber seem unwilling to trust their audiences to follow whats going on and underline every single point, often reaching for aggressively-elegaic woodwinds.

Similar failings mar the screenplay, which combines together several actual events in the area — pigeon lofts nearby were threatened with demolition, and were only saved after they unexpectedly secured architectural listed building recognition — and is reportedly the result of lengthy consultations with the actual participants. Whatever the creative process, and whatever actually went on in real life, the presentation of the representatives of the council and the Phoenix regeneration group veers unhelpfully towards melodramatic caricature: the main council bogeyman allows himself a gloating grin when he’s led to believe Arthur is finally capitulating to the inevitable.

There’s no questioning Amber’s motives, and they make many solid points — but they don’t do themselves any favours with this kind of overemphasis. The climax of the film sees a character fall from a considerable height, landing right on top of a pile of recently-killed pigeons*, and it’s hard to imagine a clunkier kind of symbolism. The whole finale is, it must be said, a bit of a mess – a confusing mixture of histrionics and sentimentality.

But don’t be put off – there’s still much to appreciate here, not least the marvellous Armstrong as his namesake. While Gascoigne’s Carol has very little to do except nag, Armstrong is given space to develop a fully rounded character as he negotiates life’s wringer, escaping into his music either through composition or performance. When one of his club acts pulls out, Joe takes the stage himself and this so-called “tubby bitch” (an unexpected nod to Kevin Smith!) reveals an fine voice and stage presence — he’s like a distant cousin of Broadway Danny Roses Nick Apollo Forte.

Even better, when attending a fancy Phoenix-group do, he’s surprised to be summoned on stage to receive his commission — he’s just been to the bar, and instinctively hides his pint with a glossy brochure as he makes his way to the spotlight. A nothing, throwaway gesture, but one that tells us more about this man and his world than any amount of melodramatic shenanigans involving shotguns, catapults, bulldozers and strangled pigeons.

by Jigsaw Lounge Reviewing Team (L.Boyce, M.Cummings, E.Dennison, A.Maxwell, D.Moran, R.Worthington, N.Young)

1st July, 2001
(seen 27-jun-01, Robins, Durham)

*Who’d be a movie pigeon? If a pigeon-loft is introduced early on, and its owner is put in any kind of dangerous situation, movie law dictates the loft’s inhabitants won’t be around at the end — a rule applying from On The Waterfront, right through to Ghost Dog. Not that this is an unrealistic outcome! The pigeon scene around Sunderland and Durham documented in Like Father has, over the years, seen more than its share of vendettas as violent and shocking as anything in Amores Perros.

UK 2001
director / script / cinematography / editing : Amber Production Team
(Richard Grassick, Ellin Hare, Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, Murray Martin, Pat McCarthy, Lorna Powell, Peter Roberts)
music : Joe Armstrong
lead actors : Joe Armstrong, Jonathon Dent, Ned Kelly, Anna Gascoigne
96 minutes


Click here for an interview with Ellin Hare and Murray Martin of Amber collective

or here for an article on Amber called A Failure of Vision