Stevie (Robert Carlyle) has recently come down from Glasgow to London to look for work, having left behind a life of crime, or so he hopes. But as he finds a building site and requests a job there, he wonders if apparently being on the straight and narrow even applies here, for the foremen and managers seem to be operating somewhat outside the law, and not simply because they will hire anyone no awkward questions asked. Being effectively self-employed, the workers have to sort out their own insurance and as they have no real contract, the bosses can sack them without a moment's notice; one of Stevie's colleagues, Larry (Ricky Tomlinson) is a lot more aware of these issues and is happy to let everyone know about it.
After a middling nineteen-eighties that saw him concentrating on documentary work, director Ken Loach began to make his mark on the world stage once again with Riff-Raff, a defiantly colloquial underdog comedy drama penned by Bill Jesse, based on the writer's experiences on building sites. The film was dedicated to him for he passed away before it was released, which had been a struggle in itself as no British distributor wanted to touch it: glowing acclaim at foreign festivals managed to change their mind, however, and soon the poster image of Tomlinson standing in a bath with only a hard hat covering his modesty became briefly famous, if not exactly what you would want hanging on your wall.
This was not Loach's first film of the nineties, as he had recharged his batteries with the Northern Ireland conspiracy thriller Hidden Agenda, which had generated column inches in the newspapers thanks to its controversial subject matter, but not many returns at the box office. Riff-Raff was a definite step in the right direction, proving he had the common touch when it came to developing a story of working class life, even if the feeling that he was largely manufacturing these for the middle classes to indulge themselves in right on social relevance was a reputation Loach found hard to shake. He ploughed ahead regardless, and concocted more films in this vein over the rest of his career.
That also meant a template he would adhere to in many of these works, where he would mix humour with drama for the whole movie then land a tragedy at the end for maximum impact. It was there in Kes, still his most celebrated effort, and it was there in I, Daniel Blake decades later at the other end of his filmography, but the impression was he had hit upon a formula that satisfied him and as he was not a director who most would have seen everything he had ever made, it was possible to be surprised by a Loach production if you sincerely did not spot where he was going with these narratives. Here the humour was some of his funniest, his cast lending a fresh, immediate sound to the dialogue in a variety of strong accents that not everyone could understand, necessitating subtitles even in selected British screenings.
Not that any of the actors were swallowing their lines as would start to happen in pictures in the twenty-first century, both large and small, but the overlapping dialogue did mean some of the words were lost at times. Capitalising on a very well-constructed screenplay, we were able to laugh at these lives when the need arose, yet also feel down when they did too. We ostensibly followed Stevie (an early Carlyle performance that was arguably his big break) who his fellow workers found a flat for him to squat in, then picked up a girlfriend (Emer McCourt) who has ambitions to be a singer though he recognises she probably does not have what it takes. But there was a tapestry woven by Loach of the builders, with Tomlinson a highlight as he offered the political conscience - these men were being exploited in unsafe conditions - and a fair few big laughs as well. Generously, each of the main cast were given their chance to shine, dramatically or comedically, and if the ending was too pat and maybe not exactly helpful either, it remained one of Loach's better successes. Music by Stewart Copeland.
[The BFI have released three Ken Loach films in a Blu-ray box set. The other two to go with this are Raining Stones and Ladybird Ladybird. Those special features in full:
Includes a newly remastered presentation of Ladybird Ladybird approved by the director
Ken Loach: The Guardian Lecture at the National Film Theatre with Derek Malcolm (1992, 71 mins)
Face to Face: Jeremy Isaccs talks to Ken Loach (Geraldine Dowd, 1991, 39 mins): the former Head of Channel Four discusses the filmmaker's life and career
Carry on Ken (Toby Reisz, 2006, 47 mins): an in-depth documentary appraising the director
Original trailers for all three films
Fully illustrated booklet with new writing by David Archibald, original reviews and full film credits.]