Tuesday 10 December 2019

A hard act to follow ...


There wasn't any overt violence in The Men Who Can't Stop Marching. Not unless you count the torture inflicted on the eardrums by the hideous wailing and crashing of loyalist marching bands.

Alison Millar's film still made for gnawingly troubling viewing, though, chiefly because its central figure, 11-year-old Jordan McKeag, is such a likeable little boy. But then he hasn't yet been poisoned by blind hatred.

"This is me Uncle Stevie," he tells Millar, pointing to a Shankhill Road mural featuring a smiling hardman in a backwards baseball cap. "He's me daddy's brother. I think he was a military commander."

Stephen 'Topgun' McKeag was one of the UDA's most prolific killers. Jordan is innocent of all that. All he wants is to play drums in his father's marching band.

"I just want to make me daddy proud," he says. So far, his father, Jackie, won't let him play.

Jordan is aware Jackie spent time in the Maze prison but he doesn't know why. "He won't tell me." Jackie doesn't tell anyone much. He's taciturn and uncommunicative.

Now that the Troubles -- at least the ones with a capital T -- have ended, open-top buses painted cheerful red and yellow deposit tourists on the Shankhill Road. They point their cameras at murals of masked gunmen pointing their weapons back at them.

Things have changed, certainly, but the loyalist marching bands haven't. They still march every summer, 13 of them on the two-mile stretch of the Shankhill alone, keeping the pus trickling from scabby wounds.

Paul runs one of the bands. Its members are mostly kids and teenagers looking for something to do. "We're probably more British than people who live in Britain itself," says Paul. "We're more loyal to the crown than they are. We walk the Queen's highway."

Lee (29) is the drummer in a different band. His wife Lisa is expecting their fourth baby. The doctors have told them there could be complications. Lisa lost a baby before.

Lee's response, she says, was to say nothing, to bottle up his feelings. People don't get to see his "downward, depressed side", Lee himself admits. "That's not for people to see," he tells Millar.

Late in the film, Jordan makes a traumatic discovery: the body of a teenager hanging from a lamppost. Young male suicides are on the increase in the Shankhill Road. He has to sleep with the lights on now, says his mother.

The experience seems to make Jackie warmer towards Lee -- though warm here means about 10 degrees above freezing. He's warmer to Millar as well, opening up a little. "You can't tell him any of the bad bits," says Jackie. "I don't want him to see what I've seen."

Millar asks if he's ever sought help to cope with the things he's seen. "You just have to get on with it," he says. That seems to be the code with these men. Just get on with it. Bottle it up.

The film ends with Jackie taking Jordan to the Maze -- now also open to tourists -- to show him "what we went through". He still doesn't tell him, though, why he was there.

And Jordan has finally made it into the band. The school band, that is. It doesn't march. That's progress, I suppose.

It being National Idiocy Week in Britain, with five live editions of Britain's Got Talent stripped across the week, it's difficult to find something to leaven the grimness. I stumbled across the BBC's classic series Colditz by accident.

I remember this from the '70s. It had a then-stellar British-American cast, headed by David "Man from UNCLE" McCallum and Robert "Hart to Hart" Wagner.

It's shot mostly on video, with no incidental music. But the acting, the scripts and the period details are excellent, and the escape scenes incredibly tense.

You could do worse.

The Men Who Won't Stop

Marching HHHHI

Colditz HHHII

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