It’s been 30 years since Channel 4 pushed its ground-breaking drama My Beautiful Laundrette off the TV screen and into cinemas and then all the way to the Oscars in the form of a best screenplay nomination for writer Hanif Kureishi.
The film is on tonight and tomorrow as the BFI’s Love season culminates and it’s well worth a look, both as a cultural landmark and a good watch. It’s certainly a refreshingly forward-thinking piece of work after such a televisual white Christmas. It seems Lenny Henry’s sustained criticism about the embarrassing lack of diversity is up there for all to see: from Downton Abbey to Dickensian to the BBC’s prestige Agatha Christie adaptation And Then There Were None, which sensitively changes the title from the dodgy original but forgets to cast any non-Caucasian actors (oops).
My Beautiful Laundrette was made in 1985 yet dared to think more broadly. It’s the story of Anglo-Pakistani young buck Omar (played with stern charm by Gordon Warnecke) and his attempts to get rich quick by starting “the Ritz of laundrettes” with his on-off boyfriend Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis, who we’ll come to in a bit).
The film not only presents a gay cross-cultural relationship as if it were the most normal thing in the world, but also has tremendous fun with Thatcher’s grassroots economics policies, depicting both the attractions and the ill-effects of the loadsamoney culture she advocated. It’s a London of shady entrepreneurs and squatters on the Dole, affairs, drugs, black magic and the black market.
As Omar’s uncle Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey) says: “In this damn country, which we hate and love, you can have anything you want. It’s all spread out and available and that’s why I believe in England; only you have to know how to squeeze the tits of the system.”
Kureishi creates a wonderfully varied cast of characters with many of the first and second generation immigrants based on his own uncles. There’s alcoholic Papa (Roshan Seth) who wishes the family had never left home; uncle Nasser with his string of small businesses and his white trophy girlfriend (Shirley Anne Field); and high-rolling Salim (Derrick Branche) who is surely bound to get his comeuppance if he keeps baiting the numbskull neo-Nazis on the breadline.
And then there is Day-Lewis as Johnny, the gay fascist with the dip-dyed hairdo. He somehow makes this improbable character seem totally believable, stealing the show with his masculine magnetism yet never unbalancing the story. He has the kinetic swagger of a young Marlon Brando, skipping over washing machines and scrapping in the street before getting so sweetly sexy with Omar. Apparently, Day-Lewis was almost passed over for the role because he was considered too posh — though, method as ever, he duly secured the part by threatening to break the director’s legs.
That director was Stephen Frears, who was then making his second film for fledging broadcaster Channel 4, his first being the equally edgy Walter, starring Ian McKellen as a man with learning disabilities who falls through the cracks in the welfare system. Frears went on to become an icon of the British film industry, making a string of hits including the London classics Dirty Pretty Things, Mrs Henderson Presents and Philomena, and still working at the top of his game today.
The success of Laundrette also gave Channel 4 the confidence to start Film4 Productions, which basically made every decent British film of the last 30 years (from Sunshine to Suffragette). And it triggered the launch of Working Title by bringing together producers Tim Bevan and Sarah Radclyffe, the company going on to have huge impact with little gems like Withnail & I and big British franchises such as the Bridget Jones trilogy.
Laudrette was shot in south London: Omar living in one of the rumbling tenements in Battersea near the train lines and his laundrette located in a row of shops in Vauxhall. As actor Gordon Warnecke said in a recent talk at the BFI: “It was the London that I lived in and I felt everything seemed real. Nothing was put on, which is a strength of Hanif’s writing. If you look at his work over the years — whether it be The Black Album or The Buddha Of Suburbia — he always seems to encapsulate that era, that period, that feel. And I think Laundrette did that really well because I can look back now and think, yeah, that was 85 London.”
It’s not a perfect film by any means: some of the acting is wooden and wobbly and the soundtrack is distractingly naff (the bubbling effects probably seemed like an apt idea at the time but they are horribly dated now). The tendency to focus on the characters instead of setting up a strong plot also makes it feel like a plodding experience at times. Yet all of this is beside the point because really, it’s the guts of this idiosyncratic story that captures what London life is all about — forget the ticking time-bombs of the irrelevant Bond movies these are real Londoners circling around each other trying to figure out how to live in the city.
Apparently after the first screenings of Laundrette, protesters in New York took to the streets saying the film was the “product of a vile and perverted mind” — which just proves that the team was doing something right.
According to Ham and High film critic Tom Hutchinson, writing at the time of the film’s release: “I have a feeling that My Beautiful Laundrette will be seen in years to come as some kind of watershed in British filmmaking, not for the brilliance of its technique, but for what it has to say: its cool, funny look at the way we live now. So see it now and you can remember what it was like to live in 1985 Britain.”
My Beautiful Laundrette is on at BFI Southbank on 29 and 30 December at 8pm.