A new British film charts the battle of Wapping printworkers in 1986 against the Murdoch empire. It even stars Bob Hoskins
An industrial estate in Isleworth, west London, on Friday evening would swiftly disabuse anyone of the notion that film-making is a glamorous business. Extras in donkey jackets huddle in the rain around unlit braziers as the stench from the nearby sewage works drifts across the scene. A flu-ridden Bob Hoskins rubs his hands, his coughing drowned out by the whine of jets sinking into Heathrow. Spluttering old Transit vans are reversed into position, hand-painted signs that read “6,000 sacked by foreign bosses” are brandished, two police horses clop up, and suddenly we are transported back to Wapping in 1986.
“It’s not about progress, it’s about profit,” shouts Hoskins as 70 extras gather around him, playing striking printers attempting to stop Rupert Murdoch’s new Wapping printworks from getting its newspapers out. The sky darkens and the protest gathers momentum. Gates are rattled. Bricks – of the rubber variety – are thrown.
Following Made in Dagenham, Outside Bet is the latest British film to feature the once-unfashionable subjects of workers’ rights and union disputes. Its director and producers are anxious to stress this is not an anti-Murdoch piece of agitprop but simply a backdrop to a feelgood “fairytale” about a group of printworkers who unwisely invest all their redundancy money in a racehorse. Hoskins, however, seems to have other ideas.
Reprising his role in Made in Dagenham as a gravelly-voiced union man brave enough to stick up for his younger colleagues “was an attraction” he says, hunched in an old double-decker bus on the set. He vividly remembers the Wapping dispute, which descended into brutal street battles 25 years ago when Murdoch circumvented the powerful print unions in Fleet Street by secretly building an alternative printworks in east London. Hoskins had a couple of mates from London who were “in the print” and said he knew the print workers “were taking liberties” – typically clocking in for work and then disappearing down the pub – but he does not side with Murdoch’s breaking of the unions.
“The way Murdoch went about it was disgusting,” he says. “He was claiming it was progress. It was not, it was pure profit.” His print worker friends “told me that Murdoch was out of order. Even though they were pulling strokes, he was well out of order. He literally destroyed them, and that’s what he aimed to do.”
Outside Bet tells the story of Bax, his ill father, Thimble, and a wise-cracking group of close friends across three generations from London. Down the pub, they receive an unusual offer – a chance to buy a racehorse – and rashly invest their life-savings to buy the horse, called The Mumper. (“Mumping” was street trickery in Shakespeare and endures as London slang for someone who is a bit of a tricky lad.) For so long oblivious to the gravity of the unfolding strike, Bax belatedly realises he is witnessing the end of the era of a “job for life” in the print. As this and other certainties in his world crumble, Bax wonders if he should gamble all his redundancy pay-off on The Mumper.
The horse races in Millwall colours and the film came about through a Millwall connection. Film producer Tony Humphreys knew Mark Baxter through both being season ticket holders at the London football club and thought that the semi-autobiographical self-published book which Baxter, a former printworker, wrote with music journalist Paolo Hewitt, would make a perfect feelgood movie. As Humphreys and Sacha Bennett, the director, stress, the Wapping strikes are simply a backdrop for a comic drama and the film is not a Ken Loach-style polemic or even as directly political as Made in Dagenham.
Are they worried that Murdoch’s media empire will ignore the film? “I don’t think they will,” says Humphreys. “While it is based on fact we’ve not gone to deliberately bash anybody and we’re not being inflammatory towards any individual publication.” As the producer sees it, the film is not about the print strike but “about a group of mates and the love they have for each other and the relationship between a father and a son”.
But it is clear that the strong cross-generational cast, including Jenny Agutter, Phil Davis, Rita Tushingham and Emily Atack from Inbetweeners, are sensitive to the trauma of Wapping. Calum McNab, who plays Bax, is a son of a scaffolder (and Millwall fan as well). His big break came when he trod the boards of the Miskin theatre at North West Kent College with Gemma Arterton, a good friend, and was cast in The Football Factory. Born in the year of Wapping, he admits he is only “a little bit” political but feels “tremendous sympathy” for the generations whose livelihood was abruptly ended by Murdoch. “I understand why everyone was so upset. There’s a great line in the film about ‘an apprenticeship in print was like Eton for the working class’. It was a birthright for people and it was very sad it was taken away from them.”
The film may resonate particularly strongly in the current climate. Hoskins is all for films prodding a younger generation not well-versed in collective action on workers’ rights. “I think there’s going to be a rise in union action,” he predicts. “It’s good that people should know about it. If they don’t read about it, they should go and see a film about it. If you look at Made in Dagenham, Barbara Castle brought in a law to make it illegal to give women less pay than men in 1970 but they are still doing it. Somewhere along the line someone is taking the piss!”
Despite his flu, Hoskins, who is 69, still has a good-humoured sparkle in his eye. Why does he keep on making films? “I don’t actually know. I’ve got flu up to the eyebrows. I didn’t need this film at the moment,” he says gruffly. He could be sat at home with his feet up. “I could quite happily but there’s always someone who rings up and says, ‘Now Bob, before you go, there’s a cracking little swansong for you’.” He laughs. Everything he has done recently has been sold to him on that, shamelessly morbid, basis. Scripts keep dropping onto his doormat and he can’t resist picking them up.
Outside Bet’s makers could only afford Hoskins for three of the six-week shoot. So Hoskins, who is in virtually every scene as “old fighter” Gudger, has to work extra hard. “I’m dead, I’m knackered, and I’ve got flu. If I survive this movie it’s gonna be a miracle, I tell you,” he says. Is he an old fighter? “No, no. I’m much too much of a coward to be a fighter.” Do younger actors come to him for advice? “Naaaaooooo. Well they do, but I haven’t got any advice to give them. What could I say?”
Given the budgetary constraints of British films such as Outside Bet, what does Hoskins feel about the state of the British film industry? “What is amazing is the way that independent films are made in this country. People still invest in them, which is wonderful. And every now and again a little gem comes up.” Does he think this one is a gem? “Erm, I’d love it to be one. Well, it might be, you never know.” Hoskins does not sound very convinced.
As night falls, however, and the director calls cut as the extras’ rioting looks like it might get out of hand, Hoskins looks like a diminutive circus ringmaster, at the heart of the action. He shares a joke with the cast and everyone laughs. Suddenly, even in Isleworth on a wet Friday night, it looks like Hoskins is having the time of his life.
• Outside Bet is on release now.