The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

Since 2008, I’ve been working with a film company and several Coventry luminaries on a proposed drama – movie or TV series – centred on the lives of four young black people trying to escape from Coventry in the run up to the 1981 riots. The drama is loosely based on the biographies I co-authored of Neville Staple and Errol Christie. Working title: Ghost Town. This will depict the real-life escapades of Neville, Errol, Pauline Black of The Selecter and the footballer Garry Thompson. Four people who were truly trailblazers for black British youth in the 1980s. All of this set to a 2Tone ska musical score!

The two Coventry biographies I co-wrote

The two biographies I wrote were Original Rude Boy – the life story of Neville Staple – and the twice award short-listed account of Errol Christie’s rise and fall in the boxing world: No Place To Hide. Both published by Aurum Press in hardback and paperback. With both these books, I covered the entire life story of both men from birth to where they are today. So, with Neville I wasn’t just focussing on him joining The Specials but going back to his childhood in Jamaica; involvement in the 1970s sound system scene through to his life after 2Tone. Exploring his family roots and his tough life at home with an authoritarian father was an eye opener to put it mildly! Similarly, Errol had a quick-tempered and often violent Dad who, to quote Errol, beat his children like the slaves were beaten once upon a time back in Jamaica.

As you can imagine, working on those two books meant spending a great deal of time in Coventry. A city that was once the Detroit of the UK – dominated by the auto industry. Errol’s first boxing experience was at a car factory gym where one of the shop stewards was his manager and fiercely protective of the young talent. Like many cities back then, it was surprisingly insular. A whole music scene germinated in Coventry – 2Tone – that then burst out on to a seemingly unsuspecting country. It reflected the racial tensions and night-time violence that were hallmarks of the place.

FIND OUT MORE: Two town bands and the 1981 Coventry riot

Pauline Black – Black By Design

Pauline Black wrote her own autobiography that came out a couple of years after Original Rude Boy. Black By Design – published by Serpent’s Tail – detailed her childhood in Essex (where I also grew up!) and how she carved out her identity in Coventry. It’s a gripping tale and – if she doesn’t mind me saying – should be read alongside Neville’s book to get a quite unique female and male perspective on how 2Tone came about and its revolutionary impact.

In one filmed conversation I had with Pauline when negotiating life rights for Ghost Town, she discussed what it was like to have rows of white skinheads doing Sieg Heil salutes at Selecter gigs at the start of the 1980s. Didn’t these kids know the Selecter was anti-racist? Did they have any idea what Nazism stood for? Well, the answer is they were confused teens looking for answers. And she gave a very touching account of taking some of these youngsters under wing backstage and trying to educate them. Even if one of them had a swastika on his forehead!

DISCOVER MORE: Ska and 2Tone – the sound of Coventry

Garry Thompson – Coventry football player

I also filmed with Garry Thompson who played football for Coventry City between 1977 and 1983. His accounts of racism on and off the pitch were hair raising. The stuff that would be chanted from the terraces, the banana skins thrown at players and even on occasion, physical attacks. It just beggars belief today – thankfully. Though not all over the world unfortunately. Garry has now put out his own biography Don’t Believe A Word and he shares the ups and downs of being a player at that time.

The idea behind the drama was to interweave the lives of these four black Coventry figures – an imagining of what it would have been like if they had known each other. Plotted with each other to escape. And finally – if rather wistfully – succeeding. The story – not to give too much away – begins at the legendary Locarno night club with a mass arrest of clubbers described to me once by Neville. The youngsters pressed against the walls as the police released Alsatians into the venue before entering themselves. Our four heroes meet in the police van taking them back to the station.

In reality, Neville was friends with one of Errol’s brothers. Pauline of course knew Neville through 2Tone. But Garry never rubbed shoulders with any of them.

This is a film I made with Neville, Pauline and Garry after optioning Ghost Town in 2008. It centres on a skinhead reunion in Coventry and their recollections of skinhead versus rudeboy action back in the day.

Here is a video I filmed with Errol Christie to publicise the book but also highlight the issues in the proposed drama. Thanks for Jermaine Allen for filming and Phil Mutton for editing. I scripted this with Errol. Sadly – since putting up this blog post in 2011, Errol passed away far too young from cancer.

An article with Neville Staple that mentions the Ghost Town drama and Emu Films.

FIND OUT MORE: Ghost Town, The Specials and the 1981 riots

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