New film Green Street is the latest to attempt to tap into the apparently growing US market for English hooligan-chic. Barney Ronay emerges battered and baffled

West Ham United aren’t particularly happy about Lexi Alexander’s new film about English football hooligans, part of which was shot in and around the Boleyn Ground. They’re not the only ones. Having sat through the entire two hours, I’m not very happy about it either. Also distressed, presumably, will be a trailer full of casting agents, stylists, location managers and accent coaches, who between them have managed to recruit and train a platoon of football faces that veers from the Irish-Cockney-Dick-Van-Dyke turn of Pete, head of the GSE West Ham crew, and star name Elijah Wood’s pale and frankly laughable imitation of a hardened street-fighter. “It just doesn’t make any sense. What are you even doing here?” Wood’s character is asked by his sister Shannon half an hour into the film. Wood has just turned up on her doorstep in South Kensington. Moments earlier he was being expelled from Yale over some vague business to do with his preppy room-mate selling drugs. Shannon, you feel, might have a point.

Green Street is a film about English football hooligans made for an American audience. Journalism student Buckner – played, let’s make this completely clear, by whey-faced, pint-sized, deathly earnest, big bwown eyes wike a wickle wabbit Elijah Wood – proceeds to fall in with his brother-in-law Pete and his hoolie mates. Before you know it the previously-weedy Buckner is wading into his first ruck, travelling the length of the country to duff up some Man Utd fans, and eventually rolling around amid much blood on the streets of east London. Most of the English people involved either die or end up in hospital. Buckner, meanwhile, goes back to America, gives his evil preppy room-mate what for, clears his name and gets on with being a world famous journalist.

It’s obvious why West Ham aren’t happy about all this. Having allowed their ground and their good name to be attached to the whole thing, the club are now set to become an object of pilgrimage for every clammy-palmed teenage soccer hooligan-fantasist in the US (more of whom later). From a British point of view, it’s much harder to understand why this film was made at all. There is no real point to be made here. People who like to fight occasionally attach themselves to football clubs. This was more of a problem before strict policing and simple economic pressure transformed the atmosphere in and around football grounds. You may as well make a film about drunk people having a roll around in the town centre on a Saturday night. The phrase “glamourising violence” springs to mind, only it’s not very glamorous at all. Some of these mindless thugs really do seem to be mindless, although that might just be the unhelpful script. Worst of all is arch GSE hoodlum Bovver, whose main talent lies in his unwaveringly sneery facial. “We don’t... like... yanks,” he gurgles at Buckner during a tense early scene at a pub urinal. Even further down the scale than Bovver are the Millwall mob, a group of ageing low-brows with sandpaper scowls and zero vocabulary beyond fight-intros and come-and-have-a-go posturing. These aren’t people, they’re Orcs: a necessary stereotype in this kind of good-guys/bad-guys storytelling.

Outside of which there are the usual picture postcard London oddities. The film’s initial fight scene between the GSE and a Spurs crew takes place outside the Bank of England (in fact on exactly the same street Bridget Jones ran down at the end of the first Bridget Jones film – a shame the two events couldn’t have coincided). Pete’s brother, formerly head of the GSE and known as “The Major”, now hangs out in South Kensington and drives a Range Rover. Yob royalty Pete spends much of his time slouching past elegant mansion blocks and stubbing his fag butts out on pristine Edwardian iron lampposts.

So what is it all about? Why make a film like this now? Even a cursory internet survey reveals that there seems to be an appetite for this kind of thing in the US. Stadium riots have made for popular television around the world, and the authentic British football thug has at times been granted the same cartoon-icon status as the postcard punk with green Mohican. More unpleasantly, a compilation of caught-on-camera football violence called Hooligans & Thugs has been a recent cult success in the States. Narrated by Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols, this “startling documentary looking at the darker side of soccer” features more than 40 years of accumulated fighting with an accompanying electronica soundtrack. It isn’t available in this country, despite the fact that England’s blue-chip yobs are most definitely top of the bill. This is all presented as entertainment – presumably for the consumption of the same teenage audience, with their midwest bedroom shrines to the Chelsea Headhunters, that the producers of Green Street have in mind for this strangely intense, strangely fluffy, strangely schoolboyish version of British life.

Unexpectedly, the recent bombings in London come into all this. With elements of the national press already reporting on “football gangs” poised to wreak a terrible “revenge” on Muslim communities in the north of England, Green Street is quite frankly the last thing the game needs. West Ham fans are among those fingered by the Guardian as forming part of a violent anti-Islamic internet plot (note to Guardian journalists: people often tend to say one or two funny things on the internet). The opening Championship fixture between Millwall and Leeds has been identified as causing some “concern”. You don’t say. What wonderful news though – because with this squawking turkey in the can, they really do need it – for the makers of Green Street.

From WSC 223 September 2005. What was happening this month

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