Tuesday 29 October 2013

Concrete Jungle

Sukhbender Singh is the author of Concrete Jungle, a radio play performed on the BBC Asian Network which shares its backdrop with Bob Eaton’s Three Minute Heroes and my novel, Ghost Town.

"As the storm of racial tension in Coventry rises, two young Asians, Harri and Rudy, each have to make a choice about what's most important to them - music, girls, or standing up to be counted."

Here he talks to me about growing up in Coventry in the 1980s, and the trials and tribulations of getting
Concrete Jungle produced.

Sukhbender, what are your memories of Coventry from the early 80s? Did you take part in the protest marches that followed the murder of the young student, Satnam Singh Gill? 
I was born in India and came to Coventry when I was two. In 1981, I was fourteen - too young to be directly involved. My mum would never have let us!  What I do remember is that going into Coventry City Centre could be a bit of a tortuous trail. We used make sure we went shopping early because the skinheads didn’t come out until later.

Most of those involved in the protests were around five years older. Nineteen, twenty. It was one of the first times that young Asians took a stand against racism.  For the older generation, it was all about keeping your head down, not being noticed. But now there was a new generation who felt British. I know some of the older ones got involved in vigilante patrols, protecting their communities.

How did you come to write Concrete Jungle?
Concrete Jungle was one of the first things I wrote. A classic example of ‘write what you know’. It started off as film script. I first tried peddling it around in 1993, and then again around 2000.  The first time they all wanted it to be more like My Beautiful Launderette.  The second time round it was, “can’t you make it more like Bend It Like Beckham?” The only thing Concrete Jungle has in common with either of those is that it’s about Asians! After a while, I decided there was no point. I had to move on.

I started working on Silver Street, which was a radio soap opera for the BBC Asian Network.  When that was canned, the BBC decided to put some one-off dramas on the Asian Network, so I pitched Concrete Jungle to them. I cut the film script down to 50 minutes, hoping that they might do a longer piece, or maybe a two-parter.  But in the end I had to squeeze it all down to 25 minutes, which didn’t give much scope.

2011 was an interesting time for Concrete Jungle to come out.  Not only was it the 30th anniversary, but we were in a recession again, there was another Royal Wedding ... I was working with the producer, James Pereis, who was brilliant and fully understood the script and the times. But the BBC controllers didn’t know the history. They were concerned about the riot scene and they didn’t like my using the word Paki.  How can you tell the story of that time without using that word?  They wanted to sanitise it.

The play used comedy to highlight the tensions of growing up Asian, which wasn’t all about racism. It was about not having a job, unrequited love, all that stuff. It wasn’t overtly political, but there were political undertones.

The playlist for Concrete Jungle includes tracks from Two Tone Bands like The Specials, The Selecter and The Beat. Yet Horace Panter has said that not that many young Asians would go to The Specials’ concerts.  How do you think Coventry’s Asian youth viewed Two Tone and Ska? Did it speak to them, or did they feel excluded? Were you a fan yourself?
A few Asian kids were into things like The Jam and The Clash. But most of them were listening to Bhangra or Filmi (Bollywood music). My brother loved Two Tone, though and so I got into it. No one else captured the zeitgeist quite like they did.

When The Specials announced their Concert for Racial Harmony, we were very excited.  But we couldn’t afford the tickets. And we were all scared things would kick off again.  Everybody thought the National Front would use it as an excuse to make more trouble, though in the event, that didn’t happen. 

This is potentially a huge question – but how do you think things have changed for young British Asians in the past thirty years? Is Coventry in particular a better place to be growing up than it was thirty years ago – or a worse?
It’s hard for me to say.  As an adult, your cognitive map of the city changes.  But the vibe is not the same as it was during the 80s recession.  There aren’t the same tensions. 

It feels like a calmer place.  I understand it’s now one of the safest cities in England. There was a small demonstration by the English Defence League a while back, but hardly anyone turned up.

Thank you, Sukhbender.  

Coming soon:  Jatinder Verma, Artistic Director of Tara Arts, the first Asian Theatre Group in Britain (founded in 1977).

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