Victims or Villains; How Does London to Brighton Engage With Issues of Dysfunctional Masculinity?

Leanda Willis

This essay explores the socio-economic conditions that engendered the 'crisis of masculinity' in many British films of the 1990s.


It has been asserted that contemporary cinema is no longer able to represent the British through one cohesive identity, because it no longer has a unified British culture to reflect.[1] Since the Second World War, society has become increasingly secular and diverse, making it difficult to represent the British through one common set of characteristics or beliefs. This complexity has given rise to a new kind of cinema, which seeks to explore these differences from the point of view of the individual rather than through social commonalities. Previously marginalised and hidden communities have been acknowledged, bringing to public debate the issues they raise, and these have become major themes within British cinema. In the 1990s, many chose to examine the question of male status. Chibnall and Murphy state that the social problems caused by unemployment and the social exclusion of males through poverty become a theme of British cinema of the time.[2] As an alternative to feel good movies like The Full Monty,[3] where male characters come together to form close friendships and unite communities, films like London To Brighton and This is England[4] explore fragmented underclass communities and the dysfunctional relationships within them.                                                                                                                       

Although reader response theorists do not agree upon exactly how texts are interpreted by the reader, they all agree that it is the act of reading, or in the case of film, watching, that creates meaning. Each viewer constructs the meaning in a film according to their own ideology, making multiple interpretations possible.[5] The film London to Brighton[6] explores a range of hard-hitting themes, such as paedophilia, absent mothers, male crime and violence, questioning popular attitudes towards the criminal underclass in 1990s society. This essay will focus on one possible interpretation of the film and compare it to the dominant political and media driven discourse of its time of production about the criminal underclass, male in particular.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

During the 1990s, there was much debate in right wing political discourse about seeing poverty and crime as a choice rather than as a consequence of external events or circumstances. In his influential papers The Emerging British Underclass (1990) and The Crisis Deepens (1994), American Socialist Charles Murray defined the underclass as a portion of the poor who chose not to work and to live by criminal means, a continuation of the ideological division of the deserving and undeserving poor, made in Tudor times at the beginning of the embryonic welfare system.[7] Politicians and  popular press took this attitude up and consequently, phrases like ' welfare scrounger'[8] are commonly used to this day in debates about putting up welfare benefits, to which the public majority are opposed.  It could be argued, however, that it is precisely this rhetoric that creates and stereotypes the underclass in the mind of the public. Arguing against crime as a choice, Paul Dave points out that the underclass emerged as a result of increasing wealth gaps, the rise in status and numbers of women in the workplace, and the welfare state creating a 'don't need to work' ethos amongst individuals who lack the traditional hard working 'Victorian values' of the British. Conservative government job cuts reduced many jobs to part-time, traditionally associated with women workers, and closed many of the jobs traditionally associated with men, such as mining, ship building and heavy industry. 

Dave asserts that this brought about a crisis in male identity during the decade, which was reflected in British cinema as a recurring theme.[9] Clare Monk agrees that the 1990s were 'preoccupied with men and masculinity in crisis',[10] and that London to Brighton focuses on an analysis of the dysfunctional masculinity created by capitalism. Films like This is England,[11] Bullet Boy,[12] and Human Traffic[13] all explore the struggle for men to adapt to their changing status and role in society caused by the breakdown of family values, substance misuse and unemployment. They explore problematic relationships between fathers and sons, many of whom violate the sacred space of the family by parenting abusively.[14] This is England features a child who searches for a father figure to replace his idealised dead father and discovers that the substitute is deeply flawed as a father substitute. He is exposed to racism and violence, the very opposite of the way a father is expected to behave. The protagonist in Bullet Boy looks to his older brother in the absence of a father. However the film pessimistically, or perhaps realistically, demonstrates that determinism can overcome even the best intentions and his brother is too deeply embedded in gang culture to fill his brother's need for a role model. Like London to Brighton, both these films focus on children as a symbol of lost hope; unable to grow up in socio-economic and familial deprivation without becoming dysfunctional themselves.

London to Brighton disturbs the rhetoric of the blame culture by taking a deterministic view of stereotypical underclass males. It shows victims as abusers and abusers as victims, troubling the popular binary categorisations that stigmatise people as workers or shirkers. By demonstrating how bad parenting has shaped their character, and how poverty and criminal lifestyle have annexed them from the rest of society into an 'underworld' culture of crime and violence, the film throws into question who is the victim, leaving the viewer with the impression that villain and victim may often be the same person. Derek is trapped by poverty and Duncan by poor parenting.

The film adheres closely to the plot structure of the traditional voyage and return narrative, which Christopher Booker outlines in five main stages in The Seven Basic Plots.[15] The voyage and return plot takes the viewer into the new social setting of the criminal underclass. The story begins with a 'fall' from the ordinary world into the story world, like an Alice down a rabbit hole. In the young protagonist Joanne's case this is that of a different social milieu, from her home to that of the criminal world hidden in the city. The world that Joanne travels to is alien to the ordinary world. This gives the new world a dream like unreality, one of completely different values, which Joanne is only partially aware of and thus unable to protect herself from.  

Joanne's youth and naivety make her ready for such an adventure. There is a second 'fascination stage' in which things seem to be going well. Joanne begs for money on the street, gets picked up by Kelly, taken for a meal and offered money to 'go and spend some time with a friend.' Although from Joanne's naive perspective these events appear fortunate, the viewer sees them through the eyes of Kelly, a street prostitute who is becoming increasingly resistant to the idea when she realises Joanne is a virgin. The third, frustration stage occurs when a shadow begins to intrude as Joanne is questioned by Derek the pimp about her sexual experience and she becomes uneasy. However, her innocence renders her unaware of the extent of her danger and carries her forward into the fourth, thrilling escape and return stage of the story, around which most of the film's action is arranged. After fatally wounding the crime boss and paedophile Duncan Allen, Joanne and Kelly escape to Brighton by train, and for some time it appears that they are safe. However, fate intervenes and their whereabouts becomes known to Derek, who pursues and finds them. He turns them over to Stuart Allen, Duncan's son, who appears to be as cold and murderous as his father, and it seems that they will be murdered by his henchmen in retribution for killing his father.

London based Vertigo create low budget films about Britain, which target both British and international audiences; London to Brighton was made for just £80,000. Their ethos is to be selective, involving a clear vision of who the target audience is and with the goal of making films that are culturally important to Britain. Vertigo state in interview that they believe it is important to make films that represent what is happening in British society, tending to locate their films in specific areas of society.[16] London to Brighton uses a mix of social realism, gangster heavy and sentimental genres. Director and writer Paul Andrew Williams sees the film as primarily a thriller, and the gangster element as less important than the characterisation.[17] Williams states that his aim was to 'create a piece of work that bled reality, that created a world generally ignored by today's society, a world full of characters that we pass by everyday'[18] Originally an actor, Williams wrote the short film Royalty [19] and from this script he developed London to Brighton, using the same actors.[20] Williams states that he aims to 'show rather than tell' by placing the emphasis on rounded characters in the film, rather than 'ram a message down an audience's throat,'[21] lifting a lid on some of the most disadvantaged and economically poor communities in Britain. Joanne's youth and innocence is emphasised throughout with imagery of childhood; trying to win a soft toy on the pier and running down to play in the surf. We see the contrast between her and Kelly, who has lost her sense of youth and asks what Joanne is doing. 'I'm playing'[22] states Joanne simply. We are reminded that playing is what children should be doing.[23]

The film successfully fuses sentimental scenes like these with social realism and gangster heavy genres. Although it locates itself in the genre of British gangster films, it does not go down the road of making crime seem glamorous; its representation of seedy locations is a kind of 'dirty realism.'[24] Williams deliberately used close up camerawork to place the emphasis on the characters and exclude extraneous detail, saying, 'the camera must become a character in itself to fully involve the audience in every scene and to effectively immerse them in this taut and perilous world.'[25] A powerful example of this is the cafe scene, where Kelly takes Joanne to meet Derek and they are sitting at the table while she eats. The suspense and tension mount as Derek questions Joanne about her sexual experience and it becomes apparent that she is a virgin. The camera remains close up throughout, which has the effect of bringing the audience to the table as a fourth participant in the scene. As well as increasing the focus on the characters, this also makes the viewer complicit in the decision, a powerful way of preventing them from watching the film from the emotional distance of a spectator.

Although it has been commonly asserted that Williams avoids sentiment, it is clear that this film utilises the sentimental genre throughout, in two main ways, to soften what would otherwise be a very unpalatable subject. Sentiment can be demonstrated via a variety of techniques - it can be argued that although the film is realist in style and genre the political stance it takes is in itself an avatar of sentiment. The theme of protected childhood itself is a commonly sentimentalised theme. Sentiment is also shown by using a particular focused point of view; that of Kelly. Seemingly judging sentiment to somehow detract from the film, Quinn states that Williams never ' goes soft'[26] on Kelly. It is likely that this assertion stems from the widely held but erroneous belief that sentiment is analogous to 'soft', a legacy inherited from the Modernists. An emotional response to this film is in fact encouraged from the very beginning, with the two frightened girls in a public toilet, and Kelly taking care that Joanne has enough to eat despite their dangerous predicament and her own badly battered face. It is Kelly's viewpoint that we empathise with and her eyes we see through. It is her face that we see painfully broken and slowly healing as the film progresses, a technique which aids the viewer to keep track of the timeline of the narrative. In Kelly we see the 'prostitute with a heart of gold', who discovers her humanity and her maternal feelings. Like the fallen but loving Esther in Mary Barton,[27] who watches over Mary at her own expense, Kelly altruistically sacrifices her livelihood and safety to save Joanne from Stuart and Derek. Kelly takes the role of a biblical figure; although she is flawed, she is a Christ- like saviour for Joanne, sacrificing herself in the process. As an archetype, she is a mentor whose function is to safely guide Joanne through the world of the underclass.[28]

Like all texts, London to Brighton is shaped by influential stories that precede it. Obvious influences are the race from London to Brighton, as Joanne and Kelly race for safety and the poverty and criminal underside of Brighton in Brighton Rock.[29] However, in examining the text from the point of view of blame and shame it appears to link strongly with the theme of determinism in Frankenstein, a text key to the political questions that the film makes about who is to blame for the underclass; the individual criminal or the whole of society. Although not explicitly stated in the film, it is implicit throughout; in the way that the characters are shown to be villains at first glance, but also victims of their underprivileged parenting and environment. The story of how Frankenstein creates a monster and then rejects him permeates many narrative stories in British culture, because the monster can be read in a range of ways, embodying many cultural fears. Determinism is the theme at the heart of the text; Frankenstein has created the monster just as modern society has created the underclass.  Once created, the 'monster' is seen as undesirable and destructive and must be eliminated. Like the monster, Derek and Stuart were surely not born criminals; it is external influence that has acted upon them, reducing their choices to a pre determined few, which trap them in poverty or crime. It is this cause and effect that both narratives are exploring. Seen from this angle, London to Brighton is commenting that the shame and blame culture is no answer to ridding society of the criminal underclass, in fact it will perpetuate the problem, and that society must accept its part in making the problem, as Victor Frankenstein has to when the monster confronts him with, 'All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated [...] Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature [...] do your duty towards me.'[30]

On the surface, Derek and Duncan are aggressive and amoral men living in a community where where the powerful Duncan preys on the weaker Derek, and he in turn lives off women who are reduced to prostitution and hand to mouth existence, rather like a kind of social 'food chain.' However, the film points to alternate readings of both characters through flashback, dialogue, symbolism and use of location to show them as victims of their upbringing and environment rather than simply criminals.  Derek the pimp is manipulative and violent, using women as commodities for his personal economic gain. He abuses the idea of family and love, using them as empty promises to coerce women into prostitution by claiming he loves them and also resorting to violence and threat against them. When asked to provide a minor for Duncan Allen, Derek responds by saying ' If I don't find one, someone else will.'[31] He rationalises his actions, telling Kelly that he will lose a customer if he does not provide what they are requesting, affirming for the audience his greed and lack of morality. The scene where he sends a reluctant prostitute into a room with several men whilst he casually eats breakfast cereal is also a realistic reminder of how he has reduced women to objects that provide his income. In a scene at the café, we see the symbolism of the ice cream he offers Joanne, reminding us that both he and the audience recognise she is a child, yet he is willing to take her innocence by prostituting her to Duncan Allen. Derek is completely misogynistic and exemplifies the regressive ideologies of the criminal, prevalent in gangster films and often emphasised in films of this genre.[32]

However, an alternative reading of Derek as a character trapped in his situation by poverty is possible, and it is location that is key to understanding him as victim of social and economic environment. At key points where Derek is shown to be a villain, the film offers an alternative viewpoint. The settings he is shown in reveal his local environment as urban lower class; run down houses with graffiti ridden walls, his flat comfortless and poorly furnished. This suggests that, far from being the wealthy glamorised stereotype of a pimp, he is himself trapped in poverty from which he may have adopted a life of crime to escape, rather than as an active choice. Looking around at Derek's local environment, Stuart Allen asks, 'It's a shithole this place, how do people live like it'?[33] The question is significant, because it is a central point raised by the film; people live there not because they are happy but because they cannot get out. When justifying himself to Kelly, what he says reveals not only a desire for money but perhaps more importantly a desire for self-preservation; 'Don't want to fuck him off, do I'? This demonstrates how trapped Derek is in his lifestyle, foreshadowing how easily a situation can get out of control in the criminal underclass, because he is shortly after forced to desperately find the two females or be murdered. This use of location and dialogue complicates how Derek is seen as a character and asks of the viewer how much of him is villain and how much victim. Perhaps the most powerful moment that reveals his lifestyle as not one he really desires occurs at the flat of a friend. Looking around at a not out of the ordinary, but neat and tidy flat, he says in a breaking voice, 'I love this flat, lucky cunt.'[34]


Duncan is seen throughout most of the film as a cold and ruthless criminal, who despite achieving economic success and seeing the likes of Derek and street prostitutes as low life, is perhaps even less moral because his money may allow him the freedom to escape the underclass and choose a better life. Early scenes show him in an opulent men's club and in his Range Rover, with his associates ready to follow his every instruction to the letter. However, the film shows an alternative reading to his character in both of these early situations, foreshadowing later revelations about how he is also a product of his environment and as trapped within it as Derek, although for different reasons. In all scenes, Duncan is shown as isolated and uncommunicative, looking deeply unhappy. This could be interpreted as the look and behaviour of a hardened criminal, though there is something deeply joyless about Duncan. In the gentleman's club scene he is the only character not watching the show. More than this, he has his back to everyone else and is removed from the area of socialisation. This is immediately contrasted with the next scene of Joanne playing a grabber machine on the pier and looking at the beach with a smile on her face and later is revealed to mean that his childhood was unhappy. The lighting in many of Duncan's scenes is also a cold blue light, throwing him into more shadow than the less central characters; a symbol that he is living under a shadow and is unable rather than unwilling to express emotion or enjoy himself.

Through the flashback of him watching his father die and the story he tells Joanne of his father's cruelty and perversion, these earlier scenes create an alternative understanding of Duncan as a man who is a product of his parenting and is now trapped in a cycle of emotional dysfunction. Confronted with a terrified child, he can offer no reassurance, even though she has probably acted out for him in stabbing him, all the latent aggression he felt towards his domineering father. The symbolism of the cigarette packet he holds in the early nightclub scene is revealed in his disclosure about his father making him eat an entire packet as a punishment for taking and smoking a cigarette. At the end of the film, after he kills Derek he lights up a cigarette and it is his exhalation that stands in powerfully for dialogue; despite being unable to reconcile with his father, he has achieved a kind of catharsis and a psychological release from his father's control.


Overall, London to Brighton presents a very pessimistic picture of fatherhood and masculinity in the British underclass. The film uses familiar codes of dress and behaviour to help the viewer identify the characters; they all look very much as we would expect to see their character types represented in film. Stuart looks like a clone of his gangster father in his cream suit and hard face, and Derek looks like a low life in his tracksuit and shaven head. The film also troubles this semic code.[35] Although the characters appear to behave in accordance with these expectations, the viewer is invited to consider them from the perspective of not just villain but victim, by being shown the external forces that shaped their personality and life choices. The film can be interpreted as saying that although people have choices, they  are also very much products of their environment, and that this limits what choices they have open to them, socially, psychologically and economically. Although it deals in a realistic, almost documentary style way with unpalatable subject matter, it does so effectively because it treads a careful line between showing and telling. It shows by drawing the viewer in through close camera shots, to bring home the message that the viewer, as a member of society, is complicit in class divide and the culture of blame. The careful use of sentiment elicits strong emotion, which creates empathy for Derek and Duncan, when it would be very easy to simply be repulsed by them and thereby miss the message of the film.

The film articulates the theme of responsibility; for the creation of the underclass and for its continuation, one which will disadvantage the lives of children like Joanne as it affected Duncan, Kelly and Derek and so perpetuate the cycle. Murray points out that one parent families are ill equipped to adequately socialise young male, as they grow up not knowing how to behave in family situations, and are consequently unable to be adequate fathers.[36] Once criminalised or unable to function as a father figure, the film shows how difficult it is for an individual to escape the underclass, and questions whose responsibility it is to help them escape poverty and violence to stop the cycle continuing. The film is realistic about their chances; we are not shown that Duncan softens as a result of his experience with Joanne, or that he will be a better father than his own was. Derek is murdered; he lived and died a violent man.  Even Kelly does not try and escape her life of prostitution, although she rescues Joanne from it. These are realistic anxieties to raise and the film does not water them down; it provides a realist ending worthy of a Flaubert novel. The film ends with no fairy tales and no reconciliations, though it has lifted the lid on real life in the underclass. The film is arguing against the capitalist ideology that anybody can succeed and that the poor are responsible for their poverty. London to Brighton has a lot to say that was relevant both in the 1990s and today because the underclass and crime remain a problem for society. For men, the loss of wealth and status through the disappearance of traditional male oriented jobs, women an ever stronger presence in the workplace and the blurring of boundaries between male and female roles with the advance of feminism is increasingly challenging and a theme that continues to be explored in contemporary British cinema.

Word Count: 4396.




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Bullet Boy , Dir.Saul Dibb (Verve Pictures. 2004)

Chibnall, S., and Murphy, R., Parole Overdue, Releasing the British Crime Film into the Critical Community (London: Routledge, 1999)

Dave, P., Visions of England,(Oxford, Berg, 2006)

Gaskell, E., Mary Barton (London: Vintage, 2008).

Human Traffic, Dir. Justin Kerrigan.(Renaissance Films, 1999).

IMDB ' Paul Andrew Williams ' 02/12/2012).

Lacey, N., Narrative and Genre, Key Concepts in Media Studies,(Palgrave: Hampshire, 2000)

 Leggott, J., Contemporary British Cinema (Great Britain: wallflower press, 2008) pp99-101.

Leitch, V., Norton Anthology of Criticism 2nd Edition (USA: W.W.W. Norton & Co Ltd, 2010)

Lister, R., Charles Murray and the Underclass: The Developing Debate, , (London: York Press ,1999)

London to Brighton,Dir. By Paul Andrew Williams (Vertigo Films. 2006)

MacGregor,J.,'Shooters Films; You're in Good Company', <> (accessed 29/11/2012).

Monk, C., 'From Underworld to Underclass', in Chibnall and Murphy ed., in British Crime Cinema (London: Routledge, 1999)

Norman, S.C., 'Is There a Distinctive British Cinema?,' LLETI-S-M, (2010

Murray, C.,Underclass: The Crisis Deepens (London: York Press ,1999) , accessed 02/12/2011, 

Quinn ,A., London to Brighton, (accessed 29/12/2012).

Royalty, Dir. Paul Andrew Williams(Vertigo Films:2001)

Shelley, M., Frankenstein (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1999).

The Full Monty, Dir. By Peter Cattaneo (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment,1997)


This is England ,Dir. Shane Meadows (IFC Films. 2006)


Voytilla, S.,Myth and the Movies,(Studio City: Sheridan Books, 1999)


[1] Sibel Celik Norman, 'Is There a Distinctive British Cinema?', LLETI-S-M, (2010), p85.

[2] Steve Chibnall and Robert Murphy, Parole Overdue, Releasing the British Crime Film into the Critical Community (London: Routledge, 1999) p5-6.

[3] The Full Monty, Dir. By Peter Cattaneo (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.1997)

[4] This is England ,Dir. Shane Meadows (IFC Films. 2006)

[5] Vincent  Leitch, Norton Anthology of Criticism 2nd edition (USA: W.W.W. Norton & Co Ltd, 2010) p1977-1992

[6] London to Brighton, Dir. By Paul Andrew Williams (Vertigo Films. 2006)

[7] Charles Murray and the Underclass, the Developing Debate,  [7] P19-21  P11-13.

[8] Juliette Jowitt, Strivers v workers: the language of the welfare debate accessed 18/01/2012.

[9] Paul Dave, Visions of England,(Oxford, Berg, 2006) p 83-4.

[10] Clare Monk 'From Underworld to Underclass', in Chibnall and Murphy ed., in British Crime Cinema (London: Routledge, 1999)p 172-177.

[11] This is England ,Dir. Shane Meadows (IFC Films. 2006)

[12] Bullet Boy , Dir.Saul Dibb (Verve Pictures. 2004)

[13] Human Traffic, Dir. Justin Kerrigan.(Renaissance Films, 1999).

[14] James Leggott Contemporary British Cinema (Great Britain: wallflower press, 2008) pp99-101.

[15] Christopher Booker, The Seven Basic Plots, Why We Tell Stories(London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011)

[16]BBC UK Movies,'Brit Players'< > (accessed 5/11/2012).

[17] James MacGregor,'Shooters Films; You're in Good Company', <> (accessed 29/11/2012).

[18] Ibid.

[19] Royalty, Dir. Paul Andrew Williams(Vertigo Films:2001)

[20]IMDB ' Paul Andrew Williams ' 02/12/2012).

[21] James MacGregor,'Shooters Films; You're in Good Company', <> (accessed 29/11/2012).

[22] London to Brighton,Dir.Paul Andrew Williams (Vertigo Films. 2006)

[23] Ibid.

[24] Steve Chibnall and Robert Murphy, Parole Overdue, Releasing the British Crime Film into the Critical Community (London: Routledge, 1999) p5-6.

[25] James MacGregor,'Shooters Films; You're in Good Company', <> (accessed 29/11/2012).

[27] Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton (London: Vintage, 2008).

[28] Stuart Voytilla, Myth and the Movies,(Studio City: Sheridan Books, 1999) p13-14.

[29] Brighton Rock Dir. Rowan Joffe.(Optimum Releasing: 2010)

[30] Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (Wordsworth Editions Ltd: Hertfordshire, 1999) p 77.

[31] Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (Wordsworth Editions Ltd: Hertfordshire, 1999) p 77.

[32] Claire Monk, 'From Underworld to Underclass', in Chibnall and Murphy ed., in British Crime Cinema (London: Routledge, 1999) p173.

[33] London to Brighton,Dir. By Paul Andrew Williams (Vertigo Films. 2006)

[34] Ibid.

[35] Nick Lacey, Narrative and Genre, Key Concepts in Media Studies,(Palgrave: Hampshire, 2000) p66-77.




Leanda Willis


brightONLINE student literary journal

14 Aug 2013