Unable to muster up the strength due to illness to get over to the Curzon at Bloomsbury for the Brian Hill retrospective, I had to settle for viewing the excellent ‘Drinking for England’ in the comfort of my own home courtesy of cinematographer Tony Coldwell and his Vimeo account. This hour-long documentary, originally screened on BBC 2 in 1998 explores the use of alcohol among 5 individuals and the impact it has on their lives.
Usually these types of documentaries come accompanied with a moralistic tone, which in turn forms a condescending view, pointing the finger at those who cannot help themselves. There is no benefit in screening programs like that, it simply makes the person who wants the drink feel shame and embarrassment, leading them down a darker path of boozing and a greater sense of guilt. Those that have the ‘disease’ alcoholism tend to drink in secret, and a negative, unsupportive message emphasising the mistakes they are making will surely drive them to hide it even more, thus making it harder to help them.
Drinking for England by Brian Hill breaks the mould, and manages to combine staged scenes, fly on the wall styled camerawork and interviews with the subjects and those around them, all spliced with poetry provided by renowned poet Simon Armitage. It never once feels staged, for the entire documentary seems natural and at times blurs the lines so effortlessly as our pissed-up participants recite the prose provided for them. It looks at the sad ramifications of alcohol as well as the fun it can bring too, but there is an acknowledged undercurrent of suspected negativity that accompanies alcohol, regardless of whether your life is being noticeably ruined or not by it. Fundamentally our subjects know that it would make them fat, make them poor, unable to drive, tear apart their family or make them lonely, but continue to do so regardless.
The British public’s ability to drink is a continued problem, and has only got worse since 1998. I see some of myself in this, as I drink far too much for my own good, but I know when to stop (most of the time). My Dad was an alcoholic who showed characteristics of pretty much every single individual in this documentary, and is definitely suffering as a result of the negative impacts of alcohol in a big way. Alcohol related deaths far outweigh that of any other drug, and it’s legal, so the question still remains, why do we overdo it so much?
Brian Hill goes to some lengths to shine a light on that question with these five very different individuals and their paths to regular alcohol consumption, but not much is established. As the subjects say in almost every documentary about the booze culture in Britain, they won’t stop drinking. It’s a “way of life”, and as such this light is shone on this area of life that we know all too much about, and there is no need to do anymore than that. No judgement, just raw, relatable, human emotion; not designed for shock value or to create headlines for the papers the next day.
It may be a bit drab for some people, it’s far from being a documentary in the traditional sense, no real angle or promoting of any new life-changing medical information, but this perfectly enhanced snapshot of human existence is refreshingly simple, and a great watch.