London Road does not allow itself to be defined in simplistic genre terms, because it mixes two genres to create something new and unstable. It is both a realist exploration of society, and a musical comedy. Trying to read the film in either mode is disrupted by the fundamentally different underlying structure of the other mode. The only way to try and make sense of it is to read it in almost meta-genre terms, as a commentary on the interplay between the two genres. It’s a bit like one of those compare/contrast essays that we all experienced at school in the form of a movie.
The basic scenario outlined is the story of a community riven by crime. At the start of the film a serial killer stalks the streets, murdering prostitutes. The focus is entirely on the effect this has on the community – their sense of unease, the paranoia that results, and the opportunism that manifests. The film is based closely on real events, with a real outcome, and goes to some effort to capture that sensation of realism by recycling real interviews inside the fiction. With the
scenario and dialogue lifted from real life, the action on screen has an understated un-dramatic quality to it. By excluding any close details of either the victims or the killer, the film steers clear of any trappings of the True Crime genre, leaving only what is effectively a series of meditations by real people on the nature of community.
All of this is formally dramatised as a full song-and-dance musical, including the fragments of dialogue exactly as spoken. The basic structure of almost any musical is that of ultimate hope – a difficult situation is experienced, then overcome, by the cast – and this is no exception. From the initial starting point of a fragmented and isolated population we have the unifying experience of terror giving birth to a true community spirit that is celebrated in a transformation of the road from dystopia to utopia via the awful crimes. The more honest cast members admit this transformational effect of the killings in a closing number.
The basic design principle for musicals is that characters sing what can’t be said. Every song in a musical is a close cousin of the Shakespearean soliloquy. Characters reveal their inner truths to the audience, sometimes subtly, sometimes blatantly. In “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood”, Guinevere sings about the strife that should result from winning her hand, rather than the mundane political transaction her marriage has become. It is an impossibility for her to express these emotions straightforwardly without destroying any hint of sympathy the audience might feel, but as a song it foreshadows the coming tragedy in a way tht heightens the drama. Lancelot’s introduced in “C’est Moi!” where he is free to boast in a way totally impossible within the framework of ordinary human speech, again ironically paving the way for tragedy. Mordred is allowed to outright state his villainy in “The Seven Deadly Virtues”, while in all non-musical versions of the Arthur legend, any such revelation of his basic character is painfully awkward when stated directly. Pick on virtually any musical you like – there’s a private quality to many of the songs that renders explicit an emotional dimension that can only be inferred in other presentation styles.
So what strikes one immediately about the interview extracts put to music is just how confessional they appear, while in fact being an explicitly public face put forward to contain the unfolding tragedy and then renewal. The songs aren’t so much revealing secret inner thoughts as pointing out the bleedin’ obvious. If your regular musical offering has their dramatic centrepieces as functionally private revelations, London Road aligns the theatrical song-and-dance with the public statements of those involved. By allowing its musical numbers to have a shallow and simplistic focus, London Road emphasises the way these supposedly private thoughts are used by the media – exactly as distractions from the deeper questions we should be asking. Theatre as theatre – a surprisingly subversive perspective on the musical genre for something so straightforward in concept.
In practice, we get one key phrase per musical number, such as “Everyone’s very very nervous”. We are literally distracted by this song-and-dance from asking the questions we would be asking in a documentary or in a more straightforwardly realist fiction. Why, for example, if it is only prostitutes who are being murdered, do the ordinary women in the community perceive themselves as potential victims? A deeply realist intervention in the narrative might explicitly posit the idea that the patriarchal society inherently positions all women as whores, and this projection causes the women to feel an identification not otherwise apparent from their demographics. Or, more straightforwardly, it might argue that the representation of the crime via the media staged in such a away as to prompt fear, so that the process of sensationalising the crimes amplifies their inherent terror. London Road prompts us not to ask questions about the commonplace scenario of murdered prostitutes, but the even more commonplace of media manipulation.
The overall arc of London Road is one of a community triumphing over adversity, but what is the adversity? A simplistic reading the film positions the serial killer as the problem to be overcome, but the film doesn’t really allow this to go uncontested. The killer is never seen on screen and neither are his victims. Instead, we are shown the street itself and the way it comports itself. It begins the film drab, dark, impersonal. There is nothing to suggest more than individual wage-slaves living in the shadow of a nearby stadium, in proximity with each other. The end of the film shows a community united in purpose, and the interview fragments all point to the idea that the neighbourhood wants to be perceived differently than the reputation it acquired as a result of the murders. The form a community explicitly via a contest of representation, of who can have the nicest-looking garden. There is no hint of a deeper purpose or connection than the restoration of perception as a nice neighbourhood. There are no scenes, for example, of consolation or commiseration, of the private aspects of community.
By drawing the trappings of the musical into its realist milieu, London Road becomes one of the most deeply cynical and incisive dramas that I’ve ever seen commenting on a society or a scenario. What it argues is effectively that there is no such thing as society, just the pretence. It posits a hyper-real world where media representations are the ultimate determinative element, where there is no authentic community expression or structure, just a sufficient representation to allow the non-participants to ignore their isolation. By eschewing any kind of sympathetic representation of the victims it makes explicit what they are, which is nothing short of the blood sacrifice necessary for winning the notice and hence beneficence of the modern-day gods, the media.