Byline: Will Self
THE tall, mixed-race girl incongruously clad in a purple sari paused. She was trailing a toddler by the hand, and in her other one clutched a [pounds sterling]10 note. "Man," she exclaimed, "those are sick teeth!" The film director Nick Love laughed, exposing more of the prominent gold incisor that had attracted such admiration -- then the girl hit on him: "Do me a favour, mate," she said. "I haven't brought me ID an' they don't believe I'm 18 in the shop ..."
"I'm not buying you booze," Love interrupted, "I can't be doing with that."
"Nah, mate, just a pack of fags." In the event, Love obliged, but once the girl had toddled away with her toddler and her 20 Regent, he turned to me and said, "She only said that about the teeth as a play." And I conceded this is probably the case.
The truth is that the girl could've plausibly described almost any aspect of Love as "sick": he's a boyishly handsome 39-year-old, with only a few flecks of grey in his brown hair. On this bog-ordinary September afternoon, in the distinctly dingy surroundings of Telemann Square, one of the concrete bastions of the derelict Ferrier Estate in Kidbrooke, south-east London, Love resembled a caged peacock. He was wearing navy blue shorts, a blue-andcream needle-striped poplin jacket and a mauve Ralph Lauren polo shirt. White Converse All Stars, a gold Rolex and gold-rimmed Ray-Ban aviator shades completed the ensemble. Love looked, in fact, not unlike a modernday version of Bex, the football hooligan protagonist of his latest film, The Firm.
Like Love, Bex is a snappy dresser, although for him the dernier cri -- circa 1983 -- are silky-nylon tracksuits, Gola trainers and a preposterous wedge hairstyle. When Dom, the young lad who, in the film, will become enthralled by Bex's dangerous charisma, sees the sartorial sociopath for the first time, he quips: "He looks like a bloody post box."
The other point of contact between Bex and Love is the Ferrier Estate itself: it's here, in this monument to the failures of 1970s so-called "system housing", that The Firm was shot over five weeks last winter, and it's also here that the young Love ran amok on an intense four-year spree of petty crime and drug-taking, that saw him -- after a spell at an attendance centre in Waterloo -- end up in drug rehab at the precocious age of 18.
Love hasn't looked back since -- or rather, he's looked back only through the lens of a camera. In a series of films, beginning with Goodbye Charlie Bright, and progressing through The Football Factory, The Business, and Outlaw, Love has anatomised his own youthful obsession with the perverse codes of the harder end of London's street culture. "Basically, I was a middle-class boy growing up in a working-class area -- and I was desperate to fit in," he told me in impeccable mockney.
There was more to it than that, of course -- much more. Excoriated by the usual suspects for what they see as the "glorification" of violence in his films, Love is about as far from being a tabloid bogeyman as it's possible to imagine. At once puckish and impetuous, gentle and thoughtful, he sees himself as the heir to the social-realist film-making of Alan Clarke (who made the original version of The Firm for TV) and Ken Loach, as much as to the bloody cinematic poetry of Sam Peckinpah, another director he reveres.
In an era when the British film industry haemorrhages talent across the pond -- something Love bemoans -- even those who don't like his work cannot help but acknowledge his achievement: The Firm is a British film, about ordinary British people, that will be opening in 250 multiplexes nationwide this weekend. In fact, it's a very good film -- and easily Love's most accomplished yet. The obvious criticism, that Love is revisiting the terrain of football-related violence that he covered in The Football Factory, is belied by the fact that this is a very different beast: "Basically, in my earlier films the antiheroes all get away with it -- but in this one I wanted to show the consequences, I wanted to show a kid getting a serious wake-up call. …