thu 30/05/2024

Wonderland: The Men Who Won’t Stop Marching, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Wonderland: The Men Who Won’t Stop Marching, BBC Two

Wonderland: The Men Who Won’t Stop Marching, BBC Two

Banging the drum for peace? Belfast's Protestant bandsmen play on

Jackie and Jordan from the Shankhill Road: Drumming up the past?

Not long after the Good Friday Agreement, BBC Northern Ireland broadcast a charming drama featuring a tale of two drums. An Ulster Protestant was too wedded to the marching season to join his wife on holiday in Donegal, so she wrought her revenge by destroying his bass drum and replacing it with its Catholic antithesis, a bodhrán. If last night’s The Men Who Won’t Stop Marching is any indication, that won’t be happening on the Shankill Road any time soon.

The drum, still clattered with percussive insistence by Protestant bandsmen, remains a powerful conduit for loyalty to Queen and crown.

After (almost all) the paramilitaries have laid down their weapons, what remains of the Troubles are memories (and of course a dirty great partition wall down the middle of Belfast). Fervent murals commemorate the fallen, which tourists flop out of taxis to capture on digital cameras before returning to placid homes where the past is very much in the past.

"This is me uncle Stevie,” said Jordan, a plump pleasant boy with red hair and freckles a year or so off from puberty. The lens pointed to the portrait filling an end-of-terrace. “He died in ah think it was 2000 or somethin’? He’s my daddy’s brother. I think he was a military commander. That’s what it says up there.” He was asked if he knew what that meant. “I don't know. I don’t know how he died either.” Another mural depicted the Maze’s infamous H block. It turns out Jordan’s daddy Jackie had done time there. People were sent there, explained Jackie, for “murders, bombings, shooting. Different things”. Different things with the same outcome.

240653This was a film about how a community suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder protects its culture while suppressing its memories. Jackie was determined to shield Jordan from the toxic waste of yesteryear, so much so that he wouldn’t let him join the band, but at 11 Jordan has already seen one local suicide swinging from a rope. Lee, a lovely man with a crooked smile in his late twenties (pictured right), joyously thwacked a bass drum as if trying to call up the ghost of childish pleasures he had never known. Paul was doing his bit to keep the boys in his band off the street and off drugs. Jobless himself, it was going to cost him 25 grand to kit out his young cohorts.

“We’re probably more British than people that actually live in Britain itself,” he reckoned. To Paul Britishness is enshrined in flautists and drummers parading stiff-backed through the streets alongside orange-sashed men in bowler hats. Will the children featured here inherit these attitudes? At 28, Lee was expecting his eighth child, which is a lot of offspring for one fertile Protestant to indoctrinate. But he already had the new one down as a bass drummer. Jordan and his chums seemed worryingly fluent in the acrostics of conflict. "KAT: Kill All Taigs" (Catholics) is no worse, he reasoned, than the letters "KAH (Kill All Huns)" daubed on Catholic walls. In a promising development for future harmony, he was one of several boys who had sprayed FAP on a council house. What's that mean, he was asked? "Fuck all paramilitaries," he said shyly.

The film was written, directed and voiced by Alison Millar, who performed some of these tasks better than others. The autumn she filmed on the Shankill Road would have been more like a year in the good old days of proper funding for documentaries. With less money and therefore time to spend, there was too much editorialising, not enough trust that the excellent access would deliver good anthropology. “I’ve now spent more than two months here,” Millar said towards the end, “and I’m beginning to understand why the bands meant so much to these men.” You’d never catch Molly Dineen hurling herself so vocally into the fray.

Other things were missing. There was no explanation of the historical reasons why Protestant bandsmen adhere to the military (but musically absurd) combination of flute and drum, nor why genders as much as faiths seem segregated in this most patriarchal of societies. Jordan passed an audition to play in his school band. The music teacher was impressed with his skilful drumming. What did the member of a profession tasked with forming young minds make of perpetuating the drum as a symbol of Protestant defiance? Just as Jackie never told his son what got him into the Maze, it would have been good to know.

This was a film about how a community suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder protects its culture while suppressing its memories

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This was excellent. I found it by accident on iplayer and was totally engrossed. What a human, sympathetic and hopeful piece of work. Well done.

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