“There is no hope in politics and I have no hope in the structure of control because it’s a fucking comedy club,” proclaimed Jason Williamson, frontman of Britain’s most polarising band, Sleaford Mods, in an alternative Christmas speech for the NME last year. Almost a year and one General Election down the line, Williamson’s mood is unlikely to have changed.
The Nottingham duo have given the UK music scene a much-needed kick in the bollocks and, perhaps understandably, many are rather unwelcoming. Consisting of Williamson’s rapid-fire, expletive-ridden, stream of consciousness and Andrew Fearn’s minimal, industrial, yet increasingly-infectious beats, they are a cross between the Sex Pistols and Wu Tang Clan: angry, challenging and incredibly funny.
Appearing on Later… with Jools Holland in October prompted a social media frenzy, dividing opinion like few other bands in recent history. One tweet compared them to a “nasty rash”, while another described them as “a golden Trojan horse in a den of vipers”.
Thankfully, a documentary has now been released explaining why Sleaford Mods, despite all the detractors, inspire such a passionate following – and are quite possibly the most relevant band of this decade.
Invisible Britain follows the band on their tour of small towns and venues that are largely neglected by the majority of acts, while also focusing on the “swirling shitstorm that is Britain in 2015: not so much broken as smashed to pieces, the whole country teetering on the edge of a massive nervous breakdown,” according to co-director Paul Sng.
If the band – two white 40-something males – are somewhat unlikely suspects to be making some of the freshest, most innovative music in the country, then the film is made by just as an incongruous duo. Neither Sng, nor his fellow co-director Nathan Hannawin, had ever made a feature length before. It just so happens that they have made one of the most important documentaries of the year at the first time of asking.
“Last October Nathan and I interviewed Sleaford Mods for (music website) Gigslutz,” Sng says. “I think we both got on quite well with them and Andrew Fearn mentioned they were doing this tour of small towns in 2015. So they were going to places like Wakefield, Scunthorpe and Colchester. Places that are off the beaten track.”
“When he said that I had the spark of an idea that it would make a really good subject for a documentary and it kind of stuck in my head for a good few months. Then in December I thought, ‘Yeah, this could work; we could follow them around but then also look at what communities are doing around the country to resist austerity.”
“So I approached Jason just after Christmas and about early-January he gave us the go ahead. So we had six weeks to raise the money from crowdfunding and do all the pre-production, which was ridiculous because all that should take a lot longer, usually six months. Then we were on the road by late-February, so it all happened very quickly.”
The footage of the band in action perfectly encapsulates the incendiary atmosphere of their live shows. However, away from the gigs, the stories are bleak, harrowing, and a damning indictment of the establishment – a backlash against the insincere portrayals of “postcard Britain”.
One such story is that of Mark Wood. The 44-year-old suffered from autism and numerous social phobias and starved to death after an Atos assessment insisted he was fit to work. He had his sickness and housing benefits stopped, leaving him with only £40 a week to live on. At the time of his death he weighed only 5st 8lbs. Wood's sister, Cathie, appears in the film to explain how he became one of the 2,380 people between December 2011 and February 2014 to die after having their benefits cut.
“Hearing these stories of what had happened to these people makes you angry,” says Sng. “It makes you want to do something about it. I wouldn’t say that there was anything hard to do in terms of filming but some of it was quite harrowing and even now when I watch some of it, it still upsets me. Especially Cathie’s interview because of what happened and how Mark was allowed to die like that.”
Londoner Sng is speaking at a screening of the documentary at Unity Works, an arts centre in Wakefield, West Yorkshire. The following night the venue will host a gig to raise money for the Syrian refugee crisis. After the film has been shown, the co-director partakes in a Q and A session with the audience, alongside a number of others who were also involved in various capacities.
While there are many congratulations regarding the documentary, there is a tangible sense of concern. As John Coan, a Unite the Union community coordinator, warns: “It‘s a fucking scary time to be poor.”
Invisible Britain was filmed in the build-up to the 2015 General Election, and the Conservative’s victory came as a crushing blow to the people the documentary is trying to represent, though the arrival of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader has given many of these people some hope that their voices may be heard.
Sng admits he thinks Corbyn’s unlikely rise has been “one of the best things to happen in this country in terms of politics in years,” but is sceptical whether it will help reshape society to the required extent, largely due to the “snakes” that remain within the Labour party.
“When I woke up on May 8th my immediate thought wasn’t, ‘Right, the film is going to be all that more relevant,’ but in time I realised we were fortunate in one respect that Labour didn’t win because the film ends on that very ominous note of five more years of Tory rule, but there is a message of hope that things can change.”
“A lot of people have asked about Jeremy Corbyn and at one point Andrew Tiernan, our producer, asked if we were going to mention him at the end but I didn’t really want to because the film isn’t pro any political party.”
“If the film has a message it’s that hope lies outside of mainstream politics. Hope rests with people in communities making change, whether that’s campaigning, whether that’s setting up your own business ideas, I think that’s the way you effect change. It’s a lot easier these days because you have social media, it’s easier to facilitate it. So that would be my hope for it.”
Invisible Britain continues to be screened in cinemas around the country into the new year. For more information, visit www.invisiblebritain.com.
Words: Rob Conlon