Early 1990s film about homelessness that could just as easily have been made today

Written by Andrew Whitaker on 17 August 2016 in Comment

An Edinburgh Filmhouse screening of gritty early 1990s TV film Safe about a young homeless couple struggling to survive on the streets of London included the claim by a homeless character that the authorities are trying to "keep us away from the tourists and the Tories"         

credit - PA Images

During a month when the Edinburgh Fringe dominates the cultural life of the Scottish capital, the city’s Filmhouse is always going to have to work hard to grab the attentions of festival goers.

A screening of a little known 1993 TV film Safe about homeless young people, shown as part of a season of work by the late award winning director Antonia Bird, was always going to struggle to pull the Fringe crowds in.

All of which is a shame as the screenplay, with sharp acting performances from lead and supporting roles alike, a hardhitting soundtrack from Billy Bragg and above all a strong social message, makes it a contender for the forgotten gem category.     


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The plot of what is a uncompromisingly harrowing film focuses on two hugely damaged characters in their late teens or early 20s, Kaz, played by Kate Hardie, and Gypo, portrayed by Aiden Gillen.

Both Kaz and Gypo, have suffered sexual abuse during their childhoods, and are living on the streets to escape their troubled lives.

In the case of Kaz, we are shown at firsthand how as a teenager she was forced out of her family home to escape sexual abuse and attacks from her narcissistic and duplicitous step father.   

What is a mini-film at 66-minutes long charts a few days in the life of the couple, and their struggle to survive, amid encounters that involve violence, prostitution, drug dealing and limited access to sheltered accommodation, that comes with rules and regulations.

Strong supporting roles from the like of Robert Carlyle, who plays the role of homeless Glaswegian gang leader “Nosty”, thuggish and mentally damaged in equal measure, add weight to a story that is hard to watch and compelling at the same time.    

Safe is set in early 1990s London at a time when attitudes were hard towards homeless people under the then recently re-elected Conservative government, with the Prime Minister of the day John Major around this time describing rough sleepers as an “eyesore”.

But what’s striking about this piece of gritty TV realism is that it could quite easily be remade today with the same script, plot and playing out of events, without being out of date at all, against a background of austerity even if the language of most politicians is now more nuanced and cuddly these days.

The fact that housing charity Shelter Scotland supported the Filmhouse’s screening of Safe last night suggests the film deserves a greater audience in and of itself.

Key parts of Safe centre around Kaz and Gypo’s encounters at the local homeless shelter for young people where hostel staff do their best to offer support, despite the limited provision and restricted access on offer.

A lack of mental health support for the couple and other troubled characters portrayed in the film stand out as one of its defining characteristics.

The same is also true of a troubled relationship between the police and the homeless youths, with officers portrayed as viewing the homeless as an anti-social problem that simply needs to be moved on from one place to another.

Perhaps inevitably, Safe does not end well, with Kaz walking non-stop alone through a touristy district of London’s West End and theatreland in the final scene.

It’s perhaps there that Edinburgh and the Fringe are worth a mention.

At one stage in Safe Kaz says to another homeless youth how the authorities want to “keep us away from the tourists and the Tories”.

It’s undoubtedly the case that the Scottish Government has a more compassionate approach to homelessness and mental health support than John Major’s ‘Thatcherite continuity’ government at the time Safe was first shown by the BBC when the housing minister of the day was Sir George Young who reportedly once said of rough sleepers that they are "the people you step over when you're coming out of the opera".

But as Edinburgh continues to do well from the Fringe, with a vast amount of money spent by tourists while large numbers of people continue to be homeless, perhaps it really was an appropriate time for the Filmhouse to give Safe a rare screening.

In a post-screening discussion of the film, there was a suggestion from audience members, who included Shelter Scotland charity workers, that Safe and some of the issues it raises would benefit from a DVD release.
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The Filmhouse has a series of one-off showings of work by Antonia Bird until Thursday 01 September 

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