It's not surprising that there's relatively few films made about pirate radio, when being collared with illegal broadcasting equipment or running a station can land you in jail, with an unlimited fine, or, in the infamous case of DJ Slimzee, receiving an ASBO banning you from the upper floors of buildings in London. Drowned City, a documentary by UK filmmaker Faith Millin that's been gestating over the past year or so, is an attempt to rectify that situation. From the title I was expecting some apocalyptic, Ballardian essay film – the name, it turns out, comes from a track by Dark Sky – but viewing a selection of rough cuts suggests the opposite. It's a personal, intimate film dealing with those who risk their livelihoods (and lives) keeping the pirates on air. Some of the stories are familiar from urban myth or recycled anecdotes – driving around for places to put aerials, shinning up pylons – but this is one of the first times the pirates speak for themselves, albeit often with hooded faces and under the cover of darkness.
The narrative of Drowned City is the familiar one of people doing it for the love of the music, but it's no less emotionally engaging for that. One pirate recalls picking up secondhand broadcast equipment and messing around with it with mates in the back garden, culling what he needed to know from YouTube and the net. There's footage of pirates shinning up electricity pylons overlooking London and the surrounding counties and accessing power for transmitters by breaking into electricity substations (surely cast iron proof that they're not doing it for self-interest).
Of more direct political import are accounts of pirates getting placed on lengthy periods of bail after arrest, and having their partners questioned for supposedly supporting their activities. From these anecdotes, the behaviour of Ofcom, the quango that regulates radio and telecommunications in the UK, seems odd – they expend serious money and police resources to keep small pirates off the air, with relatively little in the way of explanation. "They disrupt the vital communications of the safety of life services, particularly air traffic control," runs one rather shaky-sounding argument on the Ofcom website – surely air traffic control doesn't rely on the FM band?
The film is apparently still evolving as more figures from the pirate underworld are drawn into the film; as yet all that exists in the public domain are some relatively brief teasers, essentially just standard trailers for the forthcoming film. But judging by the work in progress, Drowned City could turn out to be an important document. The intimate conversations with the pirates show you some of the toil, the dirt under the fingernails, and the scars of those who struggle to keep pirates on the air. "They take from, rather than contribute to, the communities they claim to serve," states the Ofcom website. Drowned City looks like it could offer a positive counter to that argument.
Drowned City teasers:
The big news doing the rounds of London club culture last week was concerning the future of Plastic People, the longstanding home of the FWD>> club and a key part of dubstep’s history. The Metropolitan Police have applied to review the license of the club, citing reasons of prevention of crime and disorder and public nuisance. DJs such as Kode9, Theo Parrish and Mark Ernestus have regularly appeared there, and it’s one of London’s most intimate venues, a small space designed for close listening. An organisation called The Friends of Plastic People has been formed, which aims to help the PP management to comply with the licensing conditions.
On a personal note, I find this disturbing and bizarre news. Plastic People is certainly one of the most welcoming and most trouble-free places I've ever been to. Compare with the rest of the Shoreditch area – one of the most densely populated places for strip clubs and brothels in the whole of the UK, due to the nearby presence of the City – and it's baffling how police could conclude that crime prevention would be well served by focusing their scrutiny on this intimate club, where you'll generally find 200 odd fairly well-behaved music fans.
To me, I find it part of a slightly unsettling trend – urban music events are being regularly cancelled on the whim of the police, it seems, from the UK tour of rapper Giggs to numerous grime events over the years. The notorious Form 696 is apparently used by police to monitor grime events in particular, which requires addresses and contact details for all artists appearing on the night (which for a grime event can be many, many MCs). I can't be alone in viewing this as a gross invasion of privacy.
The problem here is that the police are essentially the sole arbiter of what constitutes safety in the context of club culture. From the outside, it appears they're more comfortable with busy, boozy, pubs and superclubs than intimate and self-regulating underground events. At a time when binge drinking is seen as a serious public health threat, it seems that police are unwittingly whittling down events into just the kind of mainstream, mass-market entertainment channels that encourages conspicuous consumption.
On Saturday, I went to another London club, Proud Gallery in Camden. Truly one of the most unpleasant clubbing experiences I've ever had, it was dangerously packed to capacity, full of aggressive punters packed into close-quarters, and with unsmiling security guards moving crowds from pillar to post to stop people congregating in the quiet areas. Is this the terrifying future of clubbing, where security guards make sure there's no disruption to the surrounding neighbourhood by packing clubbers in like cattle? Perhaps that should be horses, given the building's history. I mentioned the dangerous amount of people in there to a black clad, baseball cap wearing security guard at the end of the night, who merely shrugged. We walked away from the club, feeling like we'd narrowly escaped from a mass bar-room punch-up. But at least there was no crime or disorder on the street, eh?
As things stand, there are two ways to help Plastic People. You can sign the petition at petitiononline.com/PP2010/petition.html . The most important action, though, is via local letters sent to Hackney Licensing from local residents and businesses. Details of Hackney Council's licensing section can be found here. A Facebook group is also distributing information on how you can help.
A hearing on the future of the club’s licence is due to take place before 31 March.
UPDATE AND RIGHT TO REPLY FROM PROUD CAMDEN:
I got an email in response from Alex of Proud Camden. Here's part of it he asked to be quoted:
We stick to police capacity and have done since we opened.
We don’t allow any AIS security guards to wear headwear and never have. We also don’t allow any form of military clothing.
We try to make all our staff polite and pleasant.
We have to stop people congregating in fire exits, it’s simply the law. This annoys people obviously, but it’s the law, not us!
We were not over capacity and it was not dangerous. There are 7 sets of double width fire exits, 2 or more to each room, a fire alarm that cuts out the music and over 17 floor staff who are on the radio and there to watch for everyone’s safety at all times.
It was hot on Saturday night and that made the club unpleasant for an hour until the ventilation was cranked back on for the first time since summer.
There never has been a punch up and we pride ourselves on how safe Proud is and will continue to be.
We will review all procedures , and I am sorry you had such a bad evening, we honestly hate it when people have a negative time!