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Ian Dury and Tim Roth

By Marek Kohn

It's a delightful morning in Whitechapel that finds the actor-politician Zia Mohyeddin (Pakistan's former Minister of Culture) and the actor-singer Ian Dury relaxing amidst the gypsy encampment that the BBC brings to its locations. Round the corner Tim Roth seems to be breaking down a door. A group of local Asian girls sidle up to peek at Dury, clothed in a vibrant Donegal tweed suit and painfully new cherry red Martens. Roth wears a raincoat and a repellent piece of simulated burn scar tissue from his scalp to his eye. As Dury explains, Roth's character has just come out of prison whereas his own has done well, "got a smallholding in Essex and a Jack Russell." The producer, Stephen Gilbert, isn't too keen on the Jack Russell, which is to be called Mungo after Dury's mum's dog. Gilbert thinks Roth is egging Dury on. Roth is conveniently absent. Despite the banter, King of the Ghetto is a drama production, interesting technically for being a four-parter shot entirely on video and dramatically for a variety of reasons. It marks the return to the BBC of Stephen Gilbert, who departed after the Corporation banned his production of Ian McEwan's Solid Geometry (a preserved penis in a bottle was not considered a fit item for screening), and director, veteran TV leftist Roy Battersly. It concerns a power battle in the largely Bengali East End between a young white activist (Roth) and an Asian businessman (Mohyeddin). Reality and drama are blurred on location. Locals hang around the set mingling with extras, a real squatter, so the story goes, was nearly boarded up in his home by BBC technicians, and Gilbert remarks how issues that have become "newsworthy" have made the local and national papers seem to be part of the script as the project has progressed. In the still turbulent wake of Handsworth and its trail of glib media stereotypes, the importance of this production is being magnified all the time.

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