Tuesday, 6 March 2012

TV Review - Storyville: Knuckle – Bare Fist Fighting BBC4

When a wedding invite plops down on your doormat most men expect nothing more from the occasion other than some free vino, a cheesy disco and if they are very lucky a bunk up with a willing bridesmaid. Accidental director Ian Palmer got more then he bargained for after being asked to film an Irish gypsy wedding in 1997.  He got sucked in to the clandestine life of bareknuckle boxing.

Taking an eye-watering 12 yrs to make Palmer's documentary centres on the bitter feuds that linger for generations amongst the travelling community in England and Ireland whose "beefs" are not settled by strongly worded letters to their MP but by old fashioned fists and cojones.

The Quinn-McDonaghs and their cousins the Joyces are two such families that despite being related don't follow the maxim that blood is thicker than water.  Their bad blood stretches back some 50 years although no one can really remember what started the hostilities.  Over the course of Palmer's 12 years filming he was gradually let in to this hidden world and documented over a two dozen bareknuckle fights between the two warring familes often occuring in a quiet country lanes or disused car parks.  They are not for the feint hearted.

James Quinn was 24 when he had his first fight after being called out by Paddy Joyce, who is described by his peers as "not the full shilling". Stripped to the waste and covered in tattoos they meet in a quiet Dundalk back road with only a few bystanders milling around (no family is allowed at he fight to prevent riots) and a "neutral" referee is emplyed to ensure there is "fair play" i.e no biting, kicking or gouging.

James has been in training and is a handy if reluctant boxer. It is quickly apparent there is only going to be one winner. Paddy is floored 6 or 7 times in a flurry of heavy hitting emerging with a face the colour and consistency of a squashed tomato.  The referee asks

"You had enough Paddy?"

Matches are only stopped when one fighter submits to the other.  It is a shame that his boxing skills don't match his bravery as Paddy recieves a gruesome and undignified beatdown until the penny drops and he calls it quits. James collects his winnings from the back of a transit van,  £19000 in total, and returns to his clan a triumphant hero, worryingly decribing the fight as

"like beating a child"

This isn't the end of it though.  Bizarrely, the two families subsequently trade insults via videotape with riduclous taunts that resemble WWE wrestling filtered through Father Ted.  Head man and self proclaimed King Of The Travellers "Big" Joe Joyce picks up his younger brother's baton.  He looks like a distant nastier cousin to Father Ted's randy milkman Pat Mustard with his pornstar's moustache and hairy chest. You wouldn't want to meet him down a dark alley though.

" Ya baldy bollocks"

is one of more amusing bon mots directed towards James and he calls the rest of the Quinn's "murderers". It transpires that in 1992 during a pub brawl in London one of the Quinn-McDonaghs, "Curly Paddy", killed a Joyce and went down for manslaughter.  It reignited the decades old feud and gave them all another reason to beat the shit out of each other.

Despite saying he would never box again James Joyce is drawn into another fight with Davy Nevin another clan who apparently are in dispute with the Joyces.  It makes me start to think that all this fighting really just boils down to money. James openly admits that he just

"needed some quick cash"

This time the purse is £60000 and is fought in a farmhouse courtyard. The director is stopped from filiming as one of the judges is out on bail and has to cobble something together from some grainy video nasty footage that another punter has taken. It goes on for a gruesome 2hrs with James emerging bloodied but victorious.  Back at the family home the celebration is tempered by the reaction from the wives who are reluctant to be interviewed but confide that the fighting is destructive and

"goes too deep...children growing up in that life"

The women are dead against the fighting but in a male dominated family unit, powerless to prevent it.  Conspicously none of the carnage is shielded from the kids who watch all the fights and post match are all outside with their shirts off shadow-boxing, depressing Mini-Mes of their fathers, and so the cycle continues.

For the finale James' brother Michael has a rematch with "Big" Paul Joyce. Nine years before James was a rather out of shape rosy cheekd youngster forced into fighting his cousin with the match ended in an undignified manner with him being disqalified for biting. Now he had transformed himself into a tattooed testosteroned monster with the neck of a rhino and a the temprement of pitbull.  For a purse of £120000 he was taking things seriously this time.

I had to laugh when I saw shots of the families counting piles of  potentially ill gotten money for an illegal fight surrounded by potraits of the Pope and the Virgin Mary.  Catholicism is anything if not enterprising. Despite the build up and the police helicopter hovering overhead the fight is unispiring and ends in a draw with "pride" supposedly intact on both sides.

As much as the travellers bang about upholding their names and their honour, big money can be made on fights and it is undoubtably this that drives the brutality on. Whilst a laudable, interesting and compelling documentary which entertains in typically car crash fashion we don't really get an insight into the lives of the particpants away from the fighting.  Perhaps this is genuinely all they do all day but their general place on the margins of society barely commented on.  How do travlellers with no fixed income come up with the £60000 they need to bet on their fighters?  Sometimes its best not to ask too many questions.

If after watching the documentary you feel compelled to take up bareknuckle boxing at the weekend, perhaps after your trip to Ikea, Big Joe offers up some handy tips.

"Steep your hand in petrol for 20 mins a day...it'll make you hands feel like rocks. When I was fighting I left 'em with a face like a butchers block"

I wonder if I can get the same effect from dipping my hands in balsamic salad dressing.  True fighters adapt to their environment. I'm sure Big Joe would approve. 

An interesting interview with the director can be found  here

For UK residents the whole thing can be watched in iPlayer for the foreseeable future

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