Review - Picking through the ashes, one year on

Adi Bloom

How time flies. It is almost a year ago now that London - and, eventually, other parts of England - burned for five days in a blaze of rioters' anger.

The Riots: In Their Own Words is a two-part BBC documentary that tries to unpick exactly what happened during those days in early August. Though the programme uses actors, the words are entirely those of the participants.

Part one focuses exclusively on the rioters themselves. It begins with the protest outside Tottenham police station against the police shooting of local resident Mark Duggan. "If the Queen was to be snipered, it would be a different thing," one man says. "You know what I mean?"

In these early stages, there are moments of solidarity that are almost heart-warming: a man talks about putting aside postcode wars to come out in support of Tottenham. "They came from N16," he says in wonder.

And then it all went horribly wrong. "It felt like we was on a leash for years," one man - a boy, really - says. "And it felt like we came off that leash."

What is intriguing is the way in which participants have rationalised what happened. "It was like a street party, cuz there was, like, alcohol everywhere," one says. A middle-class mother talks about taking her 14-year-old daughter down to the riots, just to see what was going on. "You're a bit old for the riots," her daughter mutters sardonically.

And, from another: "It's just that adrena... that adren... I can't say the word. That rush, where you think, I can get iPhones, TVs, and I'm not going to get caught." The boy-man, meanwhile, looted JD Sports as revenge for its decision not to offer him a job.

Their comments are interspersed with news footage from a year ago. "It's like the Wild West - absolutely lawless," says a reporter. Other commentators use phrases like "abject criminality", "feral rats" and "sheer evil".

Such terms, though, are wilfully reductive. In fact, the rioters' world is anthropologically fascinating. One man announces that there was no way he was getting down on his hands and knees to enter a shop, so he simply began robbing other looters. A schoolgirl proclaims her outrage at such behaviour: "We took it - it's ours. Get your own things."

And one young man, now in prison, declares that the riots were his generation's war. One day, he hopes, his grandchildren will say: "I heard about them riots in 2011. Like World War Two, with my great grandads."

The Riots: In Their Own Words starts on BBC Two at 9pm on 16 July.

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Adi Bloom

Adi Bloom is Tes comment editor

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