Londynczycy (The Londoners) is a series that I have been aware of for five years, but which I couldn’t properly watch until I obtained the subtitled DVDs. It is a Polish television show about migrant workers in London, filmed by Polish film crew with Polish actors, who slip in and out of English depending on whom they are talking to. It’s fascinating to see England portrayed through foreign eyes, seen from the perspective of builders and nurses, cleaners and entrepreneurs. There’s the country girl who arrives as an unwitting drug mule, and gets dragged into industrial espionage in the finance sector. There’s the earnest young graduate forced to work as a builder, dumped by his girlfriend and hoping to make a go of it as a fast-food vendor. There’s the nurse who has been sending money home to her family while banging one of the doctors at her workplace, and the husband who comes out to see her, unaware of the minefield into which he is stepping. And then there’s the pensioner, neglected by her Anglicised children, who finds herself as the landlady to a coterie of her countrymen…
The London they live in is geographically dispersed. Most of the Poles in the show live in Ealing, but the nurse works in Tooting and the yuppie works in Canary Wharf. Aesthetic requirements manage to ignore most of that, so that, as one wag noted, half the action seems to take place just outside Tower Bridge. There’s an element of honour winning through, as the eternally pure-hearted Andzrej tries to find a niche to make honest money, and keeps bumping into Asia, the hard-up would-be make-up artist with bee-stung lips, who is clearly destined to be his bride. But also there are elements of luck, as the teacher Marcin finds himself on a downward spiral in his new land, unable to even wash dishes competently, soon ending up in a squat packed with ne’er-do-wells. He turns on his fellow Polacks in a language class, berating them for having nothing to say about their homeland but jokes about vodka and football. He speaks of the glory days of Polish literature and culture, but can only do so in Polish, for which his teacher awards him no marks.
I have spent most of the last six years living in someone else’s country, so perhaps Londynczycy speaks to me in a way it doesn’t for others. My own language is still a secret code I share with myself and occasional single-serving strangers. And London, my home for 15 years, stares out at me now as a fictional construct, in the Docklands glass of Spooks or bleached frames of Ultraviolet. But the Poles’ London is a wonderful sight to behold: a wainscot society of Slavic grafters, gangsters and good-time girls, where a bus will take you to Lodz from the outskirts of Ealing, and where every street has a “wailing wall” of help-wanted ads. Wladek, the doorman at a theatre, seems to be the oldest of all the Poles, with a vintage that suggests he was here with the last great influx in WW2. But his story remains untold, in favour of that of Pawel (“Call me Paul”), the city trader who sacrifices his soul for success, and Ewa, a nurse who is offered the high life, as long as she deserts her family.
The English cast are a menagerie of broad caricatures, seemingly instructed to bellow all their lines as CLEARLY AND DISTINCTLY as they can to help struggling Polish viewers keep up. A sizable chunk of them are also of immigrant origin, including an entire clan of scowling Pakistani wide-boys, a perpetually dancing family of samba-obsessed Brazilians, a posh British-Indian doctor and a gaggle of thick-necked Russian drug-dealers. Among the English, randy Isabella is a rich cougar with a thing for builders; shouty James is a city trader from the pointy-finger pointy-pointy school of acting; and chinless Peter is a yuppie who fancies Polish girls, who persuades Darek the builder to pretend to be “Derek from Edinburgh” in order to get off with Mariola, the swivel-eyed model who lurches and slurs through all her scenes as if drunk. Running through the whole thing is a fascinating subtext of form — that so many people in Poland have had this experience, or know someone who has, that it is possible to run an entire show about England on primetime on Poland’s national broadcaster. Meanwhile, modern technology allows for some interesting slants on time-honoured set-ups – it is now possible for example, for the loyal daughter to be talking in real time with her hapless sister in another country, as the former wires money for the other to pick up: a conversation held in two Western Union offices, albeit in two different countries.
The show’s tagline in Polish reads: “Great Britain, Great Expectations,” deliberately invoking a Dickensian sense of London as a city where dreams can be made and dashed, luring hopefuls from everywhere in search of that elusive secret of success.
Jonathan Clements is the co-author of The Dorama Encyclopedia: A Guide to Japanese Television Since 1953.