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Bait: class dynamics in the era of Brexit

24 Jun 2020

George Shealy

Bait: class dynamics in the era of Brexit

‘What’s on?’


‘Nothing much’ replies Cornish fisherman Martin Ward.


You wouldn’t be blamed for not being completely sold on a film centred around the comings and goings of a fisherman who barely catches anything, but Bait is so much more than that – it is a profound insight into the condition of working-class life in the era of Brexit.


Martin, like much of the UK’s regional working-class that he symbolises, finds himself in a place -the fishing village he has lived in his whole life- becoming increasingly alien and hostile. Gone are the ‘old days’ when the village was self-sufficient as it prospered off its fishing industry. That very industry has dried up, and it is no longer the locals who can support the local economy, but tourists who come and stay for barely two months of the year before clearing off again.


Despite being small in number, the economic power of the tourists in Martin’s village makes their presence much more invasive. For locals like Martin, who make a pittance from a full day’s work, it is an uphill battle to improve his lot and take back a stake in the village. We see that the £30 that Martin gets for a day's fishing barely covers the wages for his helper, local boy Neil, leisure time at the pub, and savings for a boat so he can try and earn a decent living. 


The impact this has on the workings of the village is massive. To survive, local businesses have to appease the needs of the tourists, meaning selling out their loyal customers by abandoning the traditions and culture of their community and business.


But the changes that are happening around Martin effect him on a more personal level as well. His old family home, where he grew up as a boy alongside his brother Stephen, has been sold off to a middle-class family from London who have turned it into an Airbnb for summer holidaymakers. At the beginning of the film, when Martin visits the family after they’ve just moved in, he gawks at their various possessions which clog up the shot, like the smug-looking pestle and mortar and fishing equipment which has been appropriated to act as decor, representing the unwelcome change and invasive presence that comes with the tourist industry in this Cornish fishing village.


They’ve changed the house’s pantry, something that upsets Martin. It’s because the house has been ‘modernised’, so the family says. It sounds painfully New Labour. Gentrification would be the better word perhaps. We get the sense Martin feels left behind and uncared for as the world blindly modernises and cares less and less about the way of life he represents.


With apt timing, a  radio plays out a report on Brexit in the background. Nearly 57% of Cornwall voted to leave in the EU referendum. Many of those who live in places that voted for leave, if you’ve watched John Harris’ Anywhere but Westminster series, did so because they thought their vote would see a return of old industry and jobs to their communities – a desperate last move to restore prosperity. Martin’s home village is a perfect example of one of those communities. You can expect many of the Cornish who voted for Brexit did so because they saw EU quotas and polices which seemingly squeezed local British fisherman out of the market as the reasons for their community’s decline. They have little control over their lives but are told this is the ‘modern’ way of doing things, much like what Martin is told by the London invaders and a few locals too.


The black and white grainy cinematography delivered by Cornish director Jenkin’s hand-processed 16mm film isn’t just representative of a cinephile director, but also of Martin’s harkening back and attachment to a bygone era. We can see that the class and people that Martin represents face a challenge: hold onto your values, culture, traditions (ultimately, your identity), or move on with the times and ‘modernise’.


Martin’s brother, Stephen, shows us what modernising looks like. He has turned the family’s old fishing boat into a commercial vessel that takes people on tours around the coast – his typical client? Loud tourists on weekend dos. We see Stephen boarding loutish posh boys in inflatable costumes, all a creative array of phallic-shaped outfits, while at other times mopping sick off the deck. The work is depicted as degrading and less honourable than what the Ward boys were seemingly destined for. Martin refuses to change and join his brother, commenting that their father would be ‘turning in his grave’ if he knew what Stephen was using the boat for.


But Martin gets a lucky break. The mother of the London family staying in the old Ward house gives him enough money to pay for the rest of his boat after her son, Hugo, destroys all of Martin's lobster traps, costing him a decent take. The film ends with the Ward brothers sailing back out into the sea in Martin's new boat, ready to reclaim their livlihoods by fishing again. But not all workers like the Ward brothers get the change in fortune they deserve – some are still waiting for it in a post-EU UK led by the Tories.