‘TV nearly always gets street violence wrong’: a bouncer on what small-screen fights leave out

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The Guardian

Ever wondered how realistic the fight scenes that you see on television are? As a licensed bouncer, I can tell you that most real-life violence is uglier than anything you’ll see on TV – even on BBC Parliament.

I’ve spent 15 years on the frontline dealing with drunk girls swinging fire extinguishers, or blokes who’ve downed one fish bowl and are now trying to fight an entire bus queue. Nearly all the shows that try to depict street violence get it wrong.

After nearly 1,000 shifts of dealing with people who think a bank card is ID, and after clocking up a lot of box sets on my nights off, I keep noticing the gap between the fights you’re allowed to watch at 12A, and the fights you get dragged in to once you hit 18 (spoiler: hardly any are as graceful as the ones you saw in Killing Eve).

Take the scrap scenes in Netflix’s Cobra Kai – they are a lot more balletic than anything I’ve seen in a decade and a half of dealing with fights. There’s no way an out-of-shape 51-year-old could see off four teenagers. Not unless he delivered a roundhouse kick to the router.

But the moment in season three where Daniel learns a paralysing strike technique from his former nemesis Chozen rings true. Especially if you’ve had to fight a boxer and have been on the wrong end of a liver shot.

Ralph Macchio as Daniel LaRusso and William Zabka as Johnny Lawrence in Cobra Kai. Photograph: Netflix

Sometimes, the show’s “strike first” catchphrase can save your life, or at least your jawbone. During bouncer training, you’re taught that under common law, everyone has a duty of care to take reasonable steps to protect themselves, others and property. So pre-emptive violence can be lawful if you genuinely fear for your safety, or someone else’s. Sorry, Mr Miyagi.

I saw the technique put to use on screen in Amazon Prime TV’s Jack Reacher, where our hero is about to get battered in a prison cell. As soon as his tormentor ignores his request to leave, Reacher – who’s unable to flee or summon help – beats the bloke until he no longer presents a threat.

The dialogue wasn’t quite what you’re taught to say (“Is there anything I can do or say to make you leave without using physical intervention?”), but it’s close.

You might assume that one of the things in on-screen fights that’s miles away from reality are the stunts. But actually, street violence can occasionally give you an OTT moment of drama that the makers of Amazon Prime’s action series The Terminal List would kill for. One time, my ex-supervisor and his mates got into an off-duty spat with some bodybuilders who were so much bigger than my boss that it wasn’t so much a case of David and Goliath as Daffy Duck versus Vin Diesel.

Bodybuilder Vin slowly pulled off his T-shirt to reveal a six-pack like the Giant’s Causeway. While he was still lifting it from around his head, Daffy hit him with an uppercut that sent the bigger bloke crashing backwards through a shop window display.

It might be set in another dimension, but the pyrotechnics of The Witcher’s “Let your chaos explode” scene also reminds me of something I’ve seen while doing my job: the teens who commemorated their failure to pull by torching a box of fireworks in the car park. They set off so many car alarms that it sounded like a hard house night.

Occasionally, I see fights that are much more troubling – particularly arguments between friends. If you’re British and of a certain age, you’ll remember the ratcheting tension before Peggy and Pat went for each other on EastEnders. The screenwriter must’ve had two nans with very short fuses; the way the characters keep fortifying themselves with drink and circling around their similarities (including shared partners) before resorting to glass chucking, table flipping and back-and-forth slaps was depressingly authentic.

You could feel the same dread in the first episode of Mare of Easttown where Erin is lured to a party, ringed by the bullies who catfished her via fake messages from a crush, and then attacked. One of the most disorientating things about that kind of group assault is the hurtful way it’s recorded by one of the bystander’s phones, ensuring you get bruises in the real world and cyberspace. I’ve had a few pulled on me before – being filmed is always nerve-racking – but I’m lucky I can return fire in the form of my protective vest’s bodycam.

There’s a nausea and paralysis that comes after the spiking adrenaline you get during fights. That aftershock of violence is something that very few programmes deal with, but The Wire is a show that captured it perfectly. The season four classroom attack really gets it right. The way the attacker/former bullying victim crumples to the floor after finally attacking her nemesis, and is then comforted by Dukie, who’s a victim, too, is heartbreaking. As is the way the casualty is now whimpering on the deck. Like every other revenge attack, no one gets any closure. Aside from CCTV, it’s about as an accurate depiction of the gruesome moments after an altercation as you’ll see on screen.

Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson as Richie and Eddie in Bottom. Photograph: Bbc/Sportsphoto/Allstar

Ultimately, unlike the heavies on TV, my colleagues and I do everything we can to avoid a dust-up. It’s part of door supervisor training, along with not letting gobby people get too close. Especially if they’re using language fit for Deadwood. But there’s one TV fight I always come back to: the gas man attack in Bottom. Yes, it’s cartoonish. Yes, no one could take 22 left crosses and 17 frying pan swings to the head and still live to deliver their feed lines in the next scene. But it features a genius use of utensils – which does happen.

I was a labourer before I put on the black bouncer jacket. When a young thief climbed into my boss’s van and tried to liberate his electrical test kit, my boss used what a barrister might call “reasonable force to prevent the commissioning of a crime”: he hit the lad around the head with a spanner.

Once the thief had picked himself up, he stuck a finger in my boss’ chest and warned that he was about to fetch his 19-year-old big brother – who would stab him.

“Go and get him,” said my boss. “I’ve got a bigger spanner.”

July 14, 2022 at 11:03PM George Bass

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