Director: Matt Harris
Who says that old men can’t skate? The men featured in this nostalgic documentary about Britain’s best skatepark have never stopped. For some, skating is a career; for others, a life-consuming hobby. But despite the title of Matt Harris’s film, aptly opening this year’s Romford Film Festival, the real hero of the piece is Rom, the skatepark itself.
Opened in 1978, Rom was one of the last parks built by G-Force across Britain in response to the skateboarding culture of the 70s. With its especially built features such as a clover, a half-pipe and a snake-run, many skaters, both from Essex and further afield, believe that it is Britain’s most complete skatepark, and is better than the ones built more recently by local councils across the country.
Many contributors suggest that Rom was a little corner of California in Essex. There was a craze in the American state of sneaking into people’s gardens and emptying the swimming pools. Empty pools with their smooth contours make great skateparks, and Rom has a pool too, once painted white to glitter in the sun. This ‘corner of California’ also lured real Californians to make a transatlantic flight over to Britain, and they remember their first time at Rom with fondness, with one even proclaiming that it felt like home.
But before 1978 had even finished, Rom was in financial trouble, and while other skateparks closed, Big Bad John took over Rom, and persevered with it having great success, if the archive footage is anything to go by, with the BMX craze of the 80s. Costing only 80p for two hours, Rom also boasted a cafe, a shop, a first aid room, and slot machines. John still owns Rom, albeit without his two Doberman who helped clear the park at closing time.
Rom Boys is beautifully filmed and the overhead shots make the concrete park with its sleek curves and smooth bumps seem like a landscape simultaneously from the future and the past. And indeed, its aesthetic is one of the reasons that it was given listed status in 2014 meaning that it can’t be altered or built upon without government permission. Rom is a link to the past when children went out and made their own fun, and many of the talking heads underline this DIY aspect of the skater subculture, from creating your own tricks and painting your own board. This sprit continues in the street art and graffiti that now decorates the park and its buildings or the tattoos that many of the skaters now sport.
The skatepark kept lots of the boys such as Dion Penman (53, and still skating) out of trouble, and Rom gave these boys a sense of community and family that may have been lacking at home. John Buultjens calls it a sanctuary. And while there may have been some tension between the skateboarders and the bikers, fights were few and far between. Rob Steele suggests that it was a utopia of sorts, where people left their classism and racism at the door.
This may be true, but we never hear from any skaters of colour or from women. While this may be an indication of Hornchurch’s demographic in the 70s and 80s, there are black and Asian faces in some of the archive footage, and it would be interesting to hear from these people how they experienced the park. Did they find it a safe haven too?
Harris’s film is both joyous and sad; it really captures a time that has long gone, and the park is empty now when once it was full. With the last decade or so of government austerity, more and more places where teenagers can meet and play sport have lost funding increasing the chances that these young people will get into trouble or fall in with gangs. This lack of funding could be one of the reasons that youth crime figures are so high, especially in urban areas. We can only hope that one day, and with this film’s help, Rom will be busy with noise and boys (and girls) once more.
The Romford Film Festival runs from 24 to 28 June 2021