Bigga Than Ben: from Russia with fraud

A comedy about two ‘pieces of Russian scum’ shows that scrounging off the system in the UK is neither easy nor lucrative.

Nathalie Rothschild

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Best friends Cobakka and Spiker are two self-confessed ‘pieces of Russian scum’, who decide to dodge the draft at home and instead head to London to rip off England – or ‘foggy Albion’, as Russians apparently like to call it.

Based on Bol’she Ben, the best-selling diaries of Pavel Tetersky and Sergei Sakin, Bigga Than Ben is a low-budget, un-PC black comedy about two young Muscovites who couldn’t care less either about confirming or challenging sterotypes about immigrants – but who end up doing both.

‘Shameless? Yes. Greedy? Yes. Fraudsters? Yes!’ gloats Cobakka. He and his partner in crime have a simple plan when they come to England: set up a bank account, get a chequebook, start raking in money by cashing dodgy cheques, then go back to Moscow – Cobakka to start a band, Spiker to marry his girlfriend.

While they don’t mind being seen as petty criminals and fraudsters, the two friends don’t take well to being mistaken for ‘asylum seekers’ or ‘refugees’. The streetwise twentysomethings may be mixing with lowlifes, but they don’t want anything to do with the huddled masses. They want to live it up, cash in and make it big.

But what would a comedy about two young, freeloading Muscovites in London be without an adventure that doesn’t quite go according to plan?

The two Russian luck-seekers seem like a tabloid sub’s wet dream. ‘Russian welfare tourists come to London to rip off the system and sleep with our women’ might be the headline for their adventures.

But despite their optimistic belief that the presumption of innocence in the English legal system will work in their favour, ‘the system’ turns out to be a bureaucratic quagmire and everything from getting a meal at a homeless shelter to opening a bank account and flirting with English girls is a trial. To get a chequebook you need a bank account. To set up a bank account you need a proof of income and a utility bill. For that you need accommodation. But to rent a flat you need a job so you can afford the deposit. To get a job, you need a work permit… And so on.

Until Cobakka and Spiker manage to lay their hands on the magic money tickets – chequebooks and cashback – the two illegal immigrants busy themselves with fine-tuning their skills in shoplifting, sofa surfing, turnstile hopping and heroin cooking.

They hook up with Artash, the son of a Russian oligarch who, in Cobakka’s and Spiker’s minds at least, speaks English in an ‘Oxford accent’. Artash teaches the scamming rookies some basic lessons in small-time crookery and introduces them to every drug known to London.

Apart from intermittent moments of happiness wandering around London’s grand tourist sites and sunbathing on Primrose Hill in the affluent suburb of Hampstead, the two friends find themselves scraping at the bottom of London’s multicultural melting pot. After sleeping rough in a garden shed, they move into a stinking flat in a high-rise council estate. No amount of scrubbing of the carpets and wallpaper, which appear not to have been changed since the 1970s, can remove the stench, which the guys conclude must come from the Asian curry houses and market stalls outside.

At the start, they are unapologetically racist, but after cleaning toilets, cooking and getting stoned with people of all nationalities, their minds seem to broaden. ‘How could I ever have imagined that I, a Moscow hooligan and Nazi, would become a Negro lover?’, Cobakka asks in wonderment.

Some people argue that the most ferocious opponents to immigration are immigrants and descendents of immigrants, and that most racist tension is found among ethnic minorities. A couple of years ago, the then chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips, complained that East Europeans are bringing with them ‘1950s attitudes’ towards black people.

On the surface, Bigga Than Ben appears to confirm Phillips’ stereotype, but in the end it shows that the tensions that exist between those who inhabit the crowded and unglamorous side of London stem from people living cheek-by-jowl in poor conditions rather than being a consequence of immigrants’ unreconstructed, racist worldviews.

The DIY, MTV feel of this fast-paced and gag-filled film is entirely appropriate for a rough guide to how to not make it in London. At times the film’s knowing style is grating – as when the plot is interrupted by characters explaining the various goings-on to the camera. But a highlight is Cobakka’s and Spiker’s bamboozlement in a meeting with a thickly accented Irish employment officer. They can’t understand a word of what the man is saying (‘Do you two speak English?’, the employment officer demands impatiently. ‘Yes. Do you?’ reply the Russians.) Eventually Cobakka and Spiker ask for subtitles, and it becomes clear both to them and to the audience what the man is on about.

Bigga Than Ben bears little resemblance to the celebrations of multiculturalism we have gotten used to, but despite being an irreverent satire it is perhaps a more honest look at interracial London and how many immigrants fare in Britain. It also gives the lie to myths about Britain being a ‘welfare magnet’ where illegal immigrants can get rich by ripping off the system.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

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