Through The Middle, a short by Simon James Lane and Tom Sweetland, is a touching documentary which details, with charming sensitivity, the sharp decline in business and the probable closure of a traditional men’s barber shop, situated in an increasingly abandoned and dilapidated area of North London.
As a third-generation barber, the eponymous ‘Mr. S’ of ‘Hair by Mr. S’ admits to a sharp downturn in customers in recent years. On the council estates surrounding him, he hypothesises that of those inhabitants who are working, very few of them will have the spare funds to consider a haircut as a necessity, and neither are they liable to have the free time to invest in their physical appearance in such a way. Yet Mr S’s sense of vulnerability does not spring solely from his financial situation, but as a result of the increased degeneration and high crime rate of his surroundings; he confesses to fears for his physical safety, as well as concerns that he may be attacked and robbed whilst closing the shop at the end of a working day.
After a hundred years of his family working in the same industry, here is a man facing the end of the line, for not only are the debts mounting, but his son has not taken up the trade. Whilst acknowledging that this is undoubtedly the end of an era, not once does the viewer detect self-pity from the film’s protagonist, nor a sense of a person living in the past. Instead what comes across is his seeming acceptance of his fate, and the simple realisation that there is nothing particularly shocking about a closure like this. We have become accustomed to witnessing such scenes and hearing such stories, something that offers a sadness in and of itself.
Shot starkly, simply and effectively, there is a universality about the subject matter of Through The Middle, given the decline and closure of many long-standing businesses throughout the UK over the past few years, largely as a knock-on effect of highly built-up poverty. The film also highlights how the desires of those in the higher echelons rarely mesh with the owners of small businesses, as the company’s dwindling clientele discuss the large-scale development projects being launched elsewhere.
The fate of both Mr. S and his business is closely tied to the diminishing prospects of the area of North London that they both occupy; low paying jobs, long job centre queues and a depressive era of austerity make his task of keeping afloat increasingly difficult, yet the film also quietly highlights – particularly in a sequence describing popular hairstyles of times past – how important a good self-image remains to a person’s self-worth, particularly at a point in history when many areas of life seem so bleak, and in a location where the underdog is so often overlooked.