Monday, 9 March 2015

Gangsters (1975)

Get Carter and the frozen North of Newcastle in 1971.

The Long Good Friday and the developing capital city of London in 1980.

And slap bang in the middle both genealogically and geographically lies Gangsters and the melting pot of the Midlands in 1975.

The only difference being that Gangsters was not at that time a commercially made for the cinema film. It was a Play For Today (and one which, like Rumpole of the Bailey and Headmaster, was deemed so successful that it spawned a spin off series) You wouldn't know it though, as director Philip Saville shot it totally on location on 35mm capturing the seedy underbelly of Birmingham life with a unique and distinctive cinematic sensibility. It has in recent years been shown on the big screen at many festivals and events in places such as the BFI and is received purely as a film - a film that deserves to stand alongside those aforementioned Brit crime classics Get Carter and The Long Good Friday.

In the DVD commentary, Saville, scriptwriter and series creator Philip Martin and producer Barry Hanson (who went on to produce The Long Good Friday) make a point of discussing how different Gangsters was from its Play For Today stablemates. Whilst its true you don't get many car chases in your average Play For Today (and certainly not ones that took place around on and under the Spaghetti Junction!) I do think they're being a little unfair on both the other PfT's and their own project. Martin's extensive three month research into Birmingham's clubland, its police force, drugs problem and ethnically diverse community makes Gangsters just as authentic and politically minded a voice as anything Ken Loach and Tony Garnett et al produced for the umbrella series. It's just that the trio approach the telling of their story in such a strikingly different way. It is said that BBC head of Regions David Rose had seen The French Connection at the cinema and lamented that the BBC seemed incapable of producing that kind of drama. Well, Saville, Martin and Hanson set out to prove him wrong and Gangsters carries elements of the very best hard boiled American thrillers, the Warner Brothers gangster flicks of old, noir, the blaxploitation genre, a touch of Bollywood, the spaghetti western and even a sprinkling of James Bond all topped off by a soundtrack from Greenslade!

The diverse cast is a real credit to Gangsters, and vitally necessary too. Without them, the desire to represent the culturally diverse city would have significantly failed. Tremendous actors like Saeed Jaffrey and Ahmed Khalil from the Asian community and Paul Barber and Tania Rogers from the Black British community, all then relatively unknown to British TV audiences of the time, shine with the opportunity afforded them in Philip Martin's gritty and excellent script.  This desire for unknown quantities continued with Martin himself appearing as the Birmingham kingpin and chief villain Rawlinson whilst Maurice Colbourne hits the ground running with the show's anti-hero John Kline.

I fucking loved John Kline. As Martin says, he wanted a kind of dull and heavy anonymous name like James Bond and, like that character, he wanted to use him as a blank canvas to place numerous intrigues and action upon. Colbourne, with his lean and muscular frame not a million miles away from Clint Eastwood, also plays to the film's pervading urban western idea too and, as the character remarks at one point, "My name's John Kline, not John Wayne". You can also totally believe Colbourne is a tough guy former convict and SAS man. This isn't an actor stepping back to allow his stunt man to perform the physicality the script requires, even though it occasionally looks rather hairy! And real men wear pink. Just like John Kline and his habitual pink shirt.

With its violence, nudity, bad language and overall contentious issues, it was only natural that Gangsters caused quite a stir. Critics called it amoral, too graphic and a dishonest representation of the fine city of Birmingham, words that had to be eaten when only a day after transmission the papers reported both the influx of illegal immigrants and a cache of drugs into the city. The audiences loved it though, and its easy to see why Philip Martin was snapped up to write not one but two seasons of Gangsters, each episode becoming more and more bloody and labyrinthine (mixing West Indian and Asian gangs with Chinese Triads) as well as deeply self referential, post-modern and downright strange. Small wonder, the Open University did courses in it!

Gangsters is available to buy as a DVD box set including this film, series one and series two. But to get the BBC to consider repeating some of the classic Play For Today's still languishing in the bowels of the corporation please sign the petition I started here


  1. Excellent post. I've just watched 'Gangsters' on dvd, the first time I've seen it since the original broadcasts in the 70s. Thoroughly enjoyable & original tv.

    1. Thanks. It's brilliant isn't it? I really should rewatch the two full series once again and review them on here

  2. I was born in Birming am, raised there (well.........dragged up, anyway).
    On the whole.............."I'd rather be in Philadelphia"

    1. Thank you for the irrelevant comment.