Friday, 31 March 2023

Still a play for today. Gangsters (1975)

All I want is out of this bastard second city of his, I’ve done time for his brother, either we call it quits or I’ll kill him or any more of his bleedin’ men he sends to get me…

This has been on my watch list for some time now, partly because of its reputation but also because Dave Greenslade wrote the score and the main theme features on Greenslade the bands LP, Time and Tide as well as a single version with Dave’s former Colosseum bandmate, Chris Farlow on vocals. This version was concocted for the TV series that followed in 1976 and which ran for two series, watching this original TV film, part of the Play for Today series, there are so many characters and ideas here, you can well understand why there was room to expand the tale.

Directed by Philip Saville, Gangsters was written by Philip Martin who also featured as the main gangster, Rawlinson a nasty piece of work he clearly relished creating and performing. There’s something of the swagger and violence of contemporary American cinema as if Dirty Harry and Popeye Doyle had been transferred to Birmingham and the city is very much one of the stars along with its culture.

The film is a real slice of Brummie life and starts in a nightclub with two comics, Rolf Day and Mohammed Ashiq swapping what would now be considered unacceptably racist jokes – white, black, brown and Irish - and yet there’s warm applause and laughter from the extras spotting the observational foundations for their jokes. Five years later I’d be a young student working summers in Butlins and these kinds of jokes were still part of the acts for many on the circuit.

Philip Martin

There’s also a number of inserts featuring proto-Bollywood films – Sharmeelee, a 1971 Indian Hindi-language romantic film - and other representations of cultural diversity; Birmingham as one of the most racially diverse cities in Britain at the time and where, unlike some, there was more mixing, so far as this went. Here there’s criminal operations based on these different cultures and sometimes they work together to maintain the peace. That said the story directly addresses illegal immigration with Rafiq (Saeed Jaffrey) a “reluctant” community leader answering a TV interviewer’s questions about a supposed “Pakistani mafia” and accusing politicians of ramping up a distorted narrative about immigration even as he is shown to be a major player in people smuggling.

He's seen in cosy conversation with Rawlinson celebrating his gaslighting before handing the latter’s girl, Anne (Elizabeth Cassidy) a bag of heroin brought in along with some men, from Pakistan. There’s an uneven peace.

The action centres around John Kline (Maurice Colbourne), an ex-SAS soldier, recently released from a four-stretch, after doing time for a job for Rawlinson and who now wants his share of the loot. Unfortunately, Rawlinson blames Kline for the death of his brother Brian and so there’s no easy compromise possible even if Kline sees his debt as paid by taking the jail time. He goes to a café and is approached by a man called Khan (Ahmed Khalil) who claims to be looking for a relative who had been taken from Rotterdam to Britain… thinking he’s from Rawlinson, he throws him to the ground, but there’s more to Khan than meets the eye.

Kline goes to the Maverick Club, a delightfully dingy bar/strip club where he meets the manager, old “friend” Dermot Mcavoy (Paul Antrim), who greets him as warmly as he can, as he pours him a strong one and encourages him to watch his new stripper, Dinah (Tania Rogers), rehearse, an almost transcendental experience for the man who hasn’t drunk for years nor seen a woman outside of prison let alone her clothes. There’s tension in the air as Dermot tells him he hasn’t got the money and Kline measures Dinah’s every contour as she looks him straight in the eye… racy stuff for TV in the mid-seventies.

Khan goes to the crime boss to tell him about Kline’s release only to find he already knows: I know everything in this city me… and how to profit from it. He’s trying to ingratiate himself with the mob working also with Rafiq’s right-hand man Kuldip (Paul Satvendar) as well…

Dermot promises to get Kline’s money and sets him up with Anne for a romantic treat on her canal boat but organising beating at the hands of handy scouse henchman Malleson (Paul Barber) and his compadres. Kline’s no mug though and repels Anne and then Malleson’s mini mob. He goes straight back to the club to confront Dermot as Dinah entertains an authentically sleazy looking crowd (I should imagine). How many times have we seen such confrontations of masculinity in showgirl settings… it’s the law of the jungle and Kline’s bite is far worse than the others’ bark.

So it goes as, in Get Carter style, the violence and the stakes escalate as does the romance between Kline and Dinah, how many mixed-race couples were seen on screen at this time? It was certainly one of the bolder decisions of the production and importantly gives Kline someone to protect and raises his stakes in this fight to the end with Rawlinson and pretty much every gang in town.

DustyVerdict: Gangsters feels both of its time but also still fresh, the buildings and the suits may have changed in Birmingham, but the crimes remain the same there and elsewhere made so much worse by the influx of new drugs and new weaponry. Philip Martin, who had never been to the city before spent three months immersing himself there and meeting with local criminals to understand the locality and its issues. Maybe only an outsider could paint the picture he does, I don’t know Birmingham that well and thankfully only have limited experience of Liverpool – where my father was a policeman – and London.

Discussing the film with Billy Smart of the Forgotten Television Series website in 2020, Philip Martin said that after some pushback from various dignitaries from the city “… the same week there were fifteen illegal immigrants caught in the Bristol Channel on the way to Birmingham and the Scratchwood Services which had a two million pound heroin heist picked up by the police. So, we just said, ‘well, read the papers. We don’t need to justify ourselves.’”

Ultimately Gangsters was part of a wave of more realistic fiction that balanced its concerns with rich characters and essentially human stories… the con men are still in charge, and we’re all still being lied to by the Rawlinsons and the Rafiqs, some of whom are closer to political power than we’d like. Do gangsters exist? Yes, and they’re all a bit like this.

Tip of the hat to for Birmingham’s “Three Degrees” … Earlene Bentley, Ethel Coley and Joanne White who sing in the nightclub. I can, almost, remember venues like these.

Next up I must watch the TV series, two quite differing sets of six episodes by all accounts the second being what Kim Newman describes as “one of the damnedest things ever shown on UK TV”.

The full interview with Philip Martin is available at the Forgotten Television Drama website which is highly recommended!

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