Newton's laws of television

Baddies on the Backstreets of Brum

An overview of Gangsters by Richard Amphlett

Gangsters is arguably the most unusual series ever shown on British television. Produced by BBC Pebble Mill between 1975 and 1978, what began as a tough and uncompromising attempt to depict Birmingham's underworld had by the end of its run become a fully fledged work of...what?

Gangsters had become in those three years impossible to define, since, perversely, its writer Philip Martin set out to deliberately escape conventions and pigeon-holing to create a work which fitted into no established genre. To establish how he did this we must first examine the very roots of the series and the conventions on which it was first based.

The roots of the play, shown as a Play For Today initially innocent of what it would spawn, can be best found not in the American gangster films of the thirties as some critics have tried to, but in that peculiar home-grown breed of crime series which flourished in the mid to late seventies. Where Gangsters differed was not in content nor style of presentation but in its location, Birmingham, instead of a more obvious setting such as the East End of London.

When executive producer David Rose chose the second city as the setting, Philip Martin was duly dispatched for three months to research Birmingham's underworld. When he returned to start writing the play he found he had such a profusion of material, events and people on which to base his script that only a fraction of it could be used.

Despite the bizarre heights to which Martin's series was later to rise, the play at least is played perfectly straight. It begins in time honoured tradition: a shot out of a car window taking us over Spaghetti Junction and treating us to atmospheric shots of the Birmingham skyline against an evening sky. Actor credits are brought up over this and the whole thing is backed by the raucous jokes of night-club comedian Rolf Day, whose comic asides are to prove entertaining distractions throughout the first series. Next we are shown various characters in the nightclub who we will meet during the next two hours (still backed by Day's racist puns: "Paki bloke goes into a bus station for a job. Says `please I want to be a conductor' so they took him outside and nailed him to a chimney"). Then the atmosphere shifts completely. The soundtrack is cut and we are shown a dingy cellar as man with a bloodied face reels in slow motion towards the camera after being hit. Dave Greenslade's gloomy title theme throbs in and a caption reveals the title, together with writer, director and producer credits.

The scene in the cellar has no relevance to what comes next and appears to have been inserted only by way of a title sequence. We learn shortly that the man being hit is John Kline, the nearest thing Gangsters has to a hero and grittily portrayed by Maurice Colbourne in a manner reminiscent of Lytton in his two Doctor Who stories. The man doing the hitting is Rawlinson, a noisy Brummie thug played by one Philip Martin.

The plot essentially concerns Kline emerging from prison where he has spent two years for the manslaughter of Rawlinson's brother. Once out, in true Cardboard Mafia fashion, Rawlinson is keen to grace the floor of the North Sea with Kline's body and takes steps to bring this about. After his release, Kline seeks out Dermot Macavoy, in partnership with whom he owns the Maverick Club (the dingy nightclub we see at the start) who owes him some money, and there he meets Anne Darracot, the quintessential tragic heroine of the piece. Unlike Kline, who we are painstakingly told is an ex-SAS officer who saw action in Northern Island, we are told little of Anne's background other than that she is an intelligent young woman who fell amongst bad company (Rawlinson) after becoming a drug addict. In the play she is not permitted much of a character, first introduced as Rawlinson's secretary, then as stereotypical gangster's moll, ordered to take Kline home and "keep him busy". That Anne is called upon in the script to perform several such degrading tasks (later, in the series, she is made to work in a brothel) earned Martin much bad press from the feminist lobby, whereas in reality he was making a far from reprehensible point about the depths people will plumb to support a heroin habit.

Anne herself is expertly portrayed by Elizabeth Cassidy, one of a group of unknowns selected by the production team to lessen the viewer's ability to identify with faces they knew and so enhance the realism of the piece. Miss Cassidy is quite simply utterly convincing as a shattered addict, never moreso than in her withdrawal sequences. The strongest female character in the entire piece, Anne's contribution to the play is limited but became far more extensive once the series began.

Head of Birmingham's illegal immigration racket is Mr Rafiq, a wealthy Pakistani and "one of the most respected leaders of Britain's Asian community" according to a documentary on organised crime amongst immigrants which Rafiq is watching when we first see him. Charmingly portrayed by Saeed Jaffrey, Rafiq is a forceful and charismatic character but one which fails to exude a real sense of menace in the way that Rawlinson does. One genuinely menacing character is Rafiq's diminutive servant, Kuldip, who starts life in the play as a miscellaneous thug but by the series had become an obsequious murderous James Bond style dwarf who snarls and spits and waves shotguns about.

By far the most interesting - and best developed - characters is Malleson, portrayed with idiosyncratic malice Paul Barber, now best known for his somewhat lighter role in Only Fools And Horses. It is probably not unfair to say that Malleson is the best black character even seen on British TV. He begins life, like Kuldip, as a thug, called Pick 'Andle Pete on account of his favourite weapon, in the employ of Rawlinson. After Rawlinson's death at the end of the play, Malleson assumes control of his empire, rapidly proving himself to be superior in physical fitness, intelligence and cunning to his white confederates.

Aside from Kline (whose motivations are at best questionable) the only other "friendly" characters in the play are a black stripper, who provides Kline with a warm bed and, more importantly to the plot, a motivation for Kline's pursuit of Rawlinson and Malleson when she is killed, and Khan. In the play at least, Khan is the most enigmatic character of all. He begins as a Pakistani criminal eager to ingratiate himself with Rawlinson, but at the end of the play he reveals himself as some sort of policeman.

The play takes some time to get going, but ends in a thrilling flurry of action; Kline and Khan are taken to some docks for loading on to a boat which will dump them at sea, but they escape and are pursued by a gun-toting Rawlinson and his heavies, embarking on a claustrophobic chase between and on top of some lorries. One by one the heavies are either killed or arrested as the police arrive 7th Cavalry style (there are many such references to Westerns throughout the series). There follows a high speed car chase through the city, finishing beneath Spaghetti Junction where Kline and Rawlinson fight to the death in a canal. Needless to say, Kline wins, convincingly drowning his opponent.

The follow up series, commissioned on the strength of the popularity of the play, begins virtually where the play left off, by way of a pre-title sequence. We see Kline leaving a police station (presumably following Rawlinson's death), then being pursued by Khan. Kline eventually gives the Pakistani the slip, and Khan thumps a bridge parapet in the main titles come in.

The title sequence deserves special mention by virtue of its thrilling execution. First we see aerial shots of Birmingham backed by a montage of voices; more of Rolf Day's raucous jokes, conversations amongst whites, Asians and West Indians. We see shots of well-known Birmingham landmarks before an aerial shot of a man (Kline) running along on of the main roads out of the city into a road tunnel. As this point the voice montage is replaced by Dave Greenslade's thrilling electronic theme music. The names of most of main players, together with the credit Gangsters by Philip Martin, are brought up, and then the footage of Birmingham is intercut with trailers for Pakistani films together with superimposed captions ("Most Colourful Drama of Hate and Love", "High Voltage Drama"), then we return to a shot of Kline running down an alley in slow motion as, one by one, the letters spelling MAURICE COLBOURNE as JOHN KLINE are brought up. Then to the sound of a gong the screen floods red and the episode begins.

The first series of six 50 minute episodes at least adhered fairly tightly to the format laid down in the play, with Malleson running Rawlinson's empire from the cellar of an amusement arcade. Part of a coalition of Birmingham mobsters, Malleson, Kuldip (representing Rafiq who is temporarily out of the country) and Macavoy, regularly meet at Rafiq's house to discuss operations, including the removal of Kline. This is attempted in several imaginative ways, including trapping him in an attic of house being demolished, trying to throw him off a roof and involving him in a vicious gang fight at the then abandoned Snow Hill station, each of these attempts on Kline's life forming a thrilling episode ending, during which the shot would be paused at its most tense moment, the screen would fade to black and an unseen hand would write "To Be Continued..." across the screen.

It is during the attempts on Kline's life that it becomes clear that not all of the gangsters are working to the same end. After Malleson and Macavoy set up Kline at Snow Hill, it is Rafiq and Kuldip who come to his aid.

In the very first few scenes of the first episode, we learn that Khan works for "a very special branch of the CID", and his plans for Kline involve the ex-SAS man setting up his own gang to drive the others out of business. Of course, in the space of the six episodes, he succeeds, but not before several fascinating sub-plots have been introduced. The most optimistic of these concerns Anne's addiction. At the beginning of the series she is forced to turn to Malleson for a new supply of heroin. He forces her to work in a brothel until it is attacked by Kline's new gang and she is rescued and sent to a rehabilitation clinic. Here she remains for an episode or two being fed on methadone and screaming at Kline whenever he visits her. A neat twist involves Anne using her contacts to help Kline purchase a vast amount of drugs for resale to some Chinese gangsters, neatly setting the scene for the second series.

Another sub-plot concerns an illegally immigrated Asian family who Khan reported in order to show his loyalty to Rawlinson. The husband was deported while his wife and children remained in England. At the beginning of the series the man is laying plans to return by Rafiq's secret root in order to avenge himself on Khan, who is chasing the deported man's wife (played with unenthusiastic competence by June Bolton). This all culminates in her husband's return to Birmingham and a scene at a swimming baths where he hides in a cubicle with dagger drawn prepared to perform some impromptu open heart surgery on the CID man, forming the only episode ending not involving Kline. Needless to say, Khan defends himself valiantly and we are treated to a marvellous fight in and around the swimming pool before Khan finally uses a broom to blind his opponent.

The way in which even heroic characters are allowed to do decidedly unheroic things (such as chasing other people's wives) is one of the most interesting features of Gangsters . Kline himself is never more than self-seeking; he only complies with Khan's plan to avoid prosecution for the murder of Rawlinson, whilst siphoning off the profits of his gangster rackets into his own pocket. Anne is perfectly willing to lean on Kline as a way out of her pathetic addict condition. Rafiq leads a dual life as respected community leader and exploiter of illegal immigrants, whilst Dermot Macavoy, far from being a small time head-kicker, seems very well connected with the IRA.

At first a shadowy presence, but later of great importance, is Sarah Gant, an American leggy black woman played with confidence and enormous charisma by Alibe Parsons, later to appear in one of Philip Martin's Doctor Who stories. During the course of the season it becomes clear that she is the sister of Kline's stripper girlfriend from the play, in England to wreak vengeance on whoever killed her.

The final episode of the first season is deservedly the best. Macavoy had been disposed of much earlier in a tumble from a building, and in the closing minutes of episode six, it's Malleson's turn. In a passage beneath the NEC he is cornered by Sarah and attempts to climb a ladder, catching a fusebox with his foot and disappears in a crackle of sparks and pyrotechnics. Meanwhile, a shock revelation reveals the chairman of Rafiq's consortium to be a racist politician, whilst its managing director is Khan's boss. Thus, all the loose ends are tied up and we finish on a freeze-frame close up of Kline as he congratulates Khan, Anne and Sarah on a job well done.

For all of this, the series was not well received by critics, despite the public loving it. "Racially, this is extremely worrying" wrote one newspaper hack, patently unaware of the Johnny Speight style in which Martin uses racist characters and jokes to make us challenge our own attitudes. "Watching Gangsters is like eating curry and Chow Mein to the sound of a Moog synthesiser" was the most intelligent thing another could come up with. The kindest remarks seemed to be "This is James Bond country" and "...a television strip, probably the first..."

There was no Gangsters on BBC1 in 1977, but early in 78 the second series began with a new tacky animated title sequence and incredibly a vocalised version of the theme, sung by Chris Farlowe. Each episode now had a "chapter" number and a title, brought up a few minutes into the live action in the most revolting lettering conceivable.

If people were expecting a re-run of the first season they were in for a rude awakening. Kline was now installed in a restaurant called the Havana and living with Anne. However, he soon finds himself involved with the Triad of the Red Disciples: China, Fu Manchu and Bruce Lee replacing the Indian cinema for reference for this new series. Episodes were longer, almost an hour as opposed to fifty minutes, and the atmosphere was very, very different. Realism was replaced by abject surrealism; this was apparent from the first episode and specifically in a scene where Anne is abducted and Kline left be rescued by Dan Archer from the Radio Four serial. This sort of Pebble Mill in-joke was not to end here, surfacing again in episode six.

With Malleson gone and Dermot last seen flat on his broken back in the trailer of a lorry, a new set of protagonists were needed: Shen-Tang, an aged Chinese Triad leader, and his daughter Lili-Lee. As villains, they were far more campy and overplayed than the realistic characters in the previous series, and this aspect fitted in nicely with the general OTT atmosphere of the season in general. The father and daughter team controlled the Triad of the Red Disciples and a host of its bizarre operatives including Red Stick, a martial arts expert so named because "when one uses a split open a man's head it quite often ends up red", and Double Peril, a tiny murderer who dressed in a pin-striped suit. At the introduction of these characters, fantasy elements started to appear in the storyline; Red Stick is seen to render Anne unconscious merely by touching her head, leaving her alive but beyond the help of conventional medicine.

As with the first series there are numerous sub-plots; Sarah Gant turns out to be a CIA agent in town to quell the flow of illicit narcotics, Kuldip (sent to prison by Rafiq's evidence at the end of season one) is released, and after strong words between the two soon resumed his place as Rafiq's servant. Meanwhile, miscellaneous thugs still have it in for Kline and after burning down his restaurant are disposed of in interesting ways involving petrol bombs and the like. Khan's father lays plans to come to England, Rafiq flees to Pakistan and Khan follows him and with his father's help recaptures the rogue and returns him, only to be implicated himself in a charge of drug dealing.

Having defeated both Red Stick and Double Peril, Kline is now called upon to face the last of the Triad's assassin's, the awesome White Devil. Sarah Gant requests him via a telex, and shortly after this a large Rolls Royce pulls up outside Birmingham's Holiday Inn, disgorging a figure who is, to all intents and purposes, Philip Martin dressed as WC Fields. After wandering around, kicking over a blind beggar and surveying the city, he addresses the camera - "Birmingham, eh? On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia..."

The introduction of a character as bizarre as the White Devil marked the last straw for many viewers who felt betrayed and insulted by what Gangsters had become, yet the character is a piece of genius on Martin's part, even more so played by him. It is the White Devil who brings about Kline's death, succeeding where Malleson, Rawlinson, Red Stick and Double Peril had failed, and played by Martin he represents the writer disposing of his own creation. With Gangsters, Martin had truly succeeded in annihilating the conventions of the genre and retaining a coherent and compulsive piece of television.

After the death of Kline there is little more to do. A funeral is held, graced by the appearance of Macavoy in a wheelchair, laughing riotously before losing control and careering headlong into an open grave. Kline is buried in a grave marked for Gangsters, further proof that Martin is burying his creation, yet the final scene is the most remarkable of all: we see Anne now running Kline's restaurant, into which come Rafiq and Kuldip. There is a brief exchange during which it transpires that the Pakistani rogues are CIA drug enforcement agents; the camera then pulls out to show the edges of the set, make-up girls, other cameras - the bare workings of the TV studio. The frame freezes and the familiar "To Be Continued" caption is replaced by "That's All Folks", and there is one more shot of Martin, sat at his typewriter in a market in Pakistan, finishing the final page of script. This was in effect Martin denouncing supporters and critic, saying "this isn't real, this is some actors in a studio reading a script which I've written". As to whether this could be construed as "biting the hand that feeds" or whether, as The Times put it, "it's a relief to have the naturalistic illusion punctured" is best left up to the individual viewer, but this experimentation with different genres, and the way in which Martin creates entirely new ones is a valuable lesson in what makes television tick and is a useful tool by which we can examine the nature of television and the pleasure we get from it.

More on Gangsters at Newton's Laws Of Television

Copyright RJW Amphlett 2003. All rights reserved.
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