Gangsters: Incident One
So let me be honest and admit that I am writing about this show with a HUGE bias. In fact I'm not so much biased as prejudiced. In its favour, that is, for the simple reason that it is not only set in my home city of Birmingham, but it is also filmed in the Birmingham of the 1970s and is wonderfully atmospheric of a certain time in the life of the Second City.
To be frank, I think it quite likely that this series won't have done the city's reputation any favours, simply because it portrays it as as gang- and violence-ridden cesspit. It certainly wasn't that in the 1970s, and certainly isn't now, despite having a ridiculously high crime rate. Yes, if you look up Birmingham and gangs on the internet you will find a long history of gangs (but what urban area doesn't have them?) and there has been a scary recent history of two gangs running parts of the city and terrifying the area between their two manors. But in my humble opinion Birmingham is predominantly scary in its reputation amongst those who have never been here.
I imagine that the show was controversial in its day, and not just for the gang warfare it depicts. To be honest I doubt it would be that controversial - it only has a fifteen certificate. I have read somewhere that the standup comedicans' jokes which form part of the titles of each episode were considered controversial at the time, as being perceived as racist. They are probably not something which would be broadcast on TV nowadays. On the other hand, I think Gangsters gets the ethnic mix and feel of Birmingham exactly right. It also gets the relations between the races here spot on. For the native Brummy it is a tremendously nostalgic trip through the seventies, and in true Birmingham style I was delighted to realise that the street scene which I didn't realise was actually Broad Street and it has changed so much as to be unrecognisable. Onl that happens in Birmingham.
Beyond the nostalgia for the native, I must confess to a dissatisfaction with the main premise of the show - the DVD box terms it as 'the underworld is in confusion after the death of its leader'. Rubbish. Nonsense. The whole point of the underworld is it doesn't have a leader. It has a bunch of competing un-leaders. This failed premise means that the show is rather flawed from the beginning. I also have to confess to a certain dissatisfaction with the figure of John Kline (played by Maurice Colbourne) is also unconvincing as a baddie. To be frank this is largely because Colbourne's presence isn't rough enough - he comes across as too middle class. Sorry, but this is my perception. It is also rather unlikely that the security services would make use of him in the way they are seen to here.
A typically seventies theme which recurs in the show is that of corruption, corruption which rises from the gangs on the streets right to the top of local government. It takes us through a world of violence, prostitutes, drugs, and you name it. In the manner of the time, Gangsters definitely belongs to the gritty category of TV shows. When it is brutal it really is genuinely brutal. I have a feeling that the scenes of drug use and things like strip clubs would probably have been highly controversial in the age of Mary Whitehouse. Perhaps the most brutal thing is the final scene of this episode where Kline and another character are tricked into or tied up in a derelict house which is in the actual process of demolition.
Technically Gangsters is quite interesting (I am benefitting from the commentary on the disc). It did largely use the traditional method of external shots interspersed with studio shooting - although to be honest you wouldn't know it. I had a few double takes in the scene in the gaming arcade, and came to the conslusion (wrongly) that it had actually been set up in a shop on Broad Street. This may be because the technique used in the studio is (unusally) a hand-held camera which gives the impression of location filming. Another filming technique which is very effective and cost the princely sum of £200 per hour was to hire a helecopter to film some external scenes from above - making the point that the show is about the above and the below, becoming gradually more about the below.
Watching this Gangsters episode and thinking about it, I rather regret that I have taken a disbelief to the show's major premise, because I desperately want to like it. I am a bit surprised that it isn't more widely written about in the cult TV blogosphere, because in comparison to the voume of sheer dross released by the TV companies in the seventies and eighties, it shines life a fine jewel. I'm not even dramatising here! The location shooting and realistic interior sets are I think what put it above the run of the mill shows of the time. Gangsters is right up there with The Professionals (which itself has some major flaws) in my estimation because it actually feels like the seventies felt. The Sweeny overdoes it. Minder caricatures it. I'm not even going to say anything about the other shows. It also feels like Birmingham did. One interesting thing they have done which I think is right, is that you won't hear a Birmingham accent, not even a running jump at one. There are Irish and various ethnic accents but apart from one black man who sounds as if he's from Liverpool, you'll hear what we may term generic working class accents. The attempts to do Birmingham accents are so often what ruin TV shows for us locals.
Again in the manner of the time is the pace. It's slower than what you'd get nowadays and being a BBC show this episode runs for the full hour. I was going to say that the delineation and expansion of the basic plot was a bit slow and confusing, but I think that is the result of my tendency to watch those low-brow ITV shows. Gangsters started as a TV play in the Play for Today series, and it does show. The colour palette is rather more colourful than the classic shades-of-porridge palette we see in so many of the shows of the era - I wonder whether this is to indicate the colourful, diverse, multicultural world of the city. In my book it also wins by not having that many familiar faces. There are definitely some actors I recognise from other shows but not in an obtrusive way which makes me spend the shows wondering where I've seen them.
It has been a long time since I gave a favourite line from a show I write about here, but I have one here, and it may encapsulate what the show is about. It is words spoken to a stripper: 'Punters want pussy, love. Show them the fur and hear them purr.'
If you want an antidote to the dreadfulness of so much 1970s TV, my opinion is that you really couldn't do better than Gangsters. Other people may not find the basic premise of the show as incredible as I do, and if you're looking for sheer grit, this is the place to get it. There is also a coolness and sophistication about it which is very appealing. It will of course also appeal to those sentimental for the Birmingham of the 1970s. For grit and style which do their best to compensate for a dodgy premise, you actually can't do better than Gangsters.