Cinema/TV, Film Notes

TV review – Play for Today: Gangsters (1975)

My notes on Play for Today: Gangsters (1975)

Basically a TV movie – shot on film, and double the usual length for its slot – this crime drama was an unusual effort for the BBC’s flagship drama anthology series, Play for Today. Gangsters prefigures the sort of thick-ear hardman drama found more often on ITV later in the 1970s (Out, Fox, The Sweeney) but differs from them by playing out in a multi-racial Birmingham setting rather than overfamiliar streets near Shepperton. It’s also a little more blatant in its use of the crime story to present a portrait of contemporary Britain, paying special attention to the cultural stew of a city where a pompous ‘community leader’ (Saeed Jaffrey) extorts protection money from illegal immigrants or rats them out to the authorities, and young, vicious and black Malleson (Paul Barber) is on the rise in a crime scene dominated by older, white hoods and seems set to take over after a climax in which his boss gets killed (the one-off lead to a two series follow-up which became increasingly bizarre, pulpy, baroque and satirical).

Directed by Philip Saville (whose credits range from The Boys From the Blackstuff to Count Dracula) from a teleplay by Philip Martin (who writes himself a juicy bad guy role as mid-level mastermind Rawlinson), it has a Get Carterish plot hook in the efforts of just-out-of-jail ex-SAS hardnut John Kline (Maurice Colbourne) to avoid being murdered by the family of the gangster he served time for killing in a fight.  In alliance with the mysterious Khan (Ahmed Khalil), he works to dismantle the crime empire of the Rawlinson brothers.

While he was inside, the Rawlinsons have taken over the cinema (specialising in Westerns?) Kline co-owned with untrustworthy McAvoy (Paul Antrim) and turned it into a club where cowgirl strippers (who perform to the theme from ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’) alternate with white (Rolf Day) and Indian (Mohammed Ashiq) comics who spew out endless racist gags about Pakistanis and the Irish which are more aggressive than funny (this material is now more shocking than the copious nudity and violence which must have got license-payers writing in to Points of View).

Kline hooks up with Dinah (Tania Rogers), a stripper who used to be Malleson’s girlfriend, but also gets close to Anne (Elizabeth Cassidy), a Rawlinson minion who uses her houseboat to distribute drugs and goes through a painful withdrawal scene as Kline withholds heroin to get information out of her (he’s tipped her stash in the kitchen bin, but she salvages some from the messy food-wrappers when he’s got the information); this is paralleled by an equally upsetting, mercifully curtailed scene as Malleson uses the electrical wires of a hairdryer to torture a tied-to-the-bed Dinah for the goods on Kline.

The big reveal is that Khan isn’t an ambitious junior gangster out to take over the town but an undercover copper out to break the mob (in the series, he becomes some sort of unlikely secret agent), but this is trumped by a sustained chase/action/fight finale which ranges across the city in search of spectacularly ugly concrete locations and goes almost parodically far in its thuggery, climaxing with Kline and Rawlinson battering each other to the point of death and Kline drowning his arch-enemy in a canal.

In 1975, the pool of Asian and black British acting talent wasn’t as deep as it is now (Khalil and Rogers are a good deal weaker as the decent people than Jaffrey and Barber are as bastards), but this was one of the first pieces of TV drama to depict immigrants and second-generation Brits in anything more than ‘social problem’ terms (Paul Satvendar, as Jaffrey’s collector, has the most outrageous sideburns on 1970s television, but isn’t quite upto the meanness the role requires).

There are a lot of knowing genre winks, especially in the cowboy movie references later picked up by Life on Mars (‘my name’s John Kline not John Wayne,’ insists the man who most embodies the Westerner hero ideal) but this isn’t light-hearted action – Colbourne (who has one of the great battered television faces) is introduced in the opening credits with a frozen snippet of a late-in-the-film torture scene as he reacts to a heavy blow to the face.


3 thoughts on “TV review – Play for Today: Gangsters (1975)

  1. Siobhan Synnot
    I liked the low-key theme tune

    Kim Newman
    … it’s less low-key in the second season, which has a bizarre mock-Bond opening credits sequence and the tune gets really peculiar lyrics.

    Dave McMann
    I enjoyed that back then. Haven’t seen it for years, like Greenslade’s music.

    Stephen Dowell
    As somebody who grew up in Birmingham in the 1970s watching the series now is like watching a period piece. So many of those concrete locations are not there anymore, and the whole series has a remarkable grubby charm.
    The second series does hurtle alarmingly off-the-rails though – with the mock-Bond credits sequence just the very tip of an iceberg that is filled with WC Fields impersonations, characters breaking the fourth wall and walking off set, and Philip Martin dictating the script on camera.

    Kim Newman
    I’m watching Series Two – and it’s getting stranger and stranger … it reminds me of The Corridor People, which was one of the damnedest things ever shown on UK TV.

    Kim Newman
    It seems that Gangsters: Series Two (1977) invented a device now commonplace in TV – the teaser montage of highlights of the next episode slipped into the end credits … took twenty-five years to catch on, mind …

    Kim Newman
    But they’ve started to get sneaky and use a lot of misleading clips – you see two characters who’ve had simmering sexual tension for a couple of seasons in a hot clinch, but next week it turns out that the scene involves mind-control or alien shapeshifters. Or the title hero gets shot and the clips from next week show a funeral, but it’s someone else’s …

    Stephen Dowell
    I always enjoyed the Space 1999 approach of cramming all the exciting bits into the opening credits – if anything it meant you were saved the need to watch Barbara Bain emote.

    George White
    Seeries 2 is so genuinely bonkers, and everything from the fourth wall to the Pakistani filming and music rights I wonder how they scrimped to keep it in the 30,000 pound bracket an episode…

    Posted by kimnewman | March 22, 2022, 9:19 am
    • At a Dr Who convention, Philip Martin explained the bizarre jokey second series as a way around the fact that a lot of the actors playing Chinese Tongs were poor or unable to handle English.

      Posted by Christopher Marton | March 23, 2022, 8:42 am
  2. Great iconic 1970s series ( even if series 2 was a bit surreal ). Birmingham has changed so much in the last 50 years. Maurice Colbourne was a brilliant actor who died so young – am I the only one who believes Maurice would have made a great James Bond ?

    Posted by Ronald | March 26, 2022, 1:57 pm

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