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.