Gangsters: The Complete Series Review

Sitting through Gangsters in its Play for Today incarnation and then two series of six episodes apiece, it’s easy to see why it enjoys a “cult” reputation as opposed to a “classic” one. This is not a series seeking out mainstream acceptance, but rather a strange, idiosyncratic, some would say wilfully odd one, which starts off straightforwardly enough but then heads into the territories of parody, post-modernism and playfulness. Ostensibly a gangland thriller in the Get Carter mode and set amongst Birmingham’s Asian community, Gangsters only holds true to such a promise for so long; we may be able to locate its reference points during the early stages, yet by the close of its thirteen or so hours the series has progressed/mutated into something really quite distinctive and unlike anything you will have seen before and, most likely, will ever see after.

Certainly it helps that we do begin on such concrete terms, however. The original Play for Today incarnation of Gangsters - not a pilot, incidentally, as the series was only commissioned following its initial broadcast – was shot on film (16mm), makes heavy use of location work, and positively drips with atmosphere. At the time Birmingham was effectively a no man’s land for filmmakers and it has pretty much remained so since. The result is a piece which still feels fresh today, all the more so given its ethnic dimension. Birmingham is envisioned as a multi-cultural melting pot: its villains encompass black, white and Asian, whilst Bollywood and (in series two) the likes of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu’s potboilers and various kung fu movies serve as key reference points. Furthermore, in this initial feature-length teleplay, writer Philip Martin and director Philip Saville are quite happy to take their time. The narrative moves along at a fairly leisurely place so as to allow us to soak up this atmosphere to the fullest.

Indeed, if Gangsters has a major flaw then it’s the fact that the plotting never quite grabs the attention as well as it should. The Play for Today effectively remakes Point Blank - recently released tough guy John Kline (Maurice Colbourne) wants his thirty grand back from various fellow lowlifes. The subsequent series introduce some new villains, but effectively tell the same story: one of drug smuggling, illegal immigratation and the sex trade with Kline embroiled somehow in the middle.

In fact, you sense that it’s the milieu (and its attendant hard-edged language and violence) which prompted the commission of the series soon after. Certainly, from the viewer’s perspective it’s far more interesting to return to the crummy strip joints, pinball parlours and canal-set drug deals than it is any of the standard gangster machinations (vested interests, double-dealings, back-stabbings and the like). Of course, the characters are more than interesting enough to sustain the return – Kline especially makes for a pleasingly ambiguous anti-hero – yet it makes sense that Martin (and the two series’ prime director Alistair Reid) would eventually go down the more idiosyncratic pathways and deconstruct the various gangster clichés into something which is ultimately very different indeed.

Part of the pleasure of watching these episodes in such close proximity is the ability to see this switch gradually take place. Though both of the series were captured on video as well as film, the first signs of a change come in the form of increasingly arty visual pretensions. Cameras are hand held, the studio is darkened in places to approximate the Cinemascope frame, and everything becomes just that little bit more self-conscious. Even David Greenslade’s score takes on more grandiose and pompous dimensions as things progress; for the Play for Today his Moog stylings feel appropriate and approximate the right levels of tension and suspense, yet by the time of series two he’s chucked in weird prog-rock noodlings, funk, Bernard Hermann homages and employed Chris Farlowe (at the time the singer in his band Coliseum) to provide James Bond-style vocals to his hitherto instrumental theme tune.

Indeed, we ultimately come quite a long way from the gritty realism of that initial 110-minute instalment. If so inclined you could compare that piece to Performance such is the manner in which it gets under the skin of its criminal underworld. Yet by the close of both series we’ve broken the fourth wall, had Martin narrating the screenplay to a typist onscreen and, latterly, impersonating WC Fields as deadly hitman WD (White Devil) Fields. Of course, by this time you’ve probably become lost as to where allegiances lies, who the good guys and bad guys are, and who exactly represents the law in all this, but then such concerns don’t really matter. The sheer uniqueness of it all and the fact that you never quite know what’s coming up next (a shot-by-shot recreation of North by Northwest’s most famous scene; the Bela Lugosi horror Dark Eyes of London serving as ironic commentary – for which Lugosi receives an end-of-episode credit – or the weekly cliffhanger conclusions met with a “To be continued…” title card) makes for fascinating television. Perhaps Martin is being a little too wilfully odd at times and barely managing to hold it all together, but then this is a series which is so different and so enthusiastically different that it wins you over nonetheless.

The Discs

All thirteen episodes of Gangsters are spread over four discs, with the last of these also finding the room for a 47-minute Open University documentary. In all cases, the presentations are largely fine. Both the Play for Today and the series episodes appear to be in fine condition, with very little wear and tear over the years, though it is true that fitting so much onto the discs (three 50-minute episodes plus a commentary in most cases, though sometimes there’s more) has affected them to a certain degree. There’s moderate artefacting to be noticed, especially on the filmed excerpts from the series, and a general lack of clarity, though never to a degree that the series becomes unwatchable. As for the soundtrack, these are similarly fine if not quite perfect. Greenslade’s score comes across well and you can easily detect the differences between studio recording and that which was captured on location, though the sharpness isn’t quite there. (That said, this may easily have been the case at the time.) Furthermore, 2Entertain have very pleasingly added optional English subtitles to each episode.

The major selling point for these discs, however, (outside of the series itself, of course) is likely to be the assorted extra features. As well as the Play for Today already mentioned, and the OU documentary (a suitably idiosyncratic choice for such an idiosyncratic series), we also get a total of five episode commentaries. These appear on the original feature-length version as well as episodes one and six from each series and feature Philip Martin, directors Philip Saville and Alistair Reid, producers Barry Hanson and David Rose, script editor Peter Ansorge and Dick Fiddy from the BFI. Given the wealth of participants each of these make for an entertainingly full listen. Pretty much every area of the production is covered and as such there really is no need for any other supplementary material – a retrospective featurette, say, or a bunch of interviews would surely have seen plenty of repetition. Indeed, if you wish for something a little more high-brow and analytical then the OU documentary serves that function perfectly. Made in 1981, this piece touches on semiotics, mise en scène and other such academic expressions as it deconstructs the series in a video commentary kind of way. Pleasingly, it too comes with optional English subtitles, though be warned that its quality is less than perfect and looks like a low grade video cassette.

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