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This one has them all.
Kline, released from Prison after three years, sets about Birmingham in a kind of Get Carter-ish trail of revenge. Residents of Birmingham won't recognise the place now, particularly the scenes set around the then partly demolished Snow Hill station. Concrete glass and marble have replaced the more venerable buildings in the centre of Britain's second city, but this 'Play for Today' which spawned a not quite so good series, lets you know what it was like in those more colourful times.
Long hair and wide ties abound, as do a fine cast, largely Black and Asian which was unusual for the time. This was written by Philip Martin who also plays a cameo'd Mr Big, and cracks along with a mix of sex, violence and a good slice of humour. Watch out for an early run out for Paul Barber who plays an excellent 'heavy'. He would go on to be better known as 'Denzil' in Only Fools and Horses, and had a brief moment of international fame as 'Horse' in 'The Full Monty'
Pick of the nude scenes goes to Tania Rogers, who performs a strip for Kline when he visits an old acquaintance in a nightclub. She finishes the performance that night when Kline bursts into her room. To her protests of `I told you to contact me only in an emergency' Kline replies `This is. I haven't had a woman in three years' You could only get lines like that in the seventies, and the music for Tania's strip? The theme from 'The good, The Bad, and the Ugly' of course!
Upon release from prison, Kline is hunted by Birmingham crime boss Rawlinson, who wants revenge for the death of his brother who Kline killed in a fight. And manipulated by Khan, a policeman of some kind, who wants to bring Rawlinson to justice.Before long we are treated to shots of Birmingham that are now just a memory. this was a program before it's time, and could still be made today without being dated. Gangsters had sub plots which dealt with issues relevant today, such as drugs, prostitution and illegal immigrants.It was shocking when first aired people didn't think these things happened in there city, and the Govermment of the day was not going to say otherwise.
John Kline is released early from prison and returns to his old
Birmingham stomping ground to get the money he is owed so he can get
straight out of town again and make a clean break. However his debtors
are not pleased to see him and decide, instead of paying him off, they
will give him what is coming to him in a different way. Meanwhile, in
this new landscape, new gangs are active and new allegiances come into
play and Kline finds himself in a power play with a man called Khan
against would-be boss Rawlinson.
A few days before I watched this episode in the Play for Today series, I had seen "Our Day Out" in the same series and had it in my head that the series was the same as the occasional modern version, which screens in the middle of the afternoon and is mostly quite light, melodramatic stuff. Gangsters is not anything like that though and instead is a step into the diverse world of crime in Birmingham as it changes due to immigration and the mixing of cultures. Watching with modern eyes, I can't really imagine how this was received but I can guess that many aspects of the film would have been quite unique not least of which the diverse range of races involved. Watching it now this is less of a factor, particularly with dramas such as The Wire offering such non-white casts (although the ratings for that piece of brilliance may suggest that audiences still don't warm to it all that easily) but it is still telling how gritty it is.
There aren't really any sympathetic characters in the main we are essentially told a story about criminals, drug users, pushers, smugglers and strippers, while the lead character is just out of prison and is a murderer. Again, time has made this less shocking but I can understand why this would have stood out. Similar to The Wire, the characters are part of the story but of as much value is the world in which they live as the film explores the underworld of Birmingham that is a far cry from the white mothers putting down the Bullring for their veg and meat on a Saturday. Parts of the film appealed to me due to location but rather than being a "oh look there's whatever" use of location the film captures the feel of the city. It is a lot of concrete, a dearth of beauty and the presence of roads is a sign of a city that exists because people needed something in the middle of everywhere else. This aspect of the play is not really explored that well but you can see the potential for the series proper to explore the city and the criminal world in an extension of this one-off film. I will be watching the two seasons now, off the back of this, not least because, like The Wire, we are shown consequences for minor "decent" characters while the actual problems continue with slightly different faces.
Knowing Birmingham makes this film a little more interesting to me but also distracted a bit. Specifically a car chase heads into the city centre on the expressway and is minutes from Colmore Row when it suddenly goes into a burnt out suburb and then is magically back under spaghetti junction again. Aside from this niggle though, it is quite fun to see the city used as the backdrop for this gritty drama and the multicultural mix (or rather, tensions) of the time (and let's be honest, still in some areas) compliment the overall film. The performances are not as good as the use of the city. Colbourne is OK but writer Martin is a bit obvious. The use of non-white actors in lead roles was a good move but nobody really has a lot to work with. Rogers makes for an attractive character but I suspect there was an element of impact-awareness in her casting, getting black nudity and interracial relationships onto the screen to add controversy. Khalil, Jaffrey, Barber and others are recognisable faces (or at least would become so) but other than them being there they don't have a huge amount of character development to work with. In fairness though, there is not a lot of room for that within this film and I'm hoping that they greenlit a series from this film on the basis that there was room for that expansion.
Gangsters is not a brilliant film but it is an interesting one for what it did and when it did it. The characters are far from innocent and drugs, violence and the harm of innocents are all prominently displayed. The backdrop of a dreary Birmingham makes the seediness feel a lot more real and a lot less glamorous and offers potential even if the specific performances from the cast are only as good as their basic threads allow them to be. It is good enough and interesting enough to ensure that I will be checking out season 1 soon.
My last review on this site was THE FALLEN which I have no hesitation
in stating is the most unforgettably harrowing and poignant documentary
I have ever seen . It's somewhat poetic that my next review is
GANGSTERS which developed in to the most bizarre piece of television
ever produced . The original PFT doesn't hint at this however . Indeed
if you know what happens next then you'll be painfully aware that this
original PLAY FOR TODAY was produced as a self contained drama and not
as a pilot . This makes it some what difficult to review , not to
mention distracting . When a character mentions " My name's John Kline
not John Wayne " you'll find this is somewhat contradicted in the later
Certainly it does have strong points and you can see the potential in this one off drama . According to the DVD commentary this was the highest rated PFT up till that time . Gangster movies don't draw much acclaim from critics with notable exceptions like THE GODFATHER and GOODFELLAS , but they are hugely popular with the public . It's easy to see the influences . It has the classic gangster fundamentals - one of immigrant/ethnic minorities arriving in a country trying to pursue the capitalist dream by illegal means . It also has strong French New Wave influences . Unfortunately it also has the faults of the genre in that there's very little in the way of character development but most of the cast do try . Interesting that there's a bit of a GET CARTER feel to the story . Is this because it's a revenge thriller is it because Colbourne seems to be aping Michael Caine ? Elizabeth Cassidy is outstanding as the female lead and let's forget no one in those days played a junkie because drug addiction was fairly unknown . Barber and Jaffrey are good and the only bad performance ( IMHO ) is Paul Satvender who never convinces as a violent Asian thug
Birmingham may seem like a strange location to film a thriller but it's a very appropriate setting . I passed through there last year for a weekend in Stratford Upon Avon and I must say that it's one of the ugliest places I've ever visited , a city of concrete buildings and ugly facades , multi storey car parks , walkways and run down industrial estates . One can't help thinking what a simple but effective idea it would be for producers to think about setting a drama in a location that matches narrative . Certainly GANGSTERS has a great sensation of time and place
There is a problem in that much of this is now dated more than 30 years later . But as a child I remembered it vividly especially the jump cut to Kline's battered face as the title comes up and the sleazy atmosphere . It might seem tame now but for a nine year old child anything that introduces T&A is truly memorable . And if you think GANGSTERS is memorable for naked women just wait till you see the finale of series two !
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