Season 1: Entertaining in a daring yet cheesy sort of way even though it cries out for less of a comic touch and more darkness/substance
The Play for Today had enough about it to interest me in following on through season 1 of Gangsters for reasons beyond geography (I have lived in the location for this series, Birmingham, for the last 10 years). On the face of it, the show offered grit and drama, a view of an increasingly multicultural Britain that would have been unseen on the nation's television screens at this period in time. The nudity, inter-racial relationships and lack of "good" characters also suggested that it would seek to push the boundaries of conventional television drama of the time. In this regard history tells us that the series succeeded in doing this as it was not only controversial but also popular and certainly watching season 1 gives you the impression that you are watching something that was of cultural importance back in the mid-1970's.
However that is also sadly the problem with it the fact that it is so undeniably dated to this period in almost every regard. Of course this is not a totally fair criticism to level at something that and to an extent I was fine with accepting certain things about it being dated. Costumes, attitudes, Birmingham; all these sorts of things were part of the appeal as it put the story in a time and in a place. The production standards are a bit harder to accept though. The "sets" in the series practically wobble when people walk round and are made even worse by the contrast with the many external shots scenes in the real world. The visual style is a mix of the good and bad. On the good side, the hand-held style was pretty original for BBC TV and must have been greeted as such. Looking back though, this device is now used so often and so well that it does just look a bit like the BBC couldn't get access to a steadicam for the series suffice to say that this is not The Shield. These are all cosmetic things though and come with the period and what interested me more was the content because good content is good content no matter how much time passes.
In my review of the pilot I had said that I was hoping for some depth and grit to the characters something that I perhaps unfairly expecting thanks to the unreasonable expectations that watching The Wire tends to engender in people. I still wanted the show to do this but after a few episodes I settled into what is a deliberately "cinéma vérité" dive into an exaggerated world of violence, drugs, prostitution, revenge and corruption. Thinking in the context of the period, this must have been daring, adult and quite fun to revel in this "fictional" world without having to actually get into it or leave the safety of your home. Gangsters provides a deliberately provocative yet cheesy crime story. I say cheesy because, without much in the way of substance, it does become a constant parade of "depravity" and, without a tangible grit or darkness, it does tend towards the slightly comic or "entertaining". This approach didn't really work for me and, while I found it all quite amusing, I wouldn't say it engaged me and historical relevance or forgiveness isn't something I can keep in the fore while watching something. The vérité style also breaks up the narrative flow. In the background we have Khan using John to enter the criminal hierarchy to cut the head off this snake but it doesn't build this particularly well and this aspect seems as disjointed as the rest of it. This leaves the "get John Kline" thread to be the main one but this is also sporadic and doesn't build tension. The thread with Khan's affair was of interest due to the cultural aspect and also introducing a layer to his character but otherwise the story and characters just feel like they are being delivered with little interest in them or their world beyond the novelty/shock value of their seedy doings.
The cast are a real mix and mostly focus on being dangerous/seedy/tough/sexy* (*delete as appropriate). Colbourne manages to do well as Kline in so much as he is an anti-hero that doesn't repulse the audience. Khalil seems more able though as he has a better character and slightly more interesting material to work with. Cassidy continues her interesting character and exceeded my expectation by doing more than her material gave her. Parsons is a bit vampish but suits the "larger than life" narrative. Barber is good value as one of the main villains but unfortunately his material is a bit too comic for my taste and he loses menace as a result. I like the way Jaffrey oozes his way across the screen in his character one I hope the second season develops. Bolton is very good and the realist person in the show a shame that she is very much on the sidelines for the majority. Although the series doesn't force the locations out, I did enjoy the Birmingham settings particularly a scene in Moseley Baths swimming pool, a few 100 meters from my flat!
Gangsters is best watched in the context in which it was screened because then you can accept all the weaknesses it has. I was born the year it first screened so I found this hard to do and instead I was left with dated production values, a lack of grit and depth, wooden sets and a vérité style that doesn't really work as well as similar modern uses do. It did still entertain me in a sort of dated rather cheesy way even if my longing for real darkness (as opposed to shocking content) or more development never went away. Season two awaits and I don't think that season one was strong enough to make me excited about "more of the same" but we'll see.
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