Gangsters

1976 | United Kingdom

Gangsters came out of a one-off TV drama in the anthology series Play For Today and was commissioned by David Rose, then BBC Head of Drama in Birmingham, after he had seen the Gene Hackman starring movie The French Connection. 

Wanting a similar style thriller for the midlands, Rose commissioned Philip Martin to write the play and then sent him round Birmingham for three months researching for a feel of the area, and its local characters. What Martin came back with was a hard-hitting, brutal drama about racism and drugs in the West Midlands. During the drafting process for the play it was suggested that the storyline should revolve round "somebody on the run from everybody". That somebody was John Kline, an ex-SAS officer turned strip club owner who, rather than pay the local gangster protection money, simply killed the local gangster. But after serving a prison sentence for his crime he finds himself the target of the dead man's brother-who wants to extract his own punishment. Kline goes to work for DI6 agent Khan who is monitoring and manipulating events in the Birmingham underworld. "We wanted somebody between the police and the criminals" Philip Martin said in interview. "I wanted somebody tough, somebody who'd kill if he was in a fight, but not a cold bloodied killer."

Seen today, violence notwithstanding, it is quite shocking how politically incorrect the original play looks, using stereotype characters throughout the story. However, once it went to full series Martin was able to change the tone by showing how minority groups were exploited and abused on all sides. It even went so far as showing corruption at its highest level, with a right-wing politician involved in smuggling illegal immigrants in order to exploit them whilst publicly declaring how he wants to keep immigrants out of the country. 

Among the newcomers to television were Saeed Jaffrey as Rafiq and Paul Barber in his first screen role. The series won acclaim for its depiction of the seedy side of life and conveying the tension in the city's underworld. However, that acclaim was not echoed in the Midlands itself with local Birmingham politicians and public figures saying it was an unfair representation on their city. "Two days after (the play was shown)", recalled Martin, "there were 50 illegal immigrants found heading for Birmingham, and there was also a two million pound package of heroin found in the services half way up the motorway."

Published on December 17th, 2018. Written by Mark Saul for Television Heaven.

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