The BBC’s Play For Today, for example, is looked back upon with dewy eyed reverence these days. And so it should be. There were plays by Dennis Potter –Blue Remembered Hills, Mike Leigh –Abigail’s Party, Alan Bleasdale, John Osborne. Some of them were terrifying to the young mind- I still cringe when I remember the harrowing and brilliant Edna The Inebriated Woman. Others were hilarious –Rumpole Of The Baily, which spawned the television series.
And some were rock hard.
In 1975, Philip Martin’s controversial Gangsters aired and it was great. Gangsters was true Brit Grit television. Set in Birmingham, it was a multicultural crime story about illegal immigrants and corrupt politicians. I was thirteen at the time and I loved it. There was a violence, swearing, nudity! What more could you want?! The next day at school everyone was talking about it. The subsequent media furor only added to the buzz.
Gangsters was such a success it was made into a series with theme music from the prog rock band Greenslade. It told the story of Kline, played by super-craggy Maurice Colborn, ex SAS, fresh out of prison and trying to go straight. And failing. Like the Play For Today it came from the series was hardboiled, with maybe only Mike Hodges’ Get Carter as an antecedent.
By season two, the series really took a turn for mental, though. The title sequence now had blues singer Chris Farlow singing the theme song and looked like something from a low budget Kung Fu film. Indeed, it went down such a weird path that it even had writer Philip Martin regularly appearing as himself dictating scenes to a typist. And later he appeared as The White Devil, a hit man dressed as W C Fields(a role originally intended for Les Dawson!) who eventually killed Kline.
Gangsters, which had started off as a hard hitting social realist crime drama , ended fantastically with the characters walking off the set, shots of the writers literally tossing away the script and a That’s All Folks caption appearing on screen.
‘Daft!’ said my sister in law, who watched it with me. And she was right, I suppose, but then ‘daft’ isn’t always a bad thing.
In one play and the two seasons of Gangsters, there were drug addicts, hit men, sleazy night clubs, triads, murders, racist comedians, the CIA, strippers and all manner of urban rough and tumble. And W C Fields.
And, because You Tube isn’t just about watching divvies on trams, you can watch it here:
Here’s a trailer for Paul’s latest anthology: