Once Upon a Time in Birmingham: Philip Martin’s Gangsters

Gangsters copy

WARNING: This piece features spoilers for the BBC TV series Gangsters. It was made in 1978, so you’ve had fair warning in the past 40 years, but if you do wish to watch it unspoilt, kindly do so before reading the following. Cheers!

There are certain pieces of television that are absolutely of their time, so unique and perfect that they cannot, and should not, be emulated: The Prisoner, I, Claudius, Edge of Darkness, Our Friends in the North and – though it’s nowhere near as well known as the others I’ve listed – Philip Martin’s 1978 BBC series Gangsters. Over a pilot film and two six-part series, Gangsters told of a power struggle among multiracial gangs in mid-70s Birmingham, but it was no dry and conventional crime series; Gangsters took every opportunity to break free of the accepted format of such TV dramas. By the time it reached its powerful conclusion in 1978, it’s safe to say that Gangsters was unlike anything that had been seen on TV before or since.

Gangsters started as a 110-minute episode of the BBC’s Play for Today series, telling the story of ex-SAS man John Kline (Maurice Colbourne) who had tried to start a nightclub in Birmingham only to be dragged into the seedier side of the city. He has spent four years in prison for the manslaughter of a small-time gangster who was trying to extort money from the club and emerges to find that the gangster’s brother Rawlinson (played by the author Philip Martin) is now in charge of the city’s underworld. Rawlinson is in cahoots with Asian (for the benefit of non-British readers, I’m using ‘Asian’ in the UK context: Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi etc) crime lord Aslam Rafiq (Saeed Jaffrey) and the two are running a drug importation and people trafficking operation.

When Rawlinson hears that his brother’s killer is loose, he wants revenge, but Rafiq is against the idea, thinking that it will draw attention to their criminal activities. Instead, Rawlinson seeks the assistance of a gang of West Indian thugs led by Malleson (Paul Barber) and even drafts in his junkie girlfriend Anne Darracott (Elizabeth Cassidy) to try and seduce Kline. All that Kline wants, however, is to get the hell out of Birmingham – but first he needs the £30,000 that is owed to him by Macavoy (Paul Antrim), his former partner in the Maverick Club. Macavoy doesn’t want to pay up and is quite happy to sell Kline out to his enemies. Meanwhile, a policeman called Khan (Ahmed Khalil), who is under deep cover with the Rafiq mob, attempts to enlist Kline to get him closer to Rawlinson’s side of the operation.

The pilot film ends with probably the most spectacular car chase that you’ll ever see in a British cop show, with the Birmingham authorities giving permission for set-ups that would have cost 10 times as much to film in London! Rawlinson is drowned in the canal by Kline after an epic punch-up and Malleson is injured and taken into custody. Khan sees Kline kill Rawlinson, but withholds the information as leverage towards using him in future underworld stings. The Play for Today Gangsters was not intended as a pilot for a series, but it was nevertheless popular enough for a 6-part series to be commissioned for transmission in 1976.

In the first full series of Gangsters, Rawlinson is dead, leaving a power vacuum in Birmingham. The various gangs aspire to fill that void, including Rafiq’s Asian mob, Malleson’s West Indian mob and Macavoy, who runs an Irish gang with IRA connections. There is no English gang at this time, so Khan blackmails Kline into stepping up to a position of power, with a view to bringing down the drug running and people smuggling operations that are being operated primarily by Rafiq And his right-hand man Kuldip (memorably portrayed with unhinged relish by Paul Satvendar). When Macavoy is killed, his IRA associates disappear like ghosts, leaving only Rafiq, Malleson and Kline in the running. Although his intention is to get out of it, Kline slowly finds himself being pulled into the gangland scene.

Elizabeth Cassidy returns as Anne, who is struggling to get clean of her drug addiction and is recruited by Kline, initially as an underworld contact, but increasingly as a lover. In the play, Kline was in a relationship with a stripper who was killed by Malleson; now her sister Sarah Gant (Alibe Parsons) has flown in from America and is gunning for Kline, who she wrongly believes to have been responsible. When she realises the error of her ways, she teams up with Kline and Khan to bring down Malleson, who is now more active than ever.

When Rafiq realises that the Managing Director of the consortium for whom his is organising the people smuggling operation is a far-right politician, planning to fill Birmingham with illegal immigrants in the hope of inciting racial hatred, he sells the entire consortium down the river to the police, including the head of the entire operation who turns out to be Khan’s superior. In a climactic chase through underground tunnels, Malleson is electrocuted whilst trying to escape from Khan and Kline.

Gangsters was incredibly popular with not only white viewers, but also black and Asian ones. The character of Khan made the series particularly attractive to an Asian audience; not only is he the nominal hero of the series (Kline is more of an antihero), but he also gets a whole subplot of his own when he becomes romantically involved with the wife of a Sikh man who was deported in the pilot episode. She is Indian and he is Pakistani, which adds to the scandal of it all, and when her husband finds a way to return to the UK… well, you can imagine that he’s not best pleased. It’s very evocative of the kind of torrid melodrama that was coming out of Bollywood at the time, so you can see why a first generation Asian immigrant, who will have been more used to this kind of drama than most of what was on British TV in 1976, will have been attracted to it. For a white writer, Philip Martin certainly knew how to court the multi-racial audience.

If you showed Gangsters today, however, the story would be quite different, because a lot of the language and references would be simply unacceptable to that same multi-racial audience. It was brutally frank, even in its day, but it made no pretence at white-washing (pun only partly intended) the fact that this was the way Britain was in the mid-70s. This was a different world and it’s hard to judge it by today’s standards. The Play for Today opens with a scene of two nightclub comedians – one white and one Asian – who both tell jokes that would be utterly unacceptable in the 21st century; yet the genuine footage of the audience, which includes both Asian and West Indian members, shows them laughing at this material. But even then it was offensive, and Philip Martin implicitly acknowledges in his script that it was offensive! From a modern perspective, it’s a very difficult to understand exactly what was going on in society in those days.

Gangsters isn’t a racist series, but it is uncomfortably frank about the British attitude to race in the mid-70s. Getting called racist names by old ladies in the street was a day-to-day occurrence for non-white Britain at that time and all that Gangsters does is present the experience as it was. You can’t accuse Gangsters of demonising any particular race because everyone in it is a villain to a greater or lesser degree; even the policeman Khan, who brings down his corrupt superior, is not above infidelity and blackmail, so everyone in the series is shown in an equally unpleasant light. Everyone in it is a gangster.

Gangsters returned for a second series in 1978, and that’s when things started to get decidedly odd. From the very beginning, the second series of Gangsters is tonally very different from its predecessor. The first series was dark, gritty and violent, but series 2 opens with a re-recorded version of Dave Greenslade’s theme tune, adorned with urgent new vocals by Chris Farlowe and set to an almost Bond-esque title sequence. The new series revolves around the Chinese connection and, boy, the new titles don’t skimp on letting you know this – there are coloured ribbons, Chinese dragons and a bare-chested kung-fu guy. It’s Enter the Dragon on a BBC Birmingham budget! That budget must’ve been a bit higher though, because Khan’s first scenes are on location in Pakistan and the action returns there several times throughout the series.

If the first series of Gangsters took some of its inspiration from Bollywood, then the second leans heavily on the Hong Kong cinema that was all the rage at the time. Enter Triad gangster Shen Tang (Robert Lee) and his glamorous daughter Lily Li Tang (Chai Lee) who are running the heroin smuggling operation from the far East that Rafiq is handling the distribution of among the Asian community. Khan has been alerted to the crime and once more tries to draft in John Kline, who has gone (more or less) straight and is running a restaurant called Nirvana with Ann; once again, he’s reluctant to help Khan but is more or less blackmailed into it. Sarah Gant reappears and is more amoral than ever – her loyalties switch from one group to another literally week to week!

Tang’s Triad masters in Hong Kong order him to deal with the rogue policeman and his strong-arm assistant. Khan is framed for murder and multiple attempts are made on Kline’s life, firstly by the martial artist ‘Red Stick’ and then by the assassin ‘Double Petal’, without success. Unhappy with how Tang is handling the situation, his paymasters have him killed and then dispatch their ultimate weapon, the White Devil, from Hong Kong. With her father dead, Lily falls into the arms of Rafiq but soon works her way into a position of power. When the White Devil arrives from Hong Kong, you’re kind of expecting some ancient oriental master of the martial arts, but much to everyone’s astonishment, it’s writer Philip Martin again, dressed and acting exactly like W.C. Fields!

This frankly bizarre turn of events is typical of the change for the surreal that Gangsters takes in its second series. Philip Martin also appears as himself in some of the Pakistan scenes, dictating parts of the script to a street-side typist; characters break to the fourth wall and talk directly to camera; and meta-textual subtitles explain the true meaning of oblique coded messages. It also has a strangely pulp serial / comic book feel, with captions telling us ‘Meanwhile…’ and suchlike, as well as every episode ending in a ‘To Be Continued…’ ciffhanger.

As the series approaches its conclusion, Kline dies in hospital, though we’re never entirely clear whether the cause of his demise is the ‘touch of death’ from the White Devil or blood poisoning from the splinter he suffered earlier in the story. Realising that he’s been used by Lily, Rafiq pulls his old trick and sells everyone down the river and he and Khan’s father, a senior police officer from Pakistan, put an end to the drug run. At the climax, upon finding that Rafiq and Kuldip have been drafted into the CIA and become a sort of pair of Asian John Steeds, a grieving Anne laughs, “This has got to be the end!” and literally walks off set, past the cameras, director, sound crew etc.

Gangsters doesn’t exactly end the way it begins; there’s a definite journey from the gritty crime drama of the Play for Today to the allegorical parable of the third series. It’s unlike any series that you’re ever likely to see again and makes a mockery of the rather smug claims that various modern TV series are ‘ground breaking’. Gangsters took the rules of TV drama and beat them into submission. The closest comparison to any US TV series that you can make is probably Twin Peaks; although the two aren’t tonally very similar at all, they share the same sense of wilful oddness that sets them apart from the majority of TV fare. Of course, it’s important to remember that Gangsters preceded Twin Peaks by over 12 years.

At only 13 instalments in total, Gangsters shares the small jewel-like perfection of The Prisoner. It’s hard to imagine where it could have gone if it had continued into a third series, which would have been without its lead character. A spin-off series featuring Saeed Jaffrey and Paul Satvendar as Rafiq and Kuldip – surely one of TV’s greatest unsung double acts – would have been wonderful, but it’s unlikely that Britain in 1978 was ready for a series featuring two Asian antiheroes, one of whom explicitly states in the series that he is bisexual.

No, it’s better that Gangsters remains as it stands; a unique and abstract product of its time. There are a number of reasons why there’ll never be another series like Gangsters, and they’re not all to do with changing attitudes towards race. TV executives would never take a risk on a series like this these days, and they’d be uncomfortable with its shift in context from Sweeney-like crime drama to a series where Hong Kong’s top assassin is W.C. Fields. Some of the language used means that Gangsters is unlikely to ever get a repeat on British television, but it was available on DVD for a number of years, so if you can get hold of a copy – and are willing to view it as a product of its time – you should really check out Gangsters; a truly great, largely forgotten, British TV series.

Go and hide in your dreams without Gangsters!

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