Barrie Keefe on ‘The Long Good Friday’

We chat with the writer of one of the greatest gangster films ever made.

“I knew Bob Hoskins working with him at Fringe Theatre. I didn’t write it with him in mind, but it was inevitable he’d play the part… and he was on top of his game for the film”.

“The working title was The Paddy Factor” writer Barrie Keefe recalls. “That was slang in the seventies, used when something went wrong. It was a police thing, something like ‘those Irish’, always when something went wrong. It was definitely an insult, a pejorative, and it came from the police. We were never going to use it as a title, but it was there at the beginning. In the first draft, I wanted to write about capitalist gangsters, obsessed all about money, fighting idealists. Terrorists, idealists, fighting for that. When it’s capitalists against idealists, there is only one winner, really!”

“I wanted to write about capitalist gangsters, obsessed all about money, fighting idealists. Terrorists, idealists, fighting for that. When it’s capitalists against idealists, there is only one winner, really!”

Situated in the cyclical warfare between England and Ireland, The Long Good Friday is less an endorsement of the provisional fighters who used their industrious powers to fight industrial settlements, rather a portrait of the endeavours of the East End’s seedy underbelly. “It was one of the fastest things I’ve written. I wanted to write a Humphrey Bogart thing for the East End of London. I’d seen a lot of the guys, I used to see The Krays at their pub. At seventeen, I started as a junior reporter, became a good eavesdropper. A lot of what goes in the film was from real events! That bit where a woman spits at Jeff, that happened to me. I always remembered it, the widow spat at me. I’d lied and said I was with the East London Advertiser. And the Crucifixion, that bit where they nail a guy to ground in the film, was something they did. They sent me down to meet the guy in hospital as the Junior Reporter. He said to me, ‘Do you speak English son? It was a DIY accident!’”

“The film was made before (Margaret Thatcher became PM). But in many ways Shand makes the perfect Thatcherite! Things like “culture, sophistication”. I can imagine her saying it!”

Clerical, collegial, confessional, consecrational, the events of the ideological criminals mirrors the penance Good Friday holds on the Catholic communities. Between these angles stands the prestigious Harold Shand, an avuncular kingpin leading his liegemen from killing into making a killing. “The film was made before her,” Keefe admits. “But in many ways Shand makes the perfect Thatcherite! Things like “culture, sophistication”. I can imagine her saying it! Without going there too much, she’s not my favourite person. The police were promised a raise; there was always going to be a miners’ strike. I knew Bob Hoskins working with him at Fringe Theatre. I didn’t write it with him in mind, but it was inevitable he’d play the part. He’d been filming Zulu Dawn, came back very sick. I went to visit him in the hospital. The doctors put me under strict instructions not to overexcite him, there was tape worm. Of course the script was Long Good Friday [laughs uproariously] and he was on top of his game for the film”.

 

Judging by the film itself, Shand is enamoured with the idea of power, in all its violent, seismic and economical components. Basking in his balmy enterprise, Shand strides through the leathered Heathrow floors, jacket worn and sanguine, Francis Monkman’s protruding theme ringing as victoriously through his ears as ours. Proverbially, the theme later returns to Shand, now the loser to his greatest combatants; the irrepressibly handsome Pierce Brosnan wielding the Walther which became his trademark during the stentorian nineties.

“The funny thing about Pierce (Brosnan) is that he’s technically an extra. He screen-tested for the non-speaking parts. But the cameras loved him, we knew he’d become a big star. Those magnificent eyes”.

“The interesting thing about the ending” Keefe claims “is that it was the first thing we shot. We filmed it on a Sunday. It was very small. John McKenzie, the director, drove the car, the cameraman was in the front and Hoskins reacted to the story John told him. All of that acting was a reaction. I’d always liked John’s realism, he directed a lot for television, and the funny thing about Pierce is that he’s technically an extra. He screen-tested for the non-speaking parts. But the cameras loved him, we knew he’d become a big star. Those magnificent eyes”.

 

There’s been a plethora of films detailing the terrors The Troubles held in recent years. Viewers in 2019 can choose to watch a hitman fall intractably in love with a trans-woman, laugh with a parade of Derry teenagers losing their closeted vodka to a bomb machine or weep with the fallen protestors gleamed in Paul Greengrass’s piercing visuals. How very different for audiences in 1979; Lord Mountbatten’s slaughter ringing from the shores of Sligo to the presses, many of these the same journalists who would decimate the HM Prison Maze Hunger Strikers in written form. Belfast inhabitants found their streets a vestige for Loyalist and Republican bombs, while Paramilitary Soldiers fired from their artilleries into the open streets by which Paul Freeman walks in the film’s opening frames. Elsewhere, Monty Python worked to complete their latest script, a monasterial milestone which shared with Friday a penchant for the devotional and polemical.

“It was the height of the Troubles on the mainland, here in England. The Long Good Friday was hated in some parts because of that. It was a hard film to release, I can tell you. George Harrison came in and financed the film. He saved two films from Lew Grade. The first was The Long Good Friday, the other Life of Brian. They both went on to be successes!”

“It was the height of the Troubles on the mainland, here in England” Keefe admits. “The Long Good Friday was hated in some parts because of that. It was a hard film to release, I can tell you. The Lew Grade Organisation financed the film, something small like eight hundred thousand. Ours wasn’t even a million. They poured so much more into Raise The Titanic, something like forty million. The joke was they sunk their money on the Titanic. It wasn’t Grade, it was his henchmen, they pulled the film. One of them said that it was IRA propaganda and that the IRA would blow up the cinemas that they showed the film in. I thought that was funny, why would the IRA blow up the cinemas showing IRA propaganda? ‘Don’t get fucking intellectual with me’ he said. I took that as a compliment, the only time anyone’s said that. George Harrison came in and financed the film. He saved two films from The Grade Organisation. The first was The Long Good Friday, the other Life of Brian. They both went on to be successes!”

“It wasn’t Grade, it was his henchmen, they pulled the film. One of them said that it was IRA propaganda and that the IRA would blow up the cinemas that they showed the film in. I thought that was funny, why would the IRA blow up the cinemas showing IRA propaganda?”

George Harrison, the doctrinal Beatle who’d watched the money men tear away from his charitable intentions for Bangladesh, recognised the film-makers’ plight as one near to his heart. Acting on the sage advice of Python player Eric Idle, Harrison and Handmade purchased The Long Good Friday, salvaging an inspired work from senseless TV edits. Harrison and Hoskins developed a strong friendship, and although Hoskins understood that the guitarist found Friday a little too violent for his tastes, it was a friendship rewarded with an Oscar nomination from Hoskins’ steely eyed lead in the magnanimous Mona Lisa. It all started with Friday, perhaps Handmade’s most assured effort, a roistering cockney gangster still felt in the works of Dexter Fletcher and Matthew Vaughn. All that dates the film is the conflict which caused the film’s theatrical delay in the first place.

“…The film stands on its own. Forty years later and it’s still good. I was doing a lot of my best writing at the time. It’s one of those moments where everything clicked.”

“There was some talks over the years of a sequel. In some ways, I’m glad we didn’t because sequels are usually diminishing returns. To put it up there with Casablanca, no one wants Casablanca II. I liked the idea of Shand not getting killed. We’d have started with the car stopped at a roadblock. There were lots of roadblocks because of the attacks in those days. The car gets stopped, Pierce puts away his gun and Hoskins gets out. He turns around and says something like “this is a fucking Irish joke!” He goes to Jamaica and gets involved with the Yardies. But the film stands on its own. Forty years later and it’s still good. I was doing a lot of my best writing at the time. It’s one of those moments where everything clicked. I don’t want to call it luck, as everyone worked hard, but it all came together. It’s like one of those football finals where your team scores these amazing goals. Hoskins, John, Helen Mirren, Francis Monkman. You know Francis scored a disco hit off the soundtrack? Not a big one, but a top thirty or something. Just goes to show!”


  ‘The Long Good Friday’ (1980) was released on Blu-Ray by Arrow Films in 2018, RRP £19.99.

 Eoghan Lyng is a regular contributor to We Are Cult. His writing has also appeared in Record Collector, CultureSonar, Punk Noir Magazine, DMovies, Phacemag and other titles. Follow him on Twitter. Visit his homepage.

 

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