Philip Martin’s ‘Gangsters’ reviewed

❉ Independent publishers Candy Jar Books have reprinted Philip Martin’s novelisation of the classic gritty 1970s British drama, ‘Gangsters’.

The Seventies: when men were men, women were birds and there was an affectionate term of abuse for anyone who wasn’t white, straight or British. It’s this world that’s unforgivingly captured in Candy Jar’s reprint of the novelisation of ‘Gangsters’.

‘Gangsters’, is remembered mainly for its extraordinary second series, when a straightforwardly brutal drama about the Birmingham underworld startlingly twisted into postmodernism. Philip Martin’s novelisation of the original ‘Play for Today’ episode is a reminder that initially it was aiming for something entirely different; a realistic portrayal of the city and its underbelly – the only hint of dramatic tricksiness was the use of the routine of a clapped-out standup comedian as a kind of chorus to emphasise the city’s racial tensions. Realism meant heavy doses of violence (then shocking, now tame) and overt racism.

Martin’s novelisation refuses to tone this down; anyone who’s familiar with the rich variety of terms of abuse from the Seventies will find them all here at some point. It’s important to note that this clearly isn’t down to any character flaw of the author’s but instead part of his point. Casual racism was an inherent part of the world he’s portraying and the use of the terms arise from the thoughts and words of characters rather than any authorial sentiment. It’s emphatically not the swaggering unashamed prejudice of the likes of Richard Allen’s Skinhead novels; it’s simply a facet of the way the characters think and act. If anything it only rubs the modern reader’s face in the fact that this is a seedy world as filthy as the water of Birmingham’s canals. There’s no glamour to this world at all; sex, drug abuse and violence are unromantic everyday actions with consequences for those who indulge in them.

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As this tone might suggest, what’s on offer is a faithful retelling of the initial TV play. John Kline’s our ostensible hero and without Maurice Colbourne’s brooding performance he can come across as something of a simple hard man with a pain threshold impressive even for an ex-SAS officer. What distinguishes him from the villains surrounding him is the purity of his venal motivations; after his release from prison which opens the novel he simply wants money he’s owed so he can move on. Unfortunately his past actions make that impossible; he killed the brother of the local gangland boss whilst defending his own property and that boss wants revenge. Rawlinson is a fine villain; all-powerful in his little kingdom but everything about him, from his treatment of his ‘secretary’ to the trappings of wealth he surrounds himself with scream of a second-class nature.

English television screenwriter Philip Martin, who created the television series Gangsters, pictured in London on 31st August 1976. (Photo by United News/Popperfoto/Getty Images)
Screenwriter Philip Martin, who created the television series Gangsters, pictured in 1976. (Photo: Getty Images)

Martin’s deft flair with character is crucial in conveying the claustrophobic squalor of the TV play; without actors and cameramen to do the work the corrupted atmosphere comes mainly from the thoughts and actions of characters.  It’s a remarkable adjustment to the demands of prose from a writer who’d mainly worked in TV to that point. Even characters who barely appear are skilfully drawn; each has their own motivations; their own hopes, dreams and needs. No-one’s a villain from their own point of view; at worst they’re doing what they have to do to survive.

Candy Jar’s re-publication of the novelisation is a welcome reminder of the series; ‘Gangsters’ was released on DVD a decade ago but is long out of print. Perhaps this might prompt a welcome re-release or an appearance on the BBC Store. In the meantime Candy Jar are planning to press ahead and reissue Martin’s novelisation of the first series; hopefully to be followed by a brand new adaptation of the second series. Given how adeptly Martin translated the tone of the initial play it’ll be fascinating to see what he makes of the more off the wall tendencies of the final episodes.


❉ ‘Gangsters’ by Philip Martin is published by Candy Jar Books. You can order it directly from Candy Jar Books. Follow Candy Jar on Twitter and Facebook.

 

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