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Remembering the actor Saeed Jaffrey … and the controversial, gritty Gangsters series on BBC television, forty years ago.

 

I was sorry to hear of the death in November 2015 of the Indian-born British actor Saeed Jaffrey. He was a popular and enduring star of television, film, radio and stage. His face exuded humour and charm; his smooth and mellifluous voice earned him many roles as narrator in addition to his mainstream profession of acting.

 

The news of his death (he was aged 86) made me think instantly of the infamous Gangsters crime drama series, transmitted on BBC television in the 1970s. Set in Birmingham city centre, Gangsters showcased Saeed Jaffrey as Rafiq, a suave, outwardly respectable Asian community leader. The role proved to be his big career breakthrough: his early work had been bits and pieces in India, New York and London. At its peak popularity, ten million viewers tuned in to Gangsters on midweek evenings.

 

Gangsters was first transmitted in January 1975 as a Play for Today. Its author Philip Martin doubled up as a principal actor, taking the role of Rawlinson the chief villain. There followed a two-hour all-action multi-ethnic romp through the Birmingham underworld of corruption, drug-running, extortion, illegal immigration and racketeering. At the end, Rawlinson – a splendid and convincingly tough portrayal by Martin – was drowned in a canal after a fight to the death with the story’s hero John Kline.

 

Why was Gangsters such an instant hit? It had fizz. It broke conventions. It was bold and inventive. It was full of wit. It seemed uniquely to fuse the gritty, down-to-earth reality of a backstreet crime-fiction television series such as Public Eye – starring Alfred Burke as Frank Marker - with the hip, zany and exaggeratedly melodramatic swagger of a comic-strip action thriller in the style of The Avengers or The Man from Uncle.

 

I suggest too that Gangsters was penetrative and ground-breaking because it homed in graphically on aspects of everyday life in 1970s Britain that had not at the time seeped into the general public’s consciousness. Viewers were uncompromisingly confronted with the revelation that the immigrant communities (Asian, Caribbean) in the Midlands had their own versions of “Where there’s muck there’s brass”. They were bloodthirstily lining their pockets with ill-gotten gains beneath our very noses.

 

A follow-up series of six episodes of Gangsters was commissioned from Philip Martin and was broadcast on BBC television in September 1976, after a second showing of the play. Then came a second series of six episodes in the early weeks of 1978. The storyline was extended to embrace the Chinese Dragon: the Triad gangs. Not forgetting also the Irish, for Philip Martin had a terrorist cell of the IRA suddenly bursting into the action. Kline was unexpectedly abducted by two IRA henchmen. Upon having his blindfold removed he was presented to head operative Farrel (a superb cameo performance of quiet menace by the actor Chris Gannon) for an intended military execution on the rooftop of an empty building site.

 

The two-faced Rafiq, outwardly a prosperous businessman and worthy local politician, was secretly masterminding a racket (codeword ‘Blackbird’) that today would be called ‘people trafficking’. Saeed Jaffrey switched on the oily and gracious charm in public but replaced it with ruthless menace as soon as he was privately immersed in his underworld empire. He was usually accompanied by his sullenly servile, eager-to-be-villainous assistant Kuldip (Paul Satvendar). Some of the best cut-and-thrust dialogue in the series took place when they were on-screen:

Kuldip: “Money, yes, money, the Blackbird, when it start to run, Mr Rafiq?”

Rafiq: “Run, RUN? The Blackbird will no longer RUN, the Blackbird must spread its wings, Kuldip, and commence to FLY!”

Then he began to laugh, to spread his arms and flap them up and down as would a fat little bird.

 

John Kline (Maurice Colbourne) and Anne Darracott (Elizabeth Cassidy) took the effective lead roles throughout Gangsters: Kline the flawed former SAS tough-guy who never knew who he could trust; Ann Darracott the gangster’s moll who fluctuated from vulnerable to vicious, then vulnerable again.

 

The reputation and legacy of Gangsters

 

Forty years on, Gangsters seems to be a forgotten moment in British television history, apart from its reissue on a new DVD ten years ago (2/entertain, 2006).

 

One adverse count against Gangsters was the relative failure of the second series in 1978. Viewer numbers dropped away when the later episodes seemed to descend into silliness. For example, Rafiq (Saeed Jaffrey) became too relaxed and camp to be taken seriously still as a ruthless racketeer.

 

Philip Martin was pilloried for disappointing the television public with the lame duck second series. I must admit that I was angry with him. But as time has worn on I feel that Gangsters surely was admirable and ground-breaking in the sense of being the first television series to have revealed the ethnic time-bomb that was ticking, in inner-city Britain? For example, the second series of Gangsters may have been much maligned but it touched into the Chinese underworld wherein the almost-same word ‘Gangmasters’ has now become a buzz-word closely associated with Chinese criminals who are said to be rife in Britain.

 

Moreover, if viewers in 1975 were to be shown in close-up and unsparing detail the horror of heroin addiction, how additionally extreme and shocking it was for us to be shown a pretty young girl in the grip of this hideous addiction.

 

Anticipating the Trainspotting book and movie by more than two decades, Gangsters unequivocally pushed forward Anne Darracott as the victim, showing us her thin, ravaged body uncontrollably shaking, vomiting and screaming with agony as her heroin habit turned her into a pitiful and vulnerable creature. And, just in case we had failed to appreciate the gender factor, we additionally glimpsed on one occasion that Anne’s fellow inmate in the rehab ward was also a girl. Another graphic moment, outdoors this time, saw Anne emerging from a grimy public toilet after taking a fix. As the camera briefly lingered we saw two other girl addicts squatting beneath the cistern. One was injecting herself with a dirty needle. This was strong stuff to be thrown at us as we reclined complacently in our armchairs at home during the 1970s.

 

Philip Martin became a book author when Sphere published Gangsters and Gangsters 2 in paperback. These were respectively the Play for Today 1975 story and the first series 1976 story. Sphere didn’t bother to make a book of the second series 1978. But I would nevertheless praise Philip Martin for the boldness and starkness of his Gangsters script that if re-read or re-watched today would surely be acknowledged as a legitimate portrayal and precursor of the multi-racial inner-city gangs and criminal organisations whose existence in modern-day Britain can no longer be denied.

 

Jerry Dowlen

February 2016  

 

Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:

 

Remembering Saeed Jaffrey

Old Wine in New Bottles - "new" books by Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler & Agatha Christie

Remembering Ruth Rendell

Philip Larkin: His Maiden Voyage on The North Ship (1945)

The Catcher in the Rye and Billy Liar

Michael Holroyd

Erle Stanley Gardner

John Masefield

Bailouts

Antony Sher: The History Man

Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author

Computer Chess: The Imitation Game

P G Wodehouse

John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green

Daniel Abse

Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution

Wilfred Owen

Wolf Mankowitz

Bob Hoskins

Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam

The Story of Edith Nesbit

Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert

Rebels With A Cause

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective

The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas

The Bergerac Police Adventure Series

It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene

Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers

The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym

D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...

 


 

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