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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!”
began to laugh, to spread his arms and flap them up and down as would a fat
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.
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
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.
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
Erle Stanley Gardner
Antony Sher: The History Man
Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author
Computer Chess: The Imitation Game
P G Wodehouse
John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green
Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution
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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