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Gangsters (1976-78)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Gangsters (1976-78)
BBC, 9/9/1976-10/2/1978
12 x 50 minutes episodes in two series, colour
DirectorsAlastair Reid
 Kenneth Ives
ProducerDavid Rose
ScriptPhilip Martin

Cast: Maurice Colbourne (John Kline); Ahmed Khalil (Khan); Elizabeth Cassidy (Anne); Saeed Jaffrey (Rafiq); Paul Satvender (Kuldip); Paul Antrim (Macavoy); Paul Barber (Malleson); Alibe Parsons (Sarah Gant); Zia Moyheddin (Iqbal Khan); Chai Lee (Lily Li Tang)

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Ex-SAS operative John Kline is released from prison and set to work as an undercover agent within Birmingham's underworld.

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Gangsters (BBC, 1976-78) was conceived on a train to Birmingham by producer David Rose, who realised that the city could present a vivid and unusual setting for a drama with similar sensibilities to The French Connection (US, 1972). Rose was also keen to raise the profile of Pebble Mill (BBC's Birmingham studios), and he asked writer Philip Martin to research and develop a drama for Play for Today (1970-84) set in England's second city.

Gangsters deals with illegality in a multicultural society, with various white and ethnic groups competing to run scams, exploit illegal immigrants and outwit the morally suspect forces of Law. Almost inevitably, therefore, the series features racial stereotypes, occasionally portraying Indians as servile, black men as thugs and white males as culturally unaware. This caused an uproar after the original Play for Today was broadcast (on 9/1/1975), from Birmingham City Council - which resented the perceived slur - and from an outraged press. However, as the media debate continued, critics slowly began to adjust their perception of the play, accepting that racist characters did not make the programme inherently racist. When the BBC noted it had achieved higher ratings than any previous Play for Today, Martin was commissioned to write a full series.

The first season forms an extension of the pilot, following the underworld exploits of John Kline (Maurice Colbourne), ex-con and ex-SAS, now undercover agent for DI6. As such, early episodes represent an update of classic Westerns, with tough lawmen attempting to patrol the 'new frontier' which a change in society has wrought. Indeed, the genre is directly alluded to with situations and music and, tellingly, the working title for the first episode was at one stage 'Ride On, Roy Rogers'.

Emboldened by strong ratings but stung by continued criticism of the show's violence, Martin altered the course in the second season, focusing on problems caused by the Triads. Crucially, he injected bizarre, surreal elements, intended to reassure viewers that they were not witnessing actual reality. These reach their zenith when a W.C. Fields-type character (a role originally intended for Les Dawson but ultimately played by Martin himself) appears as a mystical figure who effortlessly and mysteriously kills Kline.

At its best, Gangsters delivered an ironic mixture of sex, sadism, humour and 'dime-novel' drama: an unexpectedly stylish combination of Ian Fleming's Bond novels and the urban grimness of Get Carter (d. Mike Hodges, 1970).

Gavin Collinson

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Video Clips
1. Opening sequence and titles (3:01)
2. Business negotiations (2:30)
3. Mallenson (3:12)
Complete episode: Incident 1 (50:29)
Soursweet (1988)
Barber, Paul (1952-)
Jaffrey, Saeed (1932-)
Rose, David (1924-)
Stephens, Robert (1931-1995)