Brit Grit Alley features news and updates on what's happening down British crime fiction's booze and blood soaked alleyways.
It was recently announced that Acorn Media, who are the main distributor of British TV programming to North American consumers, had acquired a 64% stake in Agatha Christie Limited. This means that those delicate folk across the pond will have hours of Miss Marple and Poirot to nibble on while they wait for BBC’s latest incarnation of Sherlock or the Inspector Morse prequel, Endeavour. In comparison to these, it looks like America is the true home of cutting edge,hard-boiled crime television, with series like Breaking Bad,Southland, The Sheild, Sons Of Anarchy and The Wire, while the United Kingdom, just knocks out frigid cozies and stuck-up, Latin quoting police detectives. However, for over forty years British television has also looked at the country’s grubby underbelly and produced plenty of gritty crime writing.
While we may think of sixties and seventies British TV cops as sophisticated post James Bonds, Frank Marker-who was played so brilliantly by Alfred Burke in the sixties television series Public Eye-was no Simon Templar, Jason King or John Steed, I can tell you. Public Eye ran for 10 years – from 1965 to 1975- with almost 100 episodes and although I haven’t seen it since then I remember it quite well and very fondly. Public Eye, was true Brit Grit as Marker moved from a dingy office in London to another flea pit in Birmingham and eventually to Brighton, and I can still picture him walking along a wind and rain swept sea-front, looking like something from a Morrissey song. Marker looked like a soggy mongrel, with a face so lived in that squatters wouldn’t stay there. He was a walking hard luck story too, getting knocked about by the police as well as criminals and even being framed and sent to prison. Not a lot of peace and love there, then.
The seventies was a time when music and film were doing some pretty ground breaking and experimental stuff and, in the UK at least, so was TV. The BBC’s Play For Today, for example, is looked back upon with dewy eyed reverence these days. And so it should be. There were plays by Dennis Potter (Blue Remembered Hills), Mike Leigh (Abigail’s Party), Alan Bleasdale, John Osborne. Some of them were terrifying to the young mind- I still cringe when I remember the harrowing and brilliant Edna The Inebriated Woman. Others were hilarious –Rumpole Of The Baily, which spawned the television series. And some were rock hard.
In 1975, Philip Martin’s controversial Gangsters aired and it was great.Gangsters was true Brit Grit television. Set in Birmingham, it was a multicultural crime story about illegal immigrants and corrupt politicians. I was thirteen at the time and I loved it. There was a violence, swearing, nudity! What more could you want? The next day at school everyone was talking about it. The subsequent media furore only added to the buzz. Gangsters was such a success it was made into a series with theme music from the prog rock band Greenslade. It told the story of Kline, played by super-craggy Maurice Colborn, ex SAS, fresh out of prison and trying to go straight. And failing.
By season two, the series really took a turn for the mental, though. The title sequence now had blues singer Chris Farlow belting out the theme song and looked like something from a low budget Kung Fu film. Indeed, it went down such a weird path that it even had writer Philip Martin regularly appearing as himself and dictating scenes to a typist. And later he appeared as The White Devil, a hit man dressed as W C Fields(a role originally intended for comedian Les Dawson!) who eventually killed Kline. Gangsters, which had started off as a hard hitting social realist crime drama , ended fantastically with the characters walking off the set, shots of the writers literally tossing away the script and a ‘That’s All Folks’ caption appearing on screen.
‘Daft!’ said my sister in law, who watched it with me. And she was right, I suppose, but then ‘daft’ isn’t always a bad thing, is it?
In one play and the two seasons of Gangsters there were drug addicts, hit men, sleazy night clubs, triads, murders, racist comedians, the CIA, strippers and all manner of urban rough and tumble. And W C Fields.
And on to the nineties.
Cracker was a Granada TV series that was created by the writer Jimmy McGovern which ran from 1993- 1995. A mere two years, yet it made a great impact in that short time.(Okay, there was also a fine Hong Kong set special in 1996 -and another in 2006.) The star of the show was Scottish comedy actor Robbie Coltrane,who was previously best known for a cracking- see what I did then? – performance in the BBC’s version of John Byrne’s Tuttie Fruttie and for throwing a chair through a pub window. Coltrane played Fitz,a brilliant, hard-drinking, heavy – smoking, bad- tempered criminal psychologist who worked as an assistant to the Manchester Police Force. “I drink too much, I smoke too much, I gamble too much. I am too much.” Top man.
Coltrane was mesmerising. The stories were gritty and twisty and moving -even when they pushed the boundaries of melodrama. The rest of the actors involved were spot on too; in particular Christopher Ecclestone as the young detective learning more about life’s underbelly than he wanted. And Robert Carlyle was super impressive as the bitter, disillusioned Albie in the amazingly intense story ‘To Be A Somebody.’ Later, there was a watered-down U.S. version with Robert Pastorelli as Fitz. Pastorelli is a good enough actor but it really was a decaffeinated version of the original.
And since then? Well we’ve had Luther, Top Boy and that seminal ‘70s series The Sweeney is up for a big screen outing. More interestingly, Howard Linskey’s cracking Geordie gangster novel The Drop is being adapted for television by none other than J J Connolly of Layer Cake fame.
And let’s hope we can find a new generation of crime writers to put some Brit Grit back on the box.
(This first appeared at The Sabotage Times)