October 1st, 2008


A show most people never heard of to forget

Over the last couple of nights when I should have been doing other things, I have been rewatching, for the first time since the mid-70s, Gangsters. I've still got the very weird second season to watch - so far I've just seen the original Play for Today and the first season, at which point it is still a moderately conventional, though attractively amoral, noir thriller about racism and crime in Birmingham.

(The second season breaks the fourth wall, kills off the hero, has the writer - Phillip Martin who played the villain in the original play - turn up disguised as a Vietnamese hitman surgically transformed into W.C.Fields and was one of the oddest things one had ever seen back in those days of innocence. I shall be interested to watch it when Lovefilms gets it to me.)

Obviously, the show is full of very dodgy sexual and racial politics and yet was probably on the side of the angels. Its ex-con, ex-soldier hero Kline seems to have no very strong convictions about anything and the show is an odd couple buddy movie from one point of view in which he is being run in his rise to supreme gangland power by a Pakistani cop, Khan. Both men develop a genuine affection for Rafiq, one of the principal ganglords they are up against, who manages to combine a career as anti-racist politician with bringing in and then blackmailing illegal immigrants - the odd thing is that we get to see just how awful are the effects of Rafiq on people's lives yet somehow forget about it when Saeed Jeffrey twinkles at us. Yet - and I refuse to worry about spoilers in a show that is thirty years old - Rafiq is genuinely appalled when he discovers that one of his financial backers is a racist politician and seizes the opportunity to change sides...

All of the characters are morally ambiguous - Khan seduces and betrays the wife of a man he has had deported and who offers him information he needs. Kline is motivated by a desire to get back the club he was railroaded out of by a crooked partner, and to survive the murderous attentions of Rawlinson, a ganglord whose brother he killed. Later, he is out for revenge on the Afro-Caribbean gangster Malleson for the death of a young stripper Kline was lovers with and whom Malleson murdered. Latterly Kline develops a serious attachment to Anne, a recovering heroin addict who used to work for Rawlinson.

Some of the dodginess can be justified in terms of realism - Anne has always done what she needed to do in order to survive, whether it be honey-trap Kline, or be thrown into one of Malleson's brothels, or go through rehab. The same applies to the racist jokes of the comedians in Kline's club.

This was one of the first shows to pay serious attention to characters of colour and it is not without stereotyping - Malleson is a second-rate superfly character with idiot sidekicks and Rafiq's lieutenant Kuldip is a giggling psychopath with poor English. Some of this is generic - Kuldip is also in some respects a version of the gunsel from Maltese Falcon just as Rafiq is a version of Gutman, albeit a comparatively skinny one.

The crucial thing though is how interesting it is to see something that I watched when I was in my twenties and still enjoy it thirty years later. I nearly bought it on DVD when I spotted it was out and may yet. The odd thing is, how few people remember it by comparison with other major shows of the period.

It makes me want to watch my other fondly remembered show of that time Rock Follies.

More thoughts about Georgiana, the best Duchess ever.

I finished reading the Amanda Foreman biography, which is awfully good and has such bizarre moments as the young Caroline Ponsonby - Georgiana's niece and known to history as Lady Caroline Lamb, who said Byron was 'mad, bad and dangerous to know' - teasing Gibbon by making him wear backwards the jockey cap he wore to protect his eyes from the glare. (Yo! Gibbon).

I do see why Foreman rather assumes that it is reasonable to back-project modern ideas about sexuality onto the tangled emotional life of Georgiana, her husband the Duke, and Bess, the adventuress who was his mistress, but would quite often dump him to go off with Georgiana when the Duke and Duchess quarreled about Georgiana's gambling debts. Oddly, Foreman does not pick up on the way Georgiana and Bess quote the Book of Ruth at each other - which is one of those things which always strikes me as liable to be lesbian code when it crops up in a context when one is looking for such things.

(There is a tendency, I've noticed, for people to assume that because the Jacobins were intensely homophobic, and subjected the goings-on at Versailles to a pornographic imagination which led to, for example, the Countess de Lamballe being killed and her body desecrated in a quite horrible way, that therefore we should not think of the deep female bonding of Marie Antoinette and her circle as being in any sense lesbian. Sometimes if it walks like a duck, it's a duck even if people kill it for being a duck.)

Georgiana has this odd proto-steampunk thing going for her in that she sponsors public displays of hot-air balloons as well as the careers of rising divas (not rising in the sense of going up in balloons you understand.) She and Bess and Caroline's mother Harriet got stuck in Switzerland as a way of staying safe during the Jacobin Terror, and seem to have been involved in some sort of system for getting letters, and occasionally people, out of Paris - which may well turn up in the novel when I write the French Revolution section.

Another thing Amanda Foreman misses is that, for an upper-class radical deeply compromised by being involved with the more radical kind of Whig on the one hand, and various women executed by the Terror on the other, Georgiana had some other contacts that one really does not expect. Foreman mentions that when Georgiana was thinking of publishing her poetry, Joseph Johnson was the likely publisher, but I am not sure that Foreman realizes the implications of that. Joseph Johnson was the publisher and friend of people like Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, and of Tom Paine - a very surprising person to crop up in the life of even a radical Duchess.

I really do suspect that this whole crowd are going to wander into Mara's life in the adventure with the Goddess of Reason...