“Just look at the Birmingham skyline. Look at the tower blocks, the mixture of races in the streets. There’s a difference in the air. It’s edgy, electric. We’re in Boom Town 1976. That’s the feeling of excitement and suspense we want to convey.” – Producer David Rose in the Radio Times
“A totally untrue picture of Birmingham” – Lord Mayor, Coun. E James Eames.
“Like eating chicken curry and chow mein to the sound of a Moog synthesizer” – TV review in the Daily Telegraph
We were asked to contribute to The Event, a programme of events and exhibitions by ‘artist-led organisations’ around Birmingham. It seemed like a good opportunity to pursue an idea which we’d been picking at for ages, around BBC drama Gangsters.
The programme ran for two series between 1976 and 1978 and concerned the increasingly convoluted power-struggles of various Birmingham underworld characters including Kline (played by Maurice Colbourne, later of Howards Way fame), Khan (Ahmed Khalil), Rafiq (Saeed Jaffrey) and Malleson (Paul Barber). The pilot, a 1975 Play for Today, included a fantastic if slightly illogical chase along the inner ringroad and beneath Spaghetti Junction. Series one revolved around the Maverick club (played by the Rum Runner on Broad St), and series two centred on the antics of a
Triad sect based in the crypt of St Paul’s Church – climaxing with the writer Philip Martin on a street in Lahore ripping up the script. By grafting together street-level stories of the city’s genuine ‘mobsters’ with the cheap swagger of pulp novels and a post-modern, anything-goes attitude, Martin created an unholy cocktail which still leaves a strange taste in the mouth today.
Confronted with eleven hours of unhinged television, we took to the streets. With the help of a mid-70s A to Z of Birmingham found in a secondhand bookshop, the weeks leading up to the event were spent trawling the city’s back-alleys, towpaths and industrial estates in search of Gangsters locations. There are plenty of obvious ones that you can spot right away, like Spaghetti Junction (car-chase) or Moseley Road Baths (scimitar attack) or the NEC (freak electrocution). But where’s that container base? That public toilet? Rafiq’s opulent hideaway? It became a slightly unhealthy obsession to track them all down, and we were aided in our quest by some of the people who worked on the show itself. Production manager Andy Meikle recalled scouting various seedy clubs where Martin himself had done his research, and meeting solid resistance from the pillars of Birmingham’s underworld community. Janice Rider talked about dressing the seductive Lily Li Tang, while Paul Howell (who now runs Character Shop animation studio) credited the show as a springboard for his career; it was he who created the Bond-like animated titles for series two.
All of this material was marshalled into an incident room in a Digbeth warehouse, complete with large map, coloured pieces of string, cuttings and an exhibition of moody portraits by Dave Gaskarth, and over one weekend in April 2007 the place became a veritable Gangsters shrine. The event itself included comedian Nadeem Rangzeb, house band Pram performing a creditable cover of the theme tune and a marathon overnight screening of the entire show which began with about 120 viewers and ended with roughly three. We thought maybe we were overdoing it on this project, but felt positively sane once we started talking to Darryl Georgiou. His mum and dad owned a chip-shop near Five Ways where many of the show’s cast and crew used to congregate, and Darryl grew up immersed in Gangsters folklore. It turned out he was unveiling his own Gangsters project a couple of weeks later, and we pooled resources. He created a computer-animated remake of the series 1 title sequence. He tracked down the Dynamo font used in the credits. He brought along specially-printed Maverick Club Tshirts. And on a baking hot Sunday afternoon he led a psychogeographic tour of the city exploring key locations and recreating Kline’s run.
Since working on this I haven’t looked at Birmingham in the same way again. I think part of me is still stuck in 1976, still looking for locations. Only the other day a piece in the Post ticked another one off the list. As Catherine O’Flynn describes so well in that article, the city’s continual drive for renewal is tied up with a passion for the discarded and knocked-down. Maybe this is why Gangsters still hits a nerve thirty years on.