Friday, May 29, 2020

Gangs of London - over the top and magnificent

So I see the poster first: Gangs of London on Sky Atlantic. Here we go, I thought: Yardies, East End villains, football hooligans, footsoldiers and a few Russians for good measure. I think that's because I've probably watched too many dreadful British gangster films than are good for me. 

I was wrong though. Judged alongside the dross of St George's Day, anything touching on the Essex Range Rover Murders series, Footsoldier, anything with Danny Dyer in it, then Gangs of London was (is) a masterpiece. And so as much as it plays in a higher league than that, it actually stands fairly well in a tradition of British gangster films that depict the shifting ethnic, economic and cultural tectonic plates in organised crime. It starts with Harold Shand ragging off the New York Mafia in Long Good Friday, before stepping into the cross hairs of the IRA.  In a similar way Gangs of London introduces all manner of feuding bad guys, briefly at peace as the increasingly globalised nature of crime interlocks and sustains everyone. None of them behave well enough for you to pause and spare a moment of sympathy on any of them, though to be fair, the Nigerians don't even try. In short order we have Albanians, Pakistanis, Irish, Chinese, Kurds and Welsh Travellers. They all love their families and will do anything for them, but don't particularly care much for anyone else's family. 

Though these epics aren't meant to be documentaries, their background noise has to have a foothold in current events and a form of reality. Two of the best and most terrifying books I've read in recent years have been Misha Glenny's McMafia and Peter Walsh's Drug Wars. The former was used as the source material for a dreary BBC series which was big on locations and short on any actual action. 

Gangs of London is sprawling in every way. All eight-part box sets are. This had nine. None were wasted. All were stunning visually, horribly violent and of course, had some utterly ridiculous plot twists and character behaviours. Stylistically it was epic and cinematic. Big scenes, and expansive, musical scores to lift the sometimes wooden acting. I loved the influences all the way through, not least from director Gareth Evans' dalliances in Asian martial action films, notably the pumping Indonesian powerhouse The Raid. Described variously as Peaky Blinders for the 21st century, Game of Thrones dressed by GQ, or Succession with aggression, every frame. 

I've watched them all now - I won't drop any spoilers - but episode 5 was the best. A squad of Danish special forces mercenaries against the Welsh gypsies. For once I picked a side. I've said before about the presence of Mark Lewis-Jones, a great actor who brought remarkable earthy verve to contrast with the relentless march of murderous slick precision. It was a brutal, overwhelming, ear-splitting movie-style set-piece battle. Louder than War, indeed. The whole enterprise is hardly a love letter to London - a sink of depravity, money laundering and blistering double standards in a city that festers with corruption and cruelty - but there's something about the away match in Wales where Gareth Evans is in his prime, using the location beautifully, despite the leap in faith required to work out how they all got there.


You don't watch gangster movies or box sets for the tug of the heartstrings or to snug up sympathetically and share a character's tears. And if you do to Gangs of London then someone will very quickly laugh in your face and remind you why that's a terrible idea. The acting too is at times ridiculously understated and the carnage simply unimaginable. But for so many reasons this lockdown has given us plenty of reasons to totally suspend what we could imagine. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Bang for your buck, best Welsh noir series yet

My fascination with Welsh Noir started with Hinterland, but has just gone to a new level with Bang.

Yes, I was drawn into the darkness of Hidden. Keeping Faith teetered just to the right side of preposterous, with overuse of pop video style lingering to music over the attractive female lead. Requiem was super creepy, folk horror. 35 Diwrnod is OK, but limited by its small budget and cast. Bang seemed to reconcile all of these shortcomings and make a powerful virtue of each one, with much use of a popular technique of location centred drama - long location shots, and very smart use of music.

Like I said when Hinterland broke through with its take on the Scandi noir set up - cop outsider with demons - the strongest cast member in a heck of a strong field was the landscape of Ceredigion, and the dark secrets of Aberystwyth. They also ended up smothering the plot and compensating for a drift into borderline cod. But like in Hidden, the stark survival of the Welsh working class was an ever present, if a little on the hopeless side.

Bang had all of this and more. The backdrop being Port Talbot, warts, beaches, steelworks, motorways and all. It didn’t pull a single punch in the portrayal of the daily stuff of a police beat, following a spree of gun crimes in Series One and a savage killer on the loose in Series Two. But though life at times for a whole load of characters was unremittingly tough, it didn’t seem as universally grim and hopeless as Hidden, or have the stolen idyll of Keeping Faith. Life is hard in this world of loan sharks, low wages, drugs, domestic violence, crappy crime and decay. Yet for all that, there are characters who still bring warmth and joy, office banter and small tender moments of friendship and family life. Even poor old Sam Jenkins, bullied, friendless and prosecuted manages to have happiness and a sense of humour in his grasp. I say this having just wrapped up a stunning conclusion to the six part second run, which certainly didn’t cue things up for happy ever afters.

There lingers too the possibility of justice not being served. It's possible that bullies, murderers and rapists might break an unwritten rule of TV drama and get away with it. Bang also has an earthier menace to it, man-made malignancy, rather than an ethereal lingering evil of the kind we saw so profoundly in Requiem, and hinted at from time to time in both Hidden and Hinterland, where there's always a hint of the weird and the eerie. Hopefully there are no spoilers here, and this is enough of a recommendation. Just watch it, absorb yourself in it and try not to have nightmares. The cast are (mostly) tight and the creator Roger Williams' script sparkles with bilingual delights. But in Catrin Stewart as Gina, and Jacob Ifan as Sam, you have two performances that would earn a BAFTA, or equivalent, in any language.

A final thought though, did nobody care what happened to creepy Russell?

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Souness revisited

A couple of weeks ago a couple of Rangers fans invited me on to their football starved podcast to do a bit of nostalgic reflection on one of their heroes of old, Graeme Souness. I enjoyed our chat and have dug up the original piece I wrote about the Souness years at Ewood.

And I also found a picture of him from the summer of 2000 with my nephew Jamie Ritchie one of the "Time Team" who launched the new kit.

On Sky’s Monday night Football recently Graeme Souness was the focus of attention and retrospective scrutiny. As well as being an engaging studio summariser and the scourge of Paul Pogba, they made him the subject of a fans question and answer session.

He mainly talked about his time playing at Liverpool and his record as a manager, notably with Rangers and Liverpool. At times it was emotional. He didn’t explicitly say so, but he regretted doing an exclusive with The Sun newspaper just a few years after that paper so viciously slandered Liverpool’s supporters in the aftermath of Hillsborough. He wished he could turn back the clock, he said, quite visibly upset at the memory.

I remain fascinated by Souness as a character. He was truly one of the great players of my lifetime, the captain of one of the greatest club sides of them all. His character, his grit, his drive were forged then. They gave him his reference points for his later career in management. And I would argue, they were to be his downfall in management.

There was only one reference to his time at Ewood Park. He was our manager from 2000 to 2004, where he had some truly great times. And he referenced one of the best players he coached – our very own Turkish delight, Tugay.

Had he been asked about his time at little old Blackburn Rovers, I think I know what he will have said.

In fact, this is what he said in his second published biography in 2013:
“To finish sixth in the league, I think the club would certainly take that now”,
“To get promoted at the first asking, to win a major trophy, to finish sixth, to qualify for Europe twice, I consider that a successful time.
“I definitely regret leaving.”
“I had four of my happiest years in management at Blackburn and I do think now it was a mistake to leave.
“But if I hadn’t left Blackburn then, I would probably still be in management now.”


There’s an alternative history of his later years at Rovers that needs airing.

I’m grateful for all of that success. I appreciate too that there were good players in the team he bequeathed to Mark Hughes. But I had it on pretty good authority that he was a game away from the sack when Newcastle came calling.

Of all his jobs in management Blackburn Rovers was the only job where he exceeded the expectations of the supporters. He revolutionised Rangers in his 5 years there, and deserves credit for that, but that was what is expected of a club of that size in that city.

Torino, Benfica, Southampton, Galatasary and of course Liverpool, weren’t tenures of a glittering career.

He needed the Blackburn Rovers job as much as we needed a manager to get us back on the path Jack Walker intended.

Let’s have a look for a moment at the backbone of the squad that won promotion and lifted the Worthington Cup. Picking five players at random – Henning Berg, David Dunn, Martin Taylor, Keith Gillespie, Andy Cole.

He fell out with Berg and sold him to Rangers.

He sold Dunny to Birmingham, a relationship that had broken down.

I frequently remember his withering assessments of Martin Tiny Taylor that he was ‘son-in-law’ material, too nice to be decent centre half.

Keith Gillespie left for Leicester in 2003 with a parting shot at the manager that he didn’t speak to him. In his book, he paints a picture of a manager parading around in a towel and brogues. The respect had clearly gone as quickly as one of Gillespie’s bets on the horses.

He got plenty of goals out of Andy Cole, even signing his pal Dwight Yorke, hoping it would ignite his dynamic partnership from the Manchester United treble winning side of 1999. Despite flashes of magic, like in a final day 4-0 demolition of Spurs at White Hart Lane, it didn’t work.

Cole reported him to the PFA after a series of training ground bust ups. Souness admitted he physically attacked Yorke in a 5-a-side game.

“I regret that. I don’t want to say too much about what happened but certainly it was my fault. I shouldn’t have been trying to play five-a-side at 50 years of age.

“Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke were good players but we fell out in the end because I thought they could be giving so much more. I felt they were taking their foot off the pedal.”

And despite the success of the previous seasons, 2003-2004 was a disaster.

The Rovers squad started to change in the summer of 2003. Damien Duff joined Chelsea for £17m and David Dunn was sold to Birmingham for £5.5m.

And those who left were replaced inadequately.

Out of the cups early. Out of Europe straight away. Only a late burst of form in April fought off relegation.

It’s the heartbreaking paradox of his time at Ewood. In the space of a summer he made the best and the worst signings in the history of the club.

Tugay was a revelation. I remember thinking at the time, he had better be some player to improve on Eyal Berkovic, who I liked.

All managers sign players that just don’t work out. But the £7.5 million signing of Corrado Grabbi in 2001 took some beating. And the bigger the fee, the bigger the flop.

The trouble with Souness seemed to be that this wasn’t just a temporary lapse in judgement.

Many of his signings after that were poor.

None of Lorenzo Amoruso, Barry Ferguson, Dwight Yorke, Dino Baggio, Vratislav Gresko could be judged a success.

Even Lucas Neill, Steven Reid and Brett Emerton failed to make an immediate positive impact, arguably turning in their better performances after Souness left in September 2004.

Imagine for a moment that this frittering away of wages and big fees had been half of what it was. And he left for something else. What would his successor have achieved?

But that’s not it. I think the game outgrew him.

As a player Souness was a winner. He won by ruthless commitment to his craft. He took on responsibility. He also had a clear idea of what his goals were and how to achieve them.

On the Sky programme Souness spoke of his early days as a player at Liverpool. Asking Bob Paisley and Ronnie Moran what he was expected to do. They castigated him. He had to take responsibility himself to fit into a team alongside Tommy Smith and Alan Hansen. 

If you think about the players he actually got on with, who he didn’t fall out with, they were cast in that mould. Tugay. Damien Duff. Garry Flitcroft. Stig Inge Byonebye.

I think he resented players who hadn’t had to fight as he had.

But time and expectations caught up with him.

He proved at Rangers that he wasn’t a terrible manager. But they had a clear defined goal. Be better than Celtic.

At Liverpool, it was to get back on that perch. He failed.

When he took over at Ewood in 2000 there was a clear aim. Get Promoted.

Then it was survival.

As a squad that group really kicked on and achieved. But what was the goal after that? Champions League?

I’m not entirely sure any of us knew.

And I’m pleased he has an affection for us as a group of supporters.

“My last game before I left was at home to Manchester United, we were winning 1-0 but then Louis Saha took the ball down with his hand in the 92nd or 93rd minute and they scored. After that game I was asked if I was interested in the Newcastle job. I think at the time John Williams was fairly happy about the deal, because they were getting good compensation for me. But Mark Hughes inherited a very good side with good players. The fans at Blackburn were good to me, they weren’t on your back straight away, they gave you time and got behind you. I can only say I really enjoyed my time at Blackburn.”

The board couldn’t believe their luck.

The idea his career took a dive after his time at Rovers is remarkable. I hope I’ve demonstrated that the decline was already well underway. Maybe there’s a reason he hasn’t worked since.

But for all of that I still like him. Managing these millionaires is a thankless task. Trying to fine them a week’s wages for misconduct is like dropping ten pence for the rest of us.

For all of the memories of that rotten last season and the millions that were wasted. I retain an affection for those early years.

Thanks Graeme. 

Monday, May 11, 2020

Two very good books about London

Reading Robert Elms' memoir of his life and of London, I was struck by the passing of both the London I knew and left, and the London I visit and still love.

There's a significance to the timing here. My first born son, Joseph John Taylor, was born in the Homerton Hospital in Hackney on this day 21 years ago. We go back every year or so for a mooch about, but it's much more my city than his. But it's not really mine at all now.

First off, I like Robert "Dutch" Elms and his chirpy BBC Radio London show that I still listen to occasionally on the weekly podcast. Although he's a good few years older than me, his hinterland and curiosities match many of my own, including my favourite street in London - Lamb's Conduit Street - long lost oddities like the Albanian Shop in Betterton Street, Pollo and Stockpot, but also national treasures and Soho staples of my 20s like Bar Italia and the Groucho (wasn't a member, loved going), and the glorious Mangal Ocakbasi in Dalston.

He's got a real grasp of London people and their stories, the places that don't have a blue plaque but were significant for what went on there. Three jumped out at me, a scummy hotel in King's Cross that was a base for the violent nuisance of the far right; the old drinking den in St Giles that was burnt down in Britain's biggest mass murder in 1980; and the flat in Stoke Newington - bang opposite where Joe was first taken home 20 years later - where the Angry Brigade had a bomb factory.

It's full of observational delight, as well as his own life story; but it's his family stories that were intentionally touching, particularly his love for his late mum who sounded wonderful and proud, and the Dad who died at 40 when he was such a young lad of whom he yearns for more knowledge. It comes later when he meets veterans from the Spanish Civil War who knew him as a trade unionist and a good comrade.

He keeps layering on the love, and the laments, but then towards the end, he gets angry as he confronts London's unsustainable housing situation - the unaffordable and soaring prices. He makes the point that anyone who has bought a London property in the last 30 years has won a version of the lottery, but once you've left you can never go back. That was my thought as our removal van chugged up the A10 from Stoke Newington before Joe even reached his first birthday. His kids have grown up in Camden Town, but won't be able to live there unless he leaves the house to one of them and move to his place in the country. And after reading the love letter to his London, that won't be likely.

It also made me recall another book I read in the last couple of years that left me quite depressed and unable to articulate with any enthusiasm why that was. Ben Judah's This is London was powerful, hard hitting and packed full of stories of London life. It painted a picture of a cruel and unforgiving city of broken dreams and exploitation of the disparate desperate like the African office cleaners of Barking and piled high Romanians sharing cramped rooms in Neasden.

Ben Judah is a young journalist, he was 27 when this was published, so the force of these stories comes from the stoic pursuit of the testimonies he skillfully extracts from the lives he seeks to chronicle. For Robert Elms this is his life's work, which I speculated he might write after I enjoyed his previous tome, The Way We Wore. 

Quite where a teeming and sprawling city like London goes after the Covid-19 pandemic is anyone's guess. There's no alternate reality that the London of Robert Elms contradicts the city of Ben Judah. I just know I was lucky enough to have experienced the delights of the former, without suffering anything of the dystopia of the latter. This is a day to count our blessings, certainly for me.

Saturday, May 09, 2020

Lockdown fiction

I think I've only read two fiction books this year. Both have been magnificent and now that I've finished my thesis, I am hungry for more.

My mate Michael Finnigan recommended A Gentleman in Moscow, and it was the perfect preparation for lockdown. The tale of how Count Alexander Rostov spent his time under house arrest in the gilded gulag of Moscow's Metropole Hotel from 1921. The writing is sublime. There are times when you have to put the book down, pause, read a passage again and just luxuriate in it.

The other was the latest triumph from my old favourite John Niven - The F*ck it List. Set in a totally believable future of the first term of the Ivanka Trump presidency it bubbles with quiet liberal outrage at the lunacy and destruction we are (still) tip toeing into. Vivid and splenetic, as I've come to love about Niven's writing, but also crisp and emotional too. A real tribute to the central character, Frank Brill, a former newspaper man with a terminal cancer diagnosis, directing his rage and denying himself an ounce of self-pity.

Saturday, May 02, 2020

Lockdown telly - quick update

After a solid month in isolation it's been up and down. I've been working from home, exercising every day, eating well and and inevitably watching all sorts of telly and films. I'll do some telly reviews first.

Twin (BBC4) - So we're finally getting into Scandi noir. This was as compulsive as it was implausible. Once you suspend your misgivings about how identical twins aren't so alike and living a different life 15 years apart literally can change you physically, then it's great. All sorts going on by the end and a wild box of intrigue and secrets. Very deft and visually stunning. And yellow coats.

Fear the Walking Dead (Amazon Prime) - I did this the wrong way round, following Lennie James's character Morgan Jones from The Walking Dead into this world. Then, a bit like the show runners did with season 4, which started at the end and showed you how they got there, I then went back into Season 3. I found it to be really very good, some of the best writing and story plotting in the whole TWD universe. But it made me realise how lame season 4 was.

Don't F*** with Cats (Netflix) - deeply strange and unsettling. It started as a doc about a crowd sourced investigation into some creepy sicko and ended up being something very existential about the way this whole messed up world works. But I'd still highly recommend it.

Better Call Saul (Netflix) - wow. OK, I thought this was going to be the last series before it catches up with Breaking Bad. So by the end of the final episode I was panting for breath in terror at what was going to happen to Kim. The two episodes towards the end with the desert scenes were as good as anything from this universe. The whole Salamanca family story is also wild and raging with potential now. We now have two years and 10 episodes to wait. I have a theory....

Homeland (Channel 4) - one to go. Absolutely nuts.

Sunderland 'til I Die (Netflix) - I didn't enjoy this as much as the first series, but it was structured much more on themes, rather than telling the story of the season, which we obviously know. The boardroom characters came across even worse than last time.

Celebrity Who Dares Wins (Channel 4) - I am always awestruck by Ant Middleton's ability to stick a "fucking" in the middle of words, not just sentences. As in, "get your arse over fucking there and get in the heli fucking copter." I can't imagine any of the celebrities lasted longer than a couple of days. Brutal.

Save Me Too (Sky Atlantic) - as I write I am half way through. Lenny James is a great talent and he has crafted some multi-dimensional non-cliched complex characters that seems utterly unique to other portrayals of how urban estate lives are portrayed on TV. Makes your teeth itch with discomfort, but utterly compelling.

PS - We finished Save Me Too. Definitely the best of this list, by some distance. I think it's the characters Lennie James has created. I said that after the first series, people who live on London estates don't tend to live normal lives in TV drama, they are either victims or perpetrators. And main characters seem to always live in large suburban (usually London) houses that you couldn't possibly afford on the jobs and salaries they do. But the acting was top class too, especially from Lennie James and Leslie Manville, as you'd expect, but also from Olive Gray as Grace.