We’re going to step away from the surreal and fantastic almost completely for this week’s Wednesday Play: Gangsters, an episode of Play for Today written by Philip Martin. Set in the multi-cultural criminal community of Birmingham, Gangsters was originally conceived by producer David Rose as a drama with sensibilities similar to those of The French Connection that would showcase England’s second city. It deals with various ethnic groups competing to run scams, exploit illegal immigrants and outwit the almost equally morally suspect law-enforcement officers.
The play caused outrage not just from Birmingham City Council, which resented the perceived slur against the city’s character, but also from the press, which argued it had featured racial stereotypes, such as servile Indians and clueless whites. However, the play achieved higher ratings than any previous episode so Martin was commissioned to write a full series – one of the few spin-offs the Play for Today had.
The play itself formed the template for most of the first series of the spin-off, with former SAS soldier and convict John Kline (Maurice Colbourne) acting as an undercover underworld agent to investigate crimes and pass intelligence back to ‘DI6’. But I said “almost completely” at the beginning because despite its subject matter and occasional ultraviolence, Gangsters became a very different beast in its second series, with the surreal intruding throughout – writer Martin is seen dictating the script to a typist during the season and there are references to film noir, gangster films, westerns, Bollywood and kung fu movies throughout. On top of the increasingly bizarre end-of-episode cliffhangers, the series ended with the characters breaking the fourth wall and walking off set.
But here, for your delectation is that first Play For Today – a sort of ‘Roy Rogers meets Get Carter in Birmingham”. If you like it, buy the whole thing on DVD.