Set in a period of heavy economic decline and large-scale urban regeneration, Gangsters originally began life as a BBC Play For Today broadcast 9th January 1975 focusing on the interrelations between an ex convict, a family of underworld brothers in the nightclub entertainment industry of Birmingham, an Asian ‘godfather’ and West Indian crime gang. This unlikely blend of elements was brought together for a one-off play by writer Philip Martin with production being undertaken by the BBC’s Pebble Mill studios during the fall of 1974. Such was the impact of the original play, the BBC commissioned 2 series of Gangsters which ran in 1976 and 1978 both centring around the criminal underworld of Birmingham and the central character of John Kline, played by the late Maurice Colbourne. Whilst the series itself did contain all the hallmarks synonymous today with 1970s regional productions (somewhat cheap looking studio sets, a la Crossroads, and oddly stiff acting performances from certain cast members – although it’s not quite apparent the extent of which was due to the somewhat surreal elements of the series as opposed to acting inadequacies per se), watching the programme today provides an insight into Birmingham during a great transitional period both physically and culturally.
During the mid-1970s the economic and industrial nature of Birmingham was changing rapidly. The great urban regeneration project that had gathered pace during the latter half of the 1960s that was transforming the City was coming to a close but was by no means finished. Whilst such City centre landmarks as the Bull Ring Shopping Centre and News Street Station were complete and the Inner Ring Road was speeding cars under the City through the Queensway tunnel network, much of the City Centre still lay derelict. Moore Street station and the vast Central Goods facility lay abandoned, a swathe of largely Victorian-built factories and workshops were scatter throughout the City Centre in various states of occupation/dereliction (in particular throughout the back streets towards Hockley including the now trendy-bar setting of St Paul’s Square) and slum/back-to-back housing’s days were numbered as clearance works around Nechells, Hockley and Aston were coming to a close. Thus Birmingham during that period echoed dereliction in many of its areas with the national economic turmoil of the period hastening the decline of what industry remained creating an urban wasteland of condemned housing and industrial premises, vast tracts of rubble-strewn land, disused railways and polluted and stagnant canals and the vast crumbling edifices of the warehouses and factories they once served; the area around what is now Brindley Place and Gas Street being prime examples.
Such was the Birmingham in which Gangsters was set and fortunately for the viewer today, the BBC made extensive use of location filming throughout the series which provides, over its twelve episodes, for a fascinating snapshot of the City at that time. Episodes 3 and 4, for example, feature a prolonged sequence filmed in the then-disused ex Great Western Railway’s Snow Hill Station (see scene above). Whilst the scene itself is the setting for a large-scale fight between two rival underworld gangs which takes place on the platforms, prior to the fight there is much footage of the lead character wandering around the site and post-fight some of the characters head-down into the underground subways and into the labyrinth of rooms and facilities that once housed the booking Hall and good/parcels offices which provides a fascinating insight into this long-gone station (the current station being a complete rebuild on the same site).
A considerable amount of the action takes place at several now well-known and regenerated locations – such as Broad Street and on the Inner City canal network (into which several cast members take dives during various episodes!) – and car chases around Spaghetti Junction, Digbeth and Lancaster Circus provide for fascinating glimpses of the City at that time including a chase through the now-decommissioned Central Fire Station.
Another striking element of the series lies in its cultural snapshot. The first series centres on John Kline and his ownership of the Maverick Club, a rather seedy cabaret club, which features a racist compere/comedian very much in the 1970s Bernard Manning style along with a rather self-deprecating Indian counterpart. It also presents us with a family of Brummie brothers who run various nightclubs and underworld activities and have obviously held sway in the City for many years but are now seeing their empire squeezed by West Indian and Asian gangs with even the IRA, far right extremists and a Chinese Triad adding to the mix from the end of the first series. Without wishing to get too deeply into what this all represents, the series does provide a time capsule of cultural upheaval in the City during the 1970s with many new and diverse cultures jostling for position and their place in a former and rapidly fading industrial powerhouse with racism and mistrust/misunderstanding prevalent with and between all cultures.
Whilst Gangsters may not quite be Birmingham’s answer to the Sweeney – although it did cause quite a stir at the time for its graphic voilence and subject matter – it does provide for a valuable record of the City’s zeitgeist and structural fabric during the 1970s and for that alone can be strongly recommended for those that recall those times or those that want to take a look into the past.