'Gangsters’ is a weird show that, over time got weirder and weirder. Starting off as a ‘Play For Today’ before becoming two (very different) series, it is ostensibly about the murky world of organised crime in Birmingham, but also works as a treatise on race, society and the nature and conventions of drama itself. If that sounds heavy, don’t worry, it does it all in a tongue in cheek, often bizarre way. Oh, and a lot of the acting is abysmal.
Maurice Colbourne plays John Kline, a former SAS man who is the archetypal tough, good man in a rough, bad situation, inexorably caught between rival underworld groups that are characterised by both their particular line in crime and their ethnicity. There are the Asian gangsters, who specialise in human traffic, illegal immigration and extortion; black gangsters who concentrate on drugs and prostitution and, over-seeing the whole bun fight, there are white gangsters, who sit back and take the lion’s share of the profits. The initial play was straightforward enough, a quirky but basically conventional drama that, apart from the racial diversity, and Brummie setting, could have starred Jimmy Cagney.
The two series that followed, however, go to strange places, eventually ending up somewhere between post-modernism and disappearing up its own exhaust pipe. In Series One, Kline battles to keep a nightclub open, keep the Law happy and play opposing criminal factions off against each other. He also falls in love with a posh junkie and part time prostitute. It’s far from conventional, but has structure and an element of realism, albeit a reality that could quite easily be imagined. Heavily stylised, the characters are many and mad as hatters, a multi-racial rainbow of thugs, twisters, bullies, bastards and undercover Pakistanis.
‘Gangsters’, in all its incarnations, is, like so many flawed things, absolutely fascinating, and far more interesting retrospectively than any number of tighter, tauter, straight crime dramas. Yes, it can get on your nerves, but it provokes a reaction, and that is assuredly a very good thing.