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Bob Hoskins and The Long Good Friday
The Long Good Friday (1980) occupies a special place in the continuum of British gangster films. It lies somewhere between the psychodrama of Brighton Rock (1948) and the grittiness of Villain (1971), but with a healthy spoonful of theatrical tragedy stirred through. It prefigured the posturing hokum of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and the lad-heavy world of the 1990s and early 2000s, when The Word and TFI Friday made celebrities of Howard Marks and “Mad” Frankie Fraser and inadvertently gave Tom Hardy things to do for the next couple of decades. All of this, in its turn, gave rise to the extended clothing advert that was Peaky Blinders. Most of all, and perhaps uniquely among modern British gangster films at least, it’s actually good.
It tells the story of salt-of-the-earth London businessman-stroke-gangster-boss Harold Shand, whose overlordship of the capital’s crime world has kept the peace for ten years. He is full of plans to develop the semi-derelict docklands (which don’t yet have a capital D); he wants to fulfil London’s potential as a global city, possibly to the extent of hosting the Olympics some time in the future. ‘Our country’s not an island any more’, he says; ‘we’re a leading European state.’ The American Mafia sees him as a good bet for investment, until a series of mysterious murders and bombings threatens to derail him.
Despite appearing in every List of Best Fackin Things Ever produced by British lad magazines, The Long Good Friday was never set up to look stylish; it was intended to depict a corrupt and semi-derelict post-imperial London in which it isn’t cool to be a gangster. Everyone looks pasty and the suits are ill-fitting. What it does have though - and this perhaps explains its enduring appeal to audiences of all kinds - is a thick vein of jet black comedy. The script more or less successfully pairs almost Shakespearan tragedy with a fully intentional deadpan mode, making it immune from ridicule even in a post-Viz, post-Fast Show world. Harold Shand talks like Big Vern, has a henchman called Razors, and maintains a wall display of swords and daggers, but the script is full of moments like this:
HENCHMAN CHARGED WITH DEALING WITH A DEAD BODY:
I’ve kept it all incognito. They’re gonna collect the body in an ice cream van.
There’s a lot of dignity in that, in’t there? Going out like a raspberry ripple.
Director John Mackenzie turns a documentary-style lens on London’s dereliction, eschewing dramatic set-dressing in favour of simply showing the rusting cranes and mouldering wharves as they were at the time. The script was drafted before Thatcher arrived in office, and it is remarkably prescient in its vision of London’s rapid development in the ‘80s and ‘90s. As Shand’s boat glides through an otherwise deserted and low-rise West India Quay, it’s fun to imagine the future towers of Canary Wharf rising above with all those Itsus and Virgin Actives. (This year’s The Gold (ITV), about the 1983 Brinks-Mat robbery, borrows heavily from The Long Good Friday in its scenes of criminal masterminds staring thoughtfully at decaying industrial shorelines. Laundered Brinks Mat-money is thought to have contributed significantly to the redevelopment of the Docklands.)
As Shand bellows a tremendous speech about London’s global future from the deck of his little yacht, he doesn’t yet know that he’s already washed up, his best mate knifed and his mum almost incinerated. His ambitions, although lofty to him, are pitifully small; like his puny architect’s model of a future dockland development, we know that the actual future will be a much taller order. The script positions the IRA as the coming storm; the film’s financers, Lew Grade’s Black Lion, feared a political backlash at the film’s depiction of the IRA as a seemingly invincible force, and even violent reprisals against cinemas daring to screen it. It took George Harrison’s Handmade Films to buy the rights and ensure a full release. Over 40 years later there is a slightly self-soiling smugness in knowing what really came to pass.
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Writer Barry Keeffe (1945-2019) drew on the working class London of his own experience. As a journalist on the Stratford Express he interviewed a cluster of East End hard men, and maybe we can charitably assume that the numerous racist punches packed into his wisecracking script came straight from their mouths. In Harold Shand’s world Black criminals are all about drugs, and drugs for Harold (as for Don Corleone before him) are a dirty business. Watching a naked Errol the Ponce (Paul Barber) getting slashed across his buttocks with a machete is as hard a watch now as I imagine it was back in 1981, when the film received its UK cinematic release just weeks before the Brixton riots.
Gangster films are, of course, boys’ club outings. Projects aiming to redress the gender balance of the genre and let women have some criminal fun, such as Oceans 8 and Steve McQueen’s update of Linda La Plante’s Widows (both 2018), can be counted on the fingers of one leather glove. Although Helen Mirren recently cited The Long Good Friday as one of her favourite projects, it’s agonising to watch her as Victoria, Shand’s posh girlfriend, as she almost-but-not-quite achieves independent agency in the story. She provides the intelligence and soft power otherwise lacking in Shand’s blunt world, but just as she begins to exert some control over the downward-spiralling proceedings she is reduced to frightened sobbing, and Mirren’s otherwise excellent, chilly performance comes to a halt. Elsewhere, Harold Shand’s mother isn’t given anything to say even after almost being blown up; the naked girlfriend of Errol the Ponce is not allowed a facial expression; a wronged widow weeps by a grave; and Gillian Taylforth gets to scream in a weird headscarf. Mothers, molls, widows, screaming girls. But no strippers: this isn’t The Sweeney.
For these reasons and a couple of others, it may not be quite as good as you remember. (The cultural memory of Generation X is fickle, and my actual memory is not what it was.) As my teenage taste knitted itself together in the 1980s I tended to take what Barry Norman said as gospel, and I think he said that The Long Good Friday was great. If I now find it a bit stilted and sticky, it might be because today’s movies and TV shows zip along on digital rollers, every second soundtracked and cut to perfection. And in fairness, it doesn’t muck about: it gets on with the story, bish bash bosh, and earns its wisecracks through pacey if quite linear plotting. When it slows down it does so to allow for gruff memorialising and reminiscence - nostalgia for a phoney vanished time, the good old days when nailing a bloke to the floor was enough to put a stop to any argy-bargy. The past is a wallow-hole of old stories and dead companions, and Harold Shand is irrecoverably of the past. His failure to understand this is his undoing.
There’s also a lot of joy to be had in reacquainting yourself with its cast of character actors whose work shadow-puppets the entire British Gen X cultural lifespan. These people have been popping up in things throughout our lives, and in some cases will probably continue to do so for years to come. Yes, there’s Charlie Fairhead from Casualty (Derek Thompson), but let’s also hear it for Terry from Fawlty Towers (Brian Hall), the aforementioned Kathy Beale from EastEnders (Gillian Taylforth) and Horse from The Full Monty (Paul Barber), and Indiana Jones’s nemesis Belloq (Paul Freeman), wordlessly assassinated in the first few minutes. And of course Dexter Fletcher is in it for half a second, but records show that there was nothing he wasn’t in between 1978 and 1992.
The film’s greatest achievement is its character study of Shand himself, a violent, angry and not very clever man with whom you empathise almost entirely. From the first glimpse of him stalking through the arrivals hall at Heathrow accompanied by a squeal of saxophone, he is a ticking bomb in a beige suit; you instinctively shrink back in case he reaches out to cuff you. There are long, wordless moments of close focus on his rage, fear, isolation and confusion. This is where Bob Hoskins’ performance still astonishes, a credible reflection of threatened, cornered machismo, a commonplace life experience miles away from the make-believe of gangster hokum. Watching Shand think, pace, grimace, drink endless Scotch, wonder what to do, and struggle to control himself puts me in mind of every angry man I’ve ever met.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s Bob Hoskins, who died in 2014, was everywhere. He had one foot in well-regarded British drama (Pennies from Heaven from 1981, Mona Lisa from 1986), another in the Hollywood mainstream (Who Framed Roger Rabbit? from 1988, Super Mario Brothers from 1993), and, impossibly, a third foot in the theatre. He filled a specific actorly niche: the bullet-headed, regionally-accented, barrel-shaped British character actor who conquers both the art house and the multiplex. From Hoskins we can look back to the ‘30s-40s and find Charles Laughton, or look to the present and find Stephen Graham.
An affable man full of tall stories, Hoskins was a natural fit for the chat-show armchairs of his heyday. But this son of Communists had a keen political seriousness; Derek Thompson, delightfully, described him as a combination of Noam Chomsky and Harpo Marx. In spring 1982 he went for a walk with Barry Norman along the South Bank of the Thames, filmed by Omnibus (the BBC arts show that was another key ingredient in the British Gen X cultural diet). The BBC was indulging a bee in Hoskins’s bonnet; he offloaded to Norman about the real-time riverside development of the day, which ‘makes The Long Good Friday look like a story out of Winnie the Pooh’. Hoskins and Norman wander east, as far as possible along a South Bank whose rotting warehouses are giving way to faceless office developments that Hoskins complains will block access to the river for people living in Coin Street and Blackfriars.
Their walk takes them, eerily, under the abandoned gantries of Shad Thames, where you will now find Butler’s Wharf Chop House and the Coco Grill, and on to what was until recently the Design Museum but was then simply rubble. As they survey the sooty dereliction of Wapping - Harold Shand’s hunting ground - across the river, Hoskins predicts that the ghostly warehouses on the waterfront will one day become penthouse apartments for the elite, while the normal people will have to make do with inferior housing away from the river bank. He fears ‘a mile long slab of buildings’, an entirely corporate area ‘sterilised by greed’. It’s a strange little film, but then Omnibus was a strange, random, rangy, unpredictable show.
Neither Shand nor Hoskins got the future quite right; the ambitions of the former and the worries of the latter were both too restrained. But The Long Good Friday is still worth it, not least for its famous final scene. Having dismissed the mafiosi with some colourful metaphors (‘Shut up you long streak of paralytic piss!’) Shand tumbles into his car only to find a cherubically young IRA hardman played by Pierce Brosnan pointing a gun at him with a cheeky smile. The game is up, and the camera focuses up Shand’s nose as the car drives him away to whatever grisly fate awaits him. Expressions cross his face - anger, fear, intense cogitation, regret perhaps, anger again, fear again - and could that possibly be amusement? Could that even be relief? The shot continues for a long time before the credits roll.
For more anguished gangster machismo, try our rewatch of The Godfather: