LWT‘s Crime Anthology VillainsWritten by Matteo Sedazzari
© Words Matteo Sedazzari
Villains is a little gem from 1972, created by Andrew Brown ( co-creator of Manhunt, writer for Armchair Theatre, producer of Prick Up Your Ears, Selling Hitler) aired and commissioned by London Weekend Television. It is a story about nine criminals who plan and carry out a heist on a bank, it is not ‘the normal’ bank raid, heavies armed with sawn off shot guns screaming at petrified bank tellers to fill the bags and no one will get hurt. No, instead they plan what they believe will be the crime of the century, to tunnel into a bank in London’s EC1 area via a disused ladies toilet over the weekend. With meticulous planning and an array of professionals in their field, the criminals think they will walk away with a windfall that shall set them up for life. A new life abroad, Spain, Portugal, South America, anywhere other than Old Blighty.
However, due to an overzealous welder, the majority of the money is burnt to ashes in a safe and they walk away with only 30K a man. A lot of money back then, and still today, but not life changing. Furthermore, all men are arrested, tried at the Old Bailey with sentences ranging from 6 to 20 years. On appealing their case 18 months after their original incarnation, they are granted a retrial at the same famous court. All nine men are transported across London in one secure van, and whilst they are in Holborn’s underpass they are sprung by connections from the outside. In a desperate attempt for freedom the nine men go their separate ways and the stories begin.
In addition, what a wonderful and intelligent piece of storytelling it is. As their sagas are separated over 13 episodes, and due to each episode lasting an hour in duration, an in depth and often poignant insight into the underworld is presented to the viewer. Each episode is a series of flash backs, how they got involved in the robbery, their escape and up to the present, trying to recoup their ill-gotten gains, starting afresh whilst trying to avoid recapture. Each man has a very different story to tell. Perhaps influenced by The Great Train Robbery, the film Robbery (1967), (Stanley Baker’s film about the heist, which starred William Marlow, also one of the stars in Villains). Get Carter (1971) and the recent press attention of the London Underworld (The Krays and The Richardsons), Villains presents what you could say a case study of this world. Whilst trying not to be moralistic in the message “Crime does not pay” it shows that it is a world that can be full of paranoia, deception, brutality, bleak and tough and at other times full of fast cars, fast women, easy cash, and being in control. Two lifestyles that conflict each other and it is only a question of time before one wins over the other, and in this case it is the former.
One striking thing about Villains, is the main cast, David Daker (Boon, Crown Prosecutor, Z Cars), William Marlowe (The Gentle Touch, Rooms, Robbery) Alun Armstrong (New Tricks, Get Carter, Our Friends in the North), Tom Adams (The Onedin Line, The Enigma Files , Strike It Rich!) Jim Norton (Deception, Father Ted, Wonders in Letterland) Bob Hoskins ( The Long Good Friday, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Mona Lisa) Martin Shaw (Inspector George Gently, The Professionals, Judge John Deed), all strong and talented actors, some already established like Daker and Marlowe, whilst many on the way up like Armstrong, Shaw and Hoskins. Even though Hoskins is the predominant image on the DVD cover he is not a central character, however his character Charles 'Knocker' Grindley is a man with a huge sex drive and a cheeky smile. His episode Knocker is more like a 70’s sex romp comedy than a crime drama, nevertheless amusing and acts as a welcome light relief as the majority of the episodes of Villains are intense, and from this it is easy to see why he went on to become a huge star, he had true charisma, coupled with his skills as an actor. Yet all the characters would appear as smaller parts in each other’s episodes before the viewer sees their story, perfect dramatic preparation. Another key factor to Villains, is the depth of the characters, not just focusing on alpha hard man, it has the joker, the psycho, the loser, the brains, the engineer, the fool and due to the skills of the cast, the characters develop and empathy is created.
The two central characters are George (Daker) and Bill Whittaker (Marlowe) the brains behind the botched robbery with George as his trusted second. Daker is an actor, easily recognisable from British television who appeared in the last ever Porridge as the foul mouthed Jarvis, a prison bully who could jeopardise Lennie Godber’s (Richard Beckinsale) parole hearing, only for Norman Stanley Fletcher (Ronnie Barker) to come to the rescue. The connection between Villains and Porridge doesn’t end there, as the episodes do not begin with a theme tune but with a mug shot of the key character to that episode and the voice of a judge passing sentence on him, analysing the reason for their sentence and the traits of the central character, followed by the sound of prison doors slamming and being locked. Porridge was made two years later after Villain, 1974, which features the same format, only this time a Judge (voice of Barker) passing sentence on Fletcher, with the same sound of prison doors slamming, blatant plagiarism by Porridge co-creators Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. Oh well, I am sure no one minded. There are many other familiar faces that appear in Villains who, again became established stars, Timothy West and Paul Eddington (Yes Minster) as the crooked lawyer.
Villains is a mixture of monologues and action, and goes beyond the nucleus of the gang. In fact, several of the episodes feature on the impact of the crime on the women and takes the females beyond just being gangsters molls. Alice Sheree, an unlucky woman in love and life and ex-girlfriend of one of the gang, a relationship that led to her being put in prison as she handled money stolen from the robbery. Alice played by Sharon Duce (Big Deal, Conviction Growing Pains), brings suffering to the TV screen, as she is a simpleton, however with no malice, but due to circumstances and her ignorance, she loses her family, daughter and freedom again. A powerful piece of drama, and like all of Villains, works well as a one off play. That is the intelligence behind the writing and performances, the 13 episodes interlink perfectly, yet as stated they are dramas within themselves, no cliff hangers, and it works. In Chas, his long suffering wife Rene, played by Caroline Blakiston (Rides, Brass, The Mallens) tries desperately to obtain the loot from the robbery, only to enter into a world of lies and corruption, and without the money, bills start to mount, and she will do anything to get the money.
Also covered in Villains, is the temptation and the appeal of crime. Belinda (Gwyneth Powell, known to millions of kids in the UK as Mrs McClusky aka Bridgette the Midget from Grange Hill) is a bank teller, living with her husband who is a probation officer. Life is OK, but when Whittaker charms her, she starts to give him inside information about the bank, the one they plan to rob. She feels no loyalty to the bank nor to her husband, it is clear that a dance with the devil is something she enjoys. However, this is the underworld, she is a fall guy, so there is no fairy tale ending. Having an insight into the women’s take on crime is a breath of fresh air and unique, especially in early seventies England where sexism was paramount. Furthermore, the police are not portrayed as a trustworthy establishment, as they too can be brutal and will focus on the weak using underhand tactics , talking suspects out of legal representation in order to get their man. You do find yourself rooting for the villains, whether that was their intention, who knows.
Villains is British crime drama at its very best, the sets and clothes may have dated, yet the writing and the acting goes beyond that. Any fans of classic and great British crime dramas, like Robbery, Get Carter, The Long Good Friday will certainly relish this one, as it is as strong and powerful as those films. It is complex, thought provoking, adsorbing, tense, deep and introspective, yet most importantly, entertaining. You won’t be disappointed.
Villains Available from Network DVD's website.