What is Gangsters, and why should Doctor Who fans care?

Image Credit: West Midlands Police (CC BY-SA 2.0, Flickr)

Image Description: People in 1970s Birmingham go about their business

By Fiona Moore

When I was working on my guide to the Doctor Who story The Robots of Death for The Black Archive (Number 43, for those of you interested in reading it), I found myself returning again and again to the 1975-1978 BBC television series Gangsters. In particular, it had a clear impact on The Robots of Death in that it encouraged ethnic diversity in casting, and opened up British television to more experimental writing. In this article, I will discuss the wider influence of Gangsters on Doctor Who, with regard to casting, writing and subject matter.

Gangsters has an indirect connection to Doctor Who right from the start. Philip Saville, director of the original Play For Today story and the series’ co-creator, had been recruited to ITV’s Armchair Theatre in 1958 by Sydney Newman, and followed him to the BBC in 1963. Gangsters itself came about due to a drive to develop more television programming made in, and telling stories from, the regions outside London. As a result, Saville, along with Philip Martin (later of Vengeance on Varos and Mindwarp fame) proposed to do a crime drama set and produced in Birmingham. Martin did active on-the-ground ethnographic research, visiting clubs and interviewing people in the area for three months. The pair sought out not just unknown actors for their roles, but to include as many local Birmingham people as possible regardless of previous experience. For instance, Paul Satvendar, who played the delightfully unpredictable Indian henchman Kuldip, had literally no acting roles prior to Gangsters.

The 1975 Play for Today which served as the series’ pilot was considerably more straightforward than the programme which followed. Borrowing heavily from Get Carter,  it tells the story of a London hood, John Kline, who, after getting out of prison for murder, travels to Birmingham to seek revenge and is drawn back into the criminal politics of the area. Its main unique selling point was its use of the multiethnicity of the Birmingham crime scene, with Black, Indian and Irish gangs facing off against each other in an environment controlled by Kline’s target, the White crime boss Rawlinson -played by Martin himself. The series which followed developed this scenario in greater detail, focusing on the power struggle which takes place between Indian crime lord Rafiq, Black British gangster Malleson, and IRA agent McEvoy in the wake of Rawlinson’s murder. Kline is reluctantly drawn into the action when special agent Khan, looking to crack the White criminal underworld, recruits him for this purpose. 

From the outset, the episodic series was more playful and postmodern than the Play For Today. Beginning with the abovementioned reversal of the crime series trope whereby a White detective recruits an ethnic minority partner to investigate crime in that community, the series also included serial-style cliffhanger endings, pop-culture references and postmodern wit. For instance, with the latter, a meeting between crime lords is conducted entirely in corporate-speak with Malleson offering to “foreclose on [Kline’s] option to breathe.” This generally went down well with viewers and critics; however, the second season generally alienated them as it became more overtly surrealistic. As well as drawing in references to everything from Hitchcock to The Archers, Martin appeared again, no longer playing the deceased Rawlinson. Instead, he played both himself as the writer, dictating the script to a typist in a market in Pakistan, and a Chinese mythic figure, the White Devil, who kills Kline with a single touch: the writer ending his own creation. At the end, Kline’s lover Anne Darracott literally walks off the set past the camera crew, revealing the story for the fiction it is.

The most obvious connection with The Robots of Death, which was made in 1977 between the first and second seasons of Gangsters, is in the casting. Tariq Yunus and Tania Rogers had both come to the attention of casting directors due to their roles in Gangsters. Yunus had played a Sikh illegal immigrant betrayed to the authorities by Khan and Rogers has been Kline’s initial love interest, a West Indian stripper. However, it contributed in more indirect ways too. Gangsters was an early example of art television: a series which uses the multi-episodic, long-form characteristics of the small screen to tell a story, rather than treating TV as popular entertainment or as a sort of cheaper, more wide-reaching version of cinema or theatre. The flourishing of art television in the late 1970s was part of what enabled Phillip Hinchcliffe to take a more intellectual approach to Doctor Who, as he described in a 1983 interview:

“We – Bob Holmes and I – had a policy on Doctor Who… we maintained that most of the children in Britain likely to watch Doctor Who were already watching it. And so, therefore, to maximise our audience, we had to aim upwards; we had to raise our standards and appeal to the adults by adding other sides to the melodramas we were producing.”

Furthermore, Gangsters’ playful approach to genre, incorporating Westerns (enabling them to question the concepts of ‘The West’ and ‘Indians’), Bollywood, martial arts, Blaxploitation and film-noir tropes allowed Chris Boucher, under Robert Holmes’ guidance, to develop a similarly pastiched and postmodern story, referencing Agatha Christie, Frank Herbert, Clifford Simak, Isaac Asimov, and others in equal measure. Like Gangsters, The Robots of Death deliberately subverts the White-detective-with-ethnic-minority-partner trope, by giving us a human detective with a robot partner investigating a crime taking place among the robots.

There are also more indirect connections with The Robots of Death, however. In a interview about Gangsters, Philip Saville said:

“There are several causes of contemporary violence. One is the response of young people to a machine-ridden world – they try to take society by the throat, crying ‘Look at me! Recognise me! I am a person!’” 

The Robots of Death is more overtly addressing fears of mechanisation in 1970s society, with its tale of robot servants being subverted by a genius driven, ultimately, by his complex relationship to robots, in which he simultaneously idealises them, fears them, and yearns to dominate them. However, Saville’s quote situates Gangsters as another such text, with the violence of Birmingham’s underworld stemming from fears and frustrations of people in a de-industrialising society, something which would have resonated with an audience experiencing the same rapid mechanisation.

The series also contributed to Doctor Who more generally. As well as Yunus and Rogers, Christopher Benjamin (of The Talons of Weng Chiang), Alibe Parsons (of Mindwarp) and Kristopher Kum (of The Mind of Evil) all feature, with John Abinieri in a minor role, as well as Viktors Ritelis behind the camera. Gangsters was also the series that turned Maurice Colbourne from an avant-garde stage performer, best known for co-founding a socialist theatre collective in East London, into a TV actor specialising in ‘hard man’ roles, as he would do for Doctor Who in Resurrection of the Daleks and Attack of the Cybermen. Malcolm Clarke’s score for the latter also may be a direct reference to Gangsters, which used synth-heavy musical leitmotifs to underscore characters’ appearances. 

Gangsters’ surrealism, humour and pastiche, furthermore, appears to be something of an influence on the Douglas Adams and Christopher Bidmead script-editing regimes – Doctor Who after Gangsters would delight in pastiching Russian novels, heist movies, Bram Stoker, and Anthony Hope, whilst enlivening a story of space mercenaries stealing an alien culture’s sacred treasures by introducing a talking, shape-shifting sentient cactus. While audiences were divided over whether or not Gangsters got away with its pastiches (one reviewer calling it “a bit too much of a good thing”), it gave Doctor Who a license to experiment with literature and film in similar ways.

Gangsters also marked the beginning of a sea change in British television’s approach to multiethnic casting. Prior to Gangsters, most mainstream drama in Britain was overwhelmingly White, with non-White performers normally appearing only when the role called for someone of their specific ethnicity. After the success of Gangsters, casting directors could no longer claim that they didn’t know of any non-White actors who could perform to the appropriate standards. British audiences of all ethnicities had been shown that it was possible to make a gripping drama series with a non-White leading man and a number of prominent non-White characters.

Less visibly, but no less significantly, Gangsters also featured characters with regional accents, in John Kline and Irish gangster Dermot Macavoy. It’s arguably significant that The Robots of Death was only the second story in Doctor Who’s history to feature a colour-blind casting policy, and also, less often noted, an accent-blind policy. Interestingly, the first choices for Borg and Uvanov were Brian McDermott and Ronald Lacey, neither of whom have regional accents. While a more diverse approach to casting and storytelling has been a long time coming, Gangsters was one of the first steps in this direction.

Gangsters was also, subtly, critical of racism in British society. Although Khan might have recruited Kline to penetrate the White underworld, Kline subverts this by forming a multiethnic crime coalition instead, developing a partnership with Indian crime-lord Rafiq and Black entrepreneur Sarah Gant, as well as doing business with Mr Yang of the Chinese community. At the end of the second season, the audience is explicitly told that the future of Britain will be mixed-race and female-led. For a Doctor Who fan, the Chinese Triad scenes of Season Two read almost like a subtle rebuke to The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Martin follows a lurid scene of the Tang crime family’s henchmen pledging allegiance through a blood ritual with a ‘backstage’ scene of Lily Li Tang complaining bitterly, in a cut-glass accent, that austerity measures mean they can’t use real blood or expensive wine, while her father, still in his formal silk robe, reads the Financial Times. Through this juxtaposition, Gangsters subverts the idea of Chinese culture as frightening and alien, exposing the Orientalism of its portrayal on British television as exploitation and performance. 

Finally, Gangsters spawned one of the very first academic conferences about a television programme, a one-day workshop organised by the Society for Education in Film and Television and West Midlands Arts. As a result, Gangsters also contributed to the television studies movement which contributed numerous considerations on Doctor Who. Conferences on Gangsters lead to books like The Unfolding Text, and, ultimately, to The Black Archive’s series of Doctor Who monographs.

Gangsters is a series worth checking out by the informed Doctor Who fan. Not simply because it’s an intelligent, witty and surreal story with a number of connections to 1970s Doctor Who, in particular The Robots of Death, but because it was, and is, a direct influence on a number of trends which have characterised the series since the late 1970s, culminating in the present team’s diversity-embracing, critical, and postcolonial approach to storytelling. 

The Black Archive on The Robots of Death is available to buy from Obverse Books

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