Great British crime movies of the 1970s

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer

 

If you’d lived in the United Kingdom in the 1970s but your only contact with the outside world had been through the medium of television, you may well have believed you were surrounded by a dystopian society.  One where every bank and security van was in constant danger of being attacked by beefy men with sawn-off shotguns and stockings pulled down over their heads.  One where every street was the potential scene of a violent punch-up and every road was the potential scene of a destructive car chase.  One where the only bulwark against the tide of lawlessness and anarchy was a police-force composed entirely of hard-boozing, chain-smoking, foul-mouthed thugs who wore kipper ties with their shirt-collar buttons undone.  Really, you’d have been too afraid to leave your house.

 

This is because 1970s British television was awash with crime and cop shows – often violent and often populated by revolting low-life criminals and heroes who weren’t much better in their morality: for example, Special Branch (1969-74), Villains (1972), New Scotland Yard (1972-74), The Sweeney (1975-78), Gangsters (1975-78), The XYY Man (1976-77), Target (1977-78), Out (1978), Hazell (1978-79) and Strangers (1978-82).

 

Needless to say, these shows had a big impact on impressible kids like me.  My school playground at breaktimes reverberated with the sound of me and my mates acting out things we’d seen on TV the night before, shouting, “You’re nicked, sunshine!” and “You grassed me off, you slag!” and “No bastard copper’s gonna take me alive!” and “We’re the Sweeney, son, and we haven’t had any dinner!”  My parents were happy to let me watch such programmes – as long as I wasn’t watching that horror rubbish, which had been scientifically proven to be bad for you.

 

Admittedly, 1970s American television was riddled with cop shows too, and British TV producers were probably just working on the supposition that what worked for American audiences would work for British ones.  But the Yank shows just didn’t seem to compare with their Limey counterparts in terms of bad attitude and grubby, sweaty, bad-breathed and greasy-haired authenticity.

 

I suspect a prime reason for this was because the 1970s saw the British film industry die on its arse and British directors, writers and actors who might have expected to ply their trade on the big screen found themselves plying it on the small screen instead.  This helped inject some uncompromising cinematic rawness into the domestic telly crime genre.  Meanwhile, alas, the cinematic counterpart of that genre seemed non-existent.

 

Well, it was almost non-existent.  A few crime movies got made in 1970s Britain too and, though they’re as rare as hen’s teeth, these exert a fascination for me today.  Only two of them ever achieved a degree of fame and the rest are virtually forgotten – but I find all of them cherish-able.  Here are my favourites.

 

© MGM EMI

 

Get Carter (1970)

This is one 1970s British crime film that everyone knows, although I don’t recall it getting much attention until the mid-1990s, when thanks to Britpop, Damien Hirst, etc., the ‘cool Britannia’ scene took off and Get Carter’s star Michael Caine suddenly became a retro-style icon.  Ironically, Caine’s nattily dressed Jack Carter and Roy Budd’s edgy jazz score aside, there isn’t much in Get Carter that feels stylish.  The drab, monochrome terraced streets of Newcastle-upon-Tyne – if the film’s premise is that Michael Caine has returned to his hometown to sort out trouble, whatever happened to Caine’s Geordie accent? – the shabby pubs, the seedy racecourses, the shit clothes and haircuts, the Neanderthal attitudes…  It’s bloody depressing, actually.  If 1970s Britain really had been like this, I can almost understand why when Maggie Thatcher came to power, she bulldozered the place and cleared the way for the 1980s.

 

One thing about Get Carter that’s often overlooked is the performance of the late, great Ian Hendry as the film’s scuzzball villain, Eric Paice.  “Do you know,” Carter tells him at Newcastle Racecourse in High Gosforth Park, “I’d almost forgotten what your eyes look like.  They’re still the same.  Piss-holes in the snow.”  Hendry was originally meant to play the virile Carter, but by 1970 heavy drinking had taken its toll and instead he was given the supporting role of the memorably weasley Paice.  Hendry resented losing the lead role to Caine and things didn’t go well the night before the filming of the racecourse scene when director Mike Hodges and his cast attempted to give it a read-through – Hendry, supposedly, was three-sheets-to-the-wind.  Despite Hendry’s drunken provocations, Caine is said to have kept his professional cool, although he may have enjoyed the irony of the film’s climax, which sees Carter force-feed Paice a bottle of whisky before clubbing him to death with a shotgun.

 

Villain (1971)

Inspired by the real-life exploits of 1960s London crime-lords Reggie and Ronnie Kray, Villain has Richard Burton, no less, in the role of a gay, mother-fixated and paranoidly violent gang-boss who, against the counsel of wiser heads, gets himself involved in a raid on a factory’s wages van that ultimately causes his downfall.  Meanwhile, trying to stay in one piece through all of this is Ian McShane, playing a smooth but unimportant pimp who has the unenviable job of being both the object of Burton’s affections and the victim of his sadistic rages.

 

© MGM EMI

 

Villain has a wonderful supporting cast – T.P. McKenna and Joss Ackland as fellow gang-bosses, Del Henney and Tony Selby as henchmen, and Nigel Davenport and Colin Welland as the coppers doggedly trying to bring Burton to justice.  (Interestingly, McKenna, Henney and Welland all turned up in the cast of Sam Peckinpah’s troubling Straw Dogs, made the following year.)  The film suffers from having too many sub-plots, though the one where McShane helps Burton escape the law by getting a sleazy Member of Parliament who’s been using his pimping services to testify for him is memorably believable and nauseating.  Played by Donald Sinden, you never hear which political party the MP belongs to.  But you can guess.

 

Sitting Target (1972)

Ian McShane had to suffer some dysfunctional relationships in early 1970s British crime movies.  No sooner had he finished being Richard Burton’s lover / punchbag in Villain than he had to cope with being best friend to a psychotic Oliver Reed in Sitting Target, directed by the underrated Douglas Hickox.  With McShane in tow, Reed escapes from prison early in the film, determined to catch up with his wife Jill St John and give her what’s coming to her.  Reed doesn’t want revenge on St John, as you might expect, for her terrible performance as Tiffany Case in Diamonds are Forever (1971).  No, it’s because he’s discovered she’s betrayed him for another man.  The film’s big twist, when we find out who that other man is, isn’t altogether a surprise.

 

Sitting Target has many pleasures, including Edward Woodward playing a policeman assigned to protect St John against the marauding Ollie.  But nothing quite matches the thrilling early sequence where our two anti-heroes, plus a third convict played by the wonderful (and recently departed) character actor Freddie Jones, bust out of prison in desperate, skin-of-the-teeth fashion.

 

© American International Pictures

 

Hennessy (1975)

I wasn’t going to include Don Sharpe’s Hennessy on this list because it’s about terrorism rather than crime.  Indeed, its story of a former IRA explosive expert (Rod Steiger) who decides to destroy the British government and the Queen by blowing up the state opening of parliament after his wife and child are killed by the British Army, makes it the first movie to tackle the issue of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.  However, as the final film on the list is choc-a-bloc with IRA men, and as Richard Johnson gives a lovely performance as the weary, dishevelled, cynical copper – is there any other type in British crime movies? – trying to thwart Steiger’s plan, I thought I’d give it a mention.

 

The film is admittedly patchy but it has a top-notch cast that also includes Lee Remick, Trevor Howard, Eric Porter, Patrick Stewart (bald as a coot even then) and a super-young Patsy Kensit playing Steiger’s ill-fated daughter.  The climactic scenes set in the House of Commons, involving the Queen, landed the filmmakers in hot water because they used real footage that Buckingham Palace had approved without knowing it was going to end up in a film.  Also, the film’s subject, an incredibly touchy one at the time, meant that Hennessy scarcely saw the light of day in British cinemas.

 

Brannigan (1975)

Okay, Brannigan – also directed by Douglas Hickox – is the joker in this pack.  It features John Wayne as a tough American cop who arrives in a London of bowler hats, brollies and historic landmarks that exists only in the imagination of Hollywood scriptwriters, and who then causes mayhem as he behaves like a Wild West sheriff dealing with an unruly frontier town.  This involves such memorable sequences as Wayne doing an Evel Knievel-style car stunt where he hops across Tower Bridge while it parts to let  a ship pass below.  And Wayne triggering a cowboy-style brawl in a pub near Leadenhall Market.  And Wayne roughing up a minor villain played by the cinema’s greatest Yorkshireman, Brian Glover.  (“Now would you like to try for England’s free dental care or answer my question?”)  If you’re in the wrong mood, Brannigan is the worst film ever made.  If you’re in the right mood, it’s the best one.

 

© United Artists

 

The Squeeze (1977)

Barely had John Wayne swaggered through the London underworld than another Hollywood star did the same in Michael Apted’s The Squeeze – Stacy Keach, playing a London private eye with an industrial-strength drink problem. During occasional moments of sobriety, Keach investigates the kidnapping of his ex-wife (Carol White, who played the title role in Ken Loach’s ground-breaking 1966 drama Cathy Come Home).  She’s remarried a posh security officer (Edward Fox) tasked with overseeing the delivery of large sums of money.  Keach finds himself tangling with a kidnap gang who intend to enlist Fox’s unwilling help in mounting an armed robbery.

 

The Squeeze suffers from being overlong, with too much time spent wallowing in Keach’s booze-soaked misery. But this is outweighed by its good points.  I like its depiction of late 1970s multicultural London and its sympathetic portrayal of Keach’s Jamaican neighbours.  Also, Stephen Boyd (who died soon after the film’s completion aged just 45) and David Hemmings give good turns as the villains.  Allowed to use his native Northern Irish accent in a movie for a change, Boyd disturbingly plays a well-heeled crime-lord who dotes over his own family whilst having zero empathy for the family he’s threatening to destroy with his kidnapping scheme.  Meanwhile, Hemmings is a delight as a pragmatic career criminal who doesn’t share his boss’s sunny optimism about things and gets increasingly disgruntled as Keach closes in.

 

© Warner Bros. Pictures

 

And connoisseurs of 1970s British popular culture will be fascinated to see anarchic comedian Freddie Starr in the cast too.  Starr is endearing as Keach’s best mate, a reformed petty criminal trying to make a living as a taxi driver. Indeed, such is Starr’s loyalty to Keach that he saves his neck three times towards and during the film’s climax, most memorably by running the villains off the road in his taxi.  Starr, who died in May this year, was from all accounts an unreconstructed arsehole in real life.  So remember him this way.

 

Sweeney II (1978)

The greatest of all 1970s British cop shows, The Sweeney got two movie spin-offs, Sweeney! In 1977 and Sweeney II a year later.  I don’t think Sweeney!, which attempted to involve Flying Squad heroes Jack Regan (John Thaw) and George Carter (Dennis Waterman) in an espionage plot, is much cop, but Sweeney II captures the spirit of the TV series.  With Regan and Carter on the trail of a gang who spend most of their time living it up in Malta as wealthy British ex-pats but who return to Britain from time to time to stage vicious, take-no-prisoners bank robberies, the films marries bloody, sawn-off-shotgun-powered violence with some off-the-wall humour.  As one of Regan’s sidekicks, Derek O’Connor gets the funniest lines: “It’s a combination of nerves and smoking too much,” he says when explaining his libido.  “I get a hard-on like a milk bottle.”

 

© Euston Films / EMI

 

Sweeney II is good, loutish fun, then, but it manages to be topical too.  London’s real Metropolitan Police force was investigated for corruption in the late 1970s and the film reflects this with the character of Regan’s commanding officer, played by the excellent Denholm Elliott, who’s facing a long stretch in prison on account of being “so bent it’s been impossible to hang his pictures straight on the office wall for the past twelve months.”

 

The Long Good Friday (1980)

Although it was released at the start of the 1980s, John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday was made in 1979, so I’m classifying it as a 1970s film.  And it definitely feels like it’s drawing the curtain on a particular era with its tale of an old school London gangster (Bob Hoskins) convinced he’s about to make a mint in the brave new world of Thatcherite London, where everything is up for sale to the corporations and developers – until one day when he suddenly finds himself tangling with a ruthless foe, the IRA, that makes him look hopelessly out of his depth.

 

The final scene sees Hoskins become a prisoner in his own, hijacked car and get driven to his doom – an IRA man played by a youthful Pierce Brosnan snakes up from behind the front passenger seat to hold him at gunpoint.  Although Hoskins doesn’t speak, the succession of emotions that flit across his face as it dawns on him that he had it all, but now he’s blown it all, make this the most powerful moment in British crime-movie history.

 

© Black Lion Films / Handmade Films / Paramount British Pictures

 

The Rock

 

 

In a recent blogpost I namechecked the Rock, aka wrestler-turned-movie-star Dwayne Johnson.  Well, here’s a post about an altogether bigger, mightier and more spectacular rock.  I’m talking about Sigiriya Rock, an imposing lump of solidified volcanic magma that rises 200 metres above the plains of north-central Sri Lanka.

 

As a natural feature Sigiriya Rock would be impressive enough.  However, what’s made it one of the greatest tourist attractions on the island are the remarkable man-made embellishments added to it in the 5th century AD.  This was when King Kashyapa I turned the rock into both an impregnable fortress and a luxurious palace, putting on top of it structures and gardens that were supposedly inspired by the fabled city of Alaka, opulent home of Kubera, god of wealth in Hindu mythology.  Kashyapa had a decade-and-a-half to enjoy the security and comfort of this rock-top residence.  He reigned from 473 to 495 AD and it took the first seven years of his kingship to build it.

 

Meanwhile, Kashyapa’s family background had been dysfunctional, to say the least.  He slew his own father, King Dhatusena of Anuradhapura, and declared war on his brother, the future King Moggallana, who fled to India.  Later, Moggallana launched an invasion of Sri Lanka, although his forces never got to test the effectiveness of Kashyapa’s stronghold at Sigiriya.  Instead, Kashyapa chose to venture down from the rock and take on his brother in battle on the plains.  This decision ended badly for Kashyapa, who was defeated and ended up killing himself rather than be captured.  His brother and usurper restored Anuradhapura as the capital and for some eight or nine centuries thereafter Sigiriya was home to a Buddhist monastery complex.

 

As a science fiction nerd, I’d known of Sigiriya Rock for a long time before moving to Sri Lanka because it’d been an inspiration for the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novel The Fountains of Paradise (1979) by Arthur C. Clarke, himself a long-term resident of Sri Lanka.  The novel is about the construction in the 22nd century of a ‘space elevator’, leaving the earth from a terminal on the island of Taprobane – which is a lightly-disguised version of Sri Lanka, though for practical reasons it’s repositioned so that it sits on the equator – and connecting with a space station some 22,300 miles up in orbit.  The novel is peppered with flashbacks to the reign of the visionary but demented King Kalidasa, who’s building an extraordinary palace atop a huge rock called Yakkagala.  Kalidasa and Yakkagala are obviously fictional counterparts of Kashyapa and Sigiriya and they provide an ironic parallel with the epic story of the space elevator’s creation many centuries later.

 

© Victor Gollancz

 

Anyway, recently, my better half and I realised we’d been living in Sri Lanka for four-and-a-half years and still hadn’t visited Sigiriya Rock, so it was surely time we did.  At the suggestion of the owner of the hotel we were staying in, at the nearby town of Habarana, we set out in a tuk-tuk at the crack of dawn – good advice, as it turned out.  En route, we passed through the local wildlife sanctuary, which is famous for its elephants, although the only evidence of them we saw was a mess of pulverised vegetation strewn across the road that, our driver assured us, had been caused by their passing; and later on the same road, some hefty deposits of elephant dung.

 

Finally, we were dropped off at the edge of the Sigiriya complex.  We walked a little and entered a building housing the ticket counters and a museum, where already queues were forming even though it was barely seven o’clock.  Tickets purchased, we crossed an area of gardens at the bottom of the rock.  Our plan was to ascend the rock before it became congested with tourists and then explore the gardens after we’d come down.

 

Rising above belts of trees at the gardens’ far end, the rock was a huge, long slab, slightly crenelated and fissured, its dark-grey surface streaked and grooved with vertical lines of brown.  The sun scoured over the centre-point of its flat summit, which meant that in our early-morning photographs a large part of the upper rock was obscured by a circular haze of light.  Meanwhile, its massive shadow divided the gardens into two parts, a sunlit area of radiant green outside the shadow and a dull, twilit area inside it.

 

We climbed the first steps, our surroundings pleasantly wooded and grassy as they sloped upwards to meet the side of Sigiriya Rock proper: a landscape of stone walls, iron railings, terraces, trees, boulders and occasional monkeys.  At one point, the steps threaded through a queasily small triangle of space between two huge, propped-together rocks.  We also saw the first sign warning us about the presence of stinging insects.  In Sinhala, Tamil and English, the sign intoned: BE SILENT – WASPS.

 

 

Then we encountered the rock itself and the steps gave way to a horizontal, wooden walkway that veered to the left.  The walkway ended at more steps ascending to a small enclosed kiosk where you handed over part of your ticket to see the most famous feature on the rock’s side (as opposed to on its summit).  These are the Sigiriya Rock frescoes, paintings of female figures that once were supposed to number some 500 and covered its western face, making it a gigantic gallery.  But just a handful of them survive, in fragmented form.  We climbed a narrow, mesh-enclosed staircase that spirals up the rockface like a turning drill-bit and emerged into the surviving section of gallery, where I counted 17 figures.  Painted onto the sand-coloured canvas of the rock, they fade in and out of view like ghosts flitting in and out of the ether.  But the parts of them that remain visible, golden-skinned and clad in colourful costumes and jewellery, are still iconic.

 

You aren’t allowed to take photographs on the gallery, so instead here’s a modern and rather saucy Sigiriya Rock fresco-themed painting from the wall of our hotel room.

 

 

After descending from the gallery and returning to the main walkway, we passed an area of rock known as ‘the Mirror Wall’ because of its smoothness and shininess.  According to Wikipedia, it’s thus named because back in the day it was “so highly polished that the king could see himself while he walked alongside it.”  It hardly has that quality now but, humped over the walkway, its surface veined, gleaming and strangely soft-looking, this part of the rock seems almost organic.

 

Around a corner and past more walkways, stairs, railings and scaffolding, we emerged onto a plateau halfway up the rock’s northern side called the Lion’s Paws Terrace.  Located here is the bottom of the final series of steps and stairs leading to the summit.  This is flanked by a pair of giant, talon-ed, three-fingered paws – hence the plateau’s name – protruding out of a mound of ancient brown brickwork.  These might once have been attached to a sphinx-like statue with a lion’s shoulders and head but now just the oddly disembodied paws remain.

 

The terrace contained many visitors taking a breather before tackling the final part of the ascent – or in a few cases staying put, because they’d decided that the final ascent was beyond them and this was as high as they were going.  There was another sign about stinging insects, this one saying: WASP ATTACK AREA – BE SILENT.  However, it was offset by a gentler sign giving information about the local bee population: “Bambaras or the Giant Honeybees migrate here; build a social nest on the rock or in a nearby trees (sic), and perform their valuable pollination service when plants in flower require there (sic) service.”

 

We went up the stairs between the Lion’s Paws.  After we’d passed the top of the ruined brickwork, we had to transfer to a series of rickety-looking metal staircases, veering off in one direction for a minute, then veering off in another, and then in another.  In fact, the staircases resembled a crazily positioned fire escape on a very high building.

 

At one point, a lady announced to the other members of her party in front of us, “No, I can’t do this’ and turned and headed down again.  However, what we found daunting about this final part of the ascent wasn’t so much the height, which admittedly was dizzying, but our own tiredness.  By then we’d already traversed a lot of steps and stairs.

 

 

And after all that…  The summit of the rock looked surprisingly civilised when we finally arrived.  It was a patchwork of tracts of grass and tracts of sandy-coloured paving stones, the patches delineated by low remnants of stone walls; terraces whose sides were contained within braces of smoothed, eroded brown bricks; yet more staircases navigating the various levels that’d been carved into the summit; smallish trees; and in one place what looked like an ancient, square swimming pool, now full of brownish water, although I assume it was actually a reservoir that’d given the palace its water supply.  When we descended towards the pool, we saw a couple of dogs mooching there, prompting the inevitable thought: reservoir dogs!

 

In fact, the maze of terraces, flights of steps, walls and flag-stoned pathways made me think of a structure in an M.C. Escher picture, though a less surreal and baffling one.

 

Predictably, the views were beautiful.  It was like being at the centre of a vast bowl – distant mountains forming the bowl’s sides, an expanse of treetops and occasional lakes and rivers forming the bowl’s verdant and glinting base.  Standing on the eastern side of the rock, you got to look across a gorgeous silvery-blue lake that was rimmed and flecked with green, although it was impossible to tell from this distance if the green was caused by lilies, reeds, algae or waterweed.

 

 

Some edges of the summit looked over a sheer drop.  These were screened off by not-terribly-sturdy-looking metal railings.  Not the kindest of employers, King Kashyapa was said to have positioned sentries right on the brink of these precipices, reasoning that their fear of falling asleep and toppling to their dooms would give them the impetus to stay awake, alert and watchful.

 

When we ventured down again, we had to struggle through increasing numbers of visitors who were now trying to make their way upwards.  A few of these visitors deserves fates similar to what Kashyapa’s sleepier sentries would have suffered.  One vain and stupid woman caused a serious traffic jam at the bottom steps between the Lion’s Paws because she insisted on posing at length while a friend took pictures of her.  Further down, another ignorant woman caused a blockage while she attempted to photograph herself in the middle of a narrow section of steps with a camera-phone and an unfeasibly long selfie-stick.

 

And when we arrived down in the gardens again, many people were advancing up the central paths towards the rock-steps.  Some of the female tourists belonged to Chinese tour parties, were clad in Laura Ashley-style floral-patterned dresses and floppy sunhats, and looked like they’d dressed for a shopping expedition rather than an ascent up a huge brute of a volcanic rock.

 

So we were glad we’d heeded our hotel manager’s advice.  Certainly, go to Sigiriya Rock because it’s a brilliant experience.  But go early.