Every now and then something genuinely special is unearthed once more after quietly mouldering forgotten for decades in one of the dustier, more neglected corners of the archives of British TV drama, its existence hitherto undetected and unremarked on by even the most ardent of us cult telly fans until a niche DVD release helps bring it back into fan consciousness. Thanks to the unceasing efforts of the redoubtable folk at Network Releasing, “Villains” is one such piece of work we’ll soon be hearing good things about: a thirteen episode British crime drama that overcomes the foibles and limitations of 1970s telly production methods, as well as the taint of period camp that comes with all those gaudy ties, wide-lapel jackets and Jason King-influenced hairstyles and moustaches, to emerge as a stunning piece of semi-forgotten genre TV, with a storytelling structure that’s equally as complex and sophisticated and challenging as anything a present day viewer is expected to be au fait with in this post-Tarantino/post-LOST age of tricksy narrative topsy-turvy-ness (Yep. I’m lookin’ at you Steven Moffat!).
Although it echoes the excellent “The Gold Robbers” from 1969 (also available from Network, and absolutely well worth checking out if you haven’t already done so) in making a highly organised act of robbery the pivotal event that connects a diverse group of professional criminals and those on the periphery of their circle, their interwoven stories eventually adding up to a rich portrait of a milieu, while also filling out the expected crime story arc as it goes along, “Villains” is actually even more daring thanks to its non-linier mosaic-like episode structure and the sheer diversity of dramatic styles it manages to incorporate over the course of its thirteen episode run.
Unlike “The Gold Robbers” -- which starts conventionally at the beginning with the bullion robbery that galvanises the rest of the action and pretty much uses the ensuing police procedural investigation as a means of examining each ‘link’ in the wide-ranging criminal conspiracy that’s eventually shown to be behind the whole thing -- I suspect you could watch most any of the episode of “Villains” in pretty much any order, even though the subject matter would seem on the surface to demand a strictly linear structure. But series creator Andrew Brown anticipates the modern vogue for starting at the end or in the middle -- indeed, starting anywhere in fact, but at the beginning – and flashing forward and backward at will, the lesson here being that the story of what makes these people tick (these people being the ‘criminal classes’, as more than one of them is content to describe himself) isn’t always necessarily best told by starting in the most obvious place in the narrative. There’s an almost cyclical structure about it as well -- at the end, one feels like immediately going back to the beginning and watching the whole thing again, and not necessarily by playing all the episodes in their original broadcast order either.
Thus it is the case that though the entire drama is hinged on a major event that takes place in episode one, namely the organisation of the escape from custody of a gang of professional bank robbers while they’re en route from Wormwood scrubs to a session of their on-going Court of Appeal hearing – the actual crime they’ve been banged up for in the first place is at best only hazily sketched-in in a piecemeal fashion until about halfway through the series, when we finally get to see it in its entirety, recalled in extended flashback by the ‘brains’ behind the whole caper while he is attempting to blank out the facetious witterings of a bunch of oily ex-pats he encounters at an arid drinks’ party while in lonely hiding on the costa del sol. Until then, we have to make do with mere titbits of information, mostly gleaned from the newspaper headlines that form part of the collage of images used as a backdrop in the title sequence, behind the mug shot of the subject of that week’s episode. We know the nine-man team were involved in an audacious attempt to rob the (fictitious) National Royal Bank, that the ‘tickle’ went terribly wrong, and that the gang were all eventually caught; and we know that no-one seems to have come away from the job with more than thirty grand in his pocket, despite the large amounts involved, and that the police have recovered very little of this comparatively meagre haul.
The two main players in the plot are the respected career burglar played by David Daker (George), whose firm organise the prison break, and the brains behind the original bank job played by William Marlowe (Billy), who between them gather a group of experienced men for the crime that includs the likes of Bob Hoskins as safe blower 'Knocker' and Alun Armstrong as Tel -- a jobless ex-shipbuilder from Tyneside who puts his working skills to criminal use after moving to London. A suite of episodes dotted throughout the series retrace the various stages of the crime through the exploits of these characters who were central to the original job; but for the most part, the gang is made up of small-time recidivists, who are as much the victims of economic and social circumstance as anything else.
After the suspense of the original break-out in episode one, each member of the gang go their separate ways. Most quickly use up their small stash of loot in attempts to organise their flight from the law. The series follows each of them in their efforts to evade detection and recapture. Although the first episode is set among the gang of contacts George and Billy have arranged to look after their interests while they’re inside, and who actually set in motion the plan to spring them, the series only sporadically returns to this tough “Get Carter” gangland world over the course of the series, filling in narrative gaps and often replaying the same scenes from the perspective of different characters, in the process rendering them in a new light. What’s most notable about the drama overall is how it manages to strike a radically different tone from episode to episode, incorporating everything from mystery (the episode ”Chas” follows the well-off wife, Rene (Caroline Blakistone), of a London crime lord who is forced to take the help of a small-time hood on the make after her husband mysteriously disappears in the aftermath of the robbery, leaving her penniless) to wistful picaresque road movie (“Sand Dancer” is a comedy drama episode about Alun Armstrong taking flight from the London underpass in which the gang’s prison van is ambushed, and experiencing many quirky misadventures while avoiding the police who are hot on his trail as he heads by train and motorway to the South Shields of his childhood, to have one last romantic afternoon with his girlfriend before handing himself in). This is the only episode entirely shot on film, giving it a very different look and feel to the other episodes which employ the usual mixture of video shot in-studio with the multi-camera method and 16mm film inserts.
“Knocker” stars Bob Hoskins in an episode that’s a million miles away from the romantic realism of “Sand Dancer”. In fact, it often plays like a knowing parody of 1970s, post-Carry On sex comedies and actually anticipates the structure of the movies it pre-dates, such as Stanley Long’s “Adventures of a …” series, while completely deconstructing their defensive take on masculinity: Hoskins plays an Alfie-like ‘60s wide boy and ladies’ man who emerges from prison into a bewildering ‘70s landscape of sexual liberation, where everybody seems to be “at it” wherever he looks but in which his old lines no longer work in a post-feminist world. The episode has all the usual sex comedy farce and hijinks, involving Hoskins getting caught out by two lady friends who arrive at his hideaway at the same time but then end up in bed together while he remains (literally) impotently fretting on the side-lines. The story ends with a Benny Hill-like chase through a public park in which the trail of dolly birds tottering after Hoskins is joined by the police who are by now in pursuit. Ironically, Hoskins is eventually re-caught by the law because of a young hippie couple who get in his way and trip him up while they're making out on the grass in front of him!
One of the things that is very notable and unusual about the series is how unexpectedly focused it is -- for a genre traditionally associated with masculinity and maleness -- on the women who are involved in various ways with these men whose actions ostensibly determine the drama. In fact, many of the episodes are primarily concerned with how the range of experiences of a contemporary cross-section of women from a variety of social backgrounds and in varying economic circumstances, is affected – women who encapsulate a multitude of attitudes and emotional responses, from pride (middleclass Franca, played by Hilary Dwyer, enjoys the notoriety of being with a tough guy from prison), denial (Caroline Blakistone lives for the consumerist benefits and social standing on the streets brought about by her missing husband’s ill-gotten gains and crime world connections, while turning a blind eye to his activities), to stoic acceptance (Marjorie Yates as Julie Owens puts up with her bank robber husband Bernie’s [Tom Adams] affair with Gabrielle Drake out of love -- which eventually pays off when he realises that her loyalty is far more valuable than passion).
It isn’t just the wives or partners of crooks who come under examination: we also follow the resentful wife of a murdered copper trying to cope with media intrusion (Anna Barry); a lower-middle class bank teller (Gwyneth Powell) who relishes the adventure of passively partaking in a crime when she offers information to the gang, but comes unstuck when her liberal probation officer husband tries to do some good for one of his impoverished clients with money left to her to look after by Bill Whitaker (William Marlowe), the organiser of the bank job; the lonely widow Helen (Barbara Leigh-Hunt from Hitchcock’s “Frenzy”) living in an isolated farmhouse, who becomes engaged to one of the men (Michael Culver) later destined to play a role in the crime, not realising that he is an inveterate thief, con man and a fantasist who has spun a web of lies for her.
One of the more downbeat stories focuses on Alice (Sharon Duce), the mentally vulnerable girlfriend of one of the men hired simply to do the grunt work on the job, who herself gets sent to prison for harbouring him in the immediate aftermath of the robbery. She comes out of jail a few years later to find her grotesque parents (played brilliantly by Clive Swift and Stephanie Bidmead) resent her return to their cramped terraced house and now consider the child she left them to raise when she was sent down to be their own. Episodes such as this work perfectly well as standalone stories as do other tales of born victims set among the ruthless gangs and psychopaths who make up the criminal underworld they’re now forced to frequent. “Smudger” follows the life of abuse that marks the lot of Jim Norton’s sad, sympathetic loser; from the death of his parents in the Blitz to years of care home abuse and a Borstal induction into crime as an adolescent when he meets the teenage George and becomes involved in his criminal world, the grim story winds up with Smudger reluctantly on the run after the prison break, but finding himself at the mercy of ruthless duo Sam and Benny (played with grinning deranged charm by Alan Lake, with a Dave Lee Travis hair do-from Hell, and Timothy West) who want the thirty grand he’s set aside for his estranged son. “Commander” is almost as equally cruelly bereft with a brilliant Martin Shaw (unrecognisable underneath Bouffant Jason King hair and moustache) slowly going stir crazy with his ditzy girlfriend who just wants to go shopping but is forced to stay cooped up with him in a dingy attic hideout arranged by George’s firm.
The range of styles and the shifting tone of the drama, as well as the detailed characterisation and the inclusion of some great performances from a cast that includes many, many subsequently well-known household names from the world of British drama and comedy (including a handsome Colin Baker as a tabloid reporter), really flags this series as a major rediscovery for fans of crime drama and classic British drama in general. Writers whose names frequent the credits of great shows such as “Callan” are responsible for penning many of the episodes and series creator and producer Andrew Brown also presided over well-regarded dystopian political drama “The Guardians” (1971) and the‘70s cult series about the pop industry “Rock Follies” (1976). If the series has a fault it’s that, from a modern viewer’s point of view, there’s a tendency towards lengthy and somewhat theatrical monologues in which characters emote about themselves in a way that feels rather dated and stilted now. Yet this series’ incidental account of Britain in the difficult early seventies of Edward Heath’s Government rings true in a lot of ways, offering a much richer and more diverse portrait of its 1970s underworld, and of contemporary society, than many films of the period would be capable of delving into without this luxury of thirteen hours of screen time at their disposal. This four-disc set is very well worth seeking out for all these reasons. It’s available as an exclusive from the website of Network Releasing at http://www.networkdvd.net