Whither the gangster drama after The Sopranos? David Chase's HBO Mafia saga took the wise guys in so many novel directions, not least on to the psychiatrist's couch, that it would seem that the genre has been well and truly exhausted. But now, like many another looking for a new start, the Mob drama has switched turf and changed its identity. It has donned its leathers, got its motor running and headed out on to the highway.
Outlaw motorcycle gangs may have been born to be wild, but they have long since matured into America's most successful home-grown organised-crime syndicates. International franchises like the Hells Angels, Bandidos and Outlaws (club motto: 'God forgives, Outlaws don't') have, in the words of one respected author on the subject, "clothed a criminal enterprise with the trappings of American folklore and myth".
A subject ripe for exploration, or even exploitation, then. But what about a bike-gang drama that claims to be less inspired by The Sopranos than by Hamlet? Welcome to Sons of Anarchy, about a fictional motorcycle chapter running guns in California, and the hot new show from FX, purveyors of The Shield, Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me and Damages.
The Shield is the relevant drama here. Writer and executive producer on that hard-boiled cop show, Karl Sutter, is the brains behind Sons of Anarchy. Sutter had been working on two ill-fated cinema projects about biker gangs and hanging out with a chapter up in Oakland, California – just across the bay from San Francisco – when he realised this subculture had the makings of a great TV show. While Sutter researched the gang's activities ("there were parameters... they didn't expose me to any illegal stuff"), he also looked into its wider history.
How the Hells Angels, for example, were formed in 1948 and took their name from a B-17 bomber squadron based in England during the Second World War. "The bigger clubs were a response to these war heroes coming back and trying to plug themselves into the sort of Eisenhower-era, suburban lifestyle," says Sutter.
"A lot of them couldn't make the shift and these clubs began as really just a bunch of guys getting together and blowing off steam on the open road. But in a very short period of time, 10 to 15 years, these clubs really grew into crime syndicates."
And this is where Hamlet comes into it. The young hero of Sons of Anarchy is a biker called Jax (played by the British actor, and Heath Ledger-lookalike, Charlie Hunnam), the son of the chapter's late founding member, John Teller.
"If you have a character like John Teller who began the club with one notion and over time it became corrupted and ended up as something else, to me that character became Hamlet's father, and his diary that Jax finds is the ghost of Hamlet's father. How does the realisation of his father's doubts impact a young man whom the club has been his only life?"
To be or not to be, that is the question for Charlie Hunnam, whose early credits included Queer as Folk (not, one imagines, a staple in the DVD pile down at the clubhouse), and who has been living in LA for the past 10 years, with film credits including Cold Mountain and Children of Men. Kurt Sutter spotted him in Green Street, the somewhat derided (in this country at least) 2005 movie about British football hooligans.
"Those groups of hooligans live by a lot of the same rules as the bikers," says Hunnam, who, like the rest of the cast has had to learn how to handle a Harley-Davidson. Ron Perlman, the actor still probably best remembered for playing opposite Linda Hamilton in 1980s TV series Beauty and the Beast, was brought in to replace Scott Glenn, who had played Jax's stepfather Clay Morrow, the club president, in the pilot episode.
"Scott Glenn's a great actor but for me, ultimately, I had to infuse the show with dark comedy," says Kurt Sutter, "and Scott just didn't have those chops."
Says Perlman himself, perhaps a little too much in character: "After I read the script I went instantly to 'Who have I got to kill to play this guy?'. Being president of a club is tantamount to be president of a sovereign state."
And in the opening episode that state is under attack. The gang's arsenal of automatic weapons has been destroyed by a rival outfit who are attempting to muscle in on their gunrunning. It's a brutal, utterly macho world, which makes it all the more surprising that 40 per cent of the audience for Sons of Anarchy in the US are women.
Sutter puts that down to it being a drama about family, and to the strong women depicted in the show. "The thing that's interesting about this world is that unlike The Sopranos... I mean Carmela Soprano was absolutely aware of what Tony was doing in general, but chose to live in ignorance, chose to buy the lie. In this world, the old ladies know what is going on; they are tools to a certain extent. One of the guys I worked with up in Oakland had gun charges, for example, so his girlfriend carried his gun for him."
The main female character in Sons of Anarchy, Clay's wife Gemma (the Gertrude of the piece, for anyone still going with the Hamlet thing) is played by Sutter's wife, Katey Sagal, somewhat typecast in the States from her long-running role as the sex-starved wife, Peggy Bundy, in the sitcom Married with Children.
"Katy was my sort of secret weapon coming into this project because I know what a great actress she is and I know how it's been hard for her to show that because of the Peg Bundy thing," says Sutter, a man who has succeeded where law-enforcement agencies across the globe have mostly failed – to gain the trust of the gangs in the first place.
Motorcycle clubs are notoriously difficult for undercover police to infiltrate because of the time it takes for novices to gain their "patch" and rise up within the rigid hierarchy. "That's the paradox of it all," he says. "They're all about rebellion and freedom and not conforming to the laws of society, and yet their internal laws... their own internal code... is way more militaristic than anything we are forced to adhere to."
Sutter was also surprised at the regular lives gang members led most of the time. "What I was struck by was that these were all working-class guys with legitimate day jobs. And unlike the Mafia, these guys were all about living under the radar, even if they have the dough they don't have the big houses. They all had these nice simple middle-class homes in the hills of Oakland, they all lived with three or four blocks of each other; they all lived within five minutes of the clubhouse."
Very cosy. Perhaps a bit too cosy? Two Oakland bikers were hired as technical advisers on Sons of Anarchy, and generally Sutter was eager to please. "I've tried to keep an open line of communication with that community if they feel like we're doing something that is disrespectful," he says. "There was an example. Our guys were wearing shirts and there was a club back East who thought the font we were using was a direct rip-off of their font. I got that message so we got rid of those shirts and printed up new ones."
Too much respect? Did he think he risked soft selling the gangs' darker side? "Quite honestly," he says after a long pause. "I'm more concerned about making these guys look like pussies than I am about making them look like killers."
'Sons of Anarchy' begins on 12 May at 10pm on Bravo
BIKERS ON SCREEN
The Wild One (1953)
"What are you rebelling against?" "Whaddya got?" The original biker movie, with Marlon Brando's famous drawled response. Tame in comparison to what came later, but banned in Britain until 1968.
Electra Glide in Blue (1973)
The only film by James William Guercio, manager of rock band Chicago, is an ambivalent generational rejoinder to 'Easy Rider', with Robert Blake as the middle-aged Arizona motorcycle cop. A fascinating mess – a bit like its era.
The Wild Angels (1966)
'Easy Rider' is the motorbike movie instantly associated with Peter Fonda, but three years earlier he was riding a chopper (with Nancy Sinatra as pillion passenger) in Roger Corman's nihilistic classic (below).
The first British Hells Angel's pic is a straight-faced black comedy gem. Nicky Henson is the leader of a biker gang called the Living Dead, who are just that. Beryl Reid is Henson's devil-worshipping mum, and George Sanders her butler.
A bunch of bikers who wear medieval suits of armour? An oddity even by zombie specialist George A Romero's standards. But the meaning for Romero was clear. It's about the difficulties of maintaining a personal vision in a mainstream world.