Wanna be in my gang?

Another mobster drama hits the small screen this week. But, as Gerard Gilbert discovers, The Long Firm, with its mosaic portrait of a gay gangland boss in Sixties Soho, is no patsy to the Lock, Stock legacy

They say that if you remember the Sixties, then you weren't there - and in a funny sort of way this is true of author Jake Arnott. Born in 1961 - and therefore only eight at the decade's close - Arnott's debut novel,
The Long Firm, created one of the most persuasive accounts of the Soho underworld of the 1960s. In this now almost mythical era, gangsters rubbed shoulders with pop stars and politicians, while Swinging London's society photographer, David Bailey, immortalised the Kray twins alongside Mick Jagger and The Beatles.

They say that if you remember the Sixties, then you weren't there - and in a funny sort of way this is true of author Jake Arnott. Born in 1961 - and therefore only eight at the decade's close - Arnott's debut novel, The Long Firm, created one of the most persuasive accounts of the Soho underworld of the 1960s. In this now almost mythical era, gangsters rubbed shoulders with pop stars and politicians, while Swinging London's society photographer, David Bailey, immortalised the Kray twins alongside Mick Jagger and The Beatles.

Arnott's The Long Firm is full of fictional composites from the time. The pivotal character, Harry Starks, is a Jewish East End gangster who happens to be gay (like Ronnie Kray) and given to torturing his victims, as did Charlie Richardson. Those entering Starks's orbit include Lord Teddy Thursby, a homosexual peer along the lines of Lord Boothby; a former Rank starlet fallen on seedier times (partly based on Diana Dors and partly on former starlets too libellously alive to mention); and a trendy sociologist with touches of Professor Laurie Taylor, Malcolm Bradbury's supposed inspiration for The History Man.

Arnott cheekily sprinkles this fictionalised cast with real people such as the flamboyant MP Tom Driberg; the gay record producer Joe Meek; a broken-down Judy Garland; and the gangland figure Jack "The Hat" McVitie - later murdered by the Krays. It all adds to The Long Firm's lustre of authenticity. The book's unique selling point, however, is not its cast of the real and semi-real, but its casual assumption that a high proportion of this hip and happening demi-monde was gay.

"One of my inspirations was the death of Ronnie Kray," says Arnott. "I rather hoped that someone would come out with the story about the private life of a homosexual gang boss. There's so much nonsense that has been written about the Kray twins, but all the interesting things always seem to be ignored."

The private life of a homosexual gang boss as depicted in The Long Firm includes orgies, "house boys", bouts of depression and a good deal of persuasion with a white-hot poker. Not that Harry Starks is in any way a one-dimensional cockney hard-man. He's also a believer in the Empire (he relaxes to LPs of Winston Churchill's wartime speeches) and the capitalist order.

"Ronnie Kray was obsessed with the great Empire men - a lot of whom were themselves not of a conventional sexuality," says Arnott. "Another big influence on me is Bertolt Brecht, who used the figure of a gangster in order examine capitalism with its gloves off. One of the most abiding myths about the criminal underworld is that these people are somehow anti-Establishment. I think the exact reverse is true."

Having snapped up the film rights before the book was even published in 1999, the BBC has at last made a four-part dramatisation of The Long Firm. Closely adapted from the book by Joe Penhall, author of the award-winning National Theatre play Blue/Orange, the Ronnie Kray-like Harry Starks is played by Mark Strong - Tosker in Our Friends in the North.

"I didn't really want somebody who had a lot of gangster baggage," says one of the programme's producers, Liza Marshall. "I mean, we could have gone down the Ray Winstone route..."

The producers also needed someone of the calibre of Mark Strong (who, apart from Our Friends in the North, has a distinguished theatre career) because Harry Starks remains a slightly mysterious character in the book. He's always seen from other people's points of view and doesn't have his own voice in the narrative.

"I don't think he's ever physically described, except as being brutish," says Strong, whose Starks is physically more brooding Al Pacino in Scarface, than explosive Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday. "It was felt he had to appeal to men and women, with a certain amount of charisma and charm. You had to imagine why someone would fall under his spell.

"As for his homosexuality, the way to play him was as a dead straight, well turned-out London guy with no campness whatsoever. The only thing I did was if we were in the street, I'd look at boys instead of girls."

Near faultless casting includes a sly performance from Derek Jacobi as Lord Teddy Thursby; the criminally under-used George Costigan as the bent vice-copper, DS Mooney; Lena Headey as the ageing starlet Ruby Ryder and Shaun Dingwall as Lenny, the Seventies sociologist. One name you won't see on the cast list, however, is that of a pop star.

"It's extraordinary how often we're expected to watch pop stars play gangsters or villains," says Arnott. "Roger Daltrey as John McVicar, Phil Collins as Buster Edwards, the Kemp boys from Spandau Ballet as the Krays twins, Matt Goss as Charlie Richardson..."

Indeed, the conflation of London gangster and pop star goes back as far as Nic Roeg and Donald Cammell's 1970 film Performance, in which a fugitive cockney gangster, played by James Fox, holes up in a rock-star mansion inhabited by Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg.

" Performance is quite a good reflection of the Sixties itself," says Arnott. "There's so much vigour and energy in the film, and it ends up in a bit of a hippie mess - very much how the decade was. But I'm not very interested in metaphysical speculation; I wanted to look very much at real social and political aspects."

Arnott is a bigger fan of The Long Good Friday, in which Bob Hoskins's old-school London gangster finds himself falling behind the times as he tries to interest the American mafia into buying a sizeable slice of London's Docklands. "One of the most prescient British movies ever made," says Arnott. "It was made in 1979 and it almost completely anticipated the Eighties. It's a very Brechtian look at that world. The huge irony is that at the end, the mafia say to poor old Harry, 'Sorry, we don't deal with gangsters'. They've cleaned up their act far more than he has."

Peter Medak's 1990 film The Krays was a wasted opportunity, thinks Arnott, with Gary and Martin Kemp as Ronnie and Reggie ("they could have done with a couple of feet around the waistline"). But then the Krays were still alive when the film was made - a potent presence even while rotting behind bars.

"Philip Ridley's script was based on the Greek myth of Castor and Pollux, the twins born when Leda and the swan coupled. Apparently, at the beginning of the film, a swan flies over, or something..."

Arnott leaves his deepest derision however, for a film that opened in the year just before The Long Firm was first published - Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. "It's the worst genre of all - it's a feel-good gangster movie", he says. "Absolutely nothing to say about anything at all - it's like one long beer commercial. The trouble with a lot of these British gangster movies is that their makers talk to these guys and they believe every word they say. And people do get drawn into this world. There are a lot of gangster groupies. I very consciously wanted to avoid that."

Arnott had his own experience of the celebrity ex-villain phenomenon at the book launch of The Long Firm. "Freddie Foreman came up to me - he turned up with Barbra Windsor, in fact. It was like a scene from one of my books. He said, 'I want a word', and I thought, 'Oh, no'. It turned out that what he wanted was to talk about his book deal and about his film proposal. He was networking. You'll meet these retired villains at book launches now, and they're all trying to work the room."

But while the old crooks are still knocking about, their haunts are long gone. The BBC2 adaptation of The Long Firm managed to snatch a few exterior shots of Soho, but the new media-friendly and (ironically, in the context) gay-friendly village has changed hugely since its shabby Sixties self.

"We mocked up some streets in Hoxton - the only area where you can go and the buildings are the same height," says the producer Liza Marshall. "If you look at old pictures of Soho, it's pretty much all prostitutes and the odd coffee bar."

The look of the series is surprisingly washed out, with none of the razzmatazz one might associate with the Swinging Sixties. The soundtrack also eschews any of the obvious songs of the period.

"I hate that wallpaper of really famous Sixties songs that becomes like a pop video," says Marshall. "Hopefully, the songs we have chosen are a little bit more surprising. I've been working with Universal, and they've opened up their back catalogue at Decca. Hopefully, what we've chosen will be stuff that people have heard of, but surprising none the less.

"It was a very conscious decision not to make the film fetishistically period. I really wanted it so that you felt in amongst the characters and their world, and I don't think those types of people would have had trendy Sixties furniture all over the shop. I wanted to make it feel real."

'The Long Firm' is on BBC2 on Wednesdays (starting tonight at 9pm)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

Ashdown Group: Analyst Programmer (Filemaker Pro/ SQL) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days, pension, private medical : Ashdown Group: A highly...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Chessington

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Service Desk Analyst - Chessington, Surrey...

Charter Selection: Graphic Designer, Guildford

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Charter Selection: This renowned and well establish...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick