Get Carter’s return home

Forty-five years since Mike Hodges’ adaptation of Ted Lewis’s pulp crime novel Jack’s Return Home minted the look and smell of 1970s north-eastern Britain on screen, its protagonist Jack Carter lives on – with a new Newcastle stage production of the story bringing him home from Hollywood. Neil Young considers the indelible traces of a favourite local antihero.

Neil Young

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Michael Caine on location of Get Carter, Mike Hodges’s original adaptation of Ted Lewis’s 1970 crime novel Jack’s Return Home

Michael Caine on location of Get Carter, Mike Hodges’s original adaptation of Ted Lewis’s 1970 crime novel Jack’s Return Home

The bandit man
Came up the Great North Road
Up to Geordieland
To mine
The mother lode

— Mark Knopfler, 5.15am (2004)

Gang War Hint in Pit Town Murder

Gang warfare could not be ruled out in the murder of a business man found shot in his green Mark X Jaguar car in the pit town of South Hetton yesterday, said the man leading the investigation, Supt. Ronald Kell. “Something could be boiling up – or it could be nothing,” he said.

— Northern Echo, 6 January 1967

The County Durham killing of Angus Sibbet nearly half a century ago may not have “boiled up” into full-scale gang-warfare across the north-east of England, but its vibrations still continue to resonate in the area – and far beyond. The internecine turf-struggles behind the ‘pit town murder’ formed the basis for Jack’s Return Home (1970), second novel by the Manchester-born, Humberside-raised, London-based Ted Lewis. One year later, the book was adapted for the screen by writer-director Mike Hodges as the brutally stylish Get Carter (1971), arguably the most influential and ‘iconic’ of all British crime pictures. Get Carter was cited by Quentin Tarantino – whose own works near-invariably revolve around violent revenge – as his favourite British film. Its traces can be found, for good or ill, in the DNA of nearly every crime-movie produced in the United Kingdom over the last 40 years.

The enduring appeal of the story was confirmed once again this year when Torben Betts’s theatre version which premiered at Newcastle’s Northern Stage this month to healthy box-office and enthusiastic notices. “Everyone, surely, will want to visit Newcastle after seeing it,” enthused the Evening Chronicle’s theatre-critic. I attended the sold-out first night (following four days of previews) on 17 February; it continues in Newcastle until 5 March and then embarks on a nationwide tour.

Get Carter on stage at the Northern Stage (2016)

Get Carter on stage at the Northern Stage (2016)
Credit: Photography by Topher McGrillis, courtesy of the Northern Stage. Set design by 59 Productions.

While officially “based on the novel Jack’s Return Home”, the title is Get Carter and the text nimbly combines aspects of both versions while adding some new variations of its own – some more effective than others (a Pinteresque interlude kicks off the second act in bizarrely incongruous fashion), No specific geographical locations are mentioned in Betts’ dialogue, but the abundance of Geordie accents makes it clear that we’re in the Tyneside visible in the Hodges film, which follows Michael Caine’s London-based “enforcer” travelling back to his “home town” to investigate – and spectacularly avenge – the mysterious death of his brother Frank.

Caine, born and raised on the south side of the Thames, famously makes no attempt at anything resembling a Newcastle accent. This can perhaps charitably be ascribed to Carter attempting to conceal his provincial origins and affirm his status as a big-league London gangster. What’s less explicable is that hardly anyone else in the film should speak with a north-eastern accent either – apart from future New Tricks star Alun Armstrong, at the time a 25-year-old screen-debutant from Annfield Plain in County Durham, who plays Frank’s bartender-colleague Keith.

During the Q&A after a screening of Get Carter at Newcastle’s Tyneside Cinema in 1999 (sold out, as all Newcastle showings of the film tend to be), I asked the Bristol-born, quite plummily-spoken Hodges about the mysterious lack of Geordies in Get Carter, and why his Newcastle and Gateshead (most of the running-time actually takes place in the latter) were full of people with “Yorkshire-ish” accents. This earned a sizeable laugh from the audience – in a city where matters of accent are always taken seriously – and bemused surprise from Hodges. The director said he’d asked Armstrong to be a sort of unofficial accent-coach to the rest of the cast, and had little idea that the results had proven so geographically wayward.

Get Carter (1971)

Get Carter (1971)

There’s some irony in the fact that Get Carter – by a wide margin the most renowned cinematic depiction of my native north-east England – should be so coy about acknowledging its setting. In this regard it follows the template set by the three previous narrative features shot in Newcastle: Brian Desmond Hurst’s On the Night of the Fire (1939), Ralph Thomas’s The Clouded Yellow (1950) and Sidney Hayers’ Payroll (1961) – all of them crime-related, all of them conspicuous for their lack of Geordie-ness from their leading-men on down (Ralph Richardson, Trevor Howard, Michael Craig), all of them essentially treating the area as a colourful ‘anytown’ backdrop.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that Newcastle really dared to ‘speak its name’ on film, most obviously via the Newcastle-raised Mike Figgis’s Stormy Monday (1988) – yet another crime saga – starring local hero Sting alongside exotic American imports Tommy Lee Jones and Melanie Griffith. By this point the Amber Films collective, operating out of Newcastle’s Quayside, had started to put the north-east on the international art-film map with early features such as Seacoal (1985) and the documentary/drama hybrid T Dan Smith (1987). The latter explicitly draws upon Get Carter iconography as it recounts the rise and fall of the city’s visionary (Newcastle was to be the “Brasilia of the North”) but corrupt council-leader of the 1960s.

Armstrong played a lightly fictionalised version of Smith in the BBC’s landmark drama-series Our Friends in the North (1996) – the politician’s shady dealings with architect John Poulson (both ended up in jail) inspired Hodges as he drew upon real-life north-east goings-on for his Carter screenplay. Arriving to scout locations, he “began to smell the corruption in the city,” as he later wrote. Having sailed into the Tyne in the 1950s during his National Service on a Royal Navy minesweeper, Hodges intuited that the region – as usual, in the throes of considerable social and economic upheavals – would provide an ideal backdrop for rough-diamond Lewis’s swaggering morality tale, with its searing dismissals of bourgeois respectability.

Get Carter (1971)

Get Carter (1971)

Gateshead’s monolithic Trinity Square Car Park particularly caught Hodges’ eye: he would use it as the setting for the picture’s most memorable set-piece as slot-machine supremo Cliff Brumby (Bryan Mosley, later Coronation Street’s affable shopkeeper Alf Roberts) is hurled to his death by a vengeance-crazed Carter. Hodges described the car park as “a monumental example of 60s British brutalist architecture which, along with the city’s vast cast iron bridges stretching across the Tyne, seemed to capture the nature of Jack Carter himself.”

Notwithstanding the outsider Hodges’ sensitive attunement to the potentials and “smells” of Tyneside, the production of Get Carter was in many ways the diametrical opposite to the approach taken by Amber Films – their practice based on intimate engagements with working-class communities over long periods. In the case of Get Carter, a London-based wing of a Hollywood giant – MGM – deployed the grittily industrial, seldom-filmed backdrop of north-east England for a thriller showcasing the macho allure of bankable star Michael Caine, carefully packaged for maximum international appeal. Tellingly, the premiere took place not in Newcastle or even London, but in Los Angeles on 3 February 1971 – a month before the UK release.

Despite its ersatz aspects, Get Carter nevertheless exudes a pungent time-capsule authenticity – feature-debutant Hodges palpably benefiting from the experience and expertise of his veteran Viennese cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky (still with us at 103), who was steeped in documentary. Growing up as a young film-watcher in the north-east of the 1970s and 80s, I found it always a special experience to catch Get Carter on television – even if the daringly steamy phone-sex scene between Caine and his London-based paramour (Britt Ekland) was excised from such screenings until a 1986 BBC transmission.

Get Carter (1971)

Get Carter (1971)

Get Carter was different from all other films in that it somehow ‘belonged’ to the north-east – projecting and validating a tough-but-tender image of the region that chimed with the area’s self-romanticising view of itself. I was born (five days before the picture’s UK release) in Easington, just a couple of miles from South Hetton, and grew up in Ryhope, a short walk up the coast from Blackhall Beach where the film’s closing sequence was shot. My home town is Sunderland, where I still reside – and where the offices of ‘Social Club Services’, Sibbet’s employers, were located.

In the decades following Sibbet’s killing, the case was seldom out of north-east media for long – having initially made a splash in the nationals (spot the ‘Gaming Wars’ headline of a newspaper being read during Get Carter’s opening titles, accompanied by Roy Budd’s hauntingly propulsive score). The Newcastle and Sunderland press kept readers regularly updated on all developments involving Denis Stafford and Michael Luvaglio – both were convicted of the murder – and Luvaglio’s well-connected brother Vince Landa, whose recently-vacated County Durham mansion appear in Get Carter as the opulent lair of chief villain Cyril Kinnear (John Osborne).

The Sibbet affair, which Blyth-raised Mark Knopfler poetically chronicled in his 2004 song 5.15am, was invariably referred to as the ‘Get Carter murder’, even though none of the picture’s homicides remotely resemble Sibbet’s dispatch. A rifle plays a prominent role in the plot (even more so in the book and stage-version) and the publicity-image of Caine brandishing the weapon has become Get Carter’s most regularly-used illustration – even popping up on the cover of Alexander Walker’s 1985 survey of British cinema, National Heroes – but it’s never once fired in the film itself.

The 1999 rerelease poster for Get Carter (1971)

The 1999 rerelease poster for Get Carter (1971)

Trinity Square, universally known as the ‘Get Carter Car Park’, was an unavoidable feature of the landscape into the current decade – derided as a concrete eyesore by many but defended by those who reckoned it an important monument of cultural and architectural importance, perhaps even a tourist-attraction for the world’s legions of Get Carter aficionados. The car park was finally knocked down in 2010, with a scarcely-more-elegant Tesco development – including a multiplex cinema – now occupying the prominent site.

By this point Get Carter had been long enshrined as an enduring phenomenon, homaged by Steven Soderbergh’s oblique 1999 remake The Limey; reissued by the BFI the same year; presented on DVD as the ‘Original Gangster’ antecedent of countless derivative, laddish imitations. And while Caine’s imposingly unstoppable anti-hero may have been shot dead amid the coaly surf of Blackhall, the character has enjoyed a protracted and colourful afterlife. He even appears in the third volume (published 2011) of Alan Moore’s graphic-novel series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, going about his thuggish business in the capital in cahoots with Vic Dakin – Richard Burton’s Kray-like protagonist from Michael Tuchner’s Villain (1971).

Carter actually survives Jack’s Return Home – Lewis had nicked the title from a 1958 Tony Hancock radio sketch – and returned for two patchily-received sequels, Jack Carter’s Law (1974) and Jack Carter and the Mafia Pigeon (1977), which appeared five years before the hard-living author died from alcohol-related illness aged 42. By this stage he had himself ‘returned home’, moving back in with his widowed mother at Barton-upon-Humber. Shades of Jack Kerouac there, although Lewis’s superbly hardbitten prose, with its relentlessly authentic dialogue and hard-knock savvy, is obviously much closer to noirish trans-Atlantic antecedents such as Mickey Spillane, Jim Thompson, David Goodis and Raymond Chandler – Hodges has Caine’s Carter reading Farewell My Lovely on his northbound train.

Hit Man (1972)

Hit Man (1972)

The Americanisation of post-war British culture is a notable sub-theme of Jack’s Return Home – brought to the surface in Betts’s adaptation – which has been in its turn transplanted to West Coast settings on two occasions. It’s the loose basis of George Armitage’s Los Angeles-set blaxploitation quickie Hit Man (1972), with Bernie Casey as ‘Tackett’; 28 years later came Stephen Kay’s Get Carter, written by Stephen McKenna, starring Sylvester Stallone as Carter and featuring Caine as Brumby. A loud, crass clunker set on the rainswept streets of Seattle, it’s at least notable for having Carter driving off intact as the closing credits roll – Stallone as always keeping his sequel/franchise options open, though in this instance they were scuppered by paltry box-office returns.

Given the current mania for remakes, however, it’s perhaps surprising that the likes of Jason Statham and Tom Hardy haven’t already been lined up for another Get Carter re-hash – Hardy, with his fondness for accent-work, would surely relish playing Carter with a rich Geordie brogue. French bruiser Clovis Cornillac would meanwhile be an apt left-field choice, having established his muscular charisma in Marc Barbier’s The Serpent (2006), based on Lewis’s relatively overlooked Plender (1971).

Kevin Wathen as Jack Carter in the Northern Stage ’s 2015-16 production of Get Carter

Kevin Wathen as Jack Carter in the Northern Stage ’s 2015-16 production of Get Carter
Credit: Photography by Topher McGrillis, courtesy of the Northern Stage

A much more suitable ‘new’ Jack Carter is currently staring us in the face, of course, in the relatively diminutive form of Kevin Wathen. The 36-year-old Alnwick-born actor’s commanding presence is – along with Leo Warner’s spectacularly imaginative set-design (piles of bricks abound) – a crucial factor in the Betts’ adaptation’s current success. Wathen is so assured on stage that – no mean feat – he within seconds dispels memories of the ‘iconic’ Caine portrayal. Physically, he’s much more like Jimmy Cagney: a lethally self-confident bantam of a bloke, delivering his lines in a menacingly sing-song and undiluted north-eastern accent. And while his screen appearances have so far been restricted to television, the upcoming nationwide tour will hopefully propel Wathen onto the radars of London-based casting-directors – even if he never gets to join Caine, Casey and Stallone in the celluloid Carter pantheon.

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