Harold Shand’s Docklands dreams were finally realised in 2012. That spring, Canary Wharf overtook the City of London as the biggest employer of financial services workers in Europe. In the summer, east London held an Olympics that was the envy of the world.
On screen in The Long Good Friday (1980) Shand, the Stepney boy who made it big in the London criminal underworld, aspires to turn then-derelict Docklands into a thriving centre of commerce with the five-ringed sporting tournament at its centre. He aims to attract American mafia investors and kickstart the Big Smoke’s now-incessant gentrification, decades before pop-up restaurants and scandalously overpriced flats existed. But plans turn awry over Easter weekend, when unknown assailants begin murdering Shand’s trusted cohorts.
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It may have a remarkable prescience, but the plot of director John Mackenzie’s gripping London classic is of less importance than what is done within its straightforward framework. Like Goodfellas (1990) a decade later, what lingers after viewing is an incredibly energetic brew of charisma, glamour and danger. These traits are channelled most effectively through Shand himself, played with iron conviction by Bob Hoskins at his career zenith. He enthrals all aboard his yacht in the shadow of Tower Bridge. He schmoozes the Brooklyn mob. He orders assaults and murders, and in one particularly vicious scene leaves no doubt of his terrifying ability with a broken bottle. Hoskins said of the role:
Funnily enough I've never had any trouble with violence. It frightens the life out of me that it comes so easily.”Bob Hoskins
Mackenzie credits cinematographer Phil Méheux with capturing London in its grimy and glitzy ambivalence, rather than giving the film a look too obviously indebted to film noir. But Mackenzie’s own savvy directorial decisions coaxed the best out of Hoskins and his co-stars, and produced innovative visual ideas like the striking abattoir scene.
The film’s glamour, though visually manifested by yachts on the Thames, penthouse flats and casinos, is best personified by Shand’s moll, Victoria (Helen Mirren). It is Victoria who calms Shand and his associates when his crew start dropping, and who sees him during his rare instances of quiet, apologetic vulnerability. Mirren excels as a dignified, peremptory woman who has everything and deals with crises impeccably, over 25 years before she would win an Oscar for the titular role in The Queen. Mirren and Hoskins were both well on their way to huge fame at the time of production – Mirren was an acclaimed theatre actor, and Hoskins’s star had risen following the smash Dennis Potter TV series Pennies From Heaven (1978).
That the film juxtaposes glamour with shocking scenes of primal violence is no surprise. When screenwriter Barrie Keeffe worked in east London as a reporter, he covered gangsters such as the Krays, and met a few criminals who ended up in small roles in the film. The consequence of Keeffe’s experience with real street-toughs is evident in the script, too. Shand in particular barks lines that are simultaneously criminal, poetic and comedic. When addressing a corrupt policeman he says, “Bent law can be tolerated for as long as they’re lubricating, but you have become definitely parched.” When told of a friend’s dead body being moved in an ice cream van he complains that “There’s a lot of dignity in that, isn’t there? Going out like a raspberry ripple.” It’s as tough as Shand himself to pick a favourite, but the deathless “You don’t crucify people. Not on Good Friday,” must be a serious contender.
Keeffe’s first draft of the script was written in just three days, with the final version including contributions from Hoskins, Mackenzie and producer Barry Hanson. Living in a Greenwich flat at the time, Keeffe could see the derelict Docklands from his window, and his ideas entwined following a chance meeting with an Irish republican in a pub. Gangsters against terrorism soon became a going concern.
Although the film was shot just before Margaret Thatcher came to power, Shand is perhaps the first truly Thatcherite antihero of British cinema. In one speech he says, “What I’m looking for is someone who can contribute to what England has given to the world.” Aside from uttering that line, which one can imagine the former Prime Minister intoning to her dominated cabinet, Shand is devoted to the free market and ruthlessly destroys anyone standing in his way. When Shand comes up against the IRA, he’s dealing with a foe that can match his own dogged determination to win at all costs.
It was the political element that caused The Long Good Friday’s delayed release. Having been made in 1979 for £900,000 with backing from Black Lion, a subsidiary of Lew Grade’s ITC Entertainment behemoth, the film hit festivals in 1980, but was delayed when Grade and others balked. There were concerns that the IRA might blow up cinemas that screened it, and another version was prepared with the Irish references and violence heavily excised. Additionally, Bob Hoskins’s voice was dubbed in a Wolverhampton accent for fears Americans wouldn’t understand him. Hoskins decided to sue and had support from actors including Alec Guinness, Richard Burton and Warren Beatty prepared to stand as expert witnesses in court. Fortunately, George Harrison’s Handmade Films stepped in and paid £700,000 to give the film cinematic distribution in November 1980. It appears another chance meeting had pushed the film towards its goal. Hoskins had met Eric Idle at a party and convinced him to watch the film, figuring that Idle would be capable of backing the film following the success of Monty Python’s Life of Brian – a film which Handmade had been formed to finance.
London has changed immeasurably since The Long Good Friday’s original release, and to watch it now is to dip into a perverse nostalgia. Today the criminal fraternity fighting for its cut of the capital’s ill-gotten gains could be drawn from any of the 270 nationalities that currently reside in London – an interesting sign of the city’s best asset, its incredible multiculturalism. There are also few remaining areas of London that a contemporary Shand could choose to redevelop. Warehouses, residential homes and sundry buildings of every shape and size have either been refitted or torn down in all 32 boroughs and the square mile. Huge swathes of Thameside land from Battersea to Woolwich and Fulham to Beckton have been bought up by multinational property developers. The city moves on, as always. As for Docklands and modern gangster opportunity? Since the banking crisis caused the 2009 recession, many wonder if the real criminals aren’t sitting in steel and glass offices high above ground level, rather than getting their hands dirty on the street.
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