For those of us who grew up on a diet of The Bill, Eastenders and The Sweeney, taking modern British crime dramas seriously can be quite a challenge.
The same actors (Craig Fairbrass), delivering the same cliched lines in the same cockney accents (“You what? Getaaattt!”) , driving through Peckham in one shot, yet appearing in Islington in the next – if you know London, London dramas aren’t escapism, they’re unconvincing. And more often than not, they don’t quite deliver the hard knocks they promise.
Thankfully, Gangs of London, while not terribly original, has a bite that matches its bark. It’s a crime thriller that delivers a high quality production combined with a convincing cast and, crucially, a script that avoids the obvious while still somehow delivering the familiar.
The opening is certainly attention-catching. Sean Wallace (Joe Cole) is an emotional, young, suave gangster who we find hanging a toe-rag criminal by his feet from a high-rise building site, before setting fire to the petrified lad and dropping his blazing, screaming body to the ground below. It’s stylish, ballsy and immediately intriguing.
Which, of course, is the point. The “seven days earlier” title card that follows is almost forgivable. Almost. To quote Rick’s Morty, we should probably start our stories where they begin, not where they get interesting, but we live in a YouTube society where content makers fear viewers dropping off if an opening isn’t strong enough.
What’s frustrating about the whole sequence is that what follows IS plenty strong enough. A couple of young travellers getting themselves into a situation that results in the death of gangland kingpin Finn Wallace (Colm Meaney).
Not only does his death lead to the world’s longest funeral (Valdamir Lenin will be buried quicker than Finn Wallace), but also the splintering of relationships between London’s chief crime lords. For Finn was the big boss who held it all together, and his son, Sean, is only interested in vengeance. So business is closed until the killers are punished.
Fortunately for Sean, a lowly street hood by the name of Elliot Finch (Sope Dirisu) could be the answer to getting to the bottom of the mystery. But what exactly is Finch’s game, and why is he so obsessed with the Wallace family?
With so much going on in the opening episode, so many characters being introduced (and killed), it’s a testament to the writing room, direction and editing that the plot is this easy to follow.
There’s enough betrayal here to compete with Game of Thrones (which figures, given that half a dozen cast members are GoT alumni) and in amongst the scheming and arguing, we’re subjected to a series of gut-wrenching, tooth-smashing fight sequences, including one extended punch up that makes Old Boy look like that last Karate Kid sequel nobody saw.
The London backdrops are used to good effect, with The Long Good Friday a bigger influence than anything featuring Detective Burnside, and the gore – of which there is plenty – speaks to a production team that aren’t interested in pulling punches.
It’s a strong start for a show with top dog potential within the London crime thriller order.