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                                                 MOTION PICTURE & PRO-VIDEO tv production
Just trying to visit the Guinness Brewery in West London is rather like attempting to break into a top-security prison. So actually finding a mock-up of the inside of a tough
‘nick’ deep below its old malt store seemed perfectly logical.
In subdued but atmospheric light- ing, prisoners and warders were being discreetly shadowed by cameraman Sean Bobbitt as woolly-hatted director Bille Eltringham quietly oversaw a tense exchange of dialogue.
The scene was from the final episode of four in Joe Penhall’s adap- tation for BBC2 of The Long Firm, Jake Arnott’s popular early 60s-set novel about the colourful life and times of a Garland-loving, bisexual, top London gangster, Harry Starks (Mark Strong).
The book, published in 1999, observed Starks and his seedy, often violent, world through the eyes of five characters. The TV series now turns that quintet into a quartet – a disrep- utable peer (Sir Derek Jacobi), a fading film star (Lena Headey), a drug-dealing low-life (Phil Daniels) and a well-mean- ing young academic (Shaun Dingwall).
Producer Liza Marshall (The Sins, Eroica) first optioned the book even before it was published. “I was sent it in manuscript form. I read it overnight and thought it was fantastic. I took it to the BBC who wanted to option it. Then I put Joe on the project. It sat on the shelf for quite a while after that proba- bly because of all the British gangster films that were around at the time.
“Actually, I don’t think of it as a ‘gang- ster’ piece as such. I see it as being about this enigmatic, fascinating man who hap- pened to be a gangster. It’s certainly not a gangster thing in the Lock, Stock sort of way; it’s much profounder than that.
“When Joe was doing the first draft, he didn’t really want to talk to Jake at that stage. But since then, partly because it’s been sitting around a while, we’ve all been out for a few drinks together and they get on very well. Jake [who has gone on to write two further best-sellers, He Kills Coppers and Truecrime, also featuring Starks] really seems to like the adaptation.
“I always thought it should be a TV project because it hasn’t got the sort of really strong narrative as such that you could turn into a 90-minute movie. Its strength is its character description and I felt it would work much better over four hours. You’d have to strip out so much of the detail otherwise and it would somehow feel very snatched.”
Eltringham, with her background in documentary and intimate dramas like Kid In The Corner and This Is Not A Love Song, seemed an intriguing choice of director for this, superficial- ly at least, ‘well hard’ saga.
Marshall explained: “I didn’t want to go for a really blokey director because I didn’t want it to be too macho. It’s not just about blokes with guns; it’s about character and emo- tions. I watched This Is Not A Love Song about two not-very-nice charac- ters but at the end of her film you real- ly care for them and what happens to them. I thought the challenge some- what similar here.
“On paper at least, Harry Starks isn’t the nicest character yet somehow you’re drawn to him and find him charismatic, sexy and intriguing. You must also feel sad for him. Anyway, Bille seemed very good at drawing out these kind of performances and mak- ing you care about the people.”
Arnott’s book is veritably drip- ping in period atmosphere with spe- cific references to the period includ-
ing numerous mentions of the Krays; one of their alleged victims, Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie (changed to sleazy Jimmy for the teleseries) is even a principal character.
Said Marshall: “We decided to step a bit further into fiction because none of the book’s narrators are real char- acters apart from that one. However, we’ve still got actors playing real peo- ple round the edges like Judy Garland, Johnnie Ray, Tom Driberg, Joe Meek and Dorothy Squires.”
She added that the idea was most definitely not to try and “fetishistically recreate” the period but rather more “to give a flavour of it. We really went for something that is consciously much more about the characters and also much more immediate. So Sean is doing most of it hand-held, very over- the-shoulder to give the feeling of being in amongst it.
“Sean’s from documentaries and news; Bille’s from that background too. I thought that would especially suit this subject matter. Each episode, each hour, is narrated by one of the main characters. It very much feels like someone’s POV of Harry Starks, That way, his character, which was quite shadowy in the book, is firmly pulled into the foreground.”
Paying tribute to the designer, Malcolm Thornton, with whom he’s worked closely, Bobbitt, whose recent work includes a couple of episodes in the acclaimed Canterbury Tales series for the BBC, said that they had tried for “a realistic look without doing the whole gangster gritty look which is rather overplayed.
“We have an element of darkness but incorporate a sense of the era – primari- ly in terms of costumes and vehicles, and the design of the sets themselves.
“It’s been quite difficult because with the budget we have we can’t, for instance, go into Soho and turn it back in to the 60s in any way, shape or form. That makes for very restrictive POVs as far as the camera’s concerned.
“We referenced some old films but mostly stills photos of the era, mainly black-and-white and quite high-con-
 Photos main: Mark Strong as the top London gangster, Harry Starks, in The Long Firm; below l-r: Director Bille Eltringham; Producer Liza Marshall
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