On the 30th anniversary of the release of Britain’s best gangster movie, Hardeep Singh Kohli celebrates its eerie prescience
‘I’m not a politician, I’m a businessman with a sense of history… our country is not an island any more…’
Harold Shand; gangster, visionary and entrepreneur. For many, The Long Good Friday is the finest British gangster film ever made. Much as I concur with that recommendation, to describe it as merely a gangster movie is to be excessively reductive.
When I first watched The Long Good Friday a couple of decades ago, I too loved it as a gangster movie; a film bristling with brutality, suffocatingly suspenseful and fulfilling all the criteria for excellent storytelling. Every few years I would dust off the DVD and watch it again; having done so recently with a friend, I experienced the film anew. I realised that beyond the unfolding inexorability of the protagonist’s downfall, there was a significance in the film in terms of the unfolding inexorability of British politics.
The Long Good Friday is the first truly Thatcherite piece of cinema, a movie that predicted the burgeoning growth and development of London into a world city, a magnet for new non-manufacturing business, a city willing to embrace the free market and exist at the very epicentre of a global economy. And it was through the single-minded prosperity of the City of London that the rest of the nation enjoyed the prosperity that followed.
‘What I’m looking for is someone who can contribute to what England has given to the world: culture, sophistication, genius. A little bit more than a hot dog, know what I mean?’
It seems rather apt that The Long Good Friday celebrate its 30th anniversary this year, just as the once new gold dream of London as financial centre of the world lies in tatters at our feet. The dream of Harry Shand brought us to the edge of a precipice, a precipice we have been pushed from: we are still working out whether we have landed or if we are still falling.
The London of 2009 is broken, defined by a new despondency; it couldn’t be more different from the fiscal fecundity of the 1979 London that the bombastic, pumping, synthesiser-driven soundtrack of the film compels you to watch. Harry Shand is the standard-bearer of Thatcherism, but before Thatcherism even existed, before Lady Margaret even had her hand on the tiller of power.
Harry Shand epitomised everything that the new Right could have hoped for. He was the celebration of the thrusting individual, a character alight with imagination, a man who, bike-bound, would happily have sought any opportunity for self-betterment. He was the ambitious working class, a dyed-in-the-wool Tory who had pulled himself up by the bootstraps. It was millions of Harry Shands across the length and breadth of the country who carried Margaret Thatcher to power and smoothed the way for the political, cultural and social transformation of the United Kingdom. The single marked difference between Shand and Thatcher is that Harry embraced Europe; he saw London as being the potential jewel in the newly formed European economic crown. As for Margaret’s attitude to Europe… Methinks her antagonism is well-documented.
The London we see in John Mackenzie’s film is a desolate, desperate, derelict London; Docklands is an urban wasteland, undeveloped and possibly regarded as undevelopable. The city is tired and tiring; were it not for a handful of iconic images like Tower Bridge and the three-terminalled Heathrow, one would be hard-pressed to recognise the place at all. Shand’s vision for London is eerily premonitory. He wishes, through the influence he has nurtured and developed with corrupt council officials and bent coppers, and the sheer force of personality and his passion, to redevelop the Docklands, to turn his beloved London into a great world city. His hope is that a redeveloped London might one day host the Olympics. Doesn’t that sound familiar? Shand realises that this dream is too vast for him alone to achieve. He has decided to pull the Yanks in; American Mafia money invested in London. He is going global. ‘Hands across the Atlantic’ is what Shand suggests they drink to as he, his cronies and the American Mafia delegation cruise down the River Thames on his spectacularly gaudy boat. He has even hired a French-speaking chef to cook ‘poncy’ food for his guests. It is at this moment Shand offers his treatise, his agenda for change; Tower Bridge in the background offering history to offset Harry’s future vision of his beloved hometown.
‘We’re a leading European state and I believe that this is the decade that London will become Europe’s capital, having cleared away the outdated, we’ve got mile after mile, acre after acre of land for our future prosperity… so it’s important that the right people mastermind the new London…’
And the near-prophetic nature of the film extends beyond its politics, beyond its desire for change. There are also echoes of Godfather Part III; Shand, albeit with Mafia money, is trying to elevate himself out of gangsterdom into the realms of respectable business. Little does he know that once a gangster, always a gangster. Barrie Keeffe’s screenplay has East-Ender Shand coupled with Helen Mirren’s upper-middle-class Victoria (even a regal name). The ambition and aspiration of Harry Shand is even apparent in his love life. This class difference is at the very heart of the film and in many ways prefaces the Conservatives’ attempts to break down class barriers and allow the working classes to gain prosperity. The film also manages to have a go at the special relationship between the Americans and the English. ‘The Yanks love snobbery. They really feel they’ve arrived in England if the upper class treats ’em like s***.’
Viewed again in the harsh grey light of today, The Long Good Friday has a lot to teach us. Grand plans are great but we have been guilty of overstretching ourselves, de-regulating ourselves into financial oblivion. We levered our entire society against the hope that the money markets, a collection of self-interested individuals, would see us good. They didn’t. And now, like the gangland bosses in the film, our society has been hung upside down from a meat hook.
‘We’ve all had it sweet. I’ve done every single one of you favours in the past — I’ve put money in all your pockets. I’ve treated you well, even when you was out of order, right? Well now there’s been an eruption. Its like f***ing Belfast on a bad night.’
Art imitating life?