There were plenty of TV shows around this week designed to cheer us up. Sky Atlantic’s Gangs of London, however, wasn’t one of them. After decades of desensitisation, it’s not easy for any film or television programme these days to make its screen violence genuinely horrifying. Yet, by my reckoning, Thursday’s first episode managed to do it at least twice before the opening credits had even rolled.
By the time they did, it was clear that two terrified Welsh lowlifes from some kind of travellers’ camp had been tricked into carrying out a hit on Finn Wallace (Colm Meaney), London’s most powerful criminal boss — rather than, as they’d fondly imagined, ‘just some paedo’. But that was clear only to us. The members of Wallace’s crime organisation, now led by Finn’s out-of-his-depth son Sean (Joe Cole from the not-dissimilar Peaky Blinders), had no idea who’d killed their much-loved leader: a man portrayed in the funeral eulogies as a stout defender of the disadvantaged and — seeing as his inner circle consisted of black and Irish people — an inspirational champion of multiculturalism. (On the debit side, we later learned that he was also fond of taking a belt sander to people’s eyes.)
In the kind of inadvertent topical reference that seems hard to avoid at the moment, Sean’s immediate reaction was to declare a full lockdown. Much to the pursed-lipped disapproval of his father’s faithful old retainer Ed (Lucian Msamati), no drugs would be shifted, no money laundered and no deals made until Sean had tracked down the people who’d murdered his dad.
To begin with, suspicion fell on the organisation’s Albanian associates, which is why one Wallace foot soldier took out eight of them in a pub fight armed with just a single dart. But before long, even Sean began to understand that the solution mightn’t be as simple as that — as, amid the continuing bloodshed (some of it almost comfortingly cartoonish, much of it really not), Gangs of London revealed itself to be a classically tangled gangland thriller in which nothing can be taken at face value. At this stage, about the only thing we can be sure of about any of the characters is that they’ll have a gun in the glove compartment of their car. In another classic touch, we’re also taken deep into an alternative moral universe where the whole notion of goodies and baddies feels not so much blurred as embarrassingly naive.
But the longer it went on, the more we realised that the programme wasn’t quite as it seemed either. Its quest to provide visceral thrills was so successful that it took a while to notice how many subplots it was deftly setting up. Somewhere amid the carnage, too, is a quietly piercing character study, with Sean striving to prove his macho credentials to his father’s old colleagues, to a rich assortment of drugs barons and, naturally, to himself.
From here, then, Gangs of London could go in any one of several intriguing directions, although my guess is that it will go in all of them — and that it’ll definitely be worth sticking around to watch it while it does.
Before the third series began, some people were beginning to wonder if Killing Eve (BBC1) might be getting a little tired. In fact, Sunday’s opener managed to pull off something that no previous episode has ever done: it was quite boring.
After that brilliant first series — written by St Phoebe Waller-Bridge — the second did coast a bit at times. At others, it appeared to be less a show in its own right than a slightly smug celebration of how great Killing Eve is. Yet even then, the result was just mildly irritating rather than dull.
Of course, it’s not unknown for the first instalment of a returning series to be essentially an exercise in throat-clearing, or a gradual restoring of factory settings. The trouble was that, apart from a half-decent murder at the start and sudden twist at the end that felt like the entire episode’s only raison d’être, this one was a distinctly plodding example of both.
All of the old faces were allowed to do a familiar little turn. With the full assistance of her ever-reliable eyebrows, Eve (Sandra Oh) performed various looks of concern. Villanelle (Jodie Comer) brushed up on a few more accents and languages, and carried out a somewhat half-hearted killing. Carolyn (Fiona Shaw) did a spot of weary listening as her superiors told her all over again how irresponsible she’d been. Niko (Owen McDonnell) gave yet another recitation of his usual complaints about being neglected by his wife. Unfortunately, all of this merely served to emphasise how much it seemed as if all the characters were simply hanging around awaiting instructions for what to do once something actually happened.