News, Culture & Society

DEBORAH ROSS: If you like violence, you’ll love this. Me? No thanks…

DEBORAH ROSS: If you like violence, you’ll love this. Me? No thanks…

Gangs Of London

Thursday, Sky Atlantic


Celebrity SAS: Who Dares Wins

Monday, Channel 4


The gangster drama Gangs Of London opens audaciously atop a skyscraper high above the City. Our view is, at first, upside down, as is that of the fella who is hanging by a rope from the roof. ‘I saw nothing. I am nobody. Please don’t kill me,’ he begs. ‘What can I do?,’ says a sharp-suited Joe Cole, as he douses petrol down the rope, lights a match and, yup, there goes the fella, and he doesn’t go quietly. The screaming. My God. One thing you can’t say about Gangs Of London is that it didn’t start as it meant to go on. Thighs are sliced. Blood spurts from necks. Heads are pounded into pulp. Bodies are dismembered with meat cleavers. Darts are put in the wrong way up on a wrap skirt… oh Lord, sorry. I confused it with Sewing Bee for a minute there. (Easily done).

Mark Lewis Jones, left, in Gangs Of London. I hadn’t a clue who was who half the time

Mark Lewis Jones, left, in Gangs Of London. I hadn’t a clue who was who half the time

Back to Gangs, which has been created by Gareth Evans, who made the martial arts films The Raid and, yes, The Raid 2. So it begins atop that skyscraper but then the action rewinds to a week earlier and the shooting of Finn Wallace (Colm Meaney). He’s a gangster kingpin, killed by two dumb lads from a council estate, but who put them up to it? (We may or may not find out 22 series down the line.) His son, Sean – the Joe Cole character – is determined to avenge his father’s death. ‘Everything stops while I find out who killed him,’ he says, just so we’re clear. This does not reinvent the wheel, character wise. Instead, it fetishises a certain kind of masculinity and a world where men are hard, unemotional, ruthless, pathologically detached. Sean is pathologically detached and Cole’s acting style depends substantially on coolly narrowing his eyes. Hard to think where he might have got that from. Apart from Clint Eastwood. And Bruce Willis. And Jason Statham. And so on. Nothing here is new, or even that interesting.

But avenging his father’s death isn’t as straightforward as Sean first thought. ‘My father was taken from us on the streets of London and now London will deliver to us those that took him,’ he says, cumbersomely. But London isn’t in the mood for delivering and Sean has to deal with the competing interests of the Albanian mafia, Iranian drug dealers, Russian smugglers, Pakistani racketeers. I hadn’t a clue who was who half the time. Plus, there’s aspiring gangster Elliot (Sope Dirisu), operating as a one-man band. But the plot is less plot, more a way of connecting the violent set-pieces that have no real-world consequences. You’d imagine, for example, that ‘screaming human fireball plunges from London building’ would be quite a big news story, or the police might truck up, but we’re never bothered with any of that.

Anthea Turner in Celebrity SAS: Who Dares Wins

Anthea Turner in Celebrity SAS: Who Dares Wins

Some will say this is ‘brilliantly choreographed’, especially the pub brawl scene and that dance with the meat cleaver. But are we OK with ceaseless violence, as long as it’s ‘brilliantly choreographed’?

I am a grown up. I don’t like violence but know it has a place on screen and I can take it. But when it’s as brutally cynical as this, and as geared to a fanboy audience as this, I can’t take it so well. Doubtless, it will be compared to Peaky Blinders, especially as Cole starred in that too, but at least Blinders included strong roles for women, whereas Gangs? I’ve only watched the opening, film-length episode and there are women characters – Sean’s mother, Sean’s sister – but the amount of dialogue they’ve been awarded thus far? Zero. I’ve given this (a generous) three stars because I know those who like this sort of thing will like this, so it works in that sense, but there’s nothing new here. Or anything that is interesting. At all.

The other macho show this week was Celebrity SAS: Who Dares Wins, fronted by former Special Forces soldier Ant Middleton, who at the start of the pandemic announced he was stronger than the coronavirus – ‘F*** Covid-19!’, he said – but then retracted that, possibly after taking a call from his agent. Anyway, this quasi-military reality show pits 12 celebrities against the harsh elements – it’s set in the rain-lashed, wind-lashed Inner Hebrides – and while there is something horribly satisfying about watching Anthea Turner being forced to lie down in an ice-cold river, it is also incredibly misogynistic. Here we had Katie Price punished for coughing – ‘shut the f*** up!’ – while Tony Bellew, the ex-boxer who failed the challenge where everyone else pummelled him but he couldn’t lash back, is treated sympathetically. Oh, it’s just a problem with aggression. That’s fine.

The celebrities do seem to want to be tested, it is hardcore, and you do wonder who will break first. Not Joey Essex, I hope, who fears he may get ‘limescale disease’. Always a worry, that. (My kettle has it, and it’s no joke.)