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Unprecedented Times: On 'The Long Good Friday' And A Vulnerable Britain
Daniel Broadley , August 7th, 2020 11:17

British gangster flick The Long Good Friday soon turns 40 – but the vision it presents of a vulnerable, desperate Britain with an uncertain future holds a timely sense of urgency to it, finds Daniel Broadley

Take a walk around London or Manchester today, and there’s one thing their skylines have in common: cranes. And lots of them. The property development boom seen in London is no longer exclusive to the capital, as overseas investors find somewhere to keep their fortunes. In 2017, over half the luxury new-build flats in London were left empty, whilst one £200m Manchester development– funded by a Hong Kong-based consortium registered in the Cayman Islands – does not include one affordable home. But the shady world of property development, with all its backhanded deals, government lobbying and questionable financial sources, is nothing new. In fact, it is the means by which The Long Good Friday’s frontman Harold Shand – a Thatcherite London mob boss with an iron grip on the capital’s underworld – looks to go legit with via an investment partnership with the American Mafia. All it will take is one Easter weekend to woo his investors. But when his mother is nearly blown up outside her local church, his right hand man is murdered, and a bomb is found in his casino, Harold’s empire begins to crumble.

Friday takes viewers on a rip-roaring journey through London, similar to that which the Safdie Brothers delivered with New York City in Uncut Gems, both served with a synth-heavy soundtrack, as Harold – brilliantly portrayed by Bob Hoskins in a career-defining performance – endeavours to crush whoever is sabotaging his big deal. At his side is Helen Mirren’s Victoria, who plays a crucial role as Harold’s moll, confidante and advisor, and both are guided by Barrie Keefe’s intricate screenplay which masterfully unfolds a complex, unpredictable plot. Director John Mackenzie and cinematographer Phil Meux sharply contrast the glamour of the world which Harold is trying to break into – with yachts parked up in St Katherine’s Dock, casinos and penthouse suits – with the violent underworld he’s trying to leave behind, visualised by interrogations in abattoirs and impromptu visits to informants hiding out in the housing estates of Brixton. Yet despite Harold’s feared and respected kingpin position, after years of peace between London’s gangs, his fate is ultimately sealed by actions and forces beyond his control. The IRA are hell-bent on revenge against members of his ‘Corporation’ due to a cash delivery job gone wrong, of which Harold had no knowledge. This involvement of the IRA nearly led Black Lion, the film’s original financiers, to send it straight to TV as a heavily edited, 75-minute mess (which included dubbing over Bob Hoskins’ voice with a Wolverhampton accent) over fears of it being ‘anti-British’ and the IRA bombing cinemas. In the end, it was saved by George Harrison’s Handmade Films, who bought the rights to the film and gave it a full cinematic release.

Although the involvement of the IRA may have given the film’s story a fierce political bite back in 1980, modern audiences will no doubt take political commentary from elsewhere, as the film makes a number of eerily accurate predictions. Harold is the ultimate Thatcherite, yet Friday finished filming in 1979 just before The Iron Lady had even entered No. 10. In the words of screenwriter Barrie Keefe, speaking in 2005, “Gangsterism equals Thatcherism equals capitalism,” and Harold is absolutely all of those things wrapped up into one conflicted molotov cocktail of machismo, ambition and, perhaps most importantly, nostalgia. In one seminal speech, Harold says: “I’m not a politician. I’m a businessman, with a sense of history,” and afterwards brags to his mafiosa investor Charlie about the history of London’s docks: “There used to be 80 or 90 ships here at one time, they had to queue up to get in… This used to be the greatest dock in the world.” But Charlie, to Harold’s frustration, has no time for history lessons. Charlie is from the world’s current global superpower, whereas Harold comes from the one which has long since declined and is clinging to a memory of greatness. As Harold speaks in front of his investors and partners – who plan to redevelop London’s docklands and build an Olympic stadium for the 1988 games – he does so against the backdrop of London Bridge, drifting further away as his yacht sales down the Thames, symbolising both the British Empire and Harold’s criminal enterprise fading into history.

Thirty years after the film’s release, Harold’s prophecy of building an Olympic Stadium came true. But it only took two years after Friday hit the big screen for Harold’s dreams of redeveloping London’s dockland to materialise in deals worth hundreds of millions of pounds. In 1982, Bob Hoskins appeared on a BBC programme about Central London property scams, in which he said that what was happening to the South Bank in the early 1980s made The Long Good Friday “look like a story out of Winnie the Pooh.” And what was going on? “That,” Hoskins says, pointing to an enormous new office block, which he described as a “bleedin’ great Mars bar on the Thames.” Hoskins proceeds to take the BBC’s Barry Norman on a tour of the areas surrounding the Thames and the South Bank, where a dilapidated housing estate in Waterloo is being bulldozed to make way for fancy new offices, hotels and shops – much of which will end up remaining empty. It would seem it’s not too difficult to get planning permission, just so long as you don’t want to build desperately needed homes, know the right people, and have the money.

But perhaps the one thing The Long Good Friday could not predict would be the scale of the problem today. More and more buildings are being built for the world’s elite to use as their personal ISAs, whilst homelessness rises and the prospect of home ownership for younger people becomes an unattainable fantasy. Less than two months ago, Conservative MP Robert Jenrick was reported to the Parliamentary watchdog for allegedly acting on direct instruction from a top Tory donor in rushing through planning permission for a one-billion-pound East London development. One wonders if a shady Harold Shand or his councillor inside-man Harris lurk somewhere in the background of this scandal. Probably not, for the gangsters of today are not private criminal enterprises or Kray Twin-esque celebrities, but officials elected (and appointed) to the highest office in the land.

Much of The Long Good Friday makes for painfully ironic viewing today. It’s impossible to ignore the parallels between Harold’s pandering to the American Mafia and the UK government’s post-Brexit trade strategy, as well as his grand speech to Charlie about partnering with German ingenuity and Europe once they decide to pack it in, with Charlie describing the UK as a “banana republic.” This, along with Harold’s nostalgia – the same felt during and since the Brexit referendum – and the desperation for foreign investment, even at the cost of creating empty new builds which help no one but the super rich, paints a picture of Britain still clinging to a memory of greatness, scrambling for whatever scraps it can to maintain some sort of relevance on the world stage. The climax of The Long Good Friday offers up the perfect summation of this. As Harold leaves the Savoy Hotel after a Thatcherite rant at his disillusioned investors, he gets into his Rolls Royce only to be confronted by two IRA hitmen (one of which is played by a baby-faced Pierce Brosnan). They speed off; Victoria zooms past, kidnapped in another car. Harold is finally alone, his closest ally taken away from him, forced to face the seeds that he has sown. We don’t know exactly where Harold is going – but we know he won’t make it to Easter Sunday.