The Long Firm

Written by:
Chris Pepus
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The Long Firm is BBC’s latest fiction mini-series to explore the criminal underworld of 1960s London. Named for a scam involving a dummy corporation with a dead owner, The Long Firm conjures the gangster-chic world of the Kray brothers, with their connections in the entertainment industry and the aristocracy. The top man in this story is Harry Starks, a gay, East End mobster closely patterned after the most infamous cockney crime lord (and possibly the most infamous gay one), Ronnie Kray. The acting is consistently excellent, but the stories are both too unrealistic and too derivative.

Mark Strong is marvelous as Starks: the gangster’s brutality, his charisma, and his desperation to amount to something are all powerfully conveyed. Each episode is narrated by an acquaintance of Starks who gets pulled deeper into the gangster’s world as the plot unfolds. Starks’s effortless charm and his knack for reading human weakness make the succession of Faustian bargains believable. The character’s open homosexuality is the source of some cliched humor (he secretly loves Judy Garland), but it also heightens Starks’s sense of isolation. Strong makes the most of scenes where Starks’s enemies and even his father call him a "nancy boy." George Costigan is likewise memorable as Inspector George Mooney, whose web of protection and kickback schemes makes him a persistently loathsome presence. The mutual hatred of Starks and Mooney is the catalyst for some of the best dramatic scenes in the series.

A big problem for The Long Firm is that the show’s creative team also seems to fall under Starks’s spell. After the first episode, he becomes far too much a good guy. In the third installment, Starks obsesses about the murder of one of his male prostitutes. Suspecting a police cover-up, he engages in some of his own detective work. The whodunit sequence is suspenseful, but since Starks has already been seen torturing one of his other rent boys, it’s difficult to believe that he suddenly cares so much. Derek Jacobi plays Lord Thursby, a former Conservative MP whose interests include boys and shady business practices. Thursby comes off as a fop with no self-control who lurches into evil. Jacobi convincingly portrays the nobleman’s fumbling weakness, but as in Starks’s case, that characterization seems too charitable in light of Thursby’s darker actions.

Rather than simply offer an impression of Ronnie Kray, Strong makes Starks a unique character, but the show’s writing cuts the other way. Individuals and events in The Long Firm often come straight from the history of the Kray gang. The character of Thursby closely resembles the real-life Lord Boothby; the narrator of one episode is a pretty blonde actress with a criminal husband—a clear reference to Barbara Windsor of the Carry on . . . films; and there is a Nigerian construction boondoggle like the one that cost the Kray empire so much money. Such obvious parallels make the story stale and predictable.

In the end, the social/political elite—or the establishment, as it was then starting to be called—proves more vile and criminal than the gangsters. Hardly a revelation, that theme featured prominently in other treatments of 1960s Britain (such as the film Scandal) and even during the ’60s themselves, in Joe Orton’s plays for example. Familiar scenarios and characters sap the strength of The Long Firm’s outstanding dramatic performances.

Chris Pepus

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