Bog Robbers

Villains on DVD

Villains is a relatively obscure drama serial that was made by London Weekend Television in 1972. It’s also one of the best and most surprising television DVD releases in many years. Not only is it a programme of real power and complexity, but as far as I’m concerned it’s also the key “lost text” of British crime drama in the 1970s. The traditional evolution of this genre usually focuses heavily on the role of Euston Films and Thames Television starting with Mike Hodge’s 16mm experiment Suspect, through Special Branch and The Sweeney and culminating in the sophisticated quasi-art house Out and Fox and the populist comedy-drama of Minder. While that lineage still holds, Villains demonstrates not only that Thames and Euston held no monopoly on crime drama, but that in its narrative structure, directorial sophistication and representation of female characters it was light years ahead of contemporary efforts and surely influenced those later Euston works that are now held in such high regard. Until now only the episode starring Bob Hoskins has been available on DVD, and that light-hearted, virtually standalone part is probably the least representative of the series.

The premise of Villains is straightforward: a group of bank robbers have been imprisoned for their crime but plan a breakout during a visit to the Court of Appeal. Each episode of this 13-part series focuses on a different member of the gang and so although there is an overarching narrative the episodes are ostensibly standalone. This blurring of the series/serial formats was a mainstay of drama for many years but Villains takes the idea and turns it inside out. The timeline of the series is remarkably complex: some episodes are set before the crime, others during and after, sometimes all three in an episode.

Scenes from earlier episodes recur later on, this time from a different character’s point of view and accruing much more significance the second time around. Often this fractured timeline directly represents the characters’ tortured state of mind as they brood on past events and their usually perilous current circumstances. The cumulative effect is enthralling, and you soon find yourself desperate to race through the episodes to find out what happens next, even though chronologically you’ll actually find out what happened previously. The overall impact of this is terrific, as dramatically it’s compelling, and some of the prefigured moments lend an awful air of doom to both the proceedings and the characters.

Another triumph of this series is that the characters are so well-drawn and distinct from each other, unlike some of the early Euston Films productions where minor characters tend to be interchangeable. In Villains it helps that the main cast consists entirely of tremendous actors all of whom were rarely out of work for decades to come, and, in the case of Bob Hoskins, made it very big indeed. David Daker, William Marlowe, Bryan Marshall and Jim Norton stand out, but I don’t think anyone from the main cast gives anything other than a great performance, and the semi-regular characters are also consistently good with Paul Edddington, Barbara Leigh-Hunt, Marjorie Yates and Sharon Duce worth singling out for their steeliness and pathos.

And it’s with the female characters that Villains again shows itself to be ahead of its time. Unlike their contemporaries in shows like Special Branch and The Sweeney, the women in Villains are usually strong figures who are fully aware of their partners’ foibles rather than idiotic ciphers blind to what is going on around them – and even when they are stupid (see Sharon Duce’s performance) the reason is pathological rather than because of lazy writing. In fact, in a couple of instances it’s down to the wives that there are moments of optimism and sanity in a series that’s as bleak as they come, with an outlook that’s as black as pitch.

Other than a few moments here and there where the dialogue gets a bit theatrical (particularly during a long scene in the first episode between Hilary Dwyer and David Daker), and a slightly weak final episode, there’s not much to criticise about Villains. The robbery itself is painstakingly staged, and considering it’s shot in a studio on VT it both puts some big-budget heist films to shame but also intercuts the action with an horrific dinner party (held years later) to create a cumulative effect that makes you want to burst out cheering.

Some of the episodes are so well-directed that it was no surprise to find Jim Goddard’s name on the credits, but Robert Tronson and Tony Wharmby are up to standard and create a consistency that was usually hard to find in a studio production of this length. Credit also to the series creator/producer Andrew Brown for drawing together quality writers such as Robin Chapman and PJ Hammond and also for overseeing a complex piece of narrative drama which must have been a logistical nightmare to make.

You’ll have noticed (amidst the gushing) that I’ve been very cagey about plot points and specific episodes, and that’s entirely because the series is full of narrative detours, delayed fulfilment and, in some cases, deliberately unresolved elements that remain sinister and mysterious. I don’t want to spoil any of that but I will say that one particular episode, fairly early on in the run, is pure Beckett, and confirmed to me that Villains was not just good, but exceptional. As more of these early LWT dramas (such as Andrew Brown’s series from 1971, the often demented but always interesting The Guardians) are released, it becomes apparent that the Friday/ Saturday night slot in the summer months gave some talented people the opportunity to create genuinely experimental work. Villains may have gone largely unseen at the time (who stayed in on Saturday night in those days?) but thankfully it’s now available for reappraisal, and it’s a storming piece of work – barely on the critical radar one minute, surely never to be off it from now on.

Villains was released on DVD by Network on Monday May 23rd.

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