During a recent board meeting with Alex, the Art Gallery Clothing CEO , he told me they had recently done a photo shoot for the label using ‘Heron Court’ near to the Lancaster Gate Hotel, as a location and it would be familiar to me as it was used in the 1971 film ‘Villain’ which starred Richard Burton and Ian McShane.
This was a great reminder of a film, often spoken about in reverential terms by those who had seen it the first time around in early 1970s, and one which was viewed as being a forerunner in a lot of ways to TV shows like ‘The Sweeney,’ which came along a year or so later. Sex and heavy violence were liberally used throughout both, in those pre ‘PC’ days.
It was directed by Michael Tuchner who alongside Burton and McShane, had gathered a healthy main supporting cast of the likes of Nigel Davenport, Colin Welland, Donald Sinden and T.P. McKenna, with Tony Selby, Fiona Lewis and Johnny Shannon putting in solid appearances lower down the credits. Its storyline was based on the 1968 ‘pulp fiction’ novel ‘The Burden of Proof.’ The script for the film was written by Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais working from a treatment by American Actor Al Lettieri, who played Sollozo in the first ‘Godfather’ film.
Some background team, that.
Burton plays Vic Dakin, a gangster from the East End – though hard to tell from his accent in this if truth be told – who specialises in the protection racket game. Dakin is also gay and lives with his mum, so it’s hard to avoid the obvious Ronnie Kray connections, (Ronnie had been banged up, not long before the filming took place.) Vic’s sado-masochistic tendencies, also put me in mind of the artist Francis Bacon, with Burton not looking unlike him. Vic’s strong desires are aimed at Wolfie, a drug dealing, pimp played by McShane, who is on the fringes of Vic’s gang.
Here’s Burton on the role – ‘It is a racy sadistic London piece about cops and robbers – the kind of ‘bang bang – calling all cars’ stuff that I’ve always wanted to do and never have. It could be more than that depending on the director. I play a cockney gangland leader who is very much a mother’s boy and takes her to Southend (Brighton actually Richard…) and buys her whelks etc., but in the smoke I am a ruthless fiend incarnate, but homosexual as well. All ripe stuff.’
Ian McShane – ‘After kissing me, he’s going to beat the hell out of me and it’s that kind of relationship – rather hostile. It was very S&M. It wasn’t shown in the film. He said to me, ‘I’m very glad you’re doing this film.’ I said, ‘So am I Richard.’ He said, ‘You know why, don’t you?’ I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘You remind me of Elizabeth.’ I guess that made the kissing easier?’
The overall plot revolves around the blackmail of Gerald Draycott MP played by Sinden, who takes full advantage of girls provided for him by Wolfie (echoes of the Profumo scandal of a few years earlier are very strong here.)
‘Is not your vote he’s after love…’
There is also a wage snatch from a factory in Bracknell, by Dakin’s gang, though this is not Vic’s usual caper, and indeed, all goes badly bandy on the day. The wages were protected by the members of the local rugby club and who, in truth, put up a decent fight against Dakin’s firm, who eventually prevail.
‘They’ll be short (of a few players) on Saturday….’
For the blag, Vic had teamed up with another firm, one of whom Frank (McKenna) is badly injured during the carnage and his pal Edgar (Ackland) does a runner with the money. Dakin’s desire to get the ill-gotten gains back in his possession, eventually leads to his downfall in a police sting, led by Davenport and Welland.
‘You get indigestion eating your Rennes too quick…’
Upon release the film did OK in the UK, but pretty much flopped in the US. Various reason were given for this, but I would guess the main characters accent didn’t especially help the American audiences.
‘You festering pig…’
On a lighter note, the soundtrack was scored by Jonathan Hodges, who had an interesting and varied career to say the least. For example, you’ll know his work from the ‘Shake & Vac’ advert, as well as writing the hit ‘If I Had Word’s’ by Scott Fitzgerald and Yvonne Keeley, as well as the music for the theme to ‘Henry’s Cat.’ A proper CV that…
Overall the film is a great time piece, with some lovely lines and great performances and it’s always great to see footage of old London, which at once seems so familiar, but is of course, in the main, long gone. Burton tries hard to convey the repressed, pent up nutcase he is portraying and maybe in places, he is trying too hard. The real nasty, horrible ‘chaps’ it appears to me, were just that. No over-acting required.
Watching it again recently, I guess it was a fairly radical move to have a homosexual relationship central to a film then, even though it sounds like a lot of the action between the two was cut from the final print. I also wondered how the producers could have afforded Burton in 1970, when he was at the height of his fame as part of the Burton/ Taylor showbiz circus.
Well, it turns out, he deferred on his normal $1 million fee and went for the back-end money, hoping to earn from the film’s profits.
‘These are the times of economies for everyone making pictures, said Burton. ‘And actually, working this way – if you can afford it and don’t mind waiting for your money – is far more exciting for the actor. You feel more involved in everything rather than just like an old hired hand.’
As we know, he was certainly more than that.
The Mumper of SE5
ART GALLERY CLOTHING
The Autumn / Winter 2021 collection is now available in our shop
Highlights include style Anders – a 100% cotton version of the classic three buttoned knitted polo shirt, pure modernist aesthetic.
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