|Photo by Michael Wildsmith|
The central figure in British novelist Jake Arnott’s The Long Firm could drive any bookstore lackey around the bend. Where does one shelve the tale of Harry Starks, a charming, gay, Jewish gangster in ’60s London who is bipolar, tortures insubordinates with a white-hot poker and is hopelessly in love with Judy Garland? Under “Crime”? “Gay/Lesbian”? “Historical novels”? “Judaica”? On March 6 at 10 p.m., the first of four consecutive Sunday-night installments of the critically acclaimed television adaptation of The Long Firm will air on BBC America. Back in December, the 43-year-old Arnott — a one-time mortuary technician, construction worker and artist’s life model who is now being called the British James Ellroy — stopped fumbling with a Rubik’s Cube–like silver tea strainer in an ornate, noisy London restaurant and chose his own category. “I wouldn’t mind being seen as noir fiction,” he suggested. He went on to talk about East End thugs, mummy shortages, the trouble with Geezer Chic, and what bugs him about Guy Ritchie.
L.A. WEEKLY: How did you come up with a character like Harry Starks?
ARNOTT: He was partly based on Ronnie Kray, who was a real homosexual gangster. Ronnie Kray had just died. I thought one of his boyfriends was going to come out and sell his story. I thought, “That’s the story I want to read.” But nobody did. Then I started researching. During [Kray’s] time there was a huge social change going on, particularly in London. The class thing was up for grabs. Everything was essentially becoming more middle class. The traditional working-class ethic was slowly disappearing. The world of privilege was shrinking as well. There was this economic boom. Young people had money because pop culture was suddenly something that was economically viable in this country. It was very exciting times. People often talk about the ’60s when we were entering this world of light and everything was swinging groovy. But also there was some very strange, dodgy things going on — politically, socially, in show business, in pop culture and in organized crime.
Was this your first really big idea?
Yeah, and I was very aware that I wanted to get it done quite quickly. It took about a year and a half. I was very worried someone might be up to it.
I was living in Leeds. So I came back down to London. I’d gotten some film work. There’s a whole area of work for people in them funny suits in science-fiction films called creature work. The second assistant director of [Universal Pictures’] The Mummy said to an actor friend of mine, “Look, we got a mummy shortage. Can you get 12 guys together?” Basically, if you could fit into the latex suit, you got the job. We spent most of the time, dressed in our mummy bandage suits with our heads off, playing cards while we waited to be on set. But I had my manuscript and, bizarrely, I got a deal that summer. It was that quick.
The deal for the BBC adaptation was almost as fast. How did it happen?
In ’98, just before my book was published, [Guy Ritchie’s] Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels was released. So there was a lot of interest because a lot of British gangster movies were in production at that time. But the Guy Ritchie film was precisely what I didn’t want it to be. Some British journalists have done the most appalling things, lumping me in with that, writing, “Jake Arnott, the creator of Geezer Chic.” Which was just the most appalling notion!
I can tell by your tone that the term offends you. But I don’t even know what Geezer Chic is.
I don’t either. It’s this kind of Loaded magazine, sharp suit, middle-class-white-boy-become-fashionable sort of thing. Like I said, maybe a lot of people bought the book because they thought it was going to be like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
Your subsequent novels, He Kills Coppers and truecrime, help form a loose trilogy that extends into the ’90s, with the last book featuring a Guy Ritchie–like rich-kid director who tries to pass himself off as a working-class tough. What about Ritchie drives you so crazy? Is it his emphasis of style over content?
Yeah. And not even very good style at that. Lock, Stock wasn’t film noir. It was a feel-good film. People came out of it saying, “Oh, that was quite funny.” The classic point of noir is to unsettle. It’s supposed to remind us that we’re living in a not very happy world, a world where corruption isn’t contained. The violence in Lock, Stock is extraordinarily clichéd, a cartoon. It didn’t have any sort of darkness to it. I think explosive, cathartic violence is very ritualized. Normal fights and real killings are really horrible. They implode everything.
So in Ritchie’s world, the brutality is played for laughs?
I think he said this in interviews, that he didn’t realize Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is a comedy. He took it entirely seriously. That’s why it worked. It’s almost like Margaret Dumont in the Marx Brothers comedies. Every film, apparently, she thought, “Oh, we’re doing a serious film at last.” And that’s why she’s so fantastically funny.
Why are ’60s-era gangsters so iconic in British culture?
I think for the modern young man there’s so much fear of their own lack of clear masculinity. I think they assume there was a time when men were men and that, of course, all these people were fiercely heterosexual. In fact, though, homosexuals aren’t all going to be hairdressers. It’s purely statistical: They’re going to be involved in every kind of world — the boxing world, the world of gangsters. That was the fascination for me.
How did you arrive at combining fictional characters with real people and events?
Harry Starks behaved differently from the Krays. I wanted to put the Krays in there just to say, “This isn’t Ronnie Kray. This is somebody else.” The Krays behaved in a way that was slightly ridiculous. They were much more famous than they were successful. They were very feared — but largely because they were so incompetent. The more successful villains would have kept their heads down a bit.
In The Long Firm, these East End thugs are constantly tossing around Yiddish words — shtum, spiel, gelt. Were these terms really part of the jargon?
The thing about the East End, the cockney sensibility, is that it’s a series of immigrant cultures starting possibly with the Huguenots, but certainly with the Jews that came over in the late 19th century. If you listen to a proper East End accent, you’ll hear the cadences and a lot of the vocabulary as well. What was interesting about what was happening in the ’20s and ’30s in the East End is that you could go two ways. You could become political — there was huge membership in the Communist Party, huge radicalism amongst young Jewish men. Or you could become a gangster.
In the end, is there a difference between the crime worlds of America and Great Britain?
Do you mean how they’ve been portrayed? The biggest difference between organized crime in America and Britain is size and scale. Here, it’s very smalltime, very seedy. Also, with the Italian-American mafia, it’s much more about the idea that they belong to an immigrant culture. Everybody has to find their own way in. The American dream is about what you can create for yourself. The British dream is something that belongs to the aristocracy. Even now, you look at the pop culture world, you see all the angry young men and they’ve become Sir Mick Jagger, Sir Elton John. In Britain, we’re about looking over our shoulders at the past. Organized crime, it’s part of our history. We had the biggest criminal racket in the world at one time, which is the British Empire.