An all-star cast leads Sky Atlantic’s new action thriller, Gangs of London. Steve Clarke dodges the blows
High-end television drama has become ubiquitous. Even so, it’s unlikely that TV audiences have seen anything quite like Sky Atlantic’s new crime thriller, Gangs of London, a brooding, tense, cinematic tour de force that is most definitely not for the squeamish.
Described variously as a cross between Peaky Blinders and The Irishman, and “revoltingly inventive”, the nine-part series stars Joe Cole (Peaky Blinders), Sope Dirisu (Humans), Colm Meaney (Star Trek), Lucian Msamati (His Dark Materials), Michelle Fairley (Game of Thrones), Paapa Essiedu (Press), and Pippa Bennett-Warner (Harlots).
The story begins as rival international gangs jostle to fill a power vacuum created when the head of London’s most powerful crime clan, the Wallaces, is assassinated.
“The proposition was very clear,” says executive producer Thomas Benski, co-founder of Pulse Films, Gangs of London’s main producer. “We wanted to make something we felt had never been done before, at least on British television. I think we’ve achieved that.”
The series was created by the award-winning film-maker behind The Raid martial arts movies, Gareth Evans, and his long-time collaborator, Matt Flannery, and inspired by a video game of the same name optioned by Pulse Films.
“Using action as a story driver is not something you typically find in British TV. Gareth is a visionary action director. The ambitious narrative of creating this Shakespearian version of modern London is unique,” claims Benski.
“Thanks to our casting director, Kelly Valentine Hendry, we assembled a cast of sophisticated, mostly classically trained, actors who could contrast that genre world with the sophistication and prestige that this drama offers.”
Despite his distinguished pedigree (which includes directing period horror film Apostle for Netflix), Gangs of London is the first time Evans has made a TV series. “Gareth went to a different world when he was developing this show,” explains Lucas Ochoa, another of the executive producers. “He’s immersed in cinema history – Asian cinema, Hong Kong action cinema and Japanese art cinema. He brought to bear that vast range of references, which is unusual for television.”
Certainly, the fight sequences have an almost balletic quality that is rare to encounter on the small screen. But perhaps it is Evans’s menacing creation of a hyper-violent and deeply unsettling London that really punches through.
So why has it taken Evans so long to work in TV? Was he worried that it would be too restrictive for someone used to creating explosive set pieces for cinema in action movies?
“Truthfully, I never really found my footing in terms of a career until I was out in Indonesia [where he made The Raid films],” says Evans, who was born and bred in Wales and now lives near Swansea. “There, it was film, film, film, nothing else. Out there, TV was super low-budget, so film was the only option.
“When I returned to the UK, Apostle came first and I was then pitched Gangs of London. The thing that fascinated me was how culturally diverse the city is. You hear so many different languages on the streets.
“The whole show is set in a heightened version of London. We knew that we wanted to tell a story that would feel almost operatic – grand, full of big emotions and big characters.
“I thought: I don’t think we can do justice to that city in a film. A long-form TV series made more sense, 10 hours in nine episodes. It’s OK if we want to veer off for 10 to 15 minutes in one episode in order to explore one character. It doesn’t matter if they come from a different culture or speak a different language.
“You can do all of those things in an episodic TV drama, where there’s the freedom and flexibility to tell the kind of story we wanted to.”
He acknowledges that fashioning his trademark elaborate set pieces for TV, rather than film production, proved to be something of a learning curve. Nevertheless, the same painstaking skills were required in order to film the action sequences.
“A high-end drama might shoot for a similar budget, but we’re throwing in explosions and stunts. That’s when it starts to get expensive,” he says.
“Every single fight sequence or set piece might only be two-thirds of a page in the script but could take up to five days to shoot.”
What, then, is the secret of staging these thrilling spectacles? “Preparation, preparation, preparation,” says Evans, whose own TV viewing choices are more likely to feature US comedies, such as Brooklyn Nine-Nine, than drama. For the fight scenes, he was able to call on his years of experience making martial-arts movies.
He continues: “We spent lot of time interrogating the ideas and made sure that everything in there was there for a reason. When we stage a fight, it’s not allowed to be just purely style and visceral, but has to feel like a real fight. We design every action sequence, every camera angle and every edit that goes into those sequences.
“That allows us to come to set very prepared, so that every department knows what’s required of them, whether it’s wardrobe, make-up, or a different piece of rigging for the camera while we get a certain angle.
“Everyone knows what’s expected of them and how many shots we’re aiming to get in a day in order to be on schedule. It’s a vital process and the one thing I’ve imported from what I do in Indonesia.”
But won’t some viewers have a problem watching such a dark show during these dark times? “No, I don’t think it really plays as dark,” says Benski. “When you get to see the whole show, you’ll see that it has all of the light and shade of great drama. There are flashes of humour. The mix of these different elements is something that will give people some respite in these difficult times.”
Ochoa agrees: “It isn’t a dark show but a fast-paced, thrilling story about families and power. Hopefully, it is an uplifting, kinetic world that has some graphic components to it. Of course, those are not subtle, but I feel they are played out in a world that doesn’t feel dark or bleak.”
Gangs of London may be the stuff of fantasy but it is unquestionably, unrelentingly violent. How does Evans think audiences are likely to react to the violence? “It’s the nature of the show and the world that the characters inhabit. Some people will like [the violence] and some won’t. I fully accept that. Nothing I’ve ever made has been for everyone.”
All episodes of Gangs of London are available on Sky Atlantic and Now TV.