I watched some old films. What they all had in common, apart from being set in London, was that their central characters were men acting out desperate plans, intoxicated either on substances or their own past or dreams for the future. Their lives are tense and claustrophobic even when they aren’t trapped in single rooms and can roam around the dingier parts of the city. They all have supporters and apologists standing nearby, though they never show much gratitude.
Let’s start in 1958 in an old house cut up in to flats, none of whose occupants are doing very well and many of them seem to have been born to expect better.
John Wilson is in the top flat, and has trouble sleeping. When he can’t get the gas fire to relight he goes out to bother the other residents in the middle of the night.
Getting in a struggle with the self-important busybody Mr Pollen incites the latter to call in the police.
However things get much more serious when one of the officers is pushed down the stairs and seriously injured. This brings about the arrival of both the Borough Welfare Officer Sanderson (not actually a qualified psychologist or similar, but has quick opinions on related matters) and also Inspector Thompson.
Thompson decides to escalate the response to this incident, calling up reinforcements and also the Fire Brigade, and consulting the Army about possible use of tear gas. However the Superintendant wants to drop by, so action is delayed. Meanwhile all the other tenants are gathered in the Barnes’s downstairs flat, a rough cross-section of the British lower- to upper-middle classes, variously sceptical or uncritical or just indifferent to the forces of Authority.
MR POLLEN: Society has got to be protected against some kinds of people, Mrs Barnes.
MRS BARNES: Some kinds of people, Mr Pollen, have to be protected against Society.
Things become tense between Thompson and Sanderson.
THOMPSON: Look, I’ll get Wilson out my way. Don’t you realise this is the second one of my men who’s been put in hospital this week? People are getting used to seeing the police pushed around. And everybody weeps buckets over these rotten little thugs whose fathers went on the booze and whose mothers didn’t love ’em. It’s never their fault, oh no.
We’re ready for a great climax, even though the Army can’t come through with a weapon to fire the tear gas with. There’s a “Federal Anti-Riot Gun”, but apparently that’s “for overseas use only” – in 1958 it was not acceptable to employ such tactics in the home territory.
Wilson (not his real name) does have a sob-story to explain his erratic behaviour, but it’s a long journey to get there. He turns out to be a rather distinguished person and his bad conscience about something he was involved in has dragged him down.
Let’s go to 1974 where a very important man seems to be in complete control of himself and has no difficulty being absolutely ruthless to hold on to his position.
Dr Robert Elliott is a distinguished academic economist invited on to TV talk shows to sound off about the state of the world and how the old status quo maybe isn’t holding up well in the new stagflation 70s. From the bits we hear of his chatter it is possible he may be a Friedmanesque advocate for drastic policy changes, ripping up the consensus and all that.
But meanwhile he’s also been working a side-hustle as an intelligence agent, with his own mini-network of 4 informants in London who give him what he needs to know about forthcoming developments in business, politics, science and technology.
But then great news comes to him from his mentor, the fabulously wealthy and influential E.J.Farnsworth. Out on the golf course, he explains that “our friends upstairs” have picked Elliott to be made Chairman of the President’s Economic Advisory Committee. Of course this means the old London network has to be liquidated.
FARNSWORTH: Bob, I wouldn’t want one guy walking around knowing things about you that he’s not supposed to know.
ELLIOTT:… If I stood in your way would you kill me?
FARNSWORTH: I wouldn’t think twice about it.
As we are also told, the nearest thing to an aphorism in this world, “Power’s no damn good unless it comes from the top.”
And so Elliott has to figure out the titular project: a plan to get all his agents to dispose of each other sequentially, the last killer falling prey to a poison trap set for him by the first. Bob will follow their progress on his chart and with his clipboard. In this world without mobile phones or text messages he has arranged a signalling system where they call in from phone boxes and hang up after a certain number of rings. The phone code fits in well with the soundtrack of moody 70s electronica.
The project is a success. What follows afterwards was not on the checklist.
A few years later, and we’re away from top people in the fashionable parts of town and back in the grimier back streets.
Jim Naboth is a sad old drunk, having fallen out of his job as a Scotland yard detective years ago.
Even after aversion therapy is performed in hospital after his latest tumble down the escalator at Kings Cross, he’s straight back down the boozer as soon as he gets out. His best mate, the taxi driver Teddy (played by Freddie Starr) is incapable of cutting him off after every failure. As Naboth’s girlfriend observes later, “He bloody well fancies you”.
That scene is in The Bevington Arms, one of several bits of west London that has changed since the 70s. We are mainly around the Westway, near Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove. Note the graffiti and the signage near to where the gang hole up:
Naboth’s wife left him many years ago, and Jim has custody of their 2 sons, despite being generally inebriated. Her new husband is the owner of a security transport business, which is why she and her daughter have been kidnapped by a group of cheap & nasty villains working for a wannabe-respectable gangster that Naboth has in his sights immediately after his replacement storms in to tell him what’s going on.
Naboth soon susses out who’s who and what’s what, disarming suspicions amongst the gang by doing a convincing impression of a man entirely robbed of dignity and self-respect. Teddy also helps with some top men & motors action on the streets of W11, tailing the baddies back to their base.
As well as derelict 70s cars there are some stunningly derelict 70s buildings.
Jim can never stay off the bottle for too long, and even on the eve of the big day when the blag is going to go down, Teddy has to find him under a flyover with all the other men without hope.
Still, he’s set up a counterplan so that Foreman can play along with the heist and then they can get back at the gang just as soon as his ex-wife has been rescued. We get to one of those moments when a group of London villains are laughing delightedly in a van, as though they think they’ve nicked the Crown Jewels, and of course that means they’re 30 seconds away from disaster.
The soundtrack also has widdly electronics, but there are some groovy guitar licks in there as well. Stacey Keach does a better job of his assigned accent than Freddie Starr, though the latter is not too bad over all.
The picture in the top is Bob Elliott’s control screen showing his 4 agents in action against each other. I thought it looked a bit like a random walk, which is what Jim Naboth got up to one night, and John Wilson’s behaviour could also be seen as random events that set off unexpected consequences. That’s pretty thin, but these are the films I saw.