TV UK, 7 February

Gangsters are cool - so why aren't loyalist paramilitaries?

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

January’s dramatisations of Bloody Sunday were followed last Sunday by As the Beast Sleeps (BBC2), an excellent drama about loyalist hardmen enduring the processed peace in Northern Ireland.

The central relationship between Kyle, the relatively sensible leader of an Ulster Defence Association (UDA) cell, and his child-like best friend Freddie, recalled the fatal friendship between Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro in Mean Streets. Like Keitel’s character Charlie, Kyle is torn between loyalty to the organisation and to his unstable friend.

The comparison with Mean Streets is intriguing because loyalist paramilitaries have often been disparaged as no more than ‘gangsters’. On films and TV, though, gangsters are indulged; their viciousness is overlooked and even celebrated. Gangsters are cool. Why not extend the same affectionate attitude to the UDA?

Ironically, the answer probably has to do with a lingering recognition that the paramilitaries are more than criminals. Political violence carries a special menace. But it is the fading of the UDA’s political identity that gave As the Beast Sleeps its drama. Even as they rob banks ‘to raise funds’ the men think of themselves as soldiers defending their country from a pernicious enemy. But the peace process robs them of their privileged status and with it their self-respect, as the Inner Council attempts to decommission its troops in pursuit of political respectability. As a portrait of the disenfranchised male, As the Beast Sleeps was The Full Monty with baseball bats.

Nobody likes to think of himself as just a thug or a criminal. Even the Mafia has its Honoured Society mythology. Sometimes the line between justification and rationalisation is a thin one. The great TV cop shows (currently well represented by CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) and Law and Order on Channel 5 on Saturday nights) illustrate the logical contortions of the criminal mind, and the moral gymnastics of the weak-willed. Perhaps it is better to be up-front. Great men smash laws. Great men are not afraid to be criminals.

A few pages into Crime and Punishment, I remember thinking, ‘The bastard stole my idea!’. Since then I’ve never been quite sure whether I meant Dostoyevsky or Raskolnikov, author or hero. In any case, I couldn’t help but feel further aggrieved at the news that the BBC was filming the novel. Crime and Punishment screens next Tuesday and Wednesday (BBC2 at 9pm). At least it was beautifully filmed in St Petersburg, with fastidious attention to detail.

Of course, adapting such a densely psychological novel for TV is not that simple. Raskolnikov suffers hallucinations and talks to himself occasionally, which helps, but a great burden is placed on the actor John Simm to communicate the depth of his character’s suffering. Screenwriter Tony Marchant said he hoped that by the time Raskolnikov killed the old money lender, the audience would want him to get away with it. Of course I wanted him to get away with it before the thing had even started, but that is not to detract from Simm’s accomplishment. Raskolnikov lives.

Dostoyevsky himself was of course a Christian moralist, and having created such a brilliantly self-justified criminal, he spends the rest of the novel trying to redeem him. The author’s twin avatars are the affable detective Porfiry (Ian McDiarmid) and the obscenely virtuous prostitute Sonya (Lara Belmont), neither of whom actually has to say very much at all. The redemption is practical rather than intellectual, especially in the adaptation. Even as he confesses, Simm’s Raskolnikov considers himself a loser rather than a sinner. But he is sorry for that, and that is a start.

In this, the adaptation is more akin to The Sopranos than traditional gangster drama (the BBC has rather patronisingly billed Crime and Punishment as ‘the first detective drama’). Contemporary culture can accommodate violent criminals, even self-justifying ones like Tony Soprano. What it will not tolerate is a criminal with ideas.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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