The End - Confessions Of A Cockney Gangster

The End - Confessions Of A Cockney Gangster

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

Say what you like about London villains (and be careful who you say it to) but there’s no denying they’ve always loomed large in popular culture, particularly British cinema.

The rise of the East End gangster, against a backdrop of post-war social deprivation, inspired a host of ‘gritty’ message-based movies in the Fifties and Sixties. As well as being portrayed on film in Peter Medak’s intriguing 1990 biopic, the Kray twins have been the inspiration for many an on-screen heavy (including the 1971 Richard Burton curio, Villain).

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British gangster movies have ranged from the classic (Get Carter, The Long Good Friday) to the terrible (er.. take your pick). The ‘mockney geezer’ sub-genre shows no sign of abating in popularity (as the trailers on this DVD release show), especially as its godfather, Guy Ritchie, recently returned to his old stamping grounds with RocknRolla.

But there’s never been a full-length feature documentary which let the men themselves do the talking. Until now. And Nicola Collins’ award-winning examination of these men, and the world they came from, proves a welcome counterbalance to the glamorous, would-be-hip portrayal of London crime that bedevils some examples of the genre.

She’s fortunate to have a way in to the world she depicts; Les Falco, one of the principal interviewees, is her father. But it’s clear that she and her sister Teena (the film’s producer, who conducted the interviews while Nicola filmed) have a true documentarian’s knack of getting the subjects to open up on camera without holding back or self-mythologising.

And they’ve assembled a terrific ‘cast’. ‘Dad’ is the source of the film’s best line (“I thought I was Robin Hood; everyone else thought I was a robbin’ b----rd”) but the others are equally interesting and articulate: “international debt collector” Mickey Goldtooth, “unlicensed fight promoter” Alan Mortlock, ‘Tiger’ Taheney and Bobby ‘The Guv’nor’ Reading to name but a few.

The names and job titles might read like a Guy Ritchie synopsis, but it soon becomes clear this is an altogether darker, more sober look at the criminal life. There’s no bragging or self-justification, simply a matter-of-fact recounting of life in a tough area - where the scars of war were still visible, boxing was compulsory at the local school, your parents would hit you if you ran away from a fight and often the only way to get an extra bob or two was to ‘go out and take it’.

But the consequences of such a decision are made very plain. As the memories of bare-knuckle fights, throat-slashings and acid attacks come thick and fast it becomes very clear that this is a nasty and dangerous way to live, and all the interviewees know it.

In fact, one of the film’s successes is to show that, despite being the sort of guys you absolutely would not want to get on the wrong side of, they can also be loyal friends and good family men. And that it’s possible to escape from the spiral of violence – the scenes where two of the principal subjects describe how they found God are undeniably moving, while still being eminently quotable (“I’m born again, not born yesterday”).

Their comments on the ‘mockney geezer’ movies are interesting, too, and it’s intriguing that though some of them pour scorn on ‘anyone who hasn’t hurt someone acting like they have’ and are at pains to point out that theirs isn’t a cool, glamorous life, most of them cite Robert De Niro as their favourite actor. Once again, Collins resists any temptation to editorialise or judge, realising that the best documentaries are always those where interesting people speak for themselves.

Inevitably some of the oft-repeated ‘old-school gangster’ laments are heard (“we always had a code”; “in those days grannies could leave their doors open”). They have become something of a cliché but these men obviously believe what they say – and frankly, would you want to argue with them?

Perhaps a bit more detail on their families, and the impact such a lifestyle has on them, wouldn’t have gone amiss either – but this does reflect the fact that the interviewees are from an era where the breadwinning (in whatever form) was done by the man of the house and the ‘missus’ didn’t get involved. And despite a few references to East End figures who’ve achieved fame and prosperity without treading a dark path, giving a voice to the ordinary people who lived within the gangsters’ orbit might have produced a more rounded picture of East End life.

But perhaps that might have resulted in too much of a sprawl. The film sets itself tight parameters and within them it works very well. What must have been a mass of interview footage is edited down expertly, and the grainy camerawork is suitably evocative as is Nick Page’s music. You don’t have to condone what these men did (and you get the distinct impression they wouldn’t want you to) but this film will help you understand what made them the men they are.

Reviewed on: 21 Jul 2009
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The End - Confessions Of A Cockney Gangster packshot
Members of the East End underworld talk about their life and times.
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Director: Nicola Collins

Year: 2008

Runtime: 85 minutes

Country: UK

Festivals:

Raindance 2008

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If you like this, try:

Bronson
Cass
The Long Good Friday