Shiny Shelf

The Long Firm

By Mark Clapham on 07 July 2004

Jake Arnott’s debut novel ‘The Long Firm’ has the unusual distinction of having TV cameras present before it was even signed to a publisher. Arnott was part of a documentary about first-time novelists a few years ago, and was the standout success of the wannabes covered, selling ‘The Long Firm’ for a healthy advance. As such, this TV adaptation represents something of a homecoming.

It’s easy to see why a publisher picked up the novel, and the BBC moved in for the adaptation rights. ‘The Long Firm’ has at its centre Harry Starks, a handsome but disturbed gay gangster in 1960s London. Harry represents a skewed take on the seedy glamour and machismo of the era, the gangster archetype filtered through the twists that his sexuality and insecurities provide. Just as Harry is an unusual godfather figure, so the genre around him shifts away from the standard East End thuggery you might expect. Yes, there are guns and crimes and cons, but Arnott finds unusual angles from which to look at the subject matter.

In both the book and this four-part dramatisation, Harry’s world is seen from outsider perspectives, from characters who are drawn into Harry’s life, until they don’t know whether they want to, or can, get out again. The adaptation does clever things with these narrators, shifting them around and losing one from the book, so that there’s one episode. This essentially makes each episode a separate vignette featuring Starks and a featured character, allowing for a separate star turn each week. The first two episodes star Sir Derek Jacobi as gay peer Lord Thursby, and Lena Headey as fading starlet Ruby. We see everything through these characters, who narrate the action. They’re two very different characters, and two different stories, but are clearly part of a larger whole.

The prominence of each narrator, and their role as human interest to the story, is important because, as in the novel, Harry Starks himself is essentially unknowable. Mark Strong does a very good job with what must be a nightmare of a part – for Harry to retain his mystery and interest, we can never quite know what he is thinking, and must be left reliant on our narrators to show us the way. Strong gives Harry a presence – and, above all, Harry is a presence – that is brooding, implacable, but with numerous semi-readable hints of a complex inner life beneath the surface. It’s a credible performance in a difficult role.

As can be expected from a BBC production, the period setting is lavish and stylish. The direction has an icy early sixties cool, right down to an elegant, Binder-esque title sequence. The pace is exactly right – this isn’t an action movie, it’s a slow-burning thriller, but the plot moves inexorably on, and the production never threatens to grind to a half admiring its own stylishness. Even the quietest scene has a tension that naturally arises from the precarious world the characters inhabit. In this, as in every other department, ‘The Long Firm’ is a class act.

Line Break

By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

Comments are closed.