Bob Baker & Dave Martin's MACHINEGUNNER / DVD Review

1976 was a busy year for Leonard Rossiter. Since starring in the first series of Yorkshire Television's classic sit-com Rising Damp in 1974, the actor had become a household name. The part of seedy landlord Rigsby had cemented an already long and prestidigious career in stage, film and television. And there was more to come.

Many viewers would have recognised his distinctive face and mannerisms after seeing him guest star in a number of dramas, sit-coms and documentaries of the period. These included appearances in Steptoe and Son, an earlier Bob Baker and Dave Martin crime drama for HTV, Thick as Thieves in 1972, Roy Clarke's contribution to BBC's Comedy Playhouse, Pygmalion Smith, and Johnny Speight's If There Weren't Any Blacks You'd Have to Invent Them, remade by LWT in 1974.

Kubrick had employed him in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Barry Lydon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and on stage he had recently tackled Shakespeare, Pinter, Eric Chappell's The Banana Box, from which emerged Rising Damp two years later, and a tour of A Christmas Carol.

Viewers had last seen Leonard in the second series of Rising Damp, which had just concluded by the end of 1975, when he once again joined 'The Bristol Boys', as Baker and Martin were affectionately known, and made Machinegunner with producer/director Patrick Dromgoole at HTV. This single play was screened 24 July 1976 on the ITV network the same evening they screened the Bond film Dr. No with the TV Times hyperbolically describing this piece of scheduling as 'Tough trigger action explodes in two high speed adventure stories!' Well, not quite.
... depicts the development of a city and the corruption that feeds off it
Machinegunner is as far away from the glamour of James Bond as you can get and certainly followed in the tradition of a number of filmed series and plays for television.

All location filming for drama was achieving something of a precedence in the industry, spurred on by the success of Euston's Armchair Cinema plays in 1974, the development of The Sweeney in 1975 and embraced later in the BBC's Target and Shoestring. Tightly scheduled and rehearsed filming on location would become the standard in the industry by the end of the decade.

Here, Dromgoole makes a virtue of the Bristol locations and Leonard Rossiter provides the film with an appealing, naturalistic performance and doesn't rely too heavily on the Bristolian accent he uses intermittently through the film.

Dromgoole recalls that Rossiter was "a tetchy perfectionist, impatient of laziness and circumstances in which he could not do his best work... He was also generous, very generous, and sharply aware of the strains on those around him."

Rossiter plays Cyril Dugdale, a bigoted down at heel 'machinegunner' or debt collector, and we first see him during the opening titles bribing a Sikh family to move out of their lodgings. The play is set in Bristol against a background of negative racial stereotypes, institutional racism and the gradually worsening effects of the ghettoisation of minority communities in the inner cities. Dugdale's casual racism isn't exactly challenged but judging by the climax of the story it hasn't got much longer to live either.
... the 'lingua franca' between two or more different cultures attempting to live together
Like its immediate predecessor Play for Today: Gangsters (broadcast 9 January 1975), where the Birmingham Asian community and multicultural relationships between white, black and Asian criminals informed much of the story, Machinegunner depicts the development of a city and the corruption that feeds off it in a similar mode. Dugdale's racism now seems shocking but then was almost part of the 'lingua franca' between two or more different cultures attempting to live together.

It is often the subtleties that underline this - the stark difference between the pub that Dugdale frequents with its all-white clientele and his later and literal journey into the 'heart of darkness' when he finds himself being ejected from a Bristol reggae club.

This background isn't used by Baker and Martin to make any specific points about the subject matter, it is simply acknowledged in the relationships between characters. Dugdale, despite his antagonism towards the Asian and black minorities, is unwittingly being used by a property developer, Jack Bone (played with relish by the reliable Colin Welland) to clear old housing stock as part of an underhand deal with the council. The major catalyst in the story is activist Felicity Mae Ingram, a black woman working on a television documentary that intends to shop Bone and his council cohort Geoff Livingston.

She approaches Dugdale to undertake some private enquiry work and to photograph Bone inflagrante delicto with Livingston's wife, Pat (Kate O'Mara). The resulting struggle to hush Cyril and Felicity up and destroy her evidence makes for some gritty, fast paced drama with some stand out moments as Bone's thugs relentlessly chase a petrified Dugdale across Bristol. In many ways, it echoes the kind of stories and general ambiance that writer/producer Robert Banks Stewart would create for 'private ear' Shoestring, a series that Bob Baker eventually contributed to.

Ingram is brilliantly played by Nina Baden Semper (yes, 'Barbie' from that high watermark of knock-about racial comedy Love Thy Neighbour) and director Dromgoole is obviously keen to play on the uneasy tension between Dugdale and Ingram.

He initially obscures Baden Semper from both his and our view when Dugdale first agrees to meet her in a cafe. It is the expression on Rossiter's face that tells us of this unease before Dromgoole intercuts a close up of Baden Semper's face.

She manipulates him to expose the affair between Bone and Pat Livingston and there is a moment where Dugdale clearly has enough of her subterfuge and challenges her physically. The interplay between them is excellent, with Ingram seemingly several steps ahead of Dugdale until the final act when momentarily the down-at-heel enquiry agent defends Ingram in a terrific fight sequence in a meat packing factory.
... a typically physical performance from Rossiter 
There are great moments to cherish too. When he's attacked by Bone, she tends to his wounds and Dugdale can only tactlessly and naively enquire, "...and why is this plaster brown?" After he gets over the shock of working for a black female client he tries a different approach and attempts to convince Ingram to go to bed with him. She simply laughs in his face.

It is a typically physical performance from Rossiter that dominates much of the play. If you particularly like his ability to define emotionally what the character is feeling through extreme use of his voice, face and body then this is one to watch.

All the Rossiter facial ticks, speedily delivered lines and reptilian body language are present and correct and yet he makes Cyril just as distinct as Rigsby was from Reggie Perrin. Incidentally, he also finds himself in the company of fellow Rising Damp and Reginald Perrin cohorts Gay Rose and Tim Preece who play two of Cyril's friends.

Dromgoole also manages to visually capture much of the inner city landscape and its environs and coupled with a rather atypical score, that uses woodwind, brass and keyboards, from Eric Wetherell, the film combines the threatening violence of the criminal underworld, the seediness of illicit love affairs and the pathetic whimsy of Dugdale's sheer ineptitude and bad luck with urban dereliction and lush green woodland.
... an eccentric, rather seedy and often violent detective story 
A couple of the director's sequences are impressive. When Bone chases Dugdale through woodland the pursuit concludes rather terrifyingly when he witnesses one of the other men, Frank, murder Bone on Livingston's instructions and then gets his hands bloodied after stumbling across the corpse.

Later, Dugdale's encounter with Pat Livingston (O'Mara's pretty good in this scene), conducted with cold logic, concludes with a laugh-out loud moment as she fetches a cigarette from a box that cheerily plays 'The Hills are Alive With the Sound of Music'; a scene cross-cutting between Felicity living it up at the reggae club and Pat's eventual discovery of Bone's body finishes on merged screams, Wetherell's music and a cut back to the doorbell being rung at Felicity's flat; and finally the desperate showdown in the meatpacking cold store mixes slapstick, violence and a witty use of location signage.

Deservedly winning a British Television Society Best Regional Drama Award, Machinegunner offers a wonderful central performance from Rossiter and exceptional support from Baden Semper, Welland and O'Mara. It is an eccentric, rather seedy and often violent detective story populated by memorable characters living in a rapidly changing society where, although old attitudes and anxieties about race are being overturned, even Cyril Dugdale still can't win over the girl at the end of the story.

HTV West 1976
Released 31 January 2010 / Network / 7953329 / Region 2 / Cert PG / 79 mins approx
Mono / English / 1.33:1 / Colour

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