TV set visit: Jake Arnott's 'He Kills Coppers'
Jake Arnott‘s ’He Kills Coppers‘ fictionalised the crimes and subsequent capture of a notorious ‘60s murderer who‘s still behind bars. Time Out gained exclusive access to the set of its superb TV adaptation to discover why the Harry Roberts killings resonate with Londoners to this day
‘Now this is one demonstration I’m glad to see,’ pronounces an ageing passer by as a small corner of Trafalgar Square thrums with people celebrating a national sporting triumph, just hours after a major demo against outrages in south-east Asia. Across most of London it’s 2007, and England have just beaten Australia in the rugby, while violence in Burma has triggered widespread protest. But by the statue of Charles I at the southern tip, it’s 1966: England have won the World Cup and dissent is growing against the US campaign in Vietnam. The crowd being filmed may be wearing flat caps, beehive hairdos and brandishing World Cup Willy mascots, but no one can accuse ITV1’s three-part adaptation of Jake Arnott’s second novel, ‘He Kills Coppers’, of anachronism or irrelevance.
The book, which came out in 2001, is inspired by the case of Harry Roberts (here re-imagined as ‘Billy Porter’), who was involved in the killing of three policemen in 1966 and subsequently evaded capture for three months by hiding out in Epping Forest, surviving thanks to skills learnt on National Service in Malaya. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison – where he remains despite numerous appeals – and became a folk hero for the anarchist movement, inspiring the chant ‘Harry Roberts is our friend, he kills coppers’, sung to the tune of ‘London Bridge Is Falling Down’.
Like most of Arnott’s books, ‘He Kills Coppers’ is as much a social history of London in snapshots as a crime novel. The three-month-long Roberts manhunt is extended to 20 years for Porter. We see 1966’s World Cup fever and the police clean-up operation in Soho that preceded it; the hooligan warfare and widespread police corruption of 1971; and the 1985 of squatters and anti-establishment rage. The thread running through both novel and adaptation is the British public’s uneasy relationship with its law enforcers and how in the space of two decades the Met Police lurched from one distorted stereotype, of bobbies on the beat, to the equally blinkered image of an organised army of crypto-fascists.
The 1966 World Cup celebrations were recreated in Trafalgar Square
‘By the time I’d finished “He Kills Coppers” “police procedural” had become a vogue term for a particular type of novel,’ Arnott recalls. ‘What police procedure is should be questioned, not what police procedure can itself uncover. There was a huge politicisation of the police around the miners’ strike and the Battle of the Beanfield [where police confronted travellers near Stonehenge in 1985], which is where a lot of things came to an end. The relationship is a lot better than it was, but mostly because it couldn’t get much worse.’
The BBC successfully adapted Arnott’s first book, ‘The Long Firm’, in 2004. For all its many virtues (in particular a superb performance from Mark Strong as gay gangster Harry Starks), it felt like an elegant chamber piece, to be admired rather than get involved in. The first episode of ‘He Kills Coppers’ is immediate and sinewy, stripping a little of the book’s narrative density while drawing out the emotional complexity. The manhunt is the hook (this is, after all, a primetime ITV1 drama), but the peripheral themes remain. The trappings and clichés of the eras are explored, only to be exploded. London in ’66 is swaying rather than swinging; ‘Ashes to Ashes’, this is not.
Director Adrian Shergold with Rafe Spall
‘People looked like Hank Marvin rather than Mick Jagger,’ says director Adrian Shergold during a break in filming at Pall Mall’s opulent Travellers Club, all wrought-iron elevators and fusty bookcases. Shergold’s CV includes ‘Holding On’, ‘Persuasion’ and ‘Low Winter Sun’, intimate dramas with a profound sense of place (London, Bath and Edinburgh, respectively); he’s a great match for Arnott’s insider’s tour of the capital.
The sense of place for ‘He Kills Coppers’ was a problem, given the fate of much of the area’s 1960s architecture. ‘Most of it’s been destroyed by planners,’ Shergold laments. ‘If you’re doing Georgian Britain you’re fine, but we’ve fucked up most of the ’60s.’ He used Ken Hughes’s 1963 film ‘The Small World of Sammy Lee,’ about a Soho hustler, as a reference, and shot most of the ’60s Soho scenes around Artillery Passage in Spitalfields.
The adaptation skims the surface of the 1970s, noting the growing cult of Porter on the football terraces. The focus sharpens again in 1985, when Porter becomes a reluctant squatter in Vauxhall and a bemused participant in a protest movement that seemed to hate the police because it wasn’t sure what else to demonise. ‘The world I lived through in the ’70s and ’80s was one where [anarchist magazine] Class War would literally run a Hospitalised Copper Of The Month picture,’ says Arnott. ‘I was a bit guilty of it myself but I soon got very bored of it. Now we’re very lucky to live in a society that can comfortably question the police.’ As Ian Blair has discovered.
Actors Mel Raido and Liam Garrigan
The casting of ‘He Kills Coppers’ avoids the obvious, with an absence of marquee names that’s strangely refreshing: Mel Raido brings brooding intensity to Billy Porter and Steven Robertson a gimlet-eyed desperation to Tony Meehan, the tormented hack on his trail. The revelation is Rafe Spall, through whose eyes much of the story is told. His Frank Taylor is the matey but morally compromised policeman whose best friend is shot by Porter and who slides into personal and professional corruption as an obsession with nailing the killer takes hold. It’s a mature, invigorating performance from Spall (who is Timothy’s son), making the most of what screenwriter Ed Whitmore refers to as the ‘great immoral glee’ inherent in the source material.
Arnott is thrilled with the casting and pleased with what he’s seen of the adaptation but clearly has mixed feelings about the novel: ‘It was my difficult book. There’s a tone of desperation; I was slightly bewildered and terrified of people being interested in what I had to write.’
Kelly Reilly preparing for her role as Jeannie
It also briefly became a matter of major public interest when the book was published just as Harry Roberts was making a bid for parole. ‘It was quite by chance,’ remembers Arnott. The then-home secretary David Blunkett rejected the request due to ‘undisclosed allegations’. Arnott himself plays down any connection: ‘The irony is that recent anti-terrorism legislation was used to prevent his release. To keep an old man in jail and say it’s for security reasons is absurd: one of the reasons he became so trigger-happy is that he’d been involved in a guerilla war in Malaya. Lots of people will come back from Iraq with very few skills apart from being able to kill people very quickly and not worry too much about what’s going on in their heads.’ The cop-killer may be long jailed but some of the issues raised by his crimes and the reaction to it are still lurking in the city’s dark alleys, ready to pounce.
‘He Kills Coppers’ starts on March 23 on ITV1.
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