A Town Called Malice

Posted by in September's Magazine

It’s a sad truth that the standing of TV drama Looking After Jo Jo runs parallel to that of its Director John MacKenzie; both grossly underestimated, marginalised and largely overlooked. Affable, with an air of slight distraction, Mackenzie was sometimes described as the “forgotten man of Scottish film”, but he did not seem to mind. Winningly, he is quoted as saying: “Perhaps it’s because I have a very boring personality, I’ve always been slightly anonymous.” Since it premièred on our screens in 1998 the series has only seen the light of day on VHS – being left to loiter criminally in the BBC vaults. While Jo Jo is mercifully resurrected on DVD this month, Mackenzie, sadly, passed in 2011. Thus it is only his reputation we can polish.

Mackenzie remains an enigma. While coasting through a doldrum decade in the Hollywood dream factories, closer to home his career was speckled with genius. He served his apprenticeship at the BBC, as assistant to Ken Loach on the pioneering television classics Up the Junction (1965) and Cathy Come Home (1966). However it is rumoured he found Loach too “pamphleteering” and they soon parted company.


It was not long before he was shattering the psychological wellbeing of a generation with the remarkable 1977 public safety film Apaches – in which seven children are gradually and gruesomely picked off on a deathtrap farm (check it out on YouTube). His first feature film, in 1971, was the extremely unsettling Unman, Wittering and Zigo but his most lasting mark on the public consciousness came with the blood soaked The Long Good Friday (1980) – for which Mackenzie received a measly one off payment of £15,000.

Yet both Jo Jo and an earlier collection of TV work with the likes of writers Peter MacDougall and Dennis Potter prove its equal, in all bar reputation. He helmed Peter MacDougall’s trilogy of gritty Glasgow television dramas, the Prix Italia prize winning Just Another Saturday (1975), which apparently inspired the young Robert Carlyle to take up acting as a career and The Elephant’s Graveyard (1976), one Billy Connolly’s first major role. For me though, Just a Boys Game (1979) was the highpoint of their collaboration. As Greenock’s version of The Gunfighter, it came out slinging fists in place of firearms, with Frankie Miller claiming, as Gregory Peck never would or could, “McCafferty, Yer tea’s oot!”

Looking after Jo Jo boasts equally abrasive and authentic dialogue, testament to both Mackenzie and the writing of the equally sadly missed Irishman, Frank Deasy, who adopted Glasgow as his home. Its badge of honour being that subtitles and a slang dictionary were suggested south of the border (indeed are available on the DVD rerelease).

The work was condemned outside Scotland for its accents and vocabulary, ensuring it was catalogued simply as ‘Scottish’, as if any relevance evaporates past Gretna. As ever the metropolitans took an anthropological approach to underprivileged Scottish lives. “If you really want to know what Jo Jo’s gang of Scottish thieves are like, “ asked Andrew Billen in The New Statesman, “- beyond unscrupulous, faithless and violent – I’d say that they were pathetic. From the fastness of middle London, you observe their feuds and psychoses, fascinated, as if viewing an ant colony driven to fratricide by the toxic dung hill on which they thrive.”

Slightly redeeming himself from this grim voyeurism by celebrating its stripping away of television’s fraudulent plastic sheen, claiming it as either “a doomed protest at the rule of gloss or the precursor of a new post-Tory confidence in the power of television drama to interrogate society.” The former sadly proving true, a modern diet of glorified talent shows confirms Jo Jo as creative blip rather than cultural coup. The revolution will not be televised it seems.

In many ways Looking after Jo Jo was a foretaste of today’s HBO offerings, treating the tube as a greater if not grander canvas than the silver screen. It’s easy to take exception to The Guardian’s description of a ‘cortege-paced narrative’ – the work never lags, the four episodes merely respecting their characters, allowing scenes to breath. It’s no concessions attitude is one TV drama would do well to resurrect.

The series tells the sorry tale of the tidal wave of heroin flooding through Edinburgh in the early 1980s – working as anaesthetic to Thatcher’s cruel policies of societal disintegration, and also their catalyst. By morphing from a good honest crook into a fully-fledged pro gangster, Jo Jo in many ways embodies the dark flipside of her ideology. The narrative of Edinburgh’s heroin trade is legend but far from myth – a history featuring heavily in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting prequel Skagboys.

A pharmaceutical factory (based on Gorgie’s MacFarlan Smith) leaks pure diamorphine onto Edinburgh’s streets and when the security gap is filled, the now dependent users replace it with Indian brown. “What’s that, that fuckin brown shite?” challenges Jo Jo when confronted with this lesser product. Which is followed, tragically but predictably, by overdoses, addiction, and finally the infliction of the Aids virus on an unsuspecting generation. Set mainly within the fortress walls of Sighthill high rises now blown to dust, there are also fine Edinburgh locations throughout, from a bunny suit slashing in a Cowgate club to a deal brokered over Granton’s sea view.

The period detail is perfectly placed. In a pillbox bar scene, Falklands carnage unfolds on TV. Later a can of Tennents is ordered – adorned on its side no doubt with the soft porn image of a ‘Tennents Lager Lovely’. Overall it’s a work of many standout moments: a jaundiced Kevin McKidd being christened The Yellow Peril; the latter day face of Scottish Blend tea, Aline Mowatt – here improbably more at home shooting up than brewing up – scooping smack into her extended fingernail.

They are far from the only faces. Robert Carlyle swaggers through the lead, offering a more nuanced portrayal of an Edina hard man than the full force Franco Begbie. The previous iconic part still earning him respect on the Sighthill location. “When we got to there, it was just a case of talking to the guys there.” Said Carlyle at the time. “It was almost as though Begbie was their mate, and it was very easy for me to be accepted.” Adding that he felt Jo Jo to be one of the best projects he’d been involved in. His cocksure bravado played in sharp contrast to the fragility of on-screen partner Lorraine, perfectly realised by the talented actress Jenny McCrindle – tragically to die of multiple sclerosis in 2014, aged 46.

Opening all four episodes with the highly appropriate Town called Malice playing over a looming, dilapidated billboard of Thatcher, Jo Jo was set during a moment in time when opposing Labour wings were at loggerheads with each other while the Tories dismantled society from the bottom rung up. Sound familiar? Perfect timing for this re-release it would seem.

Twitter: @AJBee888
Info: Looking After Jo Jo is out on DVD from 17th September (£14.99)

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