I came to write this by popular demand – in that James is a member of the population and he demanded I write something again, preferably before the next Ice Age. It’s certainly an intriguing story though, and one I am happy to be able to discuss. If you’re expecting tall tales of Cockney wide-boys and their hilarious capers and high jinks, you’d probably do better reading about Snatch (2000) or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998). The story of John McVicar, like the proverbial policeman’s lot, is definitely not a happy one. Indeed, it’s pretty grim for the most part.
Also pretty grim is the toll that 30-odd years has taken on the look, feel and production values of the film. Tom Clegg was at the helm for this, so I guess it’s unsurprising. Clegg, you see, was a director of TV series, and a very competent one at that, I might add. His CV is packed with such 1980s telly delights as The Sweeney, Special Branch, The Professionals and even (oddly) Space:1999. Take a look at any of these today and they look horribly dated – as, sadly, does McVicar. It’s simply not enough to transfer a director of TV series to the big screen and expect it to pay off. It didn’t detract from the story too much back in the 80s, but it makes the whole thing look tired and a little jaded now.
The subject itself is and always will be contentious. It revolves around the early life of John McVicar, one-time Public Enemy No. 1 with a shoot-on-sight recommendation hanging over his head. The reason for this was his penchant for armed robbery and the fact that he had no problem depriving those who stood in the way of the further use of their knees. Whether he would have eventually killed someone, accidentally or purposefully, is moot. He didn’t, but his record isn’t exactly saint-like. Most people will know that after his final arrest, he took an Open University degree in Sociology and was paroled early. He speaks still of the futility of prison ‘rehab’, saying that people should be punished, then decide for themselves, as he did. He really seems to know how to not make friends.
The big draw in the 80s was, of course, the cast and soundtrack. Something had to back it up, as it probably wouldn’t have even been made without the box-office buzz around Roger Daltrey in the title role, alongside 60s singing star Adam Faith (playing Walter Probyn). Top it off with a soundtrack “by Roger Daltrey” which was really by Daltrey, Townsend, Entwistle and Jones – aka The Who – plus contributions from The War of the Worlds producer Jeff Wayne and you’re in 80s heaven. The fact that the screenplay was actually based heavily on McVicar’s book McVicar by Himself and co-written by him seems to have got lost somewhere in the brouhaha. So, given the gimmicky cast and soundtrack and the poor production and direction, how does the film shape up?
Funnily enough, not too badly. As the tale doesn’t concern itself with his musings on the reformation of prisoners, it’s pretty much a standard prison breakout caper, being based as it is on his escape from Durham Prison’s infamous high-security E Wing. That he did it so easily is a classic story of one in the eye for the screws (prison officers) and bestows upon McVicar (who’s really Daltrey) a certain rakish charm. I’m sure the guy who got his knees shot off shortly afterwards would have other words for Mr McVicar than ‘rakish’ but what goes on in the prison is pretty accurate by all accounts. Folk-hero stuff or not, it really happened. Both Daltrey and Faith’s performances are solid, if not legendary. The characters are believable and the story strong. I suppose it helps with factual accuracy if you have the man in question on set. Clegg’s direction is far from awful, it’s pretty competent in fact. It doesn’t shine though, which is a pity because this script and cast could have been pushed even more by someone more heavyweight to deliver something more polished. The soundtrack is really no more than a collection of songs loosely based on, or directly about, McVicar but it doesn’t always sit well with the action.
And the moral of the story is? Surprisingly subtle. While all the action is going on in between heists, prison breaks, fast cars and easy cash, there’s still the wife and kids at home. With an apparently blatant disregard for his family, as soon as he’s out he’s back in the business, loving the pace, the excitement and the immediate gratification of what he does.
The story makes you wonder why he does what he does, then root for him as he plots and executes his escape and finally wonder why he’d selfishly throw away his liberty and the joys of family life. You dislike him by the end because of what he is – and you can’t help thinking something similar must have happened to him.