In 1968 Hamish Hamilton (by then part of the Thomson Organisation and subsequently to be bought by Penguin) published The Burden Of Proof, a novel by the Birmingham born author James Barlow. The firm had something of a hit seven years earlier with Barlow’s Term of Trial. That novel, about a teacher accused of indecency with a pupil, was made into a successful film starring Laurence Olivier, Simone Signoret, Sarah Miles and Terence Stamp. The Burden Of Proof was a different beast altogether, but first a little bit of history.
n 8th May 1968, led by Detective Chief Superintendent Leonard ‘Nipper’ Read, the Metropolitan Police arrested Reg and Ron Kray, along with sundry members of their gang. Neither of the Kray twins was ever to see freedom again, apart from when Reg spent his final hours dying from cancer in the honeymoon suite at the Beefeater Town House Hotel in Norwich. In 1968, the particular character of Ron Kray was not widely known to the general public, as the whole Kray ‘industry’ of ghosted memoirs and personal accounts of ‘The Twins I Knew’ by minor London villains had yet to take wing. Ron Kray was a homosexual psychopath, and it’s as simple as that. Whether brother Reg was any better for being heterosexual is neither here nor there, but Ron’s peccadillos were mirrored in dramatic fashion in The Burden Of Proof.
Vic Dakin is a London gangster who has political connections, and has yet to have his collar properly felt, despite a string of serious crimes. He also enjoys a spot of sexual sadism, usually with his unofficial boyfriend, Wolfie, who accepts the beatings as a fact of life. Oh yes, and before I forget, Vic loves his dear old mum (who is blissfully unaware of Vic’s career choices) In the novel, Vic plans a daring wages raid on a suburban factory, in between doing all kinds of other unpleasant things to people he both likes and dislikes. Before we turn to the movie version of the book, check out my review of The Burden Of Proof.
he film was released in 1971, renamed Villain. The key issue, of course, was that of who would play Dakin? The choice – Richard Burton – was a surprise at the time, and the actor later wrote that he was drawn to the role because it represented a change from his usual heroic fare. Younger folk reading this will not know what a huge star Burton was at the time. For a modern comparison you need to think Hanks, Clooney, Cruise, Fiennes or Craig. Film and TV historians will be surprised to know that the screenplay for Villain was written by none other than Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. The duo’s lightness of touch and feeling for the vernacular of British comedy created pure gold in later works such as Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?, Porridge, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and Lovejoy. Maybe all that shows is that good writers are good writers, end of.
With a link worthy of BBC Radio 4, I can reveal that the role of Vic Dakin’s much-abused boyfriend in Villain was played by none other than the excellent Ian McShane (right), whose many credits include the long running Sunday night TV show, Lovejoy. Back to the film, directed by Michael Tuchner (Fear Is The Key, Mister Quilp). The supporting cast was stellar. The two coppers pursuing Dakin were the much-missed. moustache-twirling Nigel Davenport and Colin Welland. The villains were equally stalwarts of the day; TP McKenna as Frank Fletcher and Joss Ackland as Edgar Lowis, not to mention Donald Sinden as the compromised politician, and regular ‘baddies’ such as Tony Selby and Del Henney (composite below)
id the film work? For me, it was something of a Curate’s Egg. Despite his passable snarling London accent, Burton never totally convinced me, even though he was never less than mesmeric when on screen. Villain will never be known as ‘the great London gangster movie’ – nothing will ever surpass The Long Good Friday – but that doesn’t make it a bad film. Donald Sinden was wonderful as the oily and glib politician, and Davenport and Welland were convincing, if hardly original, as the coppers. A final word of praise for the late, great TP McKenna. Check his filmography. He was never just the stage Irishman, but brought dignity and conviction to every role he played.
As ever, there are clips to be found, such as this one, over on YouTube