OPINION - The London Question: Why does TV have to portray London like it’s downtown Kabul?

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Dear God, did you read about that gang shootout in an old people’s home in east London the other day? Maybe you did not, because it was weirdly under-reported in the news but… horrible. Just horrible. Tons of shots fired. Loads of people dead. “I peed myself four or five times,” said one of the residents, Wilfred, who was there as the two gangs happily blasted away at each other across the lounge area where he and lots of others were happily playing bridge. “Though that happens a fair bit these days anyway, to be honest.”

In reality, of course, the scene did not take place. Can you imagine if it did? Even Sadiq “My thoughts are with the family” Khan would surely be spurred into getting more than a little medieval on crime. It would be on the front pages of all the papers for weeks. Tanks would be parked on the lawns of every hospice in the land.

You’d have the police scouring every last inch of Hackney for the participants, and Chris Martin or maybe Hot Chip or maybe both together playing benefit vigils every night in Hackney Marshes until about 2038 (or, more likely, when the surrounding luxury flat owners phoned in a complaint). And those gang members? They’d be lying as low as Liz Truss at the latest Tory confer … sorry: I’ve been off on my hols for a week and am just catching up on the actual news. Let me rephrase. They’d be lying as low as Liz Truss was not at the latest Tory conference.

These shows are praised for their gritty realism — gritty they may be, but realistic?

This shootout did, however, feature in the latest series of Top Boy: one of its many, many scenes involving heavy gunfire. Now, I’m not here to rat on Top Boy specifically, which I really enjoyed. The very, very silly Gangs Of London, which has just started shooting its third season in the last few weeks, has also, in previous episodes, had scenes that recast leafy Clerkenwell as something more like downtown Kabul, with dozens of gangster guys letting rip on each other for ages with the kind of automatic weaponry that exists only in the Schwarzenegger/Stallone/Seagal movies of the 1980s.

London, as we all know far, far too well, has a big problem with knives. But it does not, thankfully, have very many of what the Met call “lethal barrel discharges”: nine each in July and June of this year to be exact — the lowest since November 2022 — with Talip Guzel’s murder, near Tottenham Hotspur’s stadium, being the most recent on July 30 (a man was charged less than a month later). When interviewed in March about the rise in shootings in London, acting police chief Trish McIntyre said that “to have nine in the first three months of the year is just alarming.”

There were nine in the above mentioned hour of Top Boy alone. And probably 90 in some episodes of Gangs Of London (I lost count after about 24, and interest after about three episodes). So why are the screenwriters of these blockbuster shows — we could, though it’s not specified where it’s set, add Line Of Duty — determined to portray the capital as some kind of free-fire zone, where the police barely even show up to watch, much less ever arrest anyone?

 (Courtesy of Netflix)
(Courtesy of Netflix)

The obvious answers would be that a) gunfire (loud, bright, renders the target dead instantly) looks far better (read, if we’re being honest: cooler) onscreen than stabbings (largely silent, discreet, leaves the victim to bleed out). And that b) with shows increasingly seeking an international audience via streaming, some ratatat-tating of the type popularised in Eighties action movies might bring in some extra gun-lovin’ US bums on seats. Which is a little irresponsible but also maybe understandable, given how much we, the viewing public, now almost expect guns in our TV dramas.

What grates, though, is that these shows are being forever praised for “gritty realism”. Gritty they may be, and meticulous in their selection of locations (Top Boy is particularly good on this front). But realistic? Thanks to the guns, not in the slightest.

We have more than enough problems in this city of ours. Do we really want this cartoon image of it being beamed out into the world? As Londoners, we may be able to snigger at a scene akin to the ending of Scarface playing out in front of our local vegan bakery. But others around the globe might think that’s just the way it is in London — didn’t you about Baltimore when you watched The Wire? — and not fancy that summer trip to gawp at Buckingham Palace after all. Or — far worse — feel like they might fit in in London just fine.