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Review: Murphy’s Law (BBC One)

JM Thorn

30 August 2006

To a large degree detective series Murphy’s Law, which has run on BBC One for three seasons, is the conventional mix of action and suspense.   The description that reviewers have attached most often to the series is “gritty”.  What this amounts to is scenes of car chases, punch ups and shootouts strung together through an expletive sprinkled dialogue.  The narrative is largely formulaic.  Every episode has undercover detective Tommy Murphy (James Nesbitt) infiltrating some violent gang of criminals and bringing them down, although not before having his cover blown and being almost killed.  The Murphy character is very much in the well worn model of the maverick cop who likes to play by his own rules and is often in conflict with his superiors.  He is also portrayed as a loner, jaded and cynical, and probably haunted by something in his past.  Murphy is often seen staring intently at himself in a bathroom mirror or looking off into the middle distance pre-occupied with some painful memory.  We never get the see what this could be as there is no portrayal of Murphy’s past or personal life.  All we know is that is originally from Belfast. We can assume he was once an RUC member, but there is no indication of the role he may have played during the period of the “Troubles”.  There is also no indication of his community background.  In many ways his back story is incidental to the series.  For the most part his Irishness has no bearing on the operations in which he is involved. 

However, the latest three-part special of Murphy’s Law did touch directly on the situation in Ireland by portraying loyalist characters.  This is set up in the opening scene when two men beat up a youth who they accuse of dealing drugs.  The twist is that this punishment beating is taking place not in Belfast but in a British city, and that the victim is Asian.  We get the explanation for this in the next scene when Murphy, on a visit back to Belfast to visit his patents, is approached by the English detective D.C.I. Warren (Francis Magee).  He tells Murphy that notorious loyalists Drew (Packy Lee) and Billy Johnstone (Brian McCardie) have established themselves in Leicester and are building links with an Asian crime family.  This has gone to the lengths of one of the brothers converting to Islam and preparing to marry the Asian gangster’s daughter.  Warren is convinced that something big is going down, and is determined to stop any “Shankill bullshit” coming to the East Midlands.  To do this he needs Murphy to infiltrate the loyalist gang and find out what is going on.  After some deliberation, Murphy agrees to take on the assignment.  He assumes a false identity and uses the cover of a police “raid” on a drugs deal to infiltrate the Johnstone gang.  Escaping from the raid with Drew Johnstone’s son he makes his way to Leicester 

The Leicester that we encounter is a grim and threatening housing estate populated mostly by Asians.  He is picked up by the loyalists and interrogated by Billy Johnstone, who asks Murphy if he knows how many Fenians he’s “offed”.  While Billy is portrayed as a psychopath, his brother Drew, by contrast, is much more rational.  He is seen scolding is son for being involved in the drugs deal, telling him that he had only involved himself in such activities because there had been a “war going on”.  This creates the impression that Drew actually is a changed man, and that his religious conversion is sincere.  In subsequent scenes, he is seen consulting a spiritual advisor and explaining to Murphy the concept of jihad as a struggle against his own sinful nature.  Billy however is a loyalist of the old school - a psychotic bigot, up to his neck in criminality.  His pride is the Lollipop lap dance, a den of vice where young Eastern European women parade themselves before drunken punters.  He is clearly uncomfortable with the direction his brother is going in and rages against the “Pakis” for disrupting their relationship.  This tension between the brothers is the main device that drives the plot. 

As Murphy gets closer to the gang we get to see more of the enterprise in which Drew and the Asian gang boss Muhammad Khan (Nadim Sawalha) is involved.  This is only referred to as “something big” initially, with Khan expressing concern that Billy’s antics risk jeopardising their plans.  However, as the plot progresses it is revealed that the “something big” is a dodgy property deal in which Drew and Khan buy cheap housing and land that is set for redevelopment.  This involves intimidating the remaining residents out off their homes.  Sensitive to race relations Khan suggests that he takes care of the Asians while Drew deals with the “white trash”.  The property deal requires Drew to get his hands on two hundred thousands pounds that is tied up in Belfast.  To release this money he plans to use a hawaladar banker who will release money on the word of someone who can be trusted.  This is reason that Drew is marrying Khan’s daughter.  Once he is part of the “family” he can get his money, invest in the property deal and rake in millions.  Murphy and DCI Warren are initially baffled by this.  Fortunately, Asian detective DC Bash (Emil Marwa), who obviously has an insight into these customs, is able to spot this scam immediately. As well as performing this useful plot function Bash also acts as a counterbalance to the Asian gangsters.  After all, the writers wouldn’t want to be accused of being racist!  However, any positive impression of Bash is soon cancelled out when he loses a file that leads to Murphy’s cover being blown.  After this bungle, and having performed his plot functions, the Bash character fades into the background. 

After this disaster, Murphy pulls out of the operation and goes back to Belfast.   This could have been the end of the drama, but of course the stolen file identifying Murphy conveniently falls into the hands of Billy Johnstone who tracks him to Belfast and tries to kill him.  Before that, and unknown to the police who are supposed to have him under surveillance, Billy has abducted and murdered Muhammad Khan’s son.  In the wake of the failed murder attempt in Belfast, Billy is persuaded by Murphy and Warren to turn informer and bring down Drew and Khan.  Billy takes comfort from the thought that he will at least be reunited with his brother, even if they are both behind bars.  Surprisingly, the local police take little inertest in the case despite an attempted murder taking place in their jurisdiction.   It is Murphy and Warren who take charge of the interrogation of Billy.  In this scene Murphy baits him about not being able to read or write despite having ample time to learn when he was imprisoned in the Maze.  He contrasts the studious Republican prisoners with the loyalists who spent their time "pumping iron and walking round in lycra shorts". 

Despite being a dumb thug Billy still keeps one step ahead of the police.  Returning to Leicester with Murphy he manages to give him the slip after causing a scene at his brother’s wedding.  During the short period of time he has at large he manages to dispose of the body of Khan’s son (chopped up and dumped in a furnace), and identify and rob the hawaladar banker.  With the money and a gun in his possession he arranges to meet Drew, hoping he can persuade him to go on the run.  Meanwhile, Muhammad Khan has discovered that Billy has killed his son and demands that Drew hand him over in order that “honour” be satisfied.  The drama reaches its climax with Drew and Billy meeting up at an abandoned industrial estate.  Pursued by Murphy, it ends up with the three of them in a Reservoir Dogs style standoff with guns trained on one another.  After a lot of talk, in which Murphy tries to persuade Drew not to shoot his brother, they eventually start blasting away at each other.  When the smoke clears Drew is dead, Murphy injured and Billy arrested.

If you were expecting to be enlightened about the nature of loyalism then this episode of Murphy’s Law would have disappointed. The loyalist background of two of the main characters is mostly incidental, they could have been from anywhere.  Of course, loyalists do come readymade with all the credentials required for criminals, in that they are up to their necks in criminality.  Indeed, this point is made by the DCI Warren character when he is holding forth on the Johnstone bothers as “jumped up criminals who wouldn’t know a political cause if it leapt up and bit them on the ass”.  While this is true to some degree, the critical point about loyalists is that they are not just gangsters, they are sectarian gangsters.  They do have a political role, and that role is to maintain sectarian divisions in the north of Ireland through ongoing intimidation and violence against nationalists, and also anyone who may challenge them from within their own community.  The important point to make his that this violence is accommodated and often directed by the state.  We need only think of the loyalist blockade of Holy Cross school, the riots over the Springfield Orange parade last September, or continuing revelations over the role of state agents in loyalist organisations (eg John White and Torrens Knight).  Of course, this is never going to be explored by a popular drama on the BBC.  The closest it gets is when the Warren character reveals that Drew Johnstone was flown to England in a specially chartered RAF plane (as happened in reality with Johnny Adair).  This suggests that loyalists are more than mere criminals, however it is not pursued.  Instead, loyalists are portrayed as slightly sinister cartoon characters.  It’s as if research for this drama consisted of going through an archive of the Sunday World for the last two years.

If the portrayal of loyalists is poor, the portrayal of Asian Muslims is even worse.  Apart from a detective and a victim of intimidation, all the Asians are gangsters and lowlifes.  Thus is particularly striking from the scenes set the housing estate in Leicester which the Johnstones’ use as their base.  In one scene Asian youths look on at a burning car as Arabian music plays in the background, and in another the camera pans across the skyline of the estate as the Islamic call to prayer blares out from a Mosque.  This creates the impression of foreignness, and the sense that Britain is being turned into strange land.  In this the drama is quite reactionary, appealing to the prejudices of middle England over Irish people and Asians. 

Despite this sinister undertone Murphy’s Law shouldn’t be taken too seriously, it’s just a piece of brainless entertainment.  What is disappointing is that a talented actor such as James Nesbitt should be in this trash – he really is much better in the ‘Yellow Pages” adverts. 


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