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29 November 2023

BBC radio’s Gangster is true crime without the tawdriness

The story of the Burger Bar Boys is recent history as seen through the eyes of a Birmingham community living in fear.

By Peter Williams

Here is a better way to do “true crime”: the fifth series of Gangster gives a familiar tale of hope and despair in postwar Britain new life by telling it through the Burger Bar Boys, a Birmingham gang who didn’t let their unmenacing name stop them from becoming one of the most feared criminal organisations in the country.

This six-part podcast, presented by Livvy Haydock, centres around two events: the 1985 Handsworth riots, fuelled by broken police-community relations, and the killing in 2003 of Letisha Shakespeare and Charlene Ellis, teenagers caught in the crossfire between the Burgers and their local rivals. The first helped solidify the gang, the second would break it.

We hear from Burger members, but equal prominence is given to their victims, the police and medics working in a locale as violent as Johannesburg or Baltimore, and to the forces that shaped them. The first episode goes back to Generation Windrush’s arrival in inner Birmingham to take “bus work, train work, hospital work” amid unabashed racism and social apartheid. You will have heard these things before – about the blues parties and sound systems, the fanatic tremble in the voice of Enoch Powell as he delivers his “Rivers of Blood” speech (in Birmingham), the National Front marches, the destruction wrought by crack cocaine and the war on drugs – but seen through the eyes of one community they gain greater clarity.

Haydock goes wherever the trail takes her, from Spaghetti Junction to Kingston, Jamaica, and hundreds of years into colonial history, without preconception and deploying relatively few clichés. The violence is related plainly. We see its studied casualness, the black hole these men fell into where murder, bullets and sexual assault were merely the most efficient tools of intimidation, and the strange lapses that aided their fall (one gangster gave the police his number after he had been shot). There is never a sense their lives were anything other than miserable, desperate, fearful.

Gangster: The Story of the Burger Bar Boys
BBC Sounds and Radio 5 Live, available on catch-up

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[See also: Ghosts in Barratt Home Britain]

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This article appears in the 29 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Being Jewish Now