The series Gangs Of London, co-created by Gareth Evans and Matt Flannery, is an epic, violent and incredibly cinematic new show which reinvents the London underworld. Each episode – or block of episodes – has its own tone and arc and feels like a film in its own right, but none more so than episode five. It’s a breakaway from the timeline – taking place after episode two – and it’s a break away from London, taking place mostly in Wales, where Evans is from.
Episode five is directed by Gareth Evans himself, who made The Raid movies, and you can see certain elements and preoccupations from those films come through. We sat down with Evans – via Zoom – to talk through the details of the centrepiece episode from Gangs Of London.
“We knew we wanted to have this overriding arc throughout the entire season. It felt like we were making nine films that would be a continuing story,” he explains, of his approach to the show as a whole. “It was almost like how you’d approach a novel in respect to that, where the characters get to breathe and get to be more than just the sum of their parts. It was really fun to see these characters go on journeys where they would change so dramatically from episode one until the very tail end of the show.”
But five, he says, is his baby.
“Five is where I got to really cut loose. Five was one of the rare occasions where I was left pretty much alone to do what I wanted with it,” he says, visibly lighting up when he even talks about it.
“It was hinting at and referencing the ‘A story’, but it was an opportunity to just step away from London for a little bit and also bring an episode back to Wales, and to tell a story about these characters that were the guys who lit the touchpaper at the beginning of episode one. It was great to go back into that world and tell a standalone story that would then, by the end of the episode, remind you and take you back to London and inform you of what just passed.”
The guys who lit the touch paper were Darren (Aled ap Steffan) and Ioan (Darren Evans) young members of the Welsh travellers gang who we learn at the start of episode five have taken on a dangerous job not really knowing what was at stake.
“We alluded to the fact that they might be a couple,” Evans says of Darren and Ioan. “The money that they would get from doing that job would be enough for them to kind of go off and just disappear and be together.”
It’s an intimate opener loaded with portent for an episode that escalates into dizzying intensity by its close.
“I really loved shooting that scene, they were so delicate in their performances,” Evans recalls. “The tone and the atmosphere is quite calm and quite sedate, quite quiet. Then it’s got this haunting quality because we know, as an audience, what happens with Ioan.”
We do. The pilot episode where we first meet Darren and Ioan shows Ioan coming to an incredibly sticky end at the hands of Darren’s father Kinney (Mark Lewis Jones) via Len the butcher (Lee Charles), who Elliot (Sope Dirisu) takes out in one of the pilot’s incredible set-piece fights – an episode also directed by Evans.
Kinney has pulled considerable strings and sacrificed many lives to get Darren out of the way, knowing that the Wallaces would come for him, but Darren is grieving for Ioan introducing an awkward dynamic between him and his father.
“Seeing Darren sat there in this house reflecting on what’s happened by making that decision allowed us to ramp up the emotion of it. The first 20 to 25 minutes of the episode, it’s purposefully slow burn. It’s purposefully allowing you to breathe and take your time to get to know these characters a bit more. When we meet Darren and Ioan in the first episode, they’re about to go and do something. They’re on the run and it’s full of tension and intensity. This was an opportunity to get to know Darren a little bit and then get to see this poor kid that’s been dragged into all of this and the fate that’s going to descend upon them,” Evans explains.
Episode five deliberately messes with timelines, both within the episode itself, and also within the timeline of the whole series, and that was part of the appeal for Evans.
“For me the fun of ep five was to be able to tell something that was completely nonlinear in terms of its timeline. Essentially we were going back to the end of episode two and so ep three and ep four haven’t happened yet in episode five. At the very tail end when Jeevan talks to Leif and says, ‘I have another mission for you, another son.’ We’re talking about Sean. We’re talking about what we’ve just seen happen in episode four. We’re filling in the gaps there.
“It’s an odd placement of an episode. I remember discussing with HBO [who own Cinemax] and Sky, specifically saying, ‘This is purposefully almost a little bit confusing in terms of timeline, but it’ll be so much fun to see the pieces all come together.’ It’s not only out of sequence in terms of it should be straight after episode two, but then within the episode itself, it’s playing with timelines, as well.”
There are several threads running through this. Kinney’s journey, Evans says, is in real time, while the scenes of Mal (Richard Harrington) and Darren are days apart – those times lines, and that of Leif (Mads Koudal), Tove (Laura Bach) and the Danish Militia all converge.
“It was quite a complex episode in terms of timelines, but also allowed me to go a little bit grandiose with the last 20 minutes of that episode,” he says.
More on those astounding last 20 minutes later. But first it’s worth noting that as well as death, violence, sacrifice and a bullet ballet this is also an episode about love.
“Ioan would have been Darren’s love. He would have been somebody he held dearer than anyone else. For Kinney to do what he did to him… That’s the thing that was always a challenge throughout the season, this idea that you meet people who do things which are monstrous and morally repugnant. The beauty of having someone like Mark Lewis Jones play Kinney is that he can be absolutely terrifying in episode one then you go on this journey with him in episode five and you feel this tenderness in him, you can recognize the humanity in him. When he’s there holding his boy, it’s as pure a father and son relationship as you can get.”
He’s referring to the absolutely gut wrenching moment towards the end of the episode which marks the end of the line for both Kinney and Darren as Kinney makes a final attempt to save his son by shielding him with his body. There are moments of sacrifice throughout the episode, certainly from Evie (Caroline Lee-Johnson) and her family.
“A lot of it is about relationships of fathers and sons, but mothers and sons, as well,” Evans explains. “We knew we were going to do something pretty bombastic in terms of the action design. We knew it was going to be big, but first and foremost, we wanted it to also play emotionally. We wanted you to feel the impact of every single person that gets killed on screen.
“It’s the fear of the boy who was trapped outside when Evie’s trying to get to him, but she’s stuck by the door and has to watch him die. It’s the heroism of some of the other kids, like the young lad played by Sam Mak, who runs through the doorway in order to pull the lever down so that the shutters come down. He knows he’s going to die, but he knows that his last act is to protect anyone else who is in the room. You have all these little pockets of self sacrifice and heroism, so that when Darren at the end of that episode is being pushed down into that trap door, Evie’s last words are, ‘Be worth it.’ By the end when we’re on the dock and all is lost, it should be heartbreaking. It should be quite tragic and emotional.”
One of the standout moments of self sacrifice comes via Mal, who’s been sent ahead with Darren to hide out in Evie’s safehouse and wait for the boat. In the midst of the siege Mal is shot to bits by the Danish Militia but despite numerous bullet holes he makes the most of his final breaths by dropping a grenade on the Danes, culminating in an insane explosion sequence.
“Mal’s is a heroic bloodshed moment,” Evans tells us. “That was every inch of our Hong Kong influences, we were just like, ‘let’s go crazy with Mal.’ Richard Harrington who plays Mal was such a force of nature. He’s so much fun to work with. His energy and his enthusiasm throughout that shoot was infectious.”
Episode five is our first proper introduction to the Danish Militia, a highly organised, efficient and weaponised group who we learn are working for Jevan (Ray Panthaki).
“We were suggesting that they used to be members of Danish militia but they’re now mercenaries for hire,” Evans says. “Leif would have been the one who hired Darren on behalf of Jevan in order to get the kill done. Leif is going the ends of the world right now to eradicate anything that links him to that murder. What they don’t expect to stumble upon is a house that is fortified, but also a place that manufacturers ammunition and guns.”
Evie’s tricked out house is one of the key surprises in the episode. Evans explains that when they were designing the house they delved into a lot more background on Evie and her family than we see in the episode. She and her husband and the adopted kids manufacture and distribute ammunition.
“It’s almost like a bullet farm,” Evans explains. “They’re not distributing to the high end elite, but the sub gangs. We learned in our research that a lot of the time gang members might rent a gun and that there might be a place where they have to go in order to pick up that gun. The idea is that bullets are more expensive than the guns, themselves. Two or three bullets is all you really want to be having because it’s too expensive. The idea being that if one of the bullets doesn’t get fired, then that bullet has a value to it. Then it can be sold back.
“Kinney and his travelers site based in London are one of the checkpoints of their delivery system. That’s how Kinney and Evie would know each other. There was a scene in episode two that got deleted where we see Kinney taking a shipment off the back of a truck with boxes on it. That was the truck with the kids on there. It linked these worlds together.”
So how did the idea of the tricked out safehouse come about?
“We knew we wanted to have a siege on a house, but we wanted Kinney and the guys to not just be sitting ducks. We wanted them to be able to shoot back at the guys who were attacking them. But if it’s just some farmers all you’re going to have really is maybe a rifle and a couple of shotguns shells, and we wanted to go quite operatic and quite big.”
That led Evans to the conclusion, “fuck it. It’s a bullet farm” which then allowed for flourishes like the moment when they rip open the couch and there’s an M-15 hidden inside.
“There’s all this weaponry that we can draw upon. We used that flight of fantasy in order to make the fight a little more even in terms of the mercenaries and the artillery that they bring to the part of the game and Evie and her house.”
The house itself, he says, was built from scratch.
“The production designer across the entire show was Matt Gant. He did amazing work across all of the London side of the shoot. For the Wales side of the shoot, I worked with Tom Pearce who was my production designer on Apostle. We had worked together before and the one thing I know that he can definitely do is erect a house in no time, because we did the entire village of Apostle in a remarkable amount of time. We had endless meetings where we discussed the architecture of that house.
“We knew what the lounge needed to be. Then we needed a staircase and then we wanted to play with a loft and the rooftop. We built the loft as a separate set so we could shoot the interior of the loft without having to go upstairs and trudge equipment up. Then we also built separately a section of the rooftop that was just the roof so that we could have a platform around so that Matt could then still use his camera and run along the length of the rooftop for those more dynamic shots. We built three separate sets, the main house, the loft interior and then the rooftop deck.”
The action scenes are all planned out in pre-vis but as Evans explains – it’s quite different when you’re shooting for real. One particular shot where an actor runs across the rooftop and drops down through a hole in the roof which was stitched together out of two shots was super complicated to film (and too convoluted to properly explain in text) but he says he gets a thrill out of certain bits of choreography.
“I cut the action as we were shooting it and once we saw it cut together, it was really exciting. I think we all kind of got that little sort of buzz of excitement where we were like, ‘Oh, it works. It really works!’” He smiles.
With a strong background in Indonesian cinema Gangs Of London certainly has an East Asian influence but Evans’ reference points for episode five are varied and quite specific.
“This was my modern take on a Western,” he says. “I grew up watching cowboy movies with my dad all the time. I was very much influenced by films like The Wild Bunch from Sam Peckinpah so that was the major influence on this in terms of the rhythms of it and the inter cutting. Especially upstairs in the loft, trying to find ways to evoke tension and know when the right time was for the gunfire to subside a little bit.
“It’s a fairly intense 20 minutes, but there are pockets of overwhelming intensity and then cut to silence and you let the scene breathe for a bit. I guess also things like Straw Dogs, for the home invasion stuff. Assault on Precinct 13 continues to be something that I’m always influenced by ever since The Raid.”
The result is a shocking, breathless, bloody episode that escalates and escalates but also packs a hard emotional punch and moves the plot along in the background with revelations about Jevan’s involvement in Finn’s murder and the subsequent (although it actually happens in episode four) attempt on Sean Wallace’s life by Tove. It’s a standout centrepiece that hinges the show. So just how high was the bloody count?
“I think we had about 20 mercenaries. Not all of them make it. Then we had about six of the kids and then all of the adults and the landlord of the pub…,”Evans speculates. “About 30, I think. 30 people probably. Let’s say that. It’s a good, even number.”
It certainly is, and it sets us up nicely for episode six – directed by Xavier Gens. Episode six is far more contained, taking place largely within the Wallace’s safe house and is less operatic action and more close quarters torture as Marian Wallace takes her rage out on Tove – all the more significant now that we know who Tove is and what she has lost.
Evans sums it up “Yeah, it was a real fun episode to do”.