Director and writer of this 1998 major motion picture, Guy Ritchie depicts in “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” the reality of a gangland in the East side of London in a rather laughable prone manner. A card game, drugs and two antique shotguns create turmoil in the area and consequently force two gangs, a gangster, his enforcer, an independent bandit and many more to relentlessly collide. Thus, the following question arises:
To what extent is organised crime from the late 20th Century in the East End of London accurately portrayed in ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels?
1998 was the eighth year after the incarceration of Freddie Foreman, one of the last leading gangsters of 20th Century London, leaving behind a whole century of theft, constant street fracases and general suffering in London’s society. Locations on the East side of the city such as The Blind Beggar pub still bring back a sense of bleak, adverse and mutinous sentiments. It is the murder of George Cornell, childhood friend of the Krays that was shot dead in the vicinity of the pub by Ronnie Kray himself, one of the most paradoxical and meaningful anecdotes that took place on the East side of London; it brings light to the atmosphere of disorder that was conceived at the time.
Interestingly, what to an average person coming from our society might mean an advantageous start to life, to others; “Mad” Frankie Fraser for example, seemed the opposite. This gangster once affirmed that his parents were both teachers and therefore, in his conception of an easy upbringing, he saw himself at a disadvantage because he had no contacts that had been in jail as he grew up, hence, had to start his own criminal career and had no opportunity of continuing a dynasty of gangsters, like many others in the East End, which would have been a much easier start to life.
‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’ tells the story of a group of four friends that are trying to live a normal life after they robbed a bank and obtained a loot of one hundred thousand pounds, even if the majority are still surrounded by an atmosphere of illegality. The plot starts when one of them needs the loot from the previous robbery to play a game of cards that he thinks will give profit; nonetheless the whole group end heavily in debt to Harry “The Hatchet”, an East End gangster. The debt must be paid in a week, or else the consequences could be fatal. By overhearing their neighbours, they find the solution to their problem and decide to rob the gang of drug dealers next door who themselves are planning to raid a clandestine cannabis plantation. The main plot will clash in various occasions with other actions taking place, evoking a feeling of empathy with the helplessness of the friends themselves at the end.
In this essay, I will adopt different perspectives by conducting a comparative research method using case studies and a contextualisation of the film in the time it is set in order to shed some light into the accuracy of the portrayal of London’s East End in the British film industry; addressing the linguistic peculiarities of the area, its historical and social background, as well as the critical situation with crime that went on during the 20th Century in this side of the city and the diacritical economic situation it triggered.
1. Historical and Social Background.
Historically, the East End of London has been considered the poorest of all divisions made. John Strype, in 1720, was the first person to name this side of the city when he describes London’s four areas; the City of London, Westminster, Southwark and “That part beyond the Tower”. Industries such as tanning (leather) and fulling (a step in cloth making) developed in the area because being separated from the city centre granted that the noxious odours of these industries would be carried away and therefore would have less complaints. Low paid workplaces available in the docks and other industries concentrated the lower social class in the area. As Henry Mayhew (London Labour and London Poor) describes, “roads were unmade, often mere alleys, houses small and without foundations, subdivided and often around unpaved courts. An almost total lack of drainage and sewerage was made worse by the ponds formed by the excavation of brickearth. Pigs and cows in back yards, noxious trades like boiling tripe, melting tallow, or preparing cat’s meat, and slaughter houses, dustheaps, and ‘lakes of putrefying night soil’ added to the filth.”1 The development of the area did not really start until the abolishment of the copyhold system that had been functioning since Medieval times, where the plots of land were leased for short periods of time and therefore limited the progression of the infrastructure.
As a result, slum clearing programmes were introduced by the 1890’s2. These programmes were aimed to replace most of the East end housing with five storey flats, which are the main types of building shown in the film; this situation forced the relocation of most of the population living in high density residential areas. This cheaper housing options augmented the volume of the low working class on this side of the city, a trend also motivated by the addition of new industries and the enlargement of the docks (West India Docks and East India Docks) which required low skilled workers. In the Story of the Dockers’ strike in 1889 by Sir Smith Herbert Llewellyn and Vaughan Nash it is argued that “The poor fellows are miserably clad, scarcely with a boot on their foot, in a most miserable state…. These are men who come to work in our docks who come on without having a bit of food in their stomachs, perhaps since the previous day…”3 The fact is that this extreme poverty cannot be seen in the film; in some cases, it may be only deduced if read between the lines; the depiction of Eddie’s flat, for example, which was in very poor conditions. Notwithstanding, he is conscious of his situation and argues it is just a case of price, he in fact still has twenty-five thousand dollars which he will be investing in the card game with Harry “the Hatchet”.
In addition to the East End identity, immigrants have always been an intrinsic part of this society. Numerous waves of immigration have reached the East End and can be spotted in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels when characters such as Nick the Greek or Rory “The breaker” come into scene. Even as film extras, in one of the first scenes, a group of Asians can be seen in the entrance to a cab business next door to Eddie’s flat. These small details bring reality and help create an accurate and natural setting to the film.
Hand in hand with poverty and necessity came high crime rates in the area and specially in the docklands with the goods that were being imported. Robberies from cargo ships that were to be introduced in the United Kingdom or even the one that was in a layover led to the creation of the black market and consequently, gangs. Crime in the East End became an easy and accessible option in order to earn a living; it greatly depended on the imports that were being brought in that would later create the black market. Seen in the movie when in the first scene Bacon shouts whilst lifting a gold chain “Handmade in Italy, hand robbed in Stepney…”. Organised crime originated within the mist of the docklands were no one in the East side of the city could see the big picture, yet between the major players of the time, a whole network of trade, crime, and unlawful behaviour, as it is shown in the film, sparked into what is known as a mafia.
The structure of crime followed a complicated web of outlaws organised in various gangs; these gangs generally led by members of the same family. The known gangs that operated on this side of the city were: the Sabini Gang (1920s-1940s), the Kray Twins (1952-1968) and the Richardson Gang (1950s-1967). Other famous assets to these gangs were for example Freddie Foreman that was an enforcer for the Kray Twins, George Cornell that was a childhood friend of the same gang but later began working for the Richardsons (later murdered by the Kray twins). Jack “Spot” Comer and Billy Hill were work partners during the 40s and “Mad Frankie” Fraser worked for Billy Hill as a bodyguard for a long time but ended working for the Richardsons.
Diagram 1: In this chart the major assests enrolled in the East side’s organised crime can be seen divided into their gangs.
It can be observed how each gang did not count with a great number of members. This characteristic can be appreciated in the film in both the drug dealers and the main characters’ gang. Each comprised of four members. What is more, in the real-life network people worked on their own and had their personal security, like Billy Hill had and Harry “The Hatchet” as depicted in the film; others worked on their own and sometimes partnered, like Jack “Spot” Comer and Big Chris. Undoubtedly, as Guy Ritchie expressed in his film there were enforcers that “made the administrative part of the business run harmoniously”; people such as “Mad Frankie” Fraser had similarities given to him with the character Barry “The Baptist” in the film, which shows a strong parallelism between the real-life gangs and the ones shown in the motion picture; could be proof of a study of the gangs in the 20th Century conducted by the film makers previous to the creation of the film.
All these individuals had links amongst them and to the network in some way or another, which created the bases for organised crime to flourish in London. Within the network of both the film and real life organised crime a hierarchy between members of different gangs is a defining characteristic of the system that was put in place, leaving those with less power to deal with the real criminal action and those at the top of the heap to do the thinking.
Diagram 2: Depitction of the interaction between East End gangsters. (The dates given in the diagram correspond to the active years of the individuals).
It can be seen in this diagram how the major players of the organised crime had a closesly knit network which forced them to interact with each other, creating alliances, trade partners, or less fortunate relationships.
2.Economics of organised crime
As mentioned above, the criminal network in London was highly dependent the imported goods that entered the country through the docks. Policing the area was not an easy task, 2000 acres of land and 700 acres of water4 were too large for the minimal police force, if any, allocated on this side of the city. Crime rates were on the rise and “it was not helped by the fact that by the 1930s some 3,000,000 tonnes of imported and exported goods were being handled.”5 Because this only added oxygen to the fire.
Due to the expansion of the docklands in London, the gangs that centred their economic activity in the city gained a great amount of power and started dealing with gangs in other cities, such as Manchester or Liverpool (also known for its trade opportunities); London became popularised by having the means to handle high value products imported into the United Kingdom and as a path to other countries. As London’s influence grew in the global market, so did the volume of imported and exported goods in the city; “One in four West Indian ships were ‘game’ – that is manned by officers and watchmen who for a bribe would allow looters known as the Light Horse on board.”6 Some gang men were specialists in this trade, as it is depicted in the film; Tom (played by Jason Flemyng) is as Guy Ritchie, director and narrator named him, the “money man”, he could find anything for a customer that was willing to pay for it. It is also mentioned in the film that Nick “the Greek’s” trade was the same as Tom; there are even two scenes where they appear trading goods, in the first of these two, it is Tom the one selling the product, while in the second Nick is selling Tom some guns.
3.Linguistics in the East End.
Throughout the film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels the audience can appreciate in what way the characters talk. The fact is that not only do the main characters talk the same way, but it is used in a daily bases by the whole social class. People appearing in this film talk what is known as Cockney; a dialect historically associated with the East end of London.
According to tradition, it is the Londoner born within earshot of the bow bells, the bells of St. Mary-le-bow in the Cheapside district of the City of London that can be considered an authentic Cockney. Nontheless, in modern times someone who is raised with exposure to the Cockney dialect may as well be considered a true Cockney. One hundred and fifty years ago, the bells could be heard 6 miles to the East (9.7 kilometres), 5 miles to the North (8 kilometres), 4 miles to the West (6.4 kilometres) and 3 miles to the South (4.8 kilometres); including neighbourhoods as far away as Hackney Marshes and others such as Lambeth or Camden. Nowadays the spectrum has been reduced due to traffic, new highrise developments in the area and the general expansion of the city.
At the end of the 18th Century an important case study in the linguistic discipline; A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1791, John Walker) touched on the topic of pronunciation in Britain and confirms the negative connotation cockney was being related with.
“The grand difference between the metropolis and the provinces is, that people of education in London are free from all the vices of the vulgar; but the best educated people in the provinces, if constantly resident there, are sure to be strongly tinctured with the dialect of the country in which they live. Hence it is that the vulgar pronunciation of London, though not half so erroneous as that of Scotland, Ireland or any of the provinces, is, to a person of correct taste, a thousand times more offensive and disgusting.”7 Traditionally the term Cockney was used as a term for a Londoner, which had some amount of humiliation and ridicule attached to it.8
Cockney is anything but close to unambiguous; it is a term attached to tradition and not to delimited facts; in terms of area, homogeneity in the accent, dialect and nowadays, its speakers. Cockney is an attempt to classify London’s working social class as well as their speech. In Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels the Cockney accent can be heard throughout the whole film, nevertheless, in the scene where Harry the Hatchet is on the telephone with Eddie to confirm his assistance to the venue (the card game Harry had organised for that night in order to frame Eddie), the cards game that night, the audience can hear a typical example of this characteristic accent when Harry asks Barry “the Baptist” “What’s this Eddie like then?” and the enforcer, Barry, answers “He is a thief!”. When Barry says thief, he changes the /th/ phoneme with what in received pronunciation is pronounced as f and analogously the f with v.
Other distinct features of the cockney accent include: the glottal stop to replace /t/ before consonants and weak vowels as well as replacing the /k/ before a consonant. Any word producing the front open /æ/ vowel would be pronounced with mid-open /e/ instead. Moreover, /h/ is not pronounced at all.
Received pronunciation, known as RP or standard English, is an accent linked to no geographical position, yet was created to substitute regional accents in the media and facilitate the learning process of the language. Nowadays, this accent is attributed to those linked to the upper classes; the Queen, the Prime Minister and those educated in Universities such as Oxford or Cambridge.9
As opposed to general interpretation, the cockney accent has greatly influenced the RP accent throughout the years. It could be said that cockney has influenced modern day English and it can be heard in the relatively recent incorporations of cockney’s distinct characteristics, such as T-glottalization in received pronunciation.
3.2 Social Perception.
At the beginning of the 20th Century the acceptance of Cockney dialect/accent as part of the London culture and identity had not improved within those of the educated class, as this mode of speech was still identified with those of a lower social class. The Report of the Conference on Teaching of English in London Elementary Schools in 1909 stated that “The Cockney mode of speech, with its unpleasant twang is a modern corruption without legitimate credentials, and is unworthy of being the speech of any person in the capital city of the Empire.”10
On the contrary, Edwin Pugh in Harry the Cockney, 1902 referred to the average Cockney as inarticulate, he added “…He is often witty; he is sometimes eloquent; he has a notable gift of phrase-making and nick-naming. Every day he is enriching the English tongue with new forms of speech, new clichés, new slang, new catchwords.” These characteristics found in Cockneys can be perfectly denoted in the film addressed in this essay.
Firstly, the wit in the speech is shown in the first scene when Bacon (played by Jason Stratham) is trying to re-sell some goods that had been stolen, he exclaims “…if you don’t see value here today you’d not appear shopping, you’d appear shop-lifting”, you better buy ’em this have not been stolen, they just haven’t been paid for.” In addition, in the following scenes where the main characters are presented to the audience, it is said that Soap (played by Dexter Fletcher), the cook, was given that nickname because he likes to keep his hands clean from any unlawful behaviour. The comical aspect of the narrator’s speech lies in the paradox created because the gang is actually discussing the possibility of bringing the loot of the last robbery together again, that was divided between the members of the gang, in order to invest it in a card game which the audience knows will involve a long list of illegal situations.
The Cockney rhyming slang was originally used by street traders and criminals on the East side of London, to disguise what they were talking about. The date of its creation is unclear, nonetheless, it was known to be widespread by the mid ninetieth century. In modern times, English expressions that originated from rhyming slang have been popularised and are now used on a daily basis by many English speakers. Cockney Rhyming slang uses a formula for its constructions; the word that was inadequate to be said in public was changed by a short phrase of two or three words, having the last one rhyme with the original word. Phrases were then shortened, often omitting the rhyming word.
Examples of sentences using this formula are: “Rosie Lee” instead of tea, often shortened to Rosie; “Adam and Eve” for believe, “Dog and Bone” for phone, “China plates” as mates and “Duke of Kent” for rent. There is an abundance of phrases in the Cockney dialect. In Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels there is a scene where the bartender explains a situation that happened not long ago in that location in an original Cockney rhyming slang. The script goes as follows:
Diagram 3: translation of the film script from the Cockney Rhyming Slang to Standard English.
As witnessed above one might have a difficulty understanding the cockney rhyming slang at first, not only because of the constructions built into the English language using the above-mentioned formula but the complexity of the specific references made in each expression that one can only get to understand with certain agility if in contact with Cockney. This provides a bond between those who use it and therefore help create this subculture that appeared on the East side of London. Due to the union between the members of this society, the film’s audience, specially in the scene from where the script was extracted, the characters seem to experience a certain confidence or trust between them and the bartender explains the anecdote in great detail.
Undoubtedly, during the writing and design of the Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels motion picture a lot of formal aspects where taken into consideration in light of creating a sense of coherence between the progression of the movie and the context in which the action takes place. In this essay, multiple aspects which have been analysed, if brought together, create what is known as the East end identity; the Cockney, the Cockney Rhyming slang, the history behind this side of the city, its social challenges, that took place and to finalise the economics of how the system kept functioning for such a long period of time.
Naturally, the portrayal of what the crime network meant in the development of the East end fame and the fracases between gangs to gain greater economic power were a major asset in this film. Furthermore, a hierarchical system within the gangs is emphasised in the film which denotes detail in the kind of aggressive interaction characters have with each other.
On the other hand, Guy Ritchie failed to give a correct interpretation of the extreme poverty on the streets of this side of the city; yet, this could be intentional. This fact could be understood as the director’s intention to focus the audience into the gang atmosphere instead of evoking empathy in the viewers’ minds.
It becomes apparent that the creators of the film, and specially Guy Ritchie, the director, thoroughly studied all aspects of London’s East End society to enable him to write the film. It has been witnessed how the Cockney accent was used throughout the movie; what is more, the creators even ventured introducing a whole scene where only Cockney Rhyming slang was used, however this only added coherence and meaning to the ambiance that was being developed.
During the elaboration of this essay, other areas of study have been raised, for example, the possibility of comparing and putting in contrast the portrayal of the organised crime that went on in London with those of New York and Sicily in the film industry. Or even if there is a correlation between the expansion of docks in cities like London and Manchester and the power of gangs in these two cities, or even if gangs that are not located in counties with major ports, such as the gangs that appeared in Essex, compare to the rise in power of gangs that are in major trading cities.
In answer to my initial research question: To what extent is organised crime from the late 20th Century in the East End of London accurately portrayed in ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels? I believe that the portrayal of the East End identity was accurate in ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’ in most part due to the ostensible investigation lead by Guy Ritichie previous to the writing and design of the film which did not influence or mislead the final outcome of the project, yet added coherence and verisimilitude.
1 MAYHEW, Henry, 1861. London Labour and London Poor, Dover: Oxford University collection, Volume III. Date: 14th November 2017
2 SLUMS AND SLUMMING IN LATE-VICTORIAN LONDON. The Slums of East End London online
3 SMITH, Herbert Llewellyn, Sir, NASH, Vaughan. 1889. The story of the Docker’s Strike told by two East Londoners, London: T. Fisher Unwin. Date: 14th November 2017
4 MORTON, James, 2009. East End Gangland, London: Hachette Digital. Date: 18th November 2017
7 WALKER, John, 1791. A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary. In “On the Opposite Sides of The Continuum: Standard British English And Cockney. A Historical Outline of The Parallel Developments of The Two Varieties” SANTIPOLO, M. online
8 NØDTVEDT, Harald. 2011. Phonological Variation and Change in London Cockney English: A Sociolinguistic Study. Bergen: University of Bergen. Date:17th November
9 KOUDELKOVÁ, Lenka, 2012. Cockney and Estuary English. Brno: Masaryk University. Date: 20th November 2017
10 MATHEWS, William, 1938. Cockney past and present: A Short History of the Dialect of London. New York: Routledge (Ed. 2015). Date: 21st November 2017