Of all the British gangster movies made around the turn of the millennium to recapture the golden days of Get Carter and The Italian Job, one film stood out. Sexy Beast was different from peers such as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. It was weird, nasty, phantasmagorical and produced a clutch of the most memorable characters of the era. Ben Kingsley was unforgettable (and Oscar-nominated) as the manic and dangerous Don Logan, flying to Spain to twist the arm of Ray Winstone’s sun-worshipping Gal Dove (“I’m definitely retired”) to take on another job. Gal had decamped to the Costa del Crime to swelter in luxury with the love of his life, DeeDee (Amanda Redman), but couldn’t escape the reach of the social-climbing London mobster Teddy Bass (Ian McShane).
The film was the debut feature of director Jonathan Glazer, who has gone on to make the unsettling sci-fi Under the Skin and this year’s Oscar-tipped Holocaust drama The Zone of Interest, but now the characters he shot for Sexy Beast have been brought back to life for an eight-part prequel by Paramount+. It begins in London in the years leading up to the events in the movie. “I was obsessed by the film,” says the Irish actress Sarah Greene, who, fresh from her eyepatch-wearing turn in Sharon Horgan’s Bad Sisters, plays the younger DeeDee. “I’ve watched it so many times over the years.” As for the producers daring to touch a cult classic, she says, “It’s not a remake, this is very much an exploration of those characters.” It’s also the love story of Gal and DeeDee and, in a different way, of Gal and Don.
The roguish charm of Gal is captured by the acclaimed stage actor James McArdle, whom some will remember as the suspicious deacon in Mare of Easttown. McArdle was touched when Winstone sent him a text message offering his blessings and encouragement. When he was cast, though, he confesses that he was “quite nervous about what kind of actor a part like Don could attract. I just thought, ‘Oh Christ, I’m gonna be with this person for eight months,’ and I was worried it was going to be method a-go-go, and I would be in Spain or Liverpool with this absolute nutter.”
Instead, the role went to fellow Scot Emun Elliott, whom television fans will know from The Gold and Guilt. Elliott had already played Macduff to McArdle’s Macbeth on stage. Their friendship, McArdle believes, helped in portraying the often unspoken closeness between Gal and Don in the show, which initially reverses their dynamic, with Gal the brains behind the outfit. Elliott says the part presented a singular challenge: “Don Logan is one of the most iconic characters in British crime-movie history, so it was absolutely terrifying, to be honest, the prospect of taking on that role.”
The show reveals how Gal and Don first became involved in doing a job for Teddy Bass, the ruthless gangster played by McShane in the film. The part went to Stephen Moyer, the Essex-born actor who spent six years playing the vampire Bill Compton in the cult HBO drama True Blood. He says he studied McShane’s stillness in the role. “Everybody always talks about Kingsley, who’s amazing in the film, unbelievable, but McShane is terrifying and he does nothing. It’s hard to remember a more still performance than that on camera,” he tells me from his office near the Empire State Building in New York.
He thinks our enduring fascination with London mobsters “goes back to that Robin Hood mentality – we all have a desire for the little guy to beat the system”. He notes how people always say the Kray twins “were lovely to their mum. They were nasty m----------rs as well, as most criminals are.”
While the show doesn’t indulge in the pyrotechnic violence of Sky’s Gangs of London, it is shockingly brutal at times, not least in one scene involving Bass in episode two that is sure to attract attention. Like the film, Sexy Beast is also lavish with its use of expletives, especially the C-word. The most important character to be introduced in the series is Don’s elder sister, Cecilia, played by Tamsin Greig. “I’m not a fan of the C-word. And it turns out that Cecilia, all she does is smoke with her claws and say the C-word and scream,” she says.
She’s only half-joking. The show even takes one of the film’s choicest insults and puts it in Cecilia’s mouth, but getting “you f---ing Dr White honkin’ jam-rag f---ing spunkbubble” to trip off the tongue took some doing. “It’s so muscular and feels almost Shakespearean, but it did take a while.”
Cecilia has been Don’s protector since he was a child, but she is an intimidating force as an adult, with links to the criminal underworld and a “feminine power” that the costume designer conjured with “tight black leather skirts and a heel and stockings”. Greig compares Cecilia’s coiled intensity to a cobra. “It’s not a surprise to me that I got so many headaches and felt the violence in my body – she’s always ready to strike.”
Moyer notes: “One of the big criticisms of the gangster genre, especially if you look at somebody like Scorsese, is that the female characters aren’t explored enough, but that cannot be said for ours. We explore those characters – we explore them within that world of 27 years ago, but I would say that they’re much more empowered.”
Greig rejects the idea that in giving us more powerful women characters than the original film, the series could be viewed by anyone as revisionist. “I would say that their view of the film is not as rich as it could possibly be. I think Amanda Redman’s role as DeeDee is profoundly provocative. You know, she’s the instigator of the violence [that ends the film].” Besides, she says, the show does not rewrite the era to fit our own. “I don’t think it is anti-misogynistic, but I think it widens the perspective.”
Greig, who is still best known for her comic roles in shows such as Friday Night Dinner and Episodes, notes that “now that I’m this age, I’m being asked to play quite a lot of baddies. What that says about the industry,” she ponders “that, you know, you get to a certain age and then they go, ‘Oh, what do we do with them now? Oh, yes, we’ll make them into unexpected monsters’.”
She enjoyed the look created for her out on location in Liverpool, though, where she says she would upend expectations by being extra polite. For the original film, Winstone flew out to Spain before the shoot to get the right depth of bronze. McArdle sports a tan even in the London scenes. “I had a sunbed in my apartment,” he says, “but it got ridiculous, I was a bit of a naughty schoolboy, I would never do my tanning properly, I’d forget and I’d get angry texts at 10 at night from the make-up designer – ‘Get in that sunbed!’ – and I thought, ‘Very good, you’ll get your Bafta and I’ll get melanoma’.”
The first three episodes of Sexy Beast are available on Paramount+ on Thursday