I have always loved gangster films for the way they allow filmmakers to explore the human condition at its most extreme and yet familiar. My favourite characters in these films and TV shows are the ones who most resemble us. Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano may run criminal empires, but 90 per cent of the time they’re looking after their families and taking their kids to school. Their similarities to us are just as engaging as their differences and it’s this contrast that we’ve tried to explore in McMafia.
The eight-part drama stars James Norton as a City of London financier who is trying to distance himself from his family’s criminal past. It’s as much about family relationships as it is about criminality – and our antiheroes are no longer the colourful gangsters of old, but much closer to us than we think.
Misha Glenny’s brilliant book McMafia provided my co-creator, James Watkins, and me with extraordinary insights into how these new criminal enterprises work. Modern criminals aren’t just thuggish mobsters, they can be bankers, politicians, lawyers, intelligence agents. They don’t just deal cocaine and heroin, they profit from people-smuggling, computer hacking, money laundering and property scams. Lines have become blurred and the boundaries between the overworld and underworld are more fluid than ever. The release of the Panama and Paradise papers, the Trump Russia allegations, even the accusations of corruption at Fifa, football’s governing body, are all examples of the new criminality.
Set against this backdrop of international crime, McMafia is also a saga about family, exile and what it means to be British in an increasingly globalised world. This is something I’ve experienced first-hand and it’s a story that I’ve always wanted to tell, but until now I’ve never found the right vehicle. It’s ironic that a violent gangster epic has finally given me the opportunity to express myself.
I first moved to Britain in 1979 after the Iranian revolution. My family had been exiled and I was sent to a private school while my parents adjusted to their new lives as refugees. This became the basis for the Godman family in McMafia. My family were Iranian, our hero Alex’s (Norton) are Russian and yet the experience of exile is so universal that it seemed natural to draw on my own life to create his. I was teased at school for being foreign and coped by trying to be British. So does Alex. I tried to fit in. So does he. And yet ultimately my identity was confused, the Iranian struggling with the Brit, and Alex goes through the same journey, trying to figure out who he really is.
I’ve also cannibalised elements of my own family. Even though we don’t come from a criminal background, like all families we share many traits with the Godmans. As well as dealing with the mob world that’s closing in on him, Alex has to deal with family dilemmas we all have to face. His father, Dmitri, played by the legendary Russian actor Alexey Serebryakov, is an ageing patriarch who no longer commands the respect he once did as a mob boss in his own country. Like many fathers he feels his authority slipping as his children grow older and tries to compensate by reasserting himself.
By contrast, Alex’s mother Oksana, played by Maria Shukshina, is thriving in her new life. Freed from her role as a “boss’s wife” she not only enjoys London’s social scene but gradually finds a growing independence. Alex’s sister Katya (Faye Marsay) is also an independent spirit, but has rebelled rather than conformed and is a constant source of worry for her brother.
Even though Alex’s journey through the criminal underworld is the pulse of the series, the lives of his colourful family are just as important to the show.
An equally important character is the city of London and its place in the globalised world. Over the 40 years I’ve lived here I’ve watched it become an increasingly cosmopolitan metropolis where over 50 per cent of the residents were born abroad. Even with Brexit looming, this movement towards globalisation seems inevitable. Whether one agrees with it or not, technology and porous borders have changed notions of national identity for ever. The experience of exile that I went through as a child, and which Alex experiences, have become universal, with people feeling either like strangers in a foreign country or strangers in their own home.
Cities all over the world are transforming, and beginning to resemble each other, which we’ve also tried to capture in McMafia: a vision of a world where the same movie billboards can be seen in every city, the same brands and adverts appear on TV, the same music is played in nightclubs and there’s a McDonald’s in every urban hub.
The series is about crime in the modern world, but also about the contemporary world in general. Our team, led by my co-creator James Watkins, who’s also the series director, have shot in over a dozen countries to capture the crosspollination that’s occurring around us every day. James has created an authenticity that makes you feel these characters are sitting at the table right next to you, which they most likely are.
As our world has changed, our gangsters have evolved. They’re no longer outsiders but often insiders at the heart of government. Crime has moved into the computer age and the gangs and cartels are operating like corporations. There’s a line in McMafia where Alex’s mentor tells him that modern gang wars “are fought in the boardroom, not on the street”. Our ambition is to nudge the gangster genre into the 21st century. Our anti-heroes don’t run neighbourhoods, they run countries. They don’t aspire to be the boss of a city, they want to rule the world. We have plenty of bullets and blood in the series, but the nastiest, most ruthless murders are committed at conference tables in the highest echelons of power.
This article was originally published in December 2017