Like Terence Rattigan's Cause Célèbre, C P Taylor's Bandits is based on a real murder case and attempts to reveal the moral background to the crime in a way which explains its cause and its effect. Taylor's chosen crime filled the front pages of the northern editions in the mid-60's and inspired the Michael Caine movie, Get Carter. A petty but pushy crook is found dead on the beach outside Newcastle, one of 26 witnesses and participants in a case presided over by a super-cynical detective who cares more about the man cutting down trees outside his weekend caravan than the fate of just another 'bandit'.
Taylor's point of view is crystal clear: in the never-had-it-so-good era of the 60s we may have had the World Cup, Wilsonian government and the Beatles, but we also had Poulson, T Dan Smith and the Krays. While dreams were being spun, money was being made, in the dirty (and left-wing) book shops, the discos and in the clubs, of which the North East provided a bright glittering array filled with punters and pin-ball machines, easy fortunes and loose women. (p. 26)
The tale is indeed a bleak one: a pair of trigger-happy tearaways, a policeman with a doubting school teacher wife, a Tolstoy-spouting, philosophically cynical club tycoon, two sexually untuned lesbian school teachers, a few 'tarts', a recalcitrant fisherman peeved at finding the body, a babysitting schoolgirl high on sexual fear and fantasies, a Korean-serving Communist pitman and his part-time whore wife, one of whose 'clients' is the murdered villain. With a juke-box remorselessly bashing out oldy-goldies, the drug industry of 60s euphoria is exposed (though in a society where even the women are called 'man' drugs are unmentioned and unused): sex, power, money, politics—each one leaves the addict unsatisfied.
The strengths of Taylor's play lie not in the statement he makes about such a society, which is sadly familiar to most of us, but in the painstaking way in which he builds up his characterisations. Here is a writer genuinely concerned with coming to terms with the age of television drama and with audiences more used to it than to the experience of living theatre. Not only is the subject matter pertinently related to Z Cars, for instance, but the technique is distinctly televisual, cutting from one locale to another, to and fro in time, and from public exchanges to private monologue. Indeed, in using this method, Taylor also manages to contrast the interrogation of the detectives involved with the admissions and private deviations of the characters…. [Not] only does Taylor show the gap between lies and the truth, he also reveals that a good deal of sexual casualness is itself rooted in a deep sense of inner emptiness.
As well as two kinds of interrogation the piece climaxes with two 'trials': the 'real' one of evidence, and the confrontation between the crook and the man whose wife he is bedding…. [The character named Ray Purvis] is alone in his refusal to give up the search for some kind of moral imperative. His personal life is a mess, his war career has turned him to Communism and further sexual and political disenchantment. His conclusion is typically pessimistic, the world is like the dinosaur, extinction-bound, and though he has finally managed to terrify the victim … it is the club owners of this world who make the real profits. In that Purvis is finally duped. It is interesting that, on the night, both myself and many other critics seemed to be of the opinion that Purvis had killed the crook and that the arrested villain was ironically innocent. However, Taylor's stage directions (and this may be cheating) state simply: 'Three shots'. Indeed to make Purvis the real assassin distorts the meaning of the play, which deals strongly with the paralysis of the British socialist, faced as he is with no tradition of left-wing activism and no focus for political activity in his personal life…. If the critics have failed again then it must be argued that after a dense and often impenetrable evening of facts, statements, cross-cuts and multiple characterisations, they can be forgiven for a lapse of this nature. (pp. 26-7)
Taylor's writing, though often quite brilliant in its attention to detail, finally seems mannered when contrasted with exactly the kind of drama it is trying so admirably to reflect—that of television. What it does do, however, is show a seedy temple in which sex and money are the twin pillars. (p. 27)
Steve Grant, in a review of "Bandits" (© copyright Steve Grant 1977; reprinted with permission), in Plays and Players, Vol. 25, No. 1, October, 1977, pp. 26-7.