‘It isn’t glamorous. Far from it’: The story behind cult films spawned by notorious triple gangland murder
Written by Hit Music Radio News on 27/08/2021
It became known as the Essex Boys murders, one of the UK’s most notorious gangland killings. On a snowy December morning in 1995, the bodies of three drug dealers were discovered inside a Range Rover parked up on an isolated, snow-covered farm track in the quiet village of Rettendon.
The car’s occupants, Patrick Tate, Tony Tucker and Craig Rolfe, had all been shot dead in a triple murder that quickly became headline news.
More than 25 years later, there have been numerous aggrandising dramatisations, true crime books and documentaries about the massacre, or inspired by the backstories of those who died or their associates. Many may argue more than is necessary, but the audience is there.
The biggest franchise fuelled by the events in Rettendon is Rise Of The Footsoldier, which started in 2007 and is now on film number five: Rise Of The Footsoldier Origins. This time round, the film loosely tells Tucker’s origin story, with ultimate hardman Vinnie Jones joining the cast to star as reformed bouncer-turned-author (and former star of Danny Dyer’s Deadliest Men) Bernard O’Mahoney, the man behind more than one of those books on the subject.
Drugs, violence, guns, hyper-cockney accents and more four-letter words than Adele and Dave Grohl’s Glastonbury sets combined, the films are typical blokey British gangster fare.
However, O’Mahoney, who says he has never previously watched further than the first film because of the way it glamourised the lifestyle, says the rose-tinted lens has been removed to some extent for the newest offering.
“I’ve always sort of been politely anti them,” he says. “In previous films – and I’m not just talking about Rise of the Footsoldier films, I’m talking about that sort of genre – the bad guys nearly always win, and their lifestyle is portrayed as very glamorous, with all these girls and cars. That’s portraying a success story; they’re usually killed in the end but they have a great life along the way.”
In reality, that period of his own life was “a horrible time where everyone was out for themselves”, O’Mahoney says, and the “drugs world is more like Trainspotting – seedy and dark and no one’s got any money”. But it’s usually “people who have never lived in that environment” producing and directing the films, depicting their idea of the lifestyle.
Origins, which has a new director, Nick Nevern, is different, he says. It “throws a darker cloud” over the story.
“The reason I really like what Nick has done with this film is… they do have a bit of a glamorous life at the beginning, but then the drugs kick in and it shows their rapid decline and [how] they abandon their morals, abandon each other, and loyalty goes out the window, and that, I think, hasn’t been shown in these films previously. And that is exactly what happened.”
O’Mahoney was on set for the filming of several scenes, but hasn’t seen the film in full yet. So while he’s got a point, there is still an element of sheen, and the audience is clearly supposed to root for the characters and their gruesome antics. Still, number five does show a darker side and will almost certainly be less “fun” than number four, Rise Of The Footsoldier: Marbella, which saw the gang on their jollies in Spain.
While the 61-year-old said no to helping with research for the film at first, he says Jones’ casting won him round. “I thought this is their chance of revenge, they’re going to get Barry out of EastEnders or something…” He laughs. “There are similarities between us in looks. But they come back and said Vinnie Jones. I thought, well, at my age, I’m not going to say no to that.”
Jones, O’Mahoney says, didn’t need much advice on how to play him. “How can I put this politely? I think he was a bit of a lad in his day so I think he knows how things work. I don’t think he needed to learn a lot, I think he’s fairly streetwise himself.”
Craig Fairbrass, who has played Patrick Tate throughout the franchise, had moved into more perhaps critically acclaimed territory with recent films Muscle and Villain, and the upcoming Ire, when he got the call about returning for number five. He is refreshingly honest about the Footsoldier films – “they’re not the nicest, they’re very violent, but fans love them” – and about his role.
“I’ve never kidded myself as an actor. I’m from London, I’m a certain size and physicality. It’s hard enough to get a job as an actor doing anything and I’ve always said there’s one thing worse than being typecast, that’s not cast.” He originally jumped at the chance to appear in the first film, he says, because he read the script and the “Pat Tate character jumped off the page – a big, horrible, powerful guy who takes liberties”.
But why are people so fascinated by characters like that, and the stories surrounding these murders in particular? Fairbrass says he has asked himself the question many times over the years of playing Tate. “This is not America, it’s England, so for three people to be gunned down at close range, murdered, in Essex in the middle of nowhere, there was a fascination with it straight away, this sort of mystery of who was it, who did this, how did it happen?
“I remember someone saying to me early on, ‘if they ever made a film, you’d make a perfect Pat Tate’. Then, like, 10 years later, I’m in the middle of a forest, soaking wet, drinking brandy, it’s freezing and snowing for real, and we’re doing the murder scene.”
Some fans of the films believe he must be like his character, Fairbrass says, and he has to tell them the reality is “very different”. You’re more likely to see the actor walking his little malshi dog than throwing punches.
“I just think there’s a massive, huge fascination from everybody with anything to do with murder and crime, especially when it’s on your own doorstep,” he says. “And because [the triple murder] was so horrific and you don’t get that every day… at the end of the day, they were gangsters, they weren’t the nicest of people.”
O’Mahoney can vouch for this, himself included at the time. The film portrays him as the level-headed one, who could see when things were turning ugly.
If there’s one thing he wants viewers to know, he says, it’s “don’t do this at home” and that selling drugs “absolutely destroys families”. He worries gang violence is “getting worse and worse”, particularly in London, with “kids killing other kids, you see in the papers, and that all comes from the glamourisation of it all, and it’s not good”.
He’s not proud of his past and says he’s written the books he has to try and show the grim realities, rather than glamourise it.
“I’m 61 now and when I look back at the things we were involved in… there’s a lot of people in Essex who get up and look in the mirror every day and think of me for all the wrong reasons. People have been, you know, scarred or injured.
“Looking back, the things we did and were involved with, it’s embarrassing. You know, how could you even think of doing [those things] to somebody? Most of it was gratuitous. And it got horrible.
“I’m certainly not proud of it, definitely not. Which is why I like what Nick’s done with this film. He’s put that side in, you know, it isn’t glamorous. Far from it.”
Rise Of The Footsoldier Origins is out in cinemas from 3 September
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