Chancers: The Great Gangster Fraud is a documentary that details the creation of a low-budget British crime thriller – otherwise known as a geezer movie – called A Landscape of Lives.
Or, maybe I should take a step back and correct myself there.
Although the film was made for well under £100k (a relatively small sum of money compared to the vast majority of movies that make it into the cinema) it was billed as having a £20m budget.
Why? Because the bankrupt Jordanian entrepreneur Bashar Al-Issa and his co-producer, an Irish student-turned actress, dream up a hairbrained idea to steal £2.5m from the British government. Their plan primarily involves exploiting a tax incentive for independent British filmmakers, by exaggerating the production costs of A Landscape of Lives by well over £20m.
Eventually caught out for their attempts to scam the government, the Great Gangster Fraud uses interviews with virtually all of the players involved; from the archive interviews with the two fraudsters themselves, as well as those unwittingly caught up in the crime such as actors on production and even the man who let them film in his own office.
Perhaps none are more interesting than Paul Knight, a one-time criminal himself turned legitimate film director and writer, who manages to salvage the failing film project. His backstory about formerly being involved in east-end London criminal life, now turned responsible father and husband, gives a remarkable polar-opposite narrative to proceedings.
And as good a salvage job as Paul Knight manages to do, with the best will in the world, from the clips of A Landscape of Lives that we see during the documentary, the finished article does not resemble anything like a £20m budget film.
To give you some perspective, it would be like comparing the production values of, for example, 2012’s Looper starring Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon Levitt, made for a modest $30m, to something resembling the higher end of an ITV TV-special. Clearly, they were never going to fool anybody into believing they were making their first film for so much money – let alone the scrupulous British tax man.
There are a few other interesting talking heads who pop up to give some outside perspective, like renowned film producer Jonathan Sothcott, who rebuffs the idea that first-time film makers in the UK could receive anything like a £20m budget, regardless of their shady financiers. But it does stoke the fire of the lack of a true British film industry and raises the question about how the business can ever grow in this country.
The Great Gangster Fraud was shown on BBC4 here as part of the Storyville series and can be – and should be – viewed on the BBC iPlayer website. [edit: but obviously this is no longer the case!]