The Immortal Harold Shand

Bob Hoskins was one Hell of a guy, and he was one Hell of an actor.

When he died in 2014 I sat down and watched a couple of his movies again and I was mesmerised by the way he fully inhabited his roles. One role stands out above all others. In this magnificent portrayal, that of Harold Shand, he nailed his part so completely that it has bestrode the crime genre ever since.

Hoskins didn’t just play Harold Shand. He owned him. He lived inside his skin, saw through his eyes, and that’s why every moment came over as real. He grabbed the role as if he was born to it, and in a way he was. Bob Hoskins knew the street because he came from the street. His life was a real rags to riches story. Hoskins was a gentleman, whilst Shand was a thug, but they made the same journey, from humble beginnings to the top of the world.

Hoskins grew up in a working class household, and unlike many of his contemporaries to come he actually did “real work.” He was a lorry driver, a porter and a window cleaner amongst other jobs. He was not afraid of sore arms or dirty hands.

Harold Shand was born in Stepney, in East of London, where he made a living on the streets running small time scams. When he visits Errol the Ponce, in Brixton, he comes across two young lads being paid to watch cars. When he gets a little back chat from one of them he doesn’t react angrily; he looks on it with something approaching pride, and he tells his sidekick, Razors, about his own start in the life, tearing up billiard tables until he was paid not to play anymore.

Shand has climbed to dizzying heights when we first meet him.

He has a yacht berthed on The Thames. He has a personal driver, a sexy woman by his side and a devoted crew of armed men behind him, ready to do whatever he wants, when he wants it. He has politicians and policemen in his pocket. He has wealth and power at his fingertips. Yet Harold Shand stinks of the streets, and he carries a large chip on his shoulder, as though all the success meant nothing to him, as if it might all be snatched away at any moment.

When the New York mobsters treat him like shit, first at the start of the film and then at the end, his spiky personality comes to the fore, in the first instance with a cold look over his whiskey glass and in the second with an explosion of enraged disbelief, which veers into contempt.

The contempt is Harold’s shield against his own feelings of inadequacy, his own suspicion that he’s a little out of his league with these guys, that the international nature of his venture is a step beyond his abilities.

We see it most clearly expressed in two moments; first when he erupts in rage at Victoria, his lady, when she tells him he doesn’t understand the mentality of his American guests. He thinks he’s being patronised, that she’s looking down her well-off, well-educated nose at him, and he’s right, because she is.

Harris, the councillor he owns, is another who’s contempt for Harold is clear during the film, but with Harris he feels more on his level, because he, too, is a “self-made man” who’s “clawed his way up from the gutter” and he, too, reeks of his background and upbringing.

Harold’s most vicious explosion of violence comes when he learns the truth of what’s happened to his organisation, and why. Geoff, the young, flash wannabee who’s part of the problem first asks him to consider a deal with the men who’re coming for him and then tells him he has no choice anyway because “you won’t stop them … to them you’re nothing … the shit on their shoes …”

Harold reacts in terrifying fury, smashing his head with a bottle and then stabbing him repeatedly in the neck, and we understand that there’s always been a part of Harold that’s wanted to do this, because Geoff is a little too smooth, a little too smart, a little too full of himself.

He’s cocky and confident when, at times, Harold doesn’t feel either.

“How do you stay so cool?” he asks Geoff at one point, with an awe that suggests real respect, even envy.

Hoskins had to endure similar shit, all the way through his career.

An American director, who came over to Britain to talk to him about a part, was amazed at how Hoskins is “taken for granted” on this side of the Atlantic. He spent his life dealing with people who, in spite of his fame, took him on the value of his Cockney accent, his lack of film star looks, his apparent lack of sophistication.

He often spoke about how uncomfortable he felt outside London, turning down the chance to move to New York with a “nice house and a pool” because he couldn’t imagine his kids being brought up there. Hoskins was in touch with who he was, and where he was from, but it always seemed to me as if he hung on too tight to it, as If he was trying to validate himself.

Harold is the same.

When he talks about London he talks not only about the place where he’s from but a place that’s a part of him, as if he and the city came into the world on the same day. He inhabits the city, but it also inhabits part of his soul. His pride in himself, and in the city, have grown together, until, when we meet him, they are fused, with his image of one tied to his image of the other. He feels that, in some way, both are shadows of what they might have been.

Harold Shand is absolutely a product of his environment, and you get the feeling that he sees the revitalisation of London, the legitimacy of his Corporation, and ones part in the other, as if it were going to bring some kind of psychic balance to him, and make him finally feel as if he “belonged” in a world of good suits and flash cars at last.

As if it would remove his inferiority complex and that he felt about his city at a stroke.

He’s also, clearly, a guy who suffers from “small man syndrome”, and that comes across best in his super-assertiveness.

Hoskins stature, his height and his bulk, are an important part of what makes the film great, and what makes Shand memorable. He does not look like much, but he packs so much aggression and attitude into his short, stocky frame that from the moment he first raises his voice you take this guy seriously, and you would not go out of your way to fuck with him.

Hoskins brings a dazzling array of looks, sneers, grunts and expressions to the role; we know the difference between those times when Harold is absorbing something and when he’s pissed off. We know those moments when he’s putting on a show and when he’s not simply serious but deadly serious.

His personality is animalistic; he paces as if caged, restless, permanently moving.

He rears up when angry, like a bear, and many of his lives are delivered with a growl and a snarl.

Hoskins tells of many times in his personal life when his frustration has boiled over when people have been presumptive or imposed on him. An angry woman once cornered him in a park, accusing him of forgetting his fans and being ignorant.

He snapped at her, telling her to “fuck off” because if “you’re a fan go and pick someone else!”

On the other hand, Harold shows generosity and approachability in the film too, and Hoskins was always capable of little moments of down to earth charm. He once told of meeting a woman in a supermarket who simply came over to him and asked “Bob, where’s the tea?” He pointed to a nice tasting box, and she told him, “No, not that fancy organic tea. Real tea, the sort of tea we drink. PG Tips. Typhoo.”’ He laughed that one off with good humour.

That good humour is rarely evidenced in the character he played so marvelously in John MacKenzie’s wonderful 1980 release.

Whether he’s trying to impress his American guests, raging at his fellow mobsters or coming out of his fury with a start at the beast within, there is no moment in the film where we break with our belief that we’re seeing a real man go through a long, awful day when everything that can go wrong does.

The film ends in one of the finest moments in cinematic history, when MacKenzie allows the camera to linger on Harold’s face for three awful minutes, as he absorbs the events of the day and where they’ve led him. He realises, in that moment, that the meat-hooks on which he earlier hung his rival bosses are probably as good as his own future holds, for what’s left of it, and we see a man first afraid, then enraged by his fate and finally in acceptance of it.

I have never seen such a monumental acting achievement.

Bob Hoskins is gone, but he will be missed.

His roles in films like The Cotton Club and Mona Lisa, those other roles he hit out the park, will endure for as long as people are watching movies.

Harold Shand is immortal though.

His is one of the greatest characters in the history of the genre, an atom of aggression and anger, a small man who nevertheless towers over his rivals and stands alongside the other fictional icons like Michael Corleone, Tony Montana and his British counterparts Don Logan and Jack Carter.

Harold will never be forgotten, and because of him Hoskins will never be forgotten,

Neither will what befell the south London gang-boss he played on that Long Good Friday.

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