This documentary is a padded-up amateur in comparison to its hard-hitting protaganoist.
Jamie McLean sets out to explore his father’s life with the aid of director Paul Van Carter. Van Carter was an assistant on Bronson (2008) and helmed last year’s Gascoigne. He is currently working on Churchill as well as a drama based on Lenny McLean called My Name Is Lenny. On this basis one would think he had the knack for getting under the skin of an individual, so when this film lacks punch, subtlety and really drops the ball on a key aspects of the Hoxton hardman’s mentality, it’s very disappointing.
In a style that starts to feel more and more like ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ the camera follows Lenny’s son Jamie as he explains his father’s life through archive footage, pieces to camera and finding the people who knew him for fresh interviews.
The trajectory of Lenny’s story is remarkable and at times unbelievable; for example, when he wanted to turn his hand to unlicensed boxing. He wanted to go straight to the top, not seeing the point of building up slowly and to take on the self-titled ‘guv’nor’ of the ring at the time, Rob Shaw. McLean did go on to take that mantle as his own.
The private archive footage of the Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels star is humanising and does the best job of blurring the thuggish image upon which he relied in the 60s. During training sessions while boxing we see him dancing, in the dressing room before one of the Shaw fights we see him relaxing on the sofa ‘as cool as a cucumber’ quipping “that’s why they call me Daddy Cool”. Son Jamie also appears as a curly, red-haired child announcing that his dad is going to win in the first round. On camera at least, everything seems rosy.
At the point in Lenny’s story when he takes a man outside a pub in a fight that culminates in him biting out that man’s trachea, the mind boggles. The trajectory of criminal to redeemable writer and actor that you expect is somewhat shut down. Jamie relates the encounter from his childhood point of view in graphic detail. In the next scene where he has been asked if those actions surprised him, he laughs. This is a massive move. Why are we watching this? Wasn’t Jamie supposed to be learning lessons, not revelling in the good old days?
When Jamie is addressing the camera directly it feels very staged. The moment seen in the trailer where he contemplates whether he is paying for the sins of his father is particularly criminal. In a darkened room, Jamie splashes his face with water, looking into the mirror – and it’s just annoying. It could have been an interesting angle to extend Lenny’s story, but instead it makes no sense. It’s one scene which is then left unexplained. Is he referring to his rough upbringing? Is he genetically predisposed to violence? Or is he trying to say he was targeted because he is his father’s son (Jamie McLean was briefly jailed for getting into a fight)?
There was a dark side to Lenny’s childhood which goes some way to explaining his violent disposition. His step-father was abusive, both physically and mentally. Here again, the narrative lacks perspective. There are a few examples that sound like they are off-the-top of Jamie’s head as to what the step-father specifically had done to him. If this documentary poses the question ‘why was Lenny the person he was?’ then this is a key point of exposition which is wasted, almost as though we just have to take their word for it.
Worse is the conjecture on the state of Lenny’s mental health – a fact seemingly thrown in as an afterthought and equally vital in understanding some underlying motivations that weren’t widely known. Jamie talks a bit about OCD as the music goes sombre – that Lenny had to count the steps on the walk to and from school and would start again if they didn’t match. Lenny’s nephew Martin Askew (who is co-writing My Name Is Lenny) is made to look rather stupid as he tries to say that in the East End in the sixties, people didn’t really understand that kind of thing, as though that’s a reason not to look into it further now, you know, during a documentary. Especially since earlier on he called Rob Shaw “a certified psycho” – a man who was an ex-patient of Broadmoor Hospital.
Watching The Guv’nor is a frustrating experience which glorifies violence and misses all the opportunities to temper Lenny’s life by providing context. Not such a sin in a drama, perhaps My Name Is Lenny will be more convincing, but in this documentary it was only the dry humour and footage of his home-life that softened McLean and added texture to his story.
Review by George Meixner