Criminal Enterprises

Simon Rumley is a prolific, award-winning British filmmaker who has been making independent movies for the past twenty years. His work includes The Living And The DeadRed, White & BlueFashionistaand last year’s Crowhurst. He returns with gangster filmOnce Upon a Time in London, an epic tale about the real life rivalry between Jack ‘Spot’ Comer (Terry Stone) and Billy Hill (Leo Gregory). 

ASFF: The story is set before the Krays really took over London. Was that an era that interested you? 
SR: Yes…it goes from the Sabinis, who were in charge from the late twenties to the Second World War, then the Sabinis’ right-hand man Alf White took over for a while, then Jack ‘Spot’ Comer came along and then Billy Hill, and then it was the Krays … it’s why Once Upon a Time in London is a perfect title, because it runs the gamut of old school crime.

ASFF: What is it you like about the gangster genre?
SR: In most of these films there is violence but they’re about relationships. The Godfatherwas famous for being a film about relationships and family rather than violence. It’s that canvas. And here you have a massive canvas to play with. You’ve got the robberies, the male bonding … and what I did with the script was give the women much stronger roles. 

ASFF: Can you give one example of this?
SR:Well, I did do my research on these characters; I’d say ninety percent of the script is true. The reality was that Rita [played by Nadia Forde] changed Jack’s life, as many women do with men. He really did love her and after that he became less of a gangster really and more of a family man. And she testified against all the gangsters – Frankie Fraser went to jail for seven years because of her. So it would’ve been crazy not to have her in the story, because she’s such a big part of it. 

ASFF: How would you describe the Jack Comer-Billy Hill relationship that sits at the heart of the film? 
SR: Billy wrote Jack a letter when he was in a jail, saying, “I’d like to work with you.” Billy became Jack’s acolyte in a way. Although Jack had his guys, like Sunny and Moisha, who he grew up with, he took Billy under his wing. I think Jack always felt he wanted to be top man; Billy never had that as an initial game plan. But once he got in with Jack, he started to see that Jack was starting to lose his grip. 

ASFF: How did you find shooting a period piece with your regular DP, Milton Kam?
SR:Everything is slower – and as someone who likes to just shoot, you literally can’t. It was a longer shoot period than I’ve had – six weeks. The longest before that was 25 days. You’ve got to pace yourself because it is very tiring. And, yes, working with Milton … this is our ninth film together, and our sixth feature. He’s a really good friend and a great DP – and working with him means I don’t have to worry about that department! 

Once Upon a Time In London is released in cinemas on 19 April. For more details, click here.

James Mottram

1. Stills from
Once Upon a Time In London.