Sexy Beast



Picture a sun worshipper. He’s slathered in oil, basting like a chicken in the blistering heat, and he’s finger-licking loving it.

Sexy Beast, the quintessential London gangster movie, boasts one of the most celebrated opening scenes in the history of British film. The main characters, armed robbers Gal and Don (Ray Winstone, Ben Kingsley), are cult figures.

Who would dare tangle with such a classic piece of geezerdom?

A couple of Scots, that’s who. Not that you would be able to tell James McArdle and Emun Elliott, the stars of Sexy Beast, the TV series, hail from Glasgow and Edinburgh respectively, so on the money are their London accents.

McArdle (Angels in America, Mare of Easttown) plays smooth-talking Gal with Elliott (Guilt) as Don. In what is a prequel to Jonathan Glazer’s movie, the action takes place in the early 1990s when the pals and petty thieves are hoping for a break into the big-time.

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Sexy Beast the series is written and directed by Michael Caleo, whose cv includes an episode of The Sopranos. This is not The Sopranos. Only The Sopranos is The Sopranos. But it is pacey, enjoyably naff and curiously addictive, and that’s just the soundtrack.

As can be seen from the opening scene, this Sexy Beast is like the film’s little brother: it wants to be just like the original, but different. So the Gal in the series is wearing shorts rather than budgie smugglers, he is on a warehouse roof in London, not by a pool in Spain, and it is The Clash (Should I Stay or Should I Go) playing, not The Stranglers (Peaches).

Other than that, it’s the same old Gal. “He’s the kind of bloke everyone likes, wants to be around,” says Stan (Paul Kaye), a spotter of criminal talent. As for Don, well where do you start?

Ben Kingsley’s performance as the quick-tempered psychopath earned him an Oscar nomination. A large part of the character was his distinctive voice, which was clipped, precise, as tightly wound as he was. Elliott’s version is even more mannered. I’m not sure Don purists will buy it, but you get used to it.

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If you can put the voice to one side, Elliott turns in an electrifying performance that’s funnier and more layered than Kingsley’s.

Even better is Tamsin Greig, who plays Don’s sister Cecilia as a bottle-blonde horror who runs an amusement arcade. Let’s just say it’s a long way from Debbie Aldridge and The Archers.

Greig would be the best thing in Sexy Beast if it wasn’t for the charismatic McArdle. He is a perfect fit for Gal and, like Elliott, he brings something special to the screen, something that makes you forgive the sometimes iffy dialogue and the occasional lurch into EastEnders on crack territory.

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You’ll need a strong stomach for the violence besides, and I lost count of the number of C and F bombs when it tipped into the hundreds. As Winstone says of the sun in that opening scene, McArdle is tremendous, fantastic, fan-dabi-dozy-tastic. And yes, he is one sexy beast.

Episode one available Thursday on Paramount+