The desperate foursome are running from themselves and don't notice the Afrikaans sign, ‘Oppad na nerens'. ‘On the road to nowhere’.
Towards the beginning of the second season of Mad Dogs, during one of the scenes of unexpected disaster that have been the series’ hallmark, Quinn (Philip Glenister) remarked ‘how many men of our age get the chance to start again?’ It was a solid effort to see the best of the very bad situation he and his confederates were in, but it was also rather revealing in its content. Men of their age.
What age is that?
In the three years since the show debuted, Glenister turned 50. Of his co-stars, Marc Warren is now 46, John Simm 43 and Max Beesley 42. The quartet, all familiar faces on British TV, are real life friends and approached screenwriter Cris Cole with the express intention of developing a project together. Their original plan was to produce a script about a rock band, but this was quickly abandoned in favour of a story of four friends who manage to get in the worst trouble of their lives without anything as clichéd as being in a touring band.
The foursome were rewritten with Quinn as a teacher, Baxter (Simm) as a lawyer, Rick (Warren) as a financial consultant and Woody in recovery from alcoholism. They all travel to Majorca at the behest of a fifth friend, Alvo, who claims to have made enough money to retire, and who, on a cursory examination, has achieved the personal and financial freedom that the central four crave. It’s an illusory state and before the end of the first episode, Alvo has been shot dead and our four heroes have embarked on the first steps of the most torturous and lengthy trip back from the Mediterranean since The Odyssey.
The storyline descends into a hell of gunfire, explosions, threats and murder that takes them from Majorca to Ibiza then to a black site prison in Morocco before escaping to South Africa with new identities. They languish there for two years largely isolated from their families and each other before reuniting to attempt a return to Britain. Inevitably, it goes wrong and they find themselves lost in the Veldt with a renegade CIA agent, a gun and a stash of what their friend from the Company calls ‘African peyote’, a rare fruit that does pretty much what you’d expect it to. As mid-life crises go, this one’s a pearler.
And that is rather the point. Tempting as it is to categorise Mad Dogs as a crime adventure series or a sort of Sexy Beast meets a hungover Indiana Jones in board shorts, it’s really about the difficulties we all face in growing old and, for the men especially, in expressing our feelings. The quartet have been friends since they were teenagers, have faced ups and downs together and now, as they cross the equator of their lives, find themselves facing the prospect of more downs than ups.
They aren’t happy about it. It’s somewhat difficult to write fiction in which men, especially those in middle age, express their feelings verbally. With one frequent exception, the well of male emotion remains securely topped by the heavy lid of obstinate denial.
That exceptional emotion is of course anger, because if you’re going to talk about feelings, it’s best to keep them macho. Appropriately, Mad Dogs allows plenty of time for its expression, with a four-way set piece noisy argument occurring at the rate of around one per episode. Each member of the group has his own unique flashpoint. Rick, for example, is determinedly not an accountant, he’s a financial consultant. But these are mere igniting sparks to a flame of burning resentment and fear. Everything that they’ve been led to believe about their lives is wrong; they had expected to be enjoying the fruits of a successful adulthood but instead they have come to realise that they were better off when they were teenagers. At least then they had choices.
Season four, now available on DVD, is billed explicitly as ‘The Finalé’ and brings the whole sordid adventure to a decisive conclusion. Having escaped the clutches of the malevolent forces that pursued them over two continents, the foursome have returned to rainy London and meet one another at that landmark event in male middle age -a daughter’s wedding. After three seasons of blue skies and sunshine, the gunmetal dreariness of England gives the show a startling contrast that is right for the characters’ situation. For the first time since they ‘stood in the queue for Easyjet, holding a tuna baguette’, the quartet are safe and secure, bodily at least.
That they’re alive at all is remarkable. That they’ve also been able to return to their own lives, rather than some fake approximation conjured up by an off-the-grid witness protection program is nothing short of a miracle. And yet, something doesn’t fit. They soon come to realise that they haven’t returned to their own lives; those lives no longer exist. The two year sojourn has taken its toll on the families they left behind and they cannot reconcile the changes that have befallen then. It’s as though Odysseus has come home to find that Penelope isn’t speaking to him and Telemachus calls another man Daddy.
What they’ve come back to isn’t the lives that they were searching for, it is the fake approximation. Suffering yet another public humiliation at the vicious tongue of his wife, (who, let’s be honest, is entitled to her anger), Baxter is told by his friends that he ‘might has well leave his testicles on the buffet table’. ‘Mind you,’ he admits, ‘she is paying for it all’. Which is another way of saying that he has left his testicles on the buffet table.
Having vented their anger at one another through, yet again, a four-way set piece (that this time escalates to a full-on brawl in a hotel bar), the mad dogs decide to enact Rick’s scheme for getting their hands on Alvo’s money; cash that they believe is their entitlement. They use it to return to South Africa and to the lives that now seem more real than the ones that they have fled.
Quinn, a newly-minted millionaire, thinks that he’s finally made it and that unhappiness is behind him. ‘You know what we’ve got for the first time since college?’ he asks Baxter, ‘Choices.’ His presentation of the solution reveals his assessment of the problem. Before, they were constrained, limited by the previous forty-odd years of decision making. Now, reborn, they have a palette of options from which to make their choices. And they’re free from London’s bleakness, too. They’ve been given new lives in the open space of South Africa and they’ve recaptured the freedom that they had when they we’re eighteen. It’s all an illusion of course. How can it be an open space when you’re sequestered behind heavy electric gates? What kind of freedom requires a panic room? (‘It’s in case you have a panic attack’, explains Quinn, redundantly).
If there’s a theme to this fourth installment it’s this: The flight to Africa was merely a return to lives that were merely borrowed and the attempt to come back to the UK was equally fraudulent. These are men without a country, who despite being able to boast of having ‘no more mortgage, no more paying for utilities, no more office hours’, discover to their horror that there are still debts to be repaid.
Rick may be a Porsche driving drug dealer, but he’s still on the run and he still has to defend his old profession of financial consultant against charges of being a mere accountant. Woody has likewise been running from himself and is unable to fully break free. They are plagued by visions, both real (gunfire) and imagined (Rick’s recurring hallucination of the Tikoloshe man from Zulu culture). The Tikoloshe is the strongest symbol of their troubles; neither explicitly friend or foe and utterly internal.
Ultimately, they are unable fully to flee either the lives they left in Britain or the troubles they encountered since leaving to meet Alvo. They, and the viewer, are given to understand that the quartet are being pursued by dangerous and malicious foes onto whose territory they have trespassed, but as this finalé reveals, that’s not exactly the case. If they’re running from anything, they’re running from themselves, and moving too quickly to notice the Afrikaans slogan on the billboards behind them. ‘Oppad na nerens’, it reads. ‘On the road to nowhere’. They might just as well say ‘Geen ontsnapping’. No escape.