The world is more tightly ringed with ruinous connections than we imagine. When Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1979, for instance, one unintended consequence was a rise in heroin addiction and drug-related crime in Toxteth, Croxteth and Bootle. Raff, a former heroin dealer of Pakistani heritage, explains that, at the time, the Afghan mujahideen needed money for arms and so increased opium production.
Entrepreneurs such as Raff saw a business opportunity, while addicts in the Liverpool 8 postcode saw a cheap way of escaping reality. Heroin hit the streets at £5 a bag. Addicts recalled how the drug made them feel safe and untouchable – desirable commodities when graffiti on tumbledown walls read “Welcome to Thatcher’s Beirut”, unemployment soared and Toxteth burned during the 1981 riots.
“Heroin was like a silent bomb that landed in Liverpool – no one heard it coming,” says Billy Moore, a former addict. Drugs came in waves, like a more seductive Luftwaffe. Afghan imports were just the start of the serial ruin of the meanest streets of Merseyside by drugs – first by heroin, then later in the 80s by ecstasy and in the 90s by crack cocaine.
Each narcotic supplies the title for an episode of Sky Documentaries’ three-part series Liverpool Narcos, all available online now. In this era, police were routinely armed as they patrolled Liverpool 8, fighting a “war on drugs” with scarcely more success than Russian troops had against the mujahideen.
Raff recalls cutting brown, smokable heroin with German baby laxative to multiply his profits. None of the addicts interviewed reported that heroin was a cure for constipation, but it probably was.
Anthony Philipson’s documentary bears deliberate unreliable witness to this history, nearly glamorising it with crime movie tropes. When we meet the now-aged so-called Godfather of Liverpool, the convicted heroin dealer Michael Showers, he is strutting moodily across a now desolate urban landscape. In the 80s, he drove narcotics cops nuts by flaunting his wealth, driving around Toxteth in a white Rolls-Royce. Here, keyboard arpeggios accompany him as he paces, like a scouse version of Michael Caine in Get Carter.
Philipson intersperses his documentary with risible dramatised scenes of drug busts, jailbreaks and other moves from the Guy Ritchie playbook. These reconstructions are cut into the documentary like baby laxative, increasing the volume of the product.
To be fair, Philipson has a cute postmodern eye for his films’ absurdity. Each reconstruction ends with the director yelling cut and the real-life protagonist, such as the former international crack dealer Stephen Mee, wandering on to the set to say the scene never went down like that – not really. The director wants to have it both ways: to indulge the desire to see criminal drug glamour and to show the truth about what the drug trade means to the city.
Philipson has form with macho hokum. He directed Ross Kemp on Gangs and other documentaries that might struggle to pass the Bechdel test. He ought to try his hand at something else, say, Victorian Embroidery with Lucy Worsley and Kirstie Allsopp.
Here, there are ex-addicts bench-pressing their body weight and cheeky chappie ex-dealers jauntily recalling smuggling ecstasy into Liverpool clubs, ostensibly to spread joy as the city faced the Hillsborough tragedy. Drugs again figure as a delusive solution to the unbearable problem of reality.
These three programmes might well make one think that the distribution and consumption of heroin, ecstasy and crack are male preserves. This is, to put it mildly, nonsense.
Nonsense, too, is the idea that Liverpool is, in a world of globalised drug misery, singular. Many interviewees suggest there is something special that accounts for high drug use in Liverpool, apart from docks and poverty. True, the docks and poverty may well have made Liverpool more open to being ensnared by drugs than, say, Tunbridge Wells, but scouse interlocutors go further with misplaced civic pride. “We’re entrepreneurs,” says Moore. “We’re clever as a people … we have a toughness that other people don’t.” Not really: this puts, say, the Liverpudlian genius of the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, on a par with the scumbags – some repentant, others not so much – who dealt death and misery to the poor and needy of Liverpool 8.
When Sky comes to commission other city-based drug documentaries for this lucrative franchise – as I am sure it will – the talking heads of Dundee Narcos or Peckham Narcos, if not Sutton Coldfield Narcos, will doubtless have the same line in eulogising their manors. And other directors will indulge them. There is money to be made, after all, not just from drugs, but from telling stories about what drugs do. Police, according to the programme, made more than 1,000 drug trafficking charges in Liverpool last year. Looked at another way, there is lots more material for series two. The drugs don’t work … but TV about them does.