Yet rather than discouraging drinking, it had quite the opposite effect. Thousands of illegal drinking dens opened. The “Roaring Twenties” had begun. The capital of all this hedonism was Atlantic City in New Jersey – a Las Vegas before Vegas was even invented.
Prohibition had another spin-off: it provided a bonanza for Italian, Irish and Jewish street gangs who came to control the supply and distribution of alcohol. It became a multimillion-dollar business and gave birth to the modern Mafia.
The Mafia ran their business like any venture capitalist would. There were takeovers, buyouts and liquidation sales. The difference was that lead was the currency of exchange.
But some things never change – those at the top stay at the top. Welcome to the world of Boardwalk Empire, HBO’s latest TV drama on Sky Atlantic. Don’t be deterred by the fact that it is on a Murdoch-owned channel – very soon the DVD will be on sale.
Based on the book by Nelson Johnson and with the pilot directed by Martin Scorsese, Boardwalk Empire is a lovingly detailed re-creation of the US’s “Jazz Age” – the era of Al Capone, F Scott Fitzgerald’s novels and Duke Ellington’s scores.
No cost has been spared to bring this story to your TV screen – it is rumoured that $33 million was spent on the pilot alone. The filmmakers have built a replica Atlantic City seafront in Brooklyn! No detail is missed and while the script is sometimes pedestrian and the story more mainstream than, say, The Wire, it still paints a panoramic view of US society in the 1920s.
Boardwalk Empire’s characters are vivid, dark and menacing. The star of the show is Steve Buscemi, who plays Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, Atlantic City’s corrupt Republican city treasurer.
He inhabits many worlds. One is full of politicians, state officials and the moneyed Irish establishment who run the city – villains of unbelievable brutality and cunning. Nucky is also the man pulling the strings behind every mobster and crooked deal in town. Then there is the caring, philanthropic Mr Thompson, a man who cares for the poor and needy – and if you believe that you’d believe anything.
Then there are the gangsters – Jimmy Darmody of Atlantic City, Lucky Luciano and Arnold Rothstein of New York. Even a young Al Capone begins to step onto the stage of history. Many of these men are scarred by their time in the trenches during the First World War and come back more violent and ruthless than the older generation of gangsters.
In one memorable scene Nucky finds out that his protégé, Jimmy, has just massacred a rival group of mobsters in a wood. Nucky threatens the young hood, who coolly turns round and says, “You can’t be half a gangster.” The world is moving on and only the most ruthless will survive.
And then there is federal agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), a sanctimonious, pious, temperate, bible-bashing cop who claims his work is “of a godly pursuit”. And if you believe that – well you know the rest.
Finally, someone who should be mentioned in dispatches is the character Chalky White, a black bootlegger and vote fixer for the Republican Party. He is played by Michael Kenneth Williams, best known as Omar in The Wire. You will shudder in your seat when he brings out his father’s old tool kit and at the same time just wish that it was true.
I have been writing this column for over four years now and I have been lucky enough to write about The Wire, Mad Men, Treme, The Sopranos and Generation Kill. I believe we are witnessing a golden age of US TV making. HBO is not alone, but it is at the centre of this renaissance.
Boardwalk Empire is not as good as The Wire, The Sopranos or Mad Men – but that is asking a lot. Nonetheless, it is TV of the highest order.
So you know the score – more late nights in front of the TV and as the clock strikes midnight the question will be asked, is there time for just one more episode?
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