Organised crime membership is always an open secret.
Illegal rackets may differ in mien, but they’re all run on the same tried-and-tested formula: Scheme in the shadows and stay zipper-mouthed in the daylight.
So, when one Salford criminal decided to unabashedly wrapped himself in the flag for gangland and parade it around his city with bravado, it made for quite the story.
Paul Massey – the man who came to be best-known by the swaggering moniker ‘Mr Big’ – was raised in the rough-and-tumble surroundings of Ordsall in the sixties; moving from rapscallion to crime kingpin during the dawn of Madchester.
His blood-splattered story – which culminated in his murder in 2015 – sounds like it was lifted from the pages of an airport paperback, and has proven a popular subject for crime media over the years. But the latest in a long line of investigations, a BBC podcast called Gangster, has ambitiously attempted to go further than the documentaries that have come before it.
The new series – which launched on streaming platforms last week – offers unprecedented access to Salford gangland; serving as a compelling new addition to the ever-expanding library of content on one of the region’s most infamous crime lords.
Led by experienced investigative journalist Livvy Haydock (VICE, BBC), Gangster is chopped up into five chapters each dedicated to a moment in Massey’s life; covering his time as a tearaway on Salford’s streets, running security at The Hacienda, and his bid for local Mayor, right up to his final moments when he was gunned down on his own doorstep.
With each episode clocking in at less than 30 minutes, Gangster rips along at the kind of binge-worthy pace required to carry a true crime doc, and host Livvy – who has made a living out of interviewing dangerous figures on camera – said she relished the chance to pursue a podcast as it offered an opportunity to “explore things with much more depth.”
“Doing a podcast…. we got to explore the logic behind the chaos,” she explains.
“And [learn] how this man was born out of this situation.”
Mentions of The Godfather and The Sopranos frequently pop up throughout the podcast, and Gangster does indeed share some similarities to these seminal pieces of crime media – not least the fact there’s so much character to unpack beyond the barbaric surface.
But despite suffering a predictably bloody downfall like many of his peers, Massey’s legacy is more multifaceted than the title of the podcast suggests. It’s also very real – unlike Michael Corleone’s or Tony Soprano’s.
Mr Big said he “knew the stakes” of living a life of crime. But, fascinatingly, he also had another reputation outside of gangland – one that cast him as a community champion. Many in his local neighbourhood looked up to him, considering him something of a Robin Hood figure.
“He did become a little bit of role model,” one resident explains in the podcast.
“Y’know… you’re kind but you take no shit.”
People remain at loggerheads as to whether Massey was a force for good or evil. But what remains undeniable is his influence – which seemingly continues today despite his death in 2015.
Some believe Massey may be pulling strings from beyond the grave – an idea amplified by Mr Big’s appearance in the Gangster podcast (a previously unheard interview from the archives).
Creating the series came with challenges, and producers said that the criminals’ code of silence was a serious obstacle in opening doors into Massey’s past. Mr Big might be gone – but he left a world behind that’s still very much alive. One that’s fraught with danger for outsiders.
“It’s so hard to navigate [this world] and pull info out of these experiences and the people you meet without causing danger to yourself,” Livvy admits.
“It’s a very careful line you walk. But we’re always transparent with people. We say: ‘Let’s talk if you’re comfortable, if not we’ll leave it, that’s fine.’
“What you need to remember is this is someone else’s environment – it impacts their lives. So, making sure someone was comfortable with talking was essential to getting the stories.”
Series producer Paul Grant also said it felt necessary to bring in people from the other side of the law for the podcast – including the Police Chief Constable in power whilst Mr Big ruled the roost on city estates – so they could “get a good perspective from all sides.”
But convincing the story’s main characters to appear on the pod was only half the battle. The other side of production involved finding a way to re-create the sensory atmosphere of the period – and doing it a convincing enough way to lure listeners right in amongst the action.
The thumping tunes that soundtracked The Hac during Massey’s heyday whirl around interviewees, with blaring sirens and grungy guitars circling criminal subjects like vultures.
“For me, it was [important] to get the vibe right,” Livvy explains.
“The production, the music. We wanted to immerse people in this world and give a 360-point of view.”
Paul adds: “As well as the story itself and the narrative arch is this sense of time and place. It’s very much a Manchester music soundtrack. We tried to give it a northern feel.”
Massey was a larger-than-life figure who appeared to revel in the camera lens when all evidence suggested he should be palming it away with fury. He was one-of-a-kind in that way, and is described in Gangster as a “walking contradiction”. There may not be another like him.
Livvy states: “Massey is quite unique in that when you look at other big name criminals – The Krays, The Richardsons etc – they’re things of the past. [Massey’s] story stretches to 2015 and is still kind of going on now.
“He was almost the last of his kind before this new generation came up. ‘Massey’ is still a household name and people are on the opposite ends of the spectrum on their opinions on him.”
Paul adds: “Here’s a guy who was a criminal but also stood to be Mayor.
“Whether you’ll see that in modern criminals… I’m not so sure.”
Whilst investigating how Massey exerted influence over his area, Gangster also analyses the impact that criminal enterprises have on local communities – including how residents respond to living under these regimes.
Whilst Massey was an anomaly and the product of a very particular era, Livvy believes the patterns that led to his rise through the ranks – and how he recruited members into his entourage – remain the same.
“The impact [Massey had] on Salford as an area – it taught me a lot about the young gang members I’m interviewing on the streets today. I think the stories are very similar.
“Massey’s story is unique with the rave scene and The Hacienda, that will never happen again. But I think the things behind ithow communities can be forgotten and then exploited… I see that happening all the time in the work I do.
She pauses for a moment or two.
“We can learn an awful lot by looking at a story like this: Why communities are distanced from the authorities… and perhaps how we can get them back.”
Gangster is available to stream and download from BBC Sounds now.
Listen online here >