A Southend car park sparks into life on a cold evening in November. Lighting rigs illuminate the growing crowd, who are gathered around a row of nightclubs made dormant by the coronavirus lockdown. One of the buildings has been repainted to resemble Raquel’s, the now-closed club 14 miles away in Basildon, made notorious in the mid-1990s as the place where Leah Betts sourced the ecstasy that killed her.
A group of five or six teenagers ask me what’s happening. They’re making a film, I say. What about? The latest in the Rise of the Footsoldier franchise, about the Essex Boys firm, who helped flood the nightclubs of south Essex with pills during the 90s, before being blasted in a Range Rover while apparently waiting for a drug pickup.
Their eyes light up. “Essex Boys! I’ve heard of them!”
How could they not? The murders of the drug-dealing nightclub bouncers Pat Tate, Tony Tucker and Craig Rolfe down a farm track in the Essex village of Rettendon, as snow fell on the 6th of December, 1995, have fuelled decades of films, true crime books and tabloid intrigue.
We’re here to watch one of the last shoots of Rise of the Footsoldier: Origins, the fifth and most ambitious of the British gangster movie series that started in 2007 and has starred Terry Stone – founder of the legendary One Nation drum and bass club nights – as Tony Tucker, and beefy former EastEnders actor Craig Fairbrass as Pat Tate.
Essex Boys (2000), the original film based on the killings, took the title provided by the tabloids and starred Sean Bean as a seething fictional hardman hybrid of the characters involved in the gang. Then came Bonded By Blood (2010) and Bonded By Blood 2 (2015) – which weren’t in the same lineage as the Footsoldier films, but confusingly also starred Stone as Tucker – and next the really quite terrible The Fall of the Essex Boys (2013), Essex Boys Retribution (2013) and Essex Boys: Laws of Survival (2015).
You could call it Essexploitation, a genre that takes advantage of the morbid curiosity around a story that has lingered like a bad smell in these lowlands for more than 25 years. Films made for suburban English wannabe hard nuts, ignored by the mainstream but charged up with the pure aggro and adrenaline of a pre-pandemic football pub at 11.30AM on Super Sunday.
It is extremely easy to deride this stuff, but it’s not going away; while this franchise doesn’t punch anywhere near the weight of something like a Richie or even a Statham vehicle, it has resonance with a loyal horde of fans. The Rise of the Footsoldier page has almost 200,000 likes on Facebook. Around £50,000 was raised on IndieGoGo to crowdfund the new film, with “perks” offered to contributors ranging from official posters (£20) to becoming an extra in one of the club scenes (£80), all the way up to being “PUNCHED by TONY TUCKER!” (£2,500).
The first film in the Rise of the Footsoldier franchise was an adaptation of former football hooligan and self-styled East End gangster associate Carlton Leach’s memoir, Muscle. But the wider phenomenon has its roots in the true crime books written by a former Raquel’s bouncer, Bernard O’Mahoney, who has based an entire “straight” career on publishing book after book promising the “truth” about the Essex Boys, with each one peddling a truer truth than the last. Essex Boys: The Final Word: No More Myths, No More Lies - The Definitive Story was published in 2015.
For all the talk of “truth” in relation to the Essex Boys, there is precious little about it that feels definitive. Perhaps it is the murkiness of the narrative that has made the genre last so long, with the case still pored over by true crime YouTube channels positing outlandish theories (there’s even a documentary about what’s happened to the Range Rover since).
When a collective fascination with the macabre enters this kind of micro level, it has long stopped being about a search for truth, and becomes a stab at control, about finding the answers that have been “kept from us”. Outside of this true crime ecosystem, the appeal of the Rise of the Footsoldier franchise to previously naughty former ravers and younger kids who have a nostalgic fascination for their 90s glory days is obvious.
Producer Andy Loveday – co-founder of Carnaby International, the Essex-based company that makes the franchise – reckons the last film broadened the appeal further. Rise of the Footsoldier: Marbella, a sun-kissed heist caper featuring a cameo from Towie star Jessica Wright, was “popular in North America, Germany, Australia, Benelux, Japan, Korea”, he says. In the UK, it “unlocked a whole brand new audience. A lot of women liked that film.”
In this latest instalment, the arrival of British gangster film royalty – like Vinnie Jones in the role of Bernard O’Mahoney – sees the franchise move up a level. Carnaby is also in discussions for a ten-episode TV show telling the beginnings of the Essex Boys story, as well as films featuring new stories and even a video game in the same vein as Grand Theft Auto.
Strangely enough, from the early-90s to the mid-2000s, Loveday was a resident DJ at the clubs they’re now using as film sets. “At that time, the club was all about drugs, it was all about ecstasy,” says Loveday of the boom years of legitimate clubbing in the UK. “People didn’t even wanna drink. And you didn’t wanna go home. It was euphoric. It was like the best thing in the world – you’d go back to people’s houses and you’d sit there and have a joint, coming up. People only used to do a line of coke, if you had enough money at the time, to bring your E back up.”
Loveday used to see Tony Tucker and Pat Tate at the clubs he DJ’d on Lucy Road, Southend. He said he never knew Craig Rolfe, who was always a henchman figure compared to the bigger egos of Tony and Pat. “[When] Tucker was in Chameleon, we never used to go near him, his mob and his hangers on around him, because nine times out of ten, if you went near them or spoke to one of the girls, or they didn’t like the look of you, you’d end up getting filled in,” he says.
Tucker and Tate might be the most unlikeable protagonists to ever head up a series of gangster films, two on-off bodybuilding psychos who’d descended into a chaotic world of performative violence via addictions to various legal and illegal drugs.
Ray Newman, a retired Essex Police detective who was working as an inspector in Basildon at the time, arrested Tate after he robbed a Happy Eater restaurant, holding up the staff at knifepoint. “He was just a drug-dealing thug who beat people up,” says Newman.
Tate’s legend hangs on the fact he escaped from the ensuing court proceedings in Billericay, jumping on a motorbike waiting outside and fleeing to Spain. But even this legend shows Tate to come up short. “[In the film] we fictionalised that he got thrown in the boot and was dropped off in Gibraltar,” says Loveday. The true story was that he actually went to Gibraltar and was recognised by British policeman there. “They were thick, but they thought they were invincible.”
The new film centres on Tucker, an army veteran who returns to Essex after being discharged and falls into the doorman racket after a chance meeting at Hollywood’s club in Romford. He finds his way to the Essex firm via Raquel’s in Basildon, a former dancehall complete with a spring-loaded floor that had, even by then, seen better days. Tucker capitalised on his position in club security during the heady days, starting a business to supply bouncers to raves and wider events, and recruiting doormen from bodybuilding gyms in Essex and east London. Those close to them say to call the Essex Boys a firm or gang was to oversell it. In a sense, they were a legit security firm that bit off more than they could chew.
“It’s always the door security that basically run the clubs,” says Loveday. “They run the drugs. Slapping people left, right and centre – you never mess around with these people.” There was also a lot of money to be made, because if you controlled the door, you controlled the drug supply.
“The money caused the violence,” says O’Mahoney. “The amount of money you could make. I’ve worked at raves and I’ve seen people putting bin bags full of money in their car at the end of the night. That’s what created the violence.”
After they finished working the doors, around midnight, Tucker, Tate and Rolfe would drive to Legends in Mayfair, or to one of London club promoter Tommy Mack’s Black & White parties. “They’d see all the nightlife of London, all the glitz and the money,” says Loveday. “They’d come down [to Southend] and pretend, and play that role that they’d see in London. Everyone’s aspirations were that they wanted to be the type of guys who buy themselves a brand new BMW.”
Yet, the reality was quite different. “They’ve got all the clothes on, but they financed the BMW, they spent their wages on an eighth of coke and they’re skint in the week,” he says. “But they wanna portray that they’re the big Charlie bananas.”
Brutally early on the penultimate day of filming, extras dressed in 21st century takes on 90s clubbing gear are shivering under the cold tang of coastal drizzle. They’re taking part in an authentic one-in-one-out system outside a club freshly mocked up as Hollywood’s in Romford circa the late 1980s. Inside, a particularly repetitive spell of filming takes place – a scene featuring a cameo of the DJ turned 2017 Celebrity Big Brother star Brandon Block.
“What’s yer name?” asks Terry Stone, playing Tucker.
Everyone aside from the scene’s main cast members have to wear masks at all times. Thin, ageing men in expensive padded gilets, here via the crowdfunder, watch from the entrance corridor with a bored yet slightly startled expression, as if they are trapped in a sort of night-time economy purgatory, peering into the smokey haze of a nondescript club’s dancefloor. Basildon synth-pop duo Yazoo play over the system. Further in, some younger and stockier mask-under-nose types fold their arms and clutch water bottles in a pose you might label: “Is this it?”
Extras self-consciously party behind Brandon Block pretending to DJ. Dancing, silently pretending to have fun, wrists wriggling in the air, riffing on the memory of a party once upon a time.
The Footsoldier series could be read as a eulogy for the once-teeming Essex nightclub scene. “They’re gone,” says Loveday of the Lucy Road clubs. “They’re like dinosaur relics of a bygone era that you’re never gonna get back. These are gonna be flats, apartments overlooking the seafront. The only value in this now is real estate.”
On the night of the Range Rover murders, the story goes that Tucker, Tate and Rolfe had parked down a track next to a field to wait for a plane carrying cocaine, as arranged by drug smuggler Mickey Steele and his associate Jack Whomes.
Whomes and Steele were jailed for life in 1998 for the murder of the three men, on the evidence of supergrass Darren Nicholls. O’Mahoney once campaigned for their innocence, but says he is now convinced of their guilt due to the amount of evidence – including mobile phone location data – that proves they were at the scene. Whomes was released in March of 2021 after serving 22 years, while Steele’s release was blocked by the parole board.
Despite the convictions, other stories still do the rounds. In 2018, the Times reported that a crime boss was recorded telling a Met detective he could “take out” the three dealers who supplied Leah Betts, just days after her death. This bombshell led Whomes and Steele to lodge an unsuccessful appeal against their conviction with the Criminal Cases Review Commission, after a team of former Met investigators said this and other evidence supported the story of an East End criminal Billy Jasper, who told the police he drove the actual killer to the site on that cold December night.
What is certain in the fog of addled or unreliable memory is that, one way or another, the death of Leah Betts – after she took a clean ecstasy tablet purchased at Raquel’s and drank seven litres of water – has led to the perpetuation of the myth of the Essex Boys.
Betts’ death put the spotlight on the protagonists, on the club and on then-Raquel’s bouncer O’Mahoney, who says he felt under pressure to write about the drug deals, violence and eventual murders following the media scrutiny after Betts’ death. The gang achieved notoriety not in the way the Kray twins did, up the road in the East End, through an exercise in gentlemanly psychosis, but by being on the wrong side of a moral panic – maniacal no-marks elevated above their station by the accidental association with an 18th birthday tragedy.
The plight of the murdered trio also tells a story about the excess of late capitalism as much as it does the boom of the drug trade after rave. “All this, ‘We control Essex...’ They couldn’t control themselves,” says O’Mahoney. “These ‘international drug dealers’ drove to the meeting in a Range Rover which was on HP [hire purchase], the driver was uninsured, and it wasn’t fucking taxed. That’s how savvy they were. Pat Tate didn’t have enough money to get buried. They had to borrow the money to bury him.”
Back in the car park, a bloke with a Scottish accent persevering on his Friday night mission to get wrecked, despite the pubs not being open, sidles up next to me and tells me what’s going to happen with the precision of an insider: “They’re gonna blow up that car. It will burst into flames and then Vinnie Jones is going to run out of the club opposite to see what’s going on.”
Dry ice fills the night-time void. A dog’s muffled bark emanates from behind the blacked-out windows of a parked car. Some extras in stiletto heels clop-clop past, all dressed up with nowhere to go. There is a nervousness among the people in charge of the forthcoming pyrotechnics. A fire crew and ambulance workers are on standby in case something goes wrong.
And something almost does. When the car explodes it pounds the atmosphere like a small bomb, thwumping the onlookers – some of whom have paid to stand in this car park – right in the gut. A piece of debris shoots up like a rocket from the car and rises for what seems like an eternity, before crashing back down to earth with the shattering thud a thick sheet of safety glass travelling at high speed makes, luckily landing in a gap in the crowd.
Crowd and crew edge towards the car’s rear windscreen, which now sits 100-odd yards from a burning vehicle. Some look shocked, as if things have gone a bit moody. Vinnie Jones is nowhere to be seen.