I was sitting in my living room with my big brother and dad when a loud BANG on the ceiling made us jump. “What was that?” I asked. Back in the noughties, televisions were shaped like gigantic cubes. They’d be mounted to the wall by means of a metal arm with a flat stand at the end, for the box to sit on. It transpired that the television in my parents’ bedroom had fallen from its platform. But the real tragedy was it landed on the VHS Bugsy Malone was recorded on, completely demolishing my beloved film.
The video was crushed, and so was I. The 1976 gangster musical where kids pretended to be adults and hung out in prohibition bars hidden behind bookshelves filled me with the most innocent kind of joy. Its characters were either good guys or bad guys, a binary that made sense to me as a child, when people seemed that way. It also struck me as completely logical when the bad guys renounced their evil and decided to be good guys at the end of the film. I mean, why wouldn’t you? With supposedly deadly pies encrusted on their faces, they sing: “It’s been decided / We’re weaker divided / Let friendship double up our powers,” and I couldn’t help but grin from ear to ear. Then, and now.
This VHS-crushing/soul-crushing incident happened well before I turned 12; I was probably around seven. But for years that followed, my dad would take me to the library at the end of our road to rent the video for days at a time. In that loan period, I’d stock up on my Bugsy-gratification, watching it over and over. It wasn’t until I was 12 and my Auntie Freddie bought me the DVD that I felt like I’d experienced one of life’s big acts of kindness. Bugsy-viewing was no longer embargoed. I held the contraband in disc form. I could watch it whenever I wanted.
It seemed I had a real love for musicals where a child star was the underdog, circa Oliver Twist and Annie. But Bugsy Malone excelled above the rest. The idea of kids, who looked like me, going about their very adult lives, sipping cocktails in 1920s New York, posed a dazzling, fantastical world to me. (Little did I know it was filmed in Pinewood studios, on the outskirts of Slough). This must be how people live, hustling, doing – as Bugsy says – “this and that” for work, auditioning for bars, training to become boxers. It made me feel like the outside world was full of possibilities. The lyrics sung in Bad Guys and You Give a Little Love boasted of social mobility and life chances: “We could’ve been anything that we wanted to be.”
During my later teenage years and the first half of my 20s, I didn’t watch the movie for years. I’d gone to university, moved out of my parents’ house and left Bugsy Malone to one side. Both my dad and Auntie Freddie have passed away, and their roles as suppliers of the Bugsy Malone screening process makes sense to me. It helps solidify them in my mind as kind, generous people – the providers of great, comforting, nostalgic content. Last Christmas at my mum’s house, I suddenly found myself desperate to watch Bugsy Malone. It brought back a familiar childhood feeling, of not having access to it on demand.
I did the modern version of renting it from a library, I paid £4.99 for it on Amazon Prime. And watch it I did. I screened the film three times during the festive week. It helped me feel as though, no matter the uncertainty in real life, I’m sure it can be healed with a song and dance and everyone coming together at the end. When they sing, “You give a little love and it all comes back to you / You know you’re gonna be remembered for the things that you say and do,” I think of Dad and Auntie Fred. They did good by helping me access Bugsy Malone, and the fuzzy feeling it induces.