MacIntyre’s Underworld

Tuesday, November 21, 2006 by

As anyone who’s seen shirtless Newcastle supporters on a winter evening at St James’ Park will testify, Geordie men are made of hardy stock.

But the macho bravado of Toon Army members pales in comparison to the actions of Geordie underworld veteran Paddy Conroy, the first figure profiled in MacIntyre’s Underworld.

Out on license from an 11-year jail sentence for torture, kidnapping and escape, Conroy’s conditional release is complicated by a rival gangland family taking out a contract on his life. His re-appearance at a time of turf warfare between rival outfits threatens to worsen the fragile balance of power, due to his stated aim to re-establish his profile and reputation within the criminal fraternity.

Although now middle-aged and resembling a leaner Geoffrey Hughes, his eye patch (worn due to his eye haemorrhaging as a result of prison staff delaying necessary treatment for cataracts – or so he alleges) is a permanent reminder of the brigandish nature of his lifestyle.

The show starts with Paddy playing daddy to his two sons, Buster, 11, and Jack, 1. Long-suffering wife of 30 years Maureen also features in this homely sequence. However, as the couple recount the tale of how they met, it’s further evidence of the roughness of their environment. Conroy used to mug Maureen and steal her pocket money; unsurprisingly, she didn’t fancy a date with him when he asked. But Paddy wouldn’t take no for an answer and one day, in his own words, he “grabbed her by the hair and took her home … You think I’m jokin’, don’t ya!”.

Maureen’s expression indicated he wasn’t.

Conroy’s father ran a criminal enterprise in which Paddy served his apprenticeship and would later inherit. This provides some insight into his almost nostalgic view of historic criminality. Of his youth he states that “the villain was just a part of life in those days, especially from the more deprived areas. It wasn’t considered a bad thing unless you did bad villainy, immoral things”. Conroy makes a distinction between “gangsters” and villains. To him, a villain is just a product of his environment and upbringing, whereas “a gangster lives in a world of his own, an imaginary world”.

Conroy denies MacIntrye’s contention he might be perceived as a dangerous man (“I don’t think so – if you don’t have problems with me. But if you come attack us, then I’ll be a dangerous man”), and understands the current underworld difficulties as resulting from the new breed – those operating outside accepted criminal codes: “There’s loads of families from our sort of background who are good people, but you get families who are villains with no morals and not fit to walk this fookin’ Earth!”

Paddy considers himself a protector in the local community, and it says much for his standing (or, perhaps, the fear he inspired) that when he was jailed for violence against the police in the 1980s, thousands of people demonstrated on the streets for his release. Right-hand man Bullock even went to the extreme of climbing to the top of the Tyne Bridge to protest, but only managed four hours because “it was cold – freezing, proper freezing”. Conroy chides Bullock for not staying up there longer, although the latter defends himself by saying, “Well, it wasn’t planned properly. Next time I’ll take a sleeping bag and a flask!”

But despite Conroy’s bravado and criminal heritage, he’s clearly feeling the pressure of the license conditions and the price on his head. He wears a bullet proof vest in public, and his associates constantly monitor his surroundings. When the security lapses, as happens when Conroy returns from a night at the track, he starts to panic. After shouting, “Where the fook are ya?” repeatedly into his phone, he skulks in the lobby until his driver turns up, greeting him with, “Cunt! You cunt!”, before berating him further off mic.

Unable to retaliate in the way he had before his sentence, Conroy employs various means to deal with the tension, such as escaping to his country getaway 30 miles outside Newcastle. On his allotment he grows vegetables, and to MacIntyre’s surprise is particularly proud of the trophies he’s won for his prize leeks.

But even in his hideaway he has to be careful of his activities. As an example, his lifetime ban from using firearms means even a spot of rabbit hunting would result in an infringement of his license terms.

As Bullock, MacIntyre and Conroy chat in a shed, two associates bring in a couple of rabbits they’ve shot, and Bullock guts them by the riverbank. The shots of his handiwork are intercut with MacIntyre asking Paddy if he’s religious (he’s not) and whether he thinks he’s going to heaven (he does). To those who reckon he’s going to hell he retorts, “They can think what they like – it’s between me and the big fella!”

Conroy also uses other methods to relax, having smoked cannabis since he was 16. The green-fingered approach he uses on his leeks also applies to his cannabinoids (“Better to grow your own. See that: it’s fookin’ organic!”).

But the cannabis and leeks are insufficient to keep his ferocity in check. When his family plot in the local cemetery was desecrated in 1994 by a rival gang, his inability to tolerate any affront to his reputation or control his anger led to him committing the acts that resulted in his 11-year sentence.

Billy Collier, a criminal who worked for a rival family, was allegedly heard boasting in a local pub he’d been paid £5,000 to dig up the grave, chop parts of the body up and put them through Conroy’s window. After that, it was only a matter of time before Paddy and his henchmen exacted their revenge.

While the pain felt by Conroy is understandable – with him unable to hold back tears as he recounts the story – the retaliation he had planned for those alleged to be responsible is chilling, issuing his threat head-on to the camera: “I would have killed the whole family. All their loved ones. I would have murdered every single one of them if any of them had done that to my family”.

Within days, with only the digging up the grave part of the alleged plan carried out, Collier was kidnapped at gunpoint from a local shop and tortured. He was abandoned in a warehouse by his attackers after having his teeth pulled out with pliers. Conroy denies being behind the amateur dentistry (“I just beat him up. Hit him with a stick, pool cues, hit him with a gas bottle. He got a beating but not a great beating”), but admits to driving him 400 yards and leaving him at the location where his teeth would be torn out.

Conroy was arrested, but managed to escape en route to court, and was on the run overseas before being caught by Interpol. Security was much tougher on his return: to be on the safe side, a 17 vehicle convoy, aeroplane, helicopter, snipers and a gunboat made sure he kept his court appearance.

However, his holidays in the sun did nothing to moderate his temperament, and Conroy cracked under pressure in court, attacking the prosecuting lawyer. As a result he was dragged out past the jury by four prison officers, which, as Conroy concedes, “didn’t help” his innocent plea. He was found guilty on all charges and sentenced to 11 years, although Maureen continues to accept Paddy’s version of the attack on Billy Collier.

Conroy struggles to process the changes made in the Newcastle landscape in the decade of his incarceration, and also finds unfamiliar the spectacle of a new godfather (John Henry Sayers) controlling his former patch (“They say they run Newcastle, but no one fookin rules me”). With the old-skool underworld against him, Paddy is forced to make new alliances with local Triad gangs (the “new breed” which he had earlier railed against), and not without reason. A confrontation with 14 members of the Sayers gang led to Paddy having to endure a severe beating, in the knowledge that to fight back could have resulted in his death, and to involve the police (strictly against his criminal code) would have meant he’d contravened his license conditions.

The ongoing feuds and precarious situation cause Paddy to worry about his eldest son Buster, (“One day you will be the bossman”) and that he’ll inherit the internecine feuds in the same way he did from his own father. Buster is only now realising the extent of his father’s criminal lifestyle. His copy of Zoo magazine shows a pixellated snapshot of dad alongside a cover feature on “Britain’s deadliest gangs” (“Meet the men who run YOUR manor”). This side of his father he finds hard to understand, with the additional implications of what it means for his own future.

One reason for Buster’s concern over his family’s criminal heritage may be the example of his cousin Dylan, who at 22 has already been jailed four times. Despite Paddy’s assertion that he’s a “good lad in general, just bored”, Dylan is back in jail within four days of being released from his latest sentence after brandishing two sawn-off shotguns.

Yet despite having a clear understanding of the reality of prison life (“Everyone in there is depressed – whole prisons suffer from depression”), Paddy risks his license conditions being invoked after an unnecessary run-in with the police. During a raid on his sister’s house he allows himself to be drawn into a verbal confrontation with an officer and is charged with a public order offence. Unwilling to face court proceedings, Conroy goes on the run again, despite the knowledge he risks a heavier sentence as a consequence. However, this proves to be unnecessary, and somewhat farcical, as his 72-day period in hiding turns out to be just to avoid a £130 penalty charge, which is sent through the post to him after he avoided the initial court date.

Despite this good fortune, and the end of his license period meaning Conroy is a free man once again, he’s unable to shake off past events – particularly the feud with the Sayles family. Conroy interrupts his cooking of a celebratory family dinner to launch into an uninterrupted four-minute tirade, unintelligible in parts and incoherent in others, where he tries to piece together what may have been slights on his reputation and the intentions of his rivals (his perceptions and thought processes clearly affected by his cannabis use), leaving no doubt he’ll retaliate at some point, “and it’s coming fookin’ shortly, believe you me”. His rant culminates in him shouting, “Get that on your fookin’ documentary!”, before resuming his preparation of the family meal.

At this point, just by giving its subject enough rope, the profile allows the true nature of Conroy to emerge, demonstrating that any performance by an actor of a “gangster” role can never fully convey the menace of intent that an authentic criminal has. Despite certain sequences that humanised him (sequences with his family and on his allotment) and a refusal by MacIntyre to allow a caricature to develop – as would be likely in a Zoo feature – Conroy’s inherent brutality continually re-surfaces. His own need to distinguish between his own criminal acts and those of “gangsters” suggests that to some degree he is fully aware of the nature of his lifestyle and its implications, the essence of which it was essential MacIntyre captured in his “fookin’ documentary”.


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