The greatest ever gambling TV dramas
We’ve championed the best in mainstream gambling cinema. We’ve drawn your attention to the cult delights of the genre. Now, we take a look at the rare times when television didn’t make a hash of high stakes living.
1) Las Vegas (2003-2008, above)
Over the years, there have been a few attempts to make dramas set in Sin City. The period piece Vegas (2011-13) was decent enough but it did lousy numbers, while it’s anyone’s guess how Vega$ (see what they did there?) hung around long enough to see the 1970s become the 1980s.
Gary Scott Thompson’s Las Vegas lasted considerably longer, but that’s not the reason it’s so deserving of your attention. No, that has almost everything to do with the show starring the incomparable James Caan as Ed Deline, the former CIA operative turned boss of the Montecito Casino.
One of the biggest American stars of the 1970s, Caan’s list of important films is really long. Godfathers I and II, the original versions of Rollerball and The Gambler, the acclaimed TV movie Brian’s Song, Sam Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite – he was almost as big a part of the decade as Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood.
In Las Vegas, he’s ably aided by Josh Duhamel (the Transformers series) playing the apprentice who’ll eventually come to occupy his master’s shoes. Good though he is, the final season is undeniably the weakest and it’s all to do with the absence of the original lead, the man whose charm and charisma convinced British businessman Nazim Khan to change his name to James Caan.
2 – Deadwood (2004-2006, above)
The show that introduced a new generation of viewers to the wonders of the western, it’d be wrong to say that gambling was Deadwood’s main concern. Still, if the show revolved around Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen and his rundown bar and brothel, the other key characters and locations included Powers Boothe’s Cy Tolliver and his upscale gambling house.
A town populated by real American icons and a host of thinly-disguised composite characters, Deadwood features Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) playing a round of poker with Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine) while Timothy Olyphant’s Sheriff Bullock shoots the breeze at the baccarat table with the legendary lawman Wyatt Earp (Grey’s Anatomy’s Gale Harrold). Yes. it’s like visiting a frontier-themed wax museum, albeit one where the figures not only move around but also swear like drunken dockers.
So gritty you can almost smell the spilt beer and stale blood, Deadwood’s the brainchild of David Milch, creator of the ground-breaking cop show Hill Street Blues and ‘father’ of the ill-fated Luck (see below). In bringing the show to the big screen, he received assistance from quarters both well-qualified and quite bizarre – as the director of The Long Riders, Walter Hill was a great fit, but who knew close-up magician Ricky Jay was such an accomplished scribe?
Frustratingly cancelled just three seasons into its run, Deadwood’s premature demise has done nothing to dim the audience’s fond memories of it. As for what the show had to say about casinos and such, you can only appreciate it if you compare it to the way gambling’s portrayed in most western films and TV shows. Those pictures and programmes would have you believe the frontier grifter was a sophisticated sort. Milch, meanwhile, never lets us forget how uncivilised life in the old west could be, both in and outside of the gambling house.
3 – Give Us A Break (1983-1984)
Before Paul McGann became the Eighth Doctor and Robert Lindsey took Broadway by storm, the two teamed-up in this BBC drama about a snooker protégé and the professional gambler who sees there’s a few quid to be made out of him.
Often confused with Jim Davidson’s tour de force Big Break, Give Us A Break sprang from the pen of Geoff McQueen, the creator of Big Deal (see below). That the show only lasted eight episodes probably had more to do with the country’s snooker halls being too niche a location to attract mainstream attention.
The writer was well served by his actors, though. In McGann, he had the perfect person to depict a swaggering Scouse wunderkind with more talent than sense. And with his black hat and porn star moustache, Lindsey provided an object lesson in sleaziness.
Look beyond the leads and there was gold to be found in the shape of Shirin Taylor (excellent as the most put-upon of put-upon women), David ‘Boon’ Daker, Alan Ford (Snatch’s barking-mad Brick Top) and Johnny Shannon, who was in Henry Cooper’s corner the night he floored Muhammad Ali and co-starred with Mick Jagger in the peerless Performance.
It was a shame Give Us A Break didn’t last longer. Still, its premature end gave McQueen the opportunity to pen an even better gambling-centric series.
4 – Big Deal (1984-1986)
In the 1960s, he was one of the young bucks of British cinema. In the noughties, he was the guy who bumped off Pauline Fowler in EastEnders. But back in the 1980s, Ray Brooks was Robby Box, a small-time gambler with very big dreams.
Set among the council estates of South London and the vacant lots of Camden Town, Big Deal had the same low-rent charm as ITV’s Minder. And like that show, Geoff McQueen’s programme boasted a rich cast of grotesques – from the greyhound-obsessed Ferret (Bread’s Kenneth Waller) to Ronnie and Pete, a pair of flash Harrys played by Game Of Thrones’ Donald Sumpter and Mike ‘Runaround’ Reid.
As with Give Us A Break, our ‘hero’ shares his life with women who are far too good for him. If the mother-daughter combination of Sharon Duce and Linda Geoghan is familiar, it might be due to their respective roles on London’s Burning and The Bill. Robby’s ‘ma’, on the other hand, is essayed by Pamela Cundell, the lucky lady who married Corporal Jones in the final episode of Dad’s Army.
Allowed to unfold over three series and 30 episodes, Big Deal was all the better for portraying the grind of the professional gambler’s existence. In Robby Box’s life, visits to high-end casinos are few; early mornings emerging from anonymous flats, far too common. And when a golden opportunity presents itself in the form of American high roller Hal Brookman, the outcome is far from straightforward.
Now over 30 years old, Big Deal remains highly satisfying. Which is more than can be said for said for Bobby G’s theme song.
5 – Luck (2011, above)
When HBO’s The Wire (“The finest TV show since the invention of radio” – Charlie Brooker) came to the end of its fifth and final series, people wondered what could ever take its place. For a short while, it looked like David Milch’s Luck might fill said sizeable void. Sadly, this racing drama was undone by the danger of the very sport around which it centred – the second season was cancelled after a string of horses died during shooting.
What remains is a tantalising glimpse of what could have been. Dustin Hoffman’s vengeance-obsessed ex-con; Nick Nolte’s grizzled trainer; Ian Hart and Kevin Dunn’s gamblers-made-good-made-bad – the principals couldn’t have been more compelling.
As the title suggests, this was as much a story about fortune as a celebration of the sport of kings. That it got so many aspects of the racing world down pat –check out the companion animals that travel with the thoroughbreds – made it considerably more convincing than previous racing sagas such as the BBC’s truly terrible Trainer.
The show’s mid-story cancellation is obviously irritating. But any programme that stars Oscar-calibre performers such as Hoffman and Nolte has a lot going for it. And with Michael Gambon (Layer Cake) and Dennis Farrina (Snatch) fleshing out the supporting cast, you should consider yourself fortunate to sample even a little Luck.