THIS week, Glasgow witnesses an unholy clash of cultures. One of its plushest hotels is due to host an advance screening of a new movie about the life of one of the city’s most notorious gangsters.
During his obscenely violent career as an enforcer for infamous ‘ businessman’ Arthur Thompson, Paul Ferris would rarely have troubled the doors of such establishments.
Yet, on Tuesday, members of the press have been invited to the fivestar Blythswood Hotel to watch a new biopic detailing the stabbings and shootings that went with Ferris’ brutal rise to prominence.
If the slickly produced publicity for The Wee Man is anything to go by, the film strays dangerously close to wallowing in gangland gore.
Featuring a host of household names, including Martin Compston and Denis Lawson, the dramatic trailer features a thumping soundtrack, flashing blades and buckets of blood.
The film’s backers, Carnaby International, will doubtless hope the media event produces some positive press after a difficult conception, during which Ferris has been widely accused of cashing in on his crimes.
The film-makers were even forced to recreate scenes on a London set after being banned from the streets of Glasgow.
Both police and councillors voiced objections over the subject matter. Then again, why would they want to assist in producing a film that would immortalise on screen a man whose notoriety is based purely on his reputation for dishing out bloody retribution? Someone, indeed, who is suspected of involvement in some of Glasgow’s most i nfamous unsolved gangland crimes, including murder.
Ferris, 49 this month, claims to have turned his back on his former
‘His life is only noteworthy for law-breaking’
life. But with a screenplay based on his own autobiography, The Ferris Conspiracy, and the charismatic Compston, star of Ken Loach’s drama Sweet Sixteen, playing him as a young man, the suspicion is that this film could prove little more than a self-justification exercise.
Mike Riddell, a former chief inspector with Strathclyde Police, is one who remains sceptical about the £3million movie’s intentions.
He said yesterday: ‘Paul Ferris is a very bad man. If this film glorified his life as a viable alternative lifestyle, then I would be concerned.
‘His life is only noteworthy because of his violence and his law-breaking. If he had gone to school and been a plumber or a brickie, of course nobody would have been interested in him.
‘If the film shows any kind of regret or offers any kind of example to young people that this is not the way to go, then fair enough, but I suspect it’s not going to do that.
‘I suspect that youngsters may look at it and say, : “That’s how he made his name. Maybe I’ve got a chance”.’
Director Ray Burdis, a veteran of big screen gangster chic movies including The Krays in the 1990s, maintains The Wee Man has a serious point to make as an exploration of how ‘an environment and bullying could affect a child’s destiny’. He said: ‘If Paul Ferris was born in Oxford, he would have lived a very different lifestyle than he has.’
He added: ‘All films do glamorise violence. I once made a film about the Kray twins and, yes, it glamorises them – but it also tells a tale. So what do you do – take out the violence and stick your head in the sand or show it as it is?’
It is certainly true that Paul Ferris had an atrocious start to life – born in 1963 into a family that was no stranger to crime, he fell victim to an appalling cycle of bullying from a rival clan which almost ended his life prematurely.
It instilled in him a burning desire for vengeance, which fuelled, in turn, his lust for violence.
He was the youngest of four children growing up in Blackhill in Glasgow’s East End. Built in the 1950s, the drab grey clutch of masonry had become one of the UK’s most deprived and lawless housing schemes.
His father Willie was a bank robber and in 1977, when Paul was just into his teens, his older brother Billy was convicted of murder after stabbing a man to death in a pub fight. Billy was jailed for life for a second time in 2004 after killing a 15-year-old boy with a knife.
In his memoirs, Ferris claimed his own life changed direction dramatically when he was systematically bullied and beaten as a skinny nineyear-old by the Welsh brothers, who terrorised Blackhill.
When he refused to give in to the brothers, they hung him from a tree when he was 12 years old and left him for dead.
He blames their bullying for leaving him with a lifelong skin disease, psoriasis. It also left him with a taste for retribution. Throughout his teens, Ferris made it his mission to exact revenge on every one of the Welsh boys, almost ‘scalping’ one with a blade. He once said: ‘Glasgow was awash with gangsters and bullies. To me, the two are one and the same.
‘I’m neither a gangster nor a bully, but that doesn’t mean people can step on your toes. For if they do, you have to jump on their neck and break it.’
It was exactly that calculating coldness that doubtless attracted the attention of Arthur Thompson Snr, at the time the undisputed godfather of organised crime in Glasgow.
In the East End, gangland bosses ruled the back streets and were always on the lookout for violent young thugs to enforce their reign on l ocal businesses and rival criminals.
After leaving St Roch’s Secondary with no qualifications, Ferris had taken a £180-a-week job at a brewery to please his mother Jenny, but he was drawn to the bigger rewards – and risks – offered by crime.
A string of convictions for petty theft and assaults, combined with a savage violent streak, a quick mind and no little charm, impressed Thompson Snr.
A close friend of the Kray twins, Thompson Snr, who died of a heart attack in 1993 aged 61, first made his mark on Glasgow’s underworld in the 1950s before running organised crime for the next 30 years.
He ruled his empire from the Provanmill Inn, only yards from his home, a converted council house known as the Ponderosa because of its over-the-top styling.
At the age of 16, Ferris became a leg-man for the Thompson firm and quickly established himself as a fearless thief. Although not physically intimidating, the young thug had no qualms about using extreme violence – but despite being linked to stabbings, slashings, blindings and knee-cappings, nothing of any significance was pinned on him.
At 20, Ferris was charged with four counts of attempted murder after shots were fired at members of the rival Devlin crime family as they headed home from a night at the pub. Despite being picked out at an
identity parade as the man who fired the shots, Ferris was acquitted of all charges at his trial seven months later.
‘I’ve always used a weapon,’ he once boasted, ‘whether it be a baseball bat or a knife. If anyone was born to crime, it was me. Crime’s in my blood.’
He quickly graduated to become Thompson Snr’s right-hand man and the pair would sit around the tables of the Provanmill Inn planning robberies and other crimes.
Also present were two more of the most brutal and feared of Glasgow’s warlords, Tam ‘ The Licensee’ McGraw – then a close ally of Ferris – and Thompson Snr’s son, Arthur Jnr, known as ‘Fat Boy’.
But such alliances always proved uneasy – and as Glasgow’s lucrative heroin market flourished in the early 1980s, the ambitious Ferris was secretly organising his own criminal operations under the cover of apparently legitimate business interests.
One of Ferris’ own musclemen, James McLean, has spoken of working as a hired assassin for mutual contacts in the London underworld, shooting dead at least two people for thousands of pounds.
In the late 1980s, Ferris and McGraw’s relationship soured when Ferris accused his former ally of setting him up in a drugs bust.
Thompson Jnr was also becoming increasingly jealous of Ferris’ closeness to his father. In August 1991, he famously read out a ‘hit list’ of enemies he wanted to eliminate, which included Ferris. Hours later, however, it was young Thompson who was shot dead outside the family home.
Ferris was arrested and later
‘There is just one option open to me – to go straight’
charged with the murder. On the day of Thompson Jnr’s funeral, a car was found containing the bodies of two friends of Ferris, Bobby Glover and Joe ‘Bananas’ Hanlon, who were also suspected of involvement i n his death. The bullet wounds i ndicated a gangland ‘execution’.
Ferris’ appearance at the High Court in Glasgow in 1992 became, at the time, Scotland’s longest murder trial, lasting 54 days and costing an estimated £4million. Thompson Snr was one of 300 witnesses who gave evidence against his former ally. In the end, Ferris was sensationally acquitted.
The jury also rejected several other charges of supplying heroin, cocaine and ecstasy, attempting to murder Thompson Snr, illegal possession of a firearm and kneecapping or threatening to murder other underworld figures.
The court had also heard of another side of Glasgow, including extraordinary claims of contract killings, drive-by shootings, drug smuggling, corrupt police officers and protection rackets.
Ferris emerged from court surrounded by supporters amid triumphalist scenes which enraged police officers still furious at the not guilty verdict.
Intriguingly, this is the point at which The Wee Man concludes. There is a small coda at the end, inviting the audience to make up its own mind about what the future might hold in store for Paul Ferris – which is rather odd, because we actually know how his life turned out.
He did not take the opportunity to turn away from crime, but set himself up first as a car dealer and then as a ‘ security expert’, while maintaining his underworld links.He later avoided a prison sentence for possession of crack cocaine, convincing a jury in Manchester that he was taking the drug to improve his skin condition.
But his luck finally ran out in 1998, when he was jailed for seven years at the Old Bailey in London after being caught red-handed trafficking guns and explosives.
He served four years and shortly before his release in January 2002 issued a statement saying: ‘There is just one option open to me when I get out of prison – to go straight.’
Since then, Ferris has remained at liberty and currently lives with his wife Carolyn and their young family in a secluded £500,000 farmhouse in Ayrshire.
He has co-written several books with the late crime journalist Reg McKay and has worked as a ‘consultant’ for Frontline Security, which ran into trouble in 2004 when it emerged that it had been paid taxpayers’ money to protect Dumbarton Sheriff Court. Court bosses later dispensed with the firm’s services.
Ferris has often been accused of profiting from his crimes, but when news broke that his memoirs were attracting interest from movie- makers, he declared that any money he stood to make from film rights would be donated to charity.
He said: ‘The movie is just that, it’s a movie. It’s not a documentary.’
Ferris was apparently keen for Robert Carlyle to play him in the film. But Carlyle turned the role down and the deal collapsed.
Both Ferris and director Mr Burdis say the film, which is due for release in mid- January, is intended as a cautionary tale. Ferris even claims he wants to set up a charity to help deter people from a life of crime.
Mr Burdis said: ‘The Paul Ferris story is of a young lad trying to grow up in a tough environment. I’ve had long chats with Paul and, yeah, he reckons he and a lot of his friends would have undoubtedly fallen into the role of criminality – but the bullying was a big factor in his life, making his childhood unbearable.
‘At the age of 16, when the worm turned and he was on top, he found it easier to cope with. But without the bullying, things might have turned out differently.’
Ferris may well have been a victim of sorts. But the reality is that he chose a life of crime and fully embraced its world of violence – often botched, frequently bloody, usually cowardly.
And what kind of a lesson is that?