There’s some footage towards the beginning of The Guv’nor, Paul Van Carter’s brutal yet measured documentary about Lenny McLean, which just about sums up the temperament of the famed East End hard-man.
In the clip, from 1986, McLean patiently bounces up and down in a boxing ring, looking slightly like a silverback gorilla about to be released into the wild, preparing to take on an undefeated fighter named Brian ‘Mad Gypsy’ Bradshaw in an unlicensed bout.
From the grainy video alone it is difficult to tell whether Bradshaw is a member of the traveller community, but it takes just a few seconds for the other half of his nickname to prove emphatically correct.
Striding forward to touch gloves with McLean in order to start the fight, Bradshaw – long before a bell has tolled – head-butts his opponent square on the chin.
In the course of human history, few decisions have proven less wise, and fewer still so instantly regretted. To a backdrop of gasps, McLean recoils, gently touching a glove to his mouth to check for blood, before unleashing utter mayhem.
Bradshaw is floored by the first punch, a huge right hook, before McLean boots him while he’s down, punches him a dozen more times, madly kicks him, picks him up a bit, punches him a lot more again, then repeatedly stamps on his head until four exceptionally plucky spectators intervene, restraining the victor just about long enough for the fight to be called to a halt.
It’s terrifying, but to many people, that was just the Guv’nor. The hardest man in Britain.
Defining Lenny McLean, who died in 1998, beyond calling him ‘hard’ is no easy task. Consult his online biography, for instance, and you’ll be met with the following list of pursuits – the like of which you’ll be pressed to match in 2016, no matter how long you spend on LinkedIn:
“A bare-knuckle fighter, bouncer, criminal and prisoner, author, businessman, bodyguard, enforcer, weightlifter, television presenter and actor.”
With The Guv’nor, a feature documentary that shows in cinemas tonight and sees release on DVD from Monday, Van Carter attempts to make some sense of that extraordinary life. To do so he collaborated with Jamie McLean, Lenny’s only son, who fronts the documentary, turning the film into not only an examination of its subject, but its presenter too.
The Guv’nor follows Jamie, 45, around the now heavily gentrified areas of east London where McLean grew up and spent most of his days, eventually becoming the most famous – and feared – man around. Through interviews with McLean’s old friends and family, Jamie builds a complex portrait of his father and discovers, in unflinching detail, how he became one of the most notorious men in London.
“It was an emotional thing to do, talking about my dad, especially as he isn’t here anymore,” Jamie says. “We got there in the end, but even going around those parts of London, bumping into people who had stories about him and remembered him as a kid, was very hard for me.”
Born into a working class family in Hoxton in 1949, Lenny McLean’s father died when he was six, leaving him to be raised by his mother, Rose, and later a stepfather, Jim Irwin. A local conman, Irwin physically abused McLean and his siblings (who refuse to speak on camera in the documentary) throughout his childhood, unleashing regular beatings until the children’s great-uncle, a gangster named Jimmy Spink, stepped in to deal with Irwin in a predictably forthright manner.
Consumed with rage, Lenny became a brawler as he grew older (and bigger, reaching 6’3” and over 20st at his peak), before mixing with criminals – at one point associating with the Kray twins – and serving a prison sentence for petty crimes.
It didn’t take long for Lenny to make a name for himself as the toughest street fighter around, earning the nickname ‘Ten Men Len’ on account of it taking ten men to take him down. Turning to bare-knuckle and unlicensed boxing to earn money (a license was never possible for him, thanks to his criminal convictions), regularly knocking out opponents far larger than him.
Despite that local environment, Jamie – an honest and extremely likeable frontman for The Guv’nor, who admits to his own history of brushes with the law for violence – says the abuse Lenny suffered as a child ignited a rage his father was rarely able to escape from.
“My dad wasn’t a born fighter. He was uneducated and a product of his upbringing, traumatised by what he’d been through, and probably had mental health problems as a result of all that. Fighting was all he knew.”
In particular, through the course of the film Van Carter and Jamie discovered Lenny likely suffered from OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) as a direct result of his upbringing.
“The violence was a way of managing and concealing the OCD that directly sprung from abuse,” Van Carter, 40, says. “He almost satisfied the chaos of that psychological disorder through fighting, hiding any vulnerabilities he might have felt mentally.”
In the documentary, Jamie tells innumerable tales of his father’s extreme violence, never sugar-coating or seeking to present Lenny as less aggressive than his reputation. For instance, one fight outside a pub in Hoxton, started when a local asked to see him outside, ended with Lenny ripping the man’s windpipe out with his teeth.
As Lenny McLean grew older, he began using his considerable reputation to guard doors at nightclubs across London, including Camden Palace and the Hippodrome in Leicester Square, becoming a de facto leader for bouncers in the capital. In this period he was shot, accused of murder (later acquitted) and enjoyed another stint behind bars.
In his work, Jamie admits, it was all violence. As a father, though, Lenny was nothing but a big softie.
“He was gentle and funny to us and his friends, never raising a finger to my sister and me,” Jamie says. “What my dad did, in work and on the streets, was bully bullies. Unprovoked violence only ever came as a vigilante, clattering blokes on the estate who’d hit their wives or kids, sometimes even working with the police to sort out problems they couldn’t get near. People respected him in the area and still do; that was the old code of honour.”
That safety didn’t allow Jamie to act as he liked as a kid, however. He may have had the hardest dad in town, but it came at a cost.
“We knew the consequences if we told him that we’d had a problem or someone had done something to us. Telling him someone had hit us would have resulted not just in violent revenge, but extreme violence, so we had to keep quiet,” he says, before admitting there was one perk: “Me and my mates never queued for a club anywhere in London.”
After years of fighting, the late 1990s brought a remarkable change in Lenny’s life. Giving up violence and moving to Kent, he instead became something of a creative, writing a best-selling autobiography, also called The Guv’nor, and turning to acting, most famously in the TV series The Knock and as Barry the Baptist in Guy Ritchie’s 1998 gangster film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
“That’s what he always wanted to do. He was a good fighter, especially on the streets, but his lasting legacy was acting. When he arrived on the set of Lock Stock, someone asked him what drama school he attended. Without missing a beat, Len told him ‘I’ve been shot twice, stabbed 100 times and had 10,000 bar-room brawls – is that enough drama for you?’
“Guy Ritchie said he was a natural, with perfect timing. If he was around today he would’ve been a really accomplished British character actor, maybe in Game of Thrones or something. He’d probably have tried Shakespeare for all we know…”
As it is, we’ll never know what the future had in store. During filming on Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, he complained of flu symptoms that later turned out to be lung cancer, and died that July, aged 49. When Lock Stock was released a few weeks later, Ritchie dedicated it to Lenny.
“You don’t get Guv’nors like my dad any more,” Jamie says, wistfully. “He was the last of a dying breed. These days kids are so trivial. You can have a gun pulled on you in a club just for looking at someone, or being in the wrong postcode. And then everything’s on camera anyway. It’s all changed, and had started to even by the time he died.”
In addition to the documentary, Lenny’s story will return to the big screen next year with My Name Is Lenny, a biopic produced by Van Carter (who also co-wrote the screenplay) and Jamie, and starring Mad Max actor Josh Hellman in the titular role, alongside Sir John Hurt, and MMA fighter Michael Bisping in support.
Almost 17 years after his father’s death, both films are intended to add some depth to the fearsome character of Lenny McLean. Van Carter and Jamie admit they’re passion projects, but hold high hopes for the audience reaction.
“My dad was a working class kid in the East End with no positive role models, an abusive upbringing and OCD, and his journey was to fight and fight and fight to get away from that,” Jamie says. “In the end he did steer his life in a positive direction and a proper profession. It’s not rags to riches, we know that, but he got through the darkness and made something of himself. Even today, that’s inspiring for people.”