The Ice Cream Wars review – the gang crime that rocked Glasgow

The criminals that terrorised Glasgow’s ice-cream van drivers in the 70s are examined in this respectful documentary about the 1984 arson attack that killed a driver – and his entire family

General stores on wheels … The Ice Cream Wars (BBC Two).
General stores on wheels … The Ice Cream Wars (BBC Two).Photograph: Julian Schwanitz/Two Rivers Media

Let us reach back in time to Scotland in the 1970s, when Glasgow’s slums were being cleared, tenements demolished and the inhabitants relocated to purpose-built housing schemes on the outskirts of town. All of which was conceived and overseen by people who learned absolutely nothing from previous overhauls undertaken (particularly in the north of England) since the 30s.

As briskly outlined in the opening minutes of the two-part BBC documentary The Ice Cream Wars, the architects of Glasgow’s housing schemes hadn’t learned, for example, that people need shops. Or at the very least, bus routes to the city centre so they can go and buy the stuff they need to live.

Into this void came ice-cream vans that actually sold everything from fish to cigarettes – general stores on wheels. They quickly became popular and profitable, which meant they attracted the attention of criminal gangs. They added stolen goods to the vans’ inventories, and the vans, routes and drivers became the targets of escalating territorial violence. A determination to get one particular driver, Andrew Doyle, off an especially lucrative route ended in the murders of him and five members of his family in 1984. An arson attack killed them all – two in the fire itself, and four more, including the 18-month-old baby pulled from under his 25-year-old mother’s body by firefighters, in the days that followed.

Director and producer Robert Neill has done an unhurried, unsensationalist deep dive into the tragedy with contemporary news footage, accounts from the local police and the serious crimes squad officers of the time, and reporters on the case. The picture is also built up by Douglas Skelton, who has written a book about the murders, crime novelist Denise Mina, who grew up on the housing schemes, and the Doyles’ neighbour Stella McGuire, who witnessed the fire and heard the screaming of the trapped family.

Everybody, in essence, knew exactly who in each gang was doing what in each area, but the police and criminal justice system required hard evidence to make any headway and both gangsters and ordinary people had, as former Strathclyde officer Les Trueman puts it, “this silly way of not wanting to be a grass”. Even after Doyle had his windscreen shot out, he refused to confide in the police – or give in to the gangs.

The main suspects in Doyle’s intimidation and the murders were Thomas Campbell (“TC”) and the crime lord with whom he was affiliated, Tam McGraw. Eventually, a police informant called William McDonald Love claimed he had heard TC, his henchman Joseph Steele and others talking in a bar about how they were going to teach Doyle a lesson by setting fire to his flat. The police found a map with Doyle’s block marked on it in TC’s home. On his arrest, police claimed, TC made a statement to the effect that he only meant to put the frighteners on Doyle and things went too far.

Both men denied the charges and provided alibis but were convicted and given life sentences. For the next 20 years they campaigned to be freed and, as verbal confessions given in police cars came to be seen as not worth the paper on which they were only much later written down. After Skelton tracked down Love and the informant confessed he had lied and swore an affidavit to that fact, the men were granted leave to appeal and had their convictions overturned.

The documentary is a sober, solid unpicking of the case itself and of its effects on those around it. Mina speaks about how the hard men of Glasgow “weren’t heroes to us” but names not to be mentioned, and how deep mistrust of the police still runs among the people who most need their protection. If there is a criticism to be made of the show, it is only of the flaw that bedevils any account of a murder – the absence of the victims – though every effort should be made to find ways to make their presence felt. Here the makers do their best, but it is hard to compete with the charismatic likes of Steele, still here to tell his tale.

Stella McGuire went to school opposite the church where the Doyles’ funeral was held. The altar boys told her there were only five coffins – the baby, Mark, was in with his mother, Christina. All six murders remain unsolved.

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