This weekend, as part of its Storyville documentary series, BBC Four airs The Great Gangster Film Fraud, the strange story of a bankrupt Iraqi-born property developer called Bashar al-Issa and an underemployed Northern Irish actor called Aoife Madden, who collaborated on a tax scam.
Using fake receipts and invoices sent between three production companies that Issa controlled, they applied for £2.7 million in VAT and tax credits for a film called A Landscape of Lives. This, supposedly, was to star Liam Neeson and "Michael Kane" (as Michael Caine's name was spelled in one of their original proposals) and had a budget of almost £20 million, provided by mysterious Jordanian investors.
“They hadn’t shot a frame,” Ben Lewis, the director of the documentary about the scam, says. They wrote invoices “full of estimates for work that hadn’t been contracted and hadn’t been carried out”, then sent them to HM Revenue & Customs, the UK tax agency, and asked for the VAT back. The agency returned about £800,000 – but then “quickly got on the case and arrested them”.
While they were on bail Issa and Madden actually tried to make the film. "They thought they could cover their tracks," Lewis says. Their production cost nothing like £20 million – the sum was closer to £80,000 – and it starred neither Michael Kane nor Michael Caine.
The film they eventually made in 2011 featured the Loose Women presenter Andrea McLean as a sexually precocious psychotherapist; it was rewritten and directed by a low-budget film-maker and former bouncer named Paul Knight, whose godfather was Charlie Kray.
Strippers, war zones, a pantomime villain
Knight presciently renamed the film
A Landscape of Lies
and shot the story of a war veteran avenging the death of an army friend. The trailer features strippers, flashbacks to leafy Middle Eastern war zones – not really shot in the Middle East – and a pantomime-villain hard man who says: “I don’t watch gangster movies. I’m the evil bastard they base them on.”
You can see the trailer in all of its grisly low-budget glory on YouTube. It was shown at film festivals in Marbella and Las Vegas.
Unsurprisingly, an £80,000 film provided no legal cover for Madden or Issa, who had based their claims on a much bigger production. They, along with three others, were convicted of tax fraud.
Lewis was enthralled by the story. “Lots of young people, and not-so-young people, get taken advantage of in the film industry, and are encouraged to work on chicken-shit money on projects that never go anywhere,” he says. “I thought this was a cautionary tale.”
His documentary’s narrator, who adopts the style of a Guy Ritchie movie gangster, muses about whether the wannabe film-makers were malevolent or just naive. “Could something this stupid be criminal?” Lewis asks. “On the one hand it’s a scheme so stupid that you can’t imagine he’d done it deliberately. And on the other they basically set up three companies that were a sort of carousel scheme, one invoicing the other.”
Lewis scoured court documents, acquired behind-the-scenes footage and spoke to many people unwittingly involved with the project; McLean had no idea of the scam, for example. Most were guilty only of naivety. Lewis did not interview the two main characters. Issa is still in prison. “He thinks he’s innocent,” Lewis says. “But if you meet con men you learn one thing: that some con men con themselves. I think Bashar was more or less conning himself.”
Sinn Féin MP
Madden, whose uncle is the Sinn Féin MLA and former MP Conor Murphy, had been retraining as a teacher when Issa convinced her to form a production company. Two of her siblings worked on the film, and her sister Maeve, a model, even dated Issa.
The Madden family refused to be interviewed for Lewis’s documentary. In the behind-the-scenes footage Madden looks as if she hasn’t a care in the world. “I think Aoife and Maeve were very ambitious,” Lewis says. “I’ve no doubt that Aoife really thought, I want to make this film, and Bashar said, ‘The money will come in next week. Just sign these documents.’
“But there are things I didn’t get any insight into, as I didn’t get the Maddens’ side of the story. What I think we can surmise is that Bashar told her that it would be all right on the night, that he had some problems with HMRC but it would all be sorted out.”
The film they made is part of a subgenre of low-budget movies often made for spurious tax reasons. “It’s just an underworld of nothingness,” Lewis says, “gangster films where every other word is ‘c**t’, genre movies that are almost impossible to watch. I don’t know where they’re even sold.”
Madden, Issa and three others received long sentences after they were convicted. Madden was jailed for four years and eight months, Issa for six and a half years.
Theirs was just the most audacious of a plethora of film-related tax scams that the UK tax agency was investigating. “The HMRC have been going after a lot of investors in the film industry, footballers and suchlike, for investing money in complicated schemes to support films that are bound to lose money, so they can save a lot of money on tax,” Lewis says. “This was a massive sentence. They attempted to try to con the British government out of £2.5 million . . . I think the government wanted to make an example of them.”
As a film-maker who has struggled to finance his projects, Lewis could relate to his subjects a little. He speaks kindly of the director Paul Knight, who knew nothing about the fraud and still hopes that A Landscape of Lies might get a proper release.
“Anyone who wants to make a film has to juggle the figures,” Lewis says. “But I was interested in this case of people who’d obviously gone too far . . . I had a bit of sympathy for these people, in a way, with their desperation and determination.”
Storyville: The Great Gangster Film Fraud is on BBC Four on Sunday, January 24th, at 10pm