Softly Softly: Task Force – The Big Tip Off

S03E19 (9th February 1972). Written by Allan Prior, directed by Eric Hills

Dot Melling (Clare Kelly), an old contact of Watt’s, proffers an intriguing tip off – a van containing two hundred thousand pounds worth of gold bullion has been targeted. She reveals where and when the robbery will take place, but refuses point blank to say who …

This is a really interesting story. Up until now, pretty much all of the villains we’ve encountered in the series have been male. There have been a few complicit female hangers-on, but that’s been about it.

Dot and Mickey (Jenny Twigge) are the dominant characters in this episode although for very different reasons. The ageing Dot is motivated by bitterness after Tommy (Alex Scott) elects to leave her for the youthful Mickey. That Tommy isn’t exactly the brightest crook we’ve ever met is made clear by the fact he obviously blabbed to Dot about his plans to hit the van.

Towards the end of the story, Dot – suffering from a pang of regret about the way she’d shopped her former lover to the police – pops round to see him. Presumably she planned to tell him all, but the mocking presence of Mickey, not to mention Tommy’s heavy-handed attempt to get rid of her (passing over a clutch of grimy banknotes as a peace offering), sealed their fates. Dot leaves without saying another word, meaning that the final act has to play out to its bitter conclusion.

If Dot’s character is a recognisable one, then Mickey is more unusual. She’s part of the gang and although Tommy (with his well-cut suit) is positioned as the boss, Mickey remains outspoken throughout. Tommy, and his chief lieutenant Chuck (Del Henney), are old school villains –  they hope for the best but have already begun to accept that they might get caught. This sort of defeatist attitude infuriates Mickey, who’s smart enough to know that this sort of caper is a mugs game (but isn’t quite smart enough to walk away).

Jenny Twigge’s performance is a striking one and helps to enliven what otherwise could have been a rather static and talky episode (the attempted raid doesn’t occur until the final few minutes). Her sparky energy contrasts nicely with both Scott and Henney. In this episode, the Australian born Scott is attempting more of a harsh London accent than usual whilst Henney (who I’ve just noticed passed away in 2019, RIP) favours a Scottish burr.

Tommy, Mickey and Chuck are all hapless rather than hardened criminals, so it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for them (although only a little, since both Tommy and Chuck take guns along for the ride).  If there’s one slight disappointment with the story, then it’s the fact that although Mickey’s role as the getaway driver has been talked up, in the end she doesn’t take part in the raid (she’s close by but isn’t directly involved).

Although Allan Prior favours the guest artists, he doesn’t forget the regulars. I like Watt’s waspish irritation when WDC Green fails to get Dot to name names. Funnily enough, when Watt later paid Dot a visit and was equally unsuccessful, he kept quiet about it …

Earlier, Snow went undercover to follow Dot (surely there couldn’t be a more conspicuous character than PC Snow) and towards the end of the story Watt and Hawkins have a disagreement about whether they should be armed on the stake-out. Touching on the events of Marksman, Hawkins (although he admits to not being keen) says yes but Watt (by his own admission, an old-fashioned copper) disagrees.

Given that the baddies were armed, this could have gone badly wrong – but luckily our heroes only sustain minor cuts and bruises. Alas, the make-up used isn’t that convincing – especially the trickles of fake blood on the faces of both Watt and Hawkins. Ah well, you can’t win them all.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Flight

S03E18 (2nd February 1972). Written by Arnold Yarrow, directed by Geraint Morris

After three months patient work, Barlow is now in a position to crush a major pilfering operation that’s been operating at Kingley Airport. But a potential riot from a group of disgruntled football fans threatens everything …

Hand on heart, I can’t confess to finding either of these plot threads that enthralling. The football fans (who are more than a little irked after their flight operator – Jason Travel – goes bust) shout and wave their rattles a lot, but they’re not really that threatening. Although maybe that’s intentional – instead of being portrayed as psychopaths, maybe we should just take them as decent enough types who after one drink too many decided to barricade themselves into the airport bar and create a bit of a disturbance.

Jean Watt (indeed, she’s now credited as Watt once more) finds herself caught up the melee. By a remarkable coincidence, Watt and Jean are at the airport waiting for another flight (also from Jason Travel) which should have taken them off on a well earned holiday. Watt could have just been present on duty – but having Jean along isn’t a bad move as it develops and broadens his character a little. It’s always good to see the way he moderates his behaviour when she’s present.

Later, a highly indignant Watt confronts Christopher Jones (John White) the smooth-talking businessman who used to own Jason Travel (but sold it in order not to be liable for its debts). Their scenes together are the definite highlight of the episode – Jones attempts to bribe Watt by writing him out a cheque to cover his losses (something Jones refuses to do for the football fans). After a beat, Watt rips up the cheque, but pockets it (as potential evidence?)

The other plot thread finds Snow working undercover as a baggage handler. Terence Rigby always did intimidating very well – so he’s perfect here as a potential new recruit for the airport’s pilfering ring (which not only consists of rifling through suitcases for trinkets but also knocking off boxes of food and booze, etc).

Ken Priest (Nicholas McArdle) is the Mr Big of this operation. McArdle (a recognisable television face of the period) attempts to exude a little menace, as do Priest’s underlings, but you never feel that Snow is in over his head – indeed, at any time I get the sense that Snow could take them all on …

Flight trundles along quite reasonably then (a spot of location filming at a real airport helps) but it’s pretty average fare.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Anywhere in the Wide World

S03E17 (26th January 1972). Written by Allan Prior, directed by Paul Ciappessoni

All the resources of the Task Force are swiftly pressed into service after fifteen-year old schoolgirl Alison Fordham goes missing …

Given she’s only been away from home a handful of hours, the amount of effort expended – house to house, dogs, helicopters – is impressive. Do they do this every time someone goes missing or might it have something to do with the fact that Alison’s father, James Fordham (David Bauer), is a man of substantial means?

Like the Task Force, we have to build up a picture of Alison from the testimonies of those who know her. It’s slim stuff – her one schoolfriend Judith Oram (Lynne Frederick) regards her with amused contempt whilst local lad Ken Buckley (Kenneth Cranham) seems to know more than he’s letting on.

With most of the episode revolving around methodical procedure, these brief interviews are welcome character moments. Both Frederick and Cranham impress – Frederick as a precocious teen and Cranham as someone with an eye for the ladies (the younger the better). Cranham’s carrot crunching accent is memorable too.

As Anywhere In The Wide World progresses, Alison’s sad and isolated life becomes even clearer. Bauer – an actor who rarely disappointed – has a key scene where the distance between Alison and her parents is made painfully obvious. To her credit, it seems that Alison’s stepmother Joan (Beth Harris) has made efforts to connect but to no avail.

But when we learn that Fordham packed his young daughter off to stay with her natural mother (an alcoholic) in America, alarm bells really began to ring. His displeasure that Alison left early (she was supposed to stay a month) is palpable. Also, when he returns home at the start of the story, it feels like his chief emotion is irritation (irritation that Alison’s disappearance might cost him a top job).

David Bauer made a habit of playing aggressive types, so he’s perfectly cast here. Fordham’s first words to Barlow (“hey, you!”) is a good example of the way that Fordham attempts to bulldoze everyone and anyone who might stand in his way. Although I doubt many have ever spoken to Barlow like that, he resists the temptation to bite back and maybe, just maybe, underneath Fordham’s brusque exterior there’s a decent man hiding. He certainly seems to love Joan (his second wife) but his feelings for Alison are harsher and more dismissive.

Paul Ciappessoni begins the episode with a memorable directorial flourish – we open on John Watt, with the camera pulling out to reveal that his image was reflected in a picture of the missing girl. Because of this, I’m happy to cut Ciappessoni some slack for a clumsy later shot. Buckley handles a packet of cigarettes that may, or may not, be significant – but does so in a very unnatural way (he doesn’t quite hold them up in front of the camera, but it’s almost as bad).

John Watt returns to duty for the first time since sustaining his injuries at the end of Priorities. The events of that episode are briefly touched upon (Barlow asks Hawkins how he is and it’s noticeable that Watt keeps his gloves on throughout) but the point isn’t laboured – it’s simply a nice callback for the regular viewers.

As with the debut episode of SS:TF (which also featured a hunt for a missing child) there’s no happy ending. Indeed, I can’t recall another story to date which has quite as bleak a conclusion as this one (the scenes aren’t graphic, but for a pre-watershed slot it carries quite an emotional punch). Barlow is given the last word, but all the featured regulars are given chances to shine in another memorable story.

Softly Softly: Task Force – The Amateur

S03E16 (19th January 1972). Written by Robert Barr, directed by Frank Cox

The district has been hit with a series of break-ins targeting opulent houses (the likes of silver and precious paintings have been stolen). Several victims had used a car hire firm run by an ex-criminal called Joe Maitland (John Stratton) so it’s no surprise when Harry Hawkins pays him a visit ….

It’s always slightly difficult to reconcile the image I have of Stratton circa Quatermass and the Pit (1958/59) with his more familiar seventies/eighties television persona. Back in the Quatermass days Stratton was a dashing heroic type, but later (as here) he’s usually called upon to play balding, slightly gone-to-seed underachievers.

He’s jolly good in The Amateur though, and is the main reason why the story held my interest throughout. Hawkins begins by leaning heavily on Joe (leading him to declare that he’s harder than Barlow). The question as to whether Joe is complicit in the robberies isn’t settled until relatively late on – it turns out he’s not (and indeed, he points Barlow and Hawkins in the right direction).

Having received a later verbal assault from Barlow (which causes Joe to change his opinion about who’s worse – Hawkins or Barlow!) the episode ends with a grateful Barlow offering Joe a cash payment for his information. This he angrily refuses (Barlow is more amused than offended by his rebuttal). Joe’s journey through the episode and his interaction with Hawkins and Barlow is the clear highlight of The Amateur.

It’s fascinating that the real baddy – Julian Brent (Stephen Chase) – remains on the outskirts of the story. We see him skulking around a telephone box several times, but he’s always a peripheral figure.

Guest-cast wise, the other person of interest is Lennard Pearce as Mr Pearson. Best known, of course, for playing Grandad in Only Fools & Horses, the upper crust Pearson bears no relation to his signature role.

As for the regulars, today we have to bid farewell to WDC Forest (Julie Hallam). Sadly she doesn’t get a great deal to do and there’s no acknowledgment that she’s leaving (so either her departure was somewhat last minute or it wasn’t felt worth acknowledging. Hopefully it was the former rather than the latter).

DC Drake’s hero-worship of Barlow is touched upon again. After dropping off a sheaf of reports, Drake is delighted to receive a crumb of praise from Barlow (and as Drake exits his office, Barlow gives him an indulgent smile – rather like a father would to an overachieving child). It’s only a small story beat, but it’s nice to see a previous thread developed.

The Amateur doesn’t place too much stress on the robberies, the items stolen or the victims. Instead, the script is more concerned about Joe Maitland and his involvement (or not) in the criminal events. This works well overall, and although I’ve had my issues with some of Robert Barr’s previous scripts, there’s not too much to complain about in this one.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Resolution

S03E15 (12th January 1972). Written by Arnold Yarrow, directed by Peter Cregeen

An armed smash and grab raid on a jewellers shop nets the villains a substantial haul. This irritates both Barlow and Cullen as DS Kershaw (Bruce Purchase) had received a tip off and was lying in wait …

Given that the Task Force is somewhat limited in terms of plain clothes officers (just Harry Hawkins) it’s understandable that Kershaw hails from the ordinary CID ranks. His presence in the story allows a little bit of tension to be teased out between him and his Task Force colleagues (“the glamour boys” as Barlow ironically calls them).  This has never been developed before, as every episode to date has revolved around the same small pool of regulars.

In terms of the regulars, PC Snow acquits himself well – stumbling across Kershaw’s stake-out (the ambitious DS hadn’t thought to tell any of his superiors about it) Snow reacts swiftly and Radar is able to snag one of the gang.

Meanwhile back at base, there’s some interesting character development going on with PC Drake. In retrospect, when you know Drake’s ultimate fate, it seems a little odd but possibly Yarrow (no longer the script editor, remember) wasn’t privy to how Drake’s story would play out.

Drake has brought an autograph book into work as he’s keen to get Barlow’s signature for his kid brother. And just like his younger sibling, Drake also seems to hero-worship his superior officer – at one point telling Snow that Barlow’s the sort of straight-ahead copper who would never pull a stroke (unlike, as we later learn, Drake). Snow reacts incredulously to this – muttering that he has respect for the Queen Mum (then leaving the obvious “but” unsaid!)

There are four key scenes in this episode – Cullen/Barlow, Barlow/Kershaw, Barlow/Jean and Barlow/Mrs Sheldon (Wendy Gifford).

Cullen is furious about the raid and doesn’t mince his words when speaking to Barlow. Barlow bristles at this (at one point offering his resignation). Cullen responds that “you don’t shoot the General just because one of his sentries fell asleep”. This is a cracking scene for Walter Gotell and if Stratford Johns is required to be somewhat passive, his time to shine will come.

Down the chain of command we go as Barlow then eviscerates Kershaw. Barlow’s at his hardest and most implacable here (so much so that Kershaw later hands in his resignation). After the dust has settled, it’s intriguing to see that Barlow almost seems inclined to give him a second chance, but Cullen is less forgiving and so out he goes (in retrospect, the final words of the episode – “No room for pity” – would have been a better episode title than Resolution, especially since those words could equally apply to Barlow’s later interview with Mrs Sheldon).

Bruce Purchase may possibly be best remembered today for several late seventies SF appearances (in Doctor Who and Blakes 7) where he was called upon to channel his inner Brian Blessed, but there was more to him than that (in Resolution he has a complete lack of bluster).

You wait ages for a Jean Watt/Morrow episode and then two come along one after another. Her screentime time today is limited to a single scene, but it’s another fascinating one. Barlow has attempted (off-screen) to speak to John Watt, who’s still recovering in hospital. Watt’s clearly not able to give Barlow what he needs, so he pays a  visit to his wife instead.

It speaks volumes about Barlow’s professional isolation that – apart from John Watt – there appears to be no-one else in the police force he feels comfortable talking to. Jean – as a dispassionate outsider – is a font of calm common sense as Barlow (convinced that Mrs Sheldon knows more about the robbery than she’s letting on) wonders how hard he should question her.

All of Mrs Sheldon’s scenes take place at her home. It’s an opulent place filled with signifiers of early seventies luxury (a baby grand piano, fishtank, etc) which tells us that Mrs Sheldon and her now absent husband (who had masterminded the raid) don’t conform to the usual criminal stereotype.

Time and time again we’ve seen the hard side of Barlow (even in this episode, when intimidating Kershaw) but he’s deceptively gentle when questioning Mrs Sheldon – which turns out to be exactly the right approach, especially when it’s allied to the remorseless way he produces a raft of damning evidence.

SS:TF was never the sort of series that favoured directorial flourishes (most of the direction was plain and serviceable, although often quite effective). There’s a few nice touches in this one from Peter Cregeen which caught my eye though – for example, the camera zooms in on a mug shot of Sheldon only for the camera to then zoom out from a picture of Sheldon and his family at his house.

Another strong effort from Arnold Yarrow.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Priorities

S03E14 (15th January 1972). Written by Elwyn Jones, directed by Gilchrist Calder

The Task Force are targeting a group of forgers who have set up shop in a dockland warehouse. But their dogged surveillance is complicated by the arrival of John Watt’s wife, Jean, who’s concerned that the creek running round the dock area is dangerously polluted ….

I’m happy to see the return of Gay Hamilton as Jean (now credited as Jean Morrow, rather than Jean Watt, for no specific reason I’m aware of).  The fact that Jean crashes into a Task Force surveillance is pure coincidence – and the potential conflict between her and her husband (she’s interested about potential health issues, he’s concerned about catching villains) is swiftly negated by Watt, who tells her that his officers will continue to take water samples (it’ll give them something to do as they watch the warehouse).

WDC Forest is keenest. Later, when she chats to Jean, Forest’s girlish enthusiasm makes her seem even younger than she is (and is in marked contrast to the more cynical older hands like Snow and Evans).

For the first forty minutes or so, the episode trundles on in a rather low-key way. The printing press doesn’t arrive until we’re about thirty minutes in, so the subplot of the polluted river turns out to be the more engaging story-thread. It’s quickly discovered who’s responsible for dumping chemicals in the water, but Cullen decides to take no further action (a decision that sparks a heated debate between Watt and Jean).

As for the criminals (played by Christopher Burgess, Harry Meacher and Colin Fisher) they don’t do anything terribly exciting and the surveillance (which largely consists of various Task Force personnel reporting that nothing is happening) does rather drag on.

But just when you think that the story’s going to grind to a halt, we’re treated to the slightly hard to swallow spectacle of John Watt rowing over to the warehouse and clambering up a wall in order to break into the warehouse. Although it’s painfully obvious than an (uncredited) stuntman was doing the honours.

Barlow and Watt wants to catch the criminals in possession of the printing plates as without them, they won’t have a case. Quite how this illegal entry and search would have stood up in court is anyone’s guess (presumably they just planned to keep quiet about it). Suddenly the whole tempo of the episode is raised several notches. Watt continues to root about whilst Hawkins – keeping an eye on the front of the warehouse – reports a car approaching. Will Watt be able to get back to the boat and row to safety before the baddies enter?

The answer is yes, but then the creek ignites in a sheet of flame (something that Jean was concerned could happen at any time). Watt (or rather, the uncredited stuntman) becomes a mild human torch whilst Barlow and Evans attempt to douse the flames and look on in concern.

Jean, of course, is rather exasperated that her husband has ended up slightly singed in hospital, but their marriage is clearly built on firm foundations and both seem happy to chalk it down to experience (slightly hard to take, but there you are). That Jean earlier lectured her husband about the dangers, only for him – of all people – to fall victim is something that could happen in real life but tends to occur more often in fiction.

Priorities is an odd one. It takes an awfully long time to get out of second gear but eventually does blaze (sorry) into life. I still find it hard to picture John Watt as a man of action though, even though I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

It’s one of those rare episodes that features all of the main cast, although in the case of PC Drake I’m not entirely sure why they bothered (he appears both in the studio and on film, although in total he’s only given three or four lines).

Softly Softly: Task Force – The Removal

S03E13 (29th December 1971). Written by Allan Prior, directed by Philip Dudley

The Removal opens with Garbutt and Turner (Graham Weston and Johnny Briggs) arriving at a substantial house (it stands in its own grounds). We can instantly tell that they’re wrong ‘uns because it’s night-time and they’re wearing dark glasses. This faint comic tone is reinforced when the rest of the gang turn up, all wearing dark glasses too ….

I can’t decide whether this is supposed to be amusing or not. It’s hard to take Weston and Briggs seriously as a couple of hardmen, but that may be to do with the fact that they’re both familiar actors.

The gang have arrived to strip the house bare (pictures, carpets, furniture, etc) much to the dismay of Sybil Albert (Stephanie Bidmead) and her son Tom (Paul Aston).

The gradual denuding of the house which occurs throughout the episode is fairly low in dramatic tension. Mainly this is because Garbutt and Turner – save for the odd spat with Tom – remain supremely confident throughout. Bidmead was a quality actress who died far too young (this was one of her final credits) but she doesn’t have much to work with – Mrs Albert is a rather weepy and passive character.

There’s more interest elsewhere with the stroppy Liz Carr (Lois Dane) proving to be a handful. The common-law wife of one of the gang, she’s very outspoken but is eventually quietened down by the efficient DS Green (Heather Stoney). It’s the first SS:TF credit for Stoney, who instantly impresses.

Any time Snow and Evans are put in a car together you can be guaranteed some amusing dialogue (and so it proves here). Watt and Hawkins also have some good scenes, so there’s plenty going on – even if the main plot is quite linear.

It’s a slight shame that the Task Force stumble over the crime in a rather clumsy fashion. Snow and Evans meet Silvana (Lydia Lisle), the attractive foreign maid who works for Mr and Mrs Albert. Snow seems to be a little smitten and offers to walk her home. Eventually (after some head-scratching outside) Evans and Snow realise that something is up and enter the house to find it empty and Mrs Albert and Tom tied up. Lisle’s strong accent (like the dark glasses worn by the gang) veers on the comic side ….

I do like the bleak ending though. Snow attempts to comfort Mrs Albert, telling her that she’ll be able to replace everything that’s been stolen. She gently and bleakly tells him that things can never be the same again – she and her husband might have the money to replace all the material goods but the aggressive violation of their house (something that Snow reacts to) is a wound that will never heal.

A solid enough episode then, with good guest performances, even if the plot is never that gripping.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Better Than Doing Porridge

S0312 (22nd December 1971). Written by Tony Hoare, directed by Keith Williams

Ernie Johnson (Patrick Troughton) is an experienced career criminal and therefore seemingly the last person to volunteer a confession to Barlow. But with Ernie’s trial just hours away, Barlow has a plan …

Better Than Doing Porridge was the first Softly Softly: Task Force script written by Tony Hoare (and one of his earliest television credits). Doing porridge was something that Hoare was more than familiar with – having spent the best part of ten years in one prison or another. Eventually deciding that writing was “better than going to a factory in the morning or doing bird” he started to turn his life around. This began during his final prison stretch where he wrote a book, called The Chaps, which was later turned into a radio play.

Hoare’s background was something that, for obvious reasons, informed most of his television work. Later he became a key writer on Minder, but before that – during the early to mid seventies – he plied his trade on a number of series (Crown Court, Villains, Within These Walls, The Sweeney) which all benefited from his previous criminal background.

This can also been seen in his work for SS:TF. The main settings of today’s episode – a holding cell and interview room beneath a crown court – and the interaction between the prisoners and warders all has an unmistakable air of authenticity.

Barlow professes to understand the way Ernie’s mind works. It’s not quite admiration – although Ernie is portrayed as an older, more honourable villain (compared to his younger and more vicious colleagues) – but rather Barlow is confident that he knows which of Ernie’s buttons to press in order to get the result he wants. Watt is a little less sure but Barlow’s desire for a result overrides any other consideration.

Apart from a few brief location shots, the episode remains underground. So the lack of natural light and an obvious feeling of claustrophobia begins to seep through the screen after a while.

After Ernie goes off to speak to Barlow and Watt, his associates – Georgie Benson (Billy Murray), Harry Grant (Ralph Watson) and David Morgan (Frank Jarvis) – remain behind. Initially, Ernie seemed to be the leader – the one that the others deferred to (because of his age and the amount of prison time he’d done?). But as the time ticks away and still Ernie doesn’t return, a palpable sense of unease begins to haunt the other three. Could Ernie, despite his strong adherence to the criminal code, be considering grassing them up?

Murray, Watson (yay, Web of Fear reunion) and Jarvis are all perfectly cast. Billy Murray makes the strongest impression out of the three and their holding cell conversations are given a little extra spice thanks to the presence of Desmond Wetherby-Jones (Michael Lees). He’s an immaculately spoken conman, due to appear in a separate trial, and though he appears to have little in common with them, he still manages to rub along quite agreeably. Glynn Edwards, as the senior prison officer, offers another solid performance.

The bulk of the episode revolves around Ernie’s increasingly fraught conversations with Barlow and Watt. They take turns playing bad cop and worse cop, although there aren’t that many threats – Barlow is content to slowly chip away at Ernie’s self image. That Ernie’s façade only shatters after his wife (Gabrielle Hamilton) convinces him to cooperate with Barlow does slightly negate the lengthy Barlow/Watt/Ernie scenes. Dramatically it would have been good to see Barlow finally break his man, but it feels more realistic this way. It goes without saying that Troughton is immaculate throughout.

Ernie’s future (a reduced sentence and then release into a criminal world that will know he’s grassed) seems bleak. Especially since the criminal code was the most important thing in Ernie’s life (until, at the last minute, he was persuaded to put his family first). Better Than Doing Porridge concludes with a satisfied Barlow and Watt leaving the cells, but Tony Hoare’s script suggests that the cost to Ernie and his family is a substantial one. Definitely an unusual episode, which makes it all the more fascinating.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Good Touches

S03E11 (15th December 1971). Written by Arnold Yarrow, directed by Frank Cox

PC Drake is concerned about a recent crimewave which has seen the same people burgled on multiple occasions. One victim especially – Helen Morris (Elaine Mitchell) – is now so traumatised that she’s become a virtual prisoner in her own flat …

Good Touches pleasingly brings the character of PC Drake to the fore. This was Brian Hall’s seventh appearance, and it’s really the first to find out what makes Drake tick. We also discover his first name (Ted) which the others start calling him on a regular basis. This takes a little getting used to.

Drake kicks off the story by visiting Miss Morris. Several years before he’d been part of the team who investigated her first burglary and decided to investigate when he saw her name on a recent crime sheet. That he rushed out of the office without telling anyone where he’d gone doesn’t please Hawkins (not one little bit). Barlow and Watt are both mentioned, but never seen, so it’s Hawkins running the show today – and he’s content to give Drake a hard time.

Later on, there’s a few more nuggets of information about Drake dished out. We learn that he used to be a plain clothes CID officer – so why is he now a uniformed constable? That remains a mystery, but it suggests that his career has been a checkered one. His lackadaisical approach to paperwork (allied to a photographic memory which gets him out of trouble at the last minute) is a character beat that’s been established before, and is repeated here.

Drake and Forest team up today as they toil to work out a statistical model to predict which previously burgled victims might be vulnerable again. Having not had much to do for a while (Julie Hallam last appeared in Marksman, but didn’t feature heavily) this is also a decent episode for Forest, whose ability to crack jokes at the most inappropriate times remains a key character trait.

That the cocky and streeetwise Drake isn’t half as clever as he thinks is made plain after he pumps an old snout, Sam Lester (Anthony Collin), for information. Lester’s unreliability is known to both Hawkins and Snow (and by this point in the episode also by the audience, who will have worked out that Lester is passing information onto today’s villains – Dave and Allen Venner).

Apart from Miss Morris, the episode also sketches out several other multiple burglary victims – the affluent Mr and Mrs Spender (Kenneth Watson and Libby Glenn) and the far from affluent (but remarkably cheery) John Tyler (Donald Eccles). So with several potential victims, Arnold Yarrow is able to leave the audience in suspense for a while about who will suffer again.

That Miss Morris is chosen works well from a dramatic viewpoint (her utter collapse as the Venners drill through her door is well played) although it does seem a little illogical. The only item of value she appears to have now is a new colour television set – I know they were relatively rare in the early seventies but it seems a poor reward for an aggravated burglary.

A good episode from a character viewpoint, even if the plotting isn’t always watertight.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Man of Peace

S03E10 (8th December 1971). Written by Elwyn Jones, directed by Philip Dudley

Even compared to other series of this era, Softly Softly: Task Force often had a very leisurely approach to storytelling. Man of Peace is a good example of this.  Watt is visited by a petty criminal and informer from his distant past (Tim Patrick, played by Allan McClelland) who has some interesting information to pass on.

But nearly ten minutes elapse before we learn what it is (Patrick claims to know where a large number of revolvers can be bought). As so often, this crime isn’t the focus of the episode.  Instead Elwyn Jones is much more concerned with developing character – in this case, Patrick’s.

Patrick is endlessly slippery, which helps to generate interest, as do the reactions of those he encounters. John Watt for one, who initially treats him with barely concealed contempt before kicking him out. The fact that Watt is then forced to track him down (when it becomes clear Patrick does know something) is a humiliation – made worse by the fact that Barlow is on hand to twist the knife.

It’s interesting that the previous episode revolved around Barlow’s interaction with a face from his past and Man of Peace does the same with John Watt. And like the previous episode, Tim Patrick is a character who’s never actually appeared in Z Cars or Softly Softly (although Allan McClelland did have several Z Cars credits to his name and would also turn up later in the Barlow/Watt Jack The Ripper).

This is an episode very much powered by a guest performance  (the experienced McClennad is excellent value). Man of Peace has a faint comic air, although I don’t know whether PC Snow’s Irish accent was supposed to be that bad.

An appearance by Anthony Booth is another plus of a typically dialogue-heavy story which in the last ten minutes or so begins to generate a faint feeling of suspense.  Booth (playing Smith) was always an imposing actor and he’s well matched when placed opposite Terence Rigby’s Snow.

It’s true that Snow, posing as an Irish terrorist, does infiltrate Smith’s gang rather easily (which turns out to be a rather feeble one) but as previously stated, SS:TF wasn’t a wham-bam series. Character development was always more important than simply nicking villains.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Copper Wire

S03E09 (1st December 1971). Written by Keith Dewhurst, directed by Peter Cregeen

The district has recently been hit by a wave of metal thefts. When a lorry carrying copper wire is stopped and the passenger turns out to be Tiger Mulholland (Peter Kerrigan), an old adversary of Barlow from his Newtown days, he can’t resist stepping in to see if he can break him once more …

Copper Wire only features two regulars – Evans and Barlow – which means that there’s plenty of time to develop the character of Tiger. For example, an early scene where he’s enjoying breakfast in the company of Alice West (Barbara Keogh) and her daughters Marie (June Page) and Janice (Pauline Quirke).

The episode could have excised this scene and it wouldn’t have hurt the story that much, but I’m glad it was kept in as it reveals a great deal that Tiger later verbally confirms to Barlow. Tiger’s estranged from his wife and is living (uneasily) with Alice, but has his eye on her underage daughter, Marie. This is a tad unsettling, although it doesn’t become a major story beat – it’s just a detail that helps to flesh out Tiger’s character.

June Page gets a few lines, but Pauline Quirke doesn’t (although she did earn a credit). Given this, it’s surprising that Linda Regan went uncredited, as though she also didn’t have any lines, she was on the screen for about the same length of time as Quirke. Regan’s role wasn’t a taxing one – she played a dollybird in a very short skirt who is pawed by Tiger’s colleague, Jeff (James Marcus).

I wonder if Quirke had some dialogue which was later cut? There are certainly a few abrupt scene transitions early on which suggests that some material might have been trimmed in order to bring the episode down to its required length.

The episode veers from comic to dark. Touring yards where metal thefts might occur, Evans speaks to Cosway (Wally Thomas) about the need to tighten up security. But Cosway spends most of his time lecturing Evans about his excessive weight (the Sergeant then reveals the fascinating nugget that he’s learning ju-jitsu at evening classes!)

Barlow’s usual driver is unavailable, so Evans – in the early hours of the morning – is given the job of picking up his very refreshed superior and delivering him safely home. Of course, things don’t work out like that, after Barlow learns that Tiger is in custody …

Once at the station, Barlow begins by demanding plenty of coffee and then runs roughshod over the unfortunate Inspector Lipton (Victor Brooks). Later on he proceeds to criticise the nightwear of Osbaldeston (Allan Surtees) – the man dragged out of bed to examine Jeff’s lorry.

At this point it almost feels like the episode could descend into farce thanks to a tipsy Barlow, but then events take an abrupt about turn with a pulsating twelve minute scene between Barlow and Tiger. There’s so much to unpack during this lengthy scene, beginning with Barlow’s nostalgic reminisces about their Newtown days (a pity that Peter Kerrigan hadn’t actually appeared alongside Stratford Johns in an old Z Cars episode, but Copper Wire insists that he did, so I’m sure the audience would have been prepared to take it on trust).

It seems that Barlow’s unlikely to break a wily old-timer like Tiger, and indeed the tables begin to turn as Tiger wonders if Barlow – always an ambitious man – in happy now he’s achieved several promotions. There’s a sense that he’s personally unfulfilled (the oft-mentioned but never seen Mrs Barlow won’t be waiting up for him).

Tiger does eventually confess (because he’s afraid he’s dying). Barlow offers him a fraction of comfort (the gentlest of taps on the shoulder) before leaving. Was he really moved? His conversation immediately afterwards with the Inspector suggests not – so was their entire one-to-one discussion all an act from Barlow? Maybe, maybe not. Keith Dewhurst’s script (his first for the series) lets the viewer make their own minds up.

It’s getting a bit monotonous to keep on saying so, but the series is really going through a purple patch at the moment.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Marksman

S03E08 (24th November 1971). Written by Allan Prior, directed by Brian Parker

After a bungled armed robbery at a betting shop, which leaves a young constable blinded in both eyes, the hunt is on for three men …

Marksman opens with Hawkins and Watt both taking a weapons refresher course. Hawkins throws himself into everything with extreme gusto (and kudos to Norman Bowler, who clearly didn’t mind getting rather muddy). Afterwards, Hawkins is remarkably blasé – declaring that when the time comes, he’ll have no more trouble shooting a live target than the paper ones he’s been blasting away at today. Watt, older and more cynical, isn’t so sure.

From these opening scenes it’s not hard to guess how the story will develop, but although the ending is predictable (based on what’s been established right here) the story still carries a punch. That’s because gunplay in SS:TF was pretty rare – yes, we’ve seen armed robbers before (in Hostage, for example) but guns tend to be waved around, rather than actually fired.

In that respect, SS:TF has little in common with later, more action-based, police series like The Sweeney. That’s not a criticism though – the fact guns are used sparingly gives them much more of an impact whenever they are central to a story (plus, as seen in this episode, weapons aren’t portrayed in a glamourous light).

The unfortunate PC Harris wanders into a rather crowded betting shop. But by the time Watt and Hawkins turn up, many of the customers have mysteriously vanished. In production terms this is easy to understand (most of the actors were non-speaking extras and so couldn’t have contributed anything). Mrs Goldsmith (Dot Temple), one of those left, is able to provide Watt with several important nuggets of information. Most crucially, a lead to one of the robbers – Joey (Oscar James).

That they’re not the most organised of villains is made plain by the fact that, under stress, they shouted out each others names (overheard by the calm in a crisis Mrs Goldsmith). The fact that the shooter – Blakey (William Corderoy) – used his own vehicle as the getaway car is another black mark against them.

Blakey is a loathsome individual – a loud-mouthed, cocky type with no redeeming features at all. The way he treats his poor downtrodden wife, Marion (Sarah Golding), hammers this point home. When the pair first meet on screen he calls her a “silly bitch” and he ends the episode by punching her in the face.

Compared to him, Murray (Tony Caunter), is a knight in shining armour. As an experienced criminal, he knows that Blakey’s exuberance with the shotgun spells disaster for them all. Quite why Murray remains holed up with Blakey and Marion in their farmhouse is a little hard to fathom – yes, it’s isolated but surely Murray would have been sensible enough to put some distance between them?

I can understand in story terms why it didn’t happen – Blakey and Murray need to remain together so they can talk through the implications of their situation – but it does slightly jar.

Cullen has a few brief, but very telling scenes. Firstly, bristling with anger at the thought of PC Harris’ condition and then electing to lead from the front as he tells Mrs Harris (Julie Neubert) the bad news about her husband. We’re not privy to that conversation, but it’s easy to imagine just how painful and awkward it must have been.

Joey, who decided not to remain with the others, is swiftly tracked down by Watt, Hawkins, Snow and Forest. His rooms are given a violent once-over and Watt is pretty rough (verbally, not physically) when questioning him. Excellent work from both Frank Windsor and Oscar James here.

Thanks to Joey, the Task Force now know where the others are hiding and Hawkins, Snow and Watt arm themselves in preparation. Again, the difference between Hawkins and the others is marked – he receives his gun and ammo casually, whilst Snow and Watt are far more sober. In this scene Snow seems to suggest that Radar won’t be present during the operation (for him, as for the audience, the death of his previous dog – Inky – still resonates).

That moment is somewhat negated later though, as Snow sets Radar on the fleeing Murray. For one terrible moment it looks like another police dog might bite the dust – but good old Radar was more than a match for Murray (played in this scene by a stuntman – Murray’s sudden increase of hair is a bit of a giveaway).

That just leaves Blakey, who’s shot (dead, I assume) by Hawkins. And of course, after Hawkins has seen the reality of his actions, all his earlier self assurance rather crumbles away …

There’s little to fault in Marksman. Frank Windsor leads from the front, with Norman Bowler providing solid support (which suggests how the series will feel once Stratford Johns has departed for his own series).

Softly Softly: Task Force – The Bounty Hunter

S03E07 (17th November 1971). Written by Robert Barr, directed by Gilchrist Calder

The series has been on a bit of a roll recently. I wonder if this good run will continue? (Spies Robert Barr’s name in the opening credits). Oh dear ….

That’s possibly a little unfair, as although Barr’s scripts haven’t always been the strongest, The Bounty Hunter isn’t that bad, even though the first twenty minutes moves at a glacial pace.

The episode opens with the arrival of a man called James Langley (David Sinclair). He wanders around the town, taking in the sights, but it becomes clear that he’s searching for something (Langley’s taking his time about it though). The film work during these scenes are nice enough, but it just feels like padding (or maybe the series had a certain film allocation for the episode and was determined to use it – whether it benefited the story or not).

We learn that Langley is looking for William Ross (Prentis Hancock). Ross is an associate of Jimmy Price (Hugh Murray), who’s currently serving time for bank robbery. Langley speaks to Price’s father (played by Jimmy Gardner), his wife Betty (Bonnie Hurren) and a friend – Lawrence Morgan (David Hargreaves). All claim not to know where Ross can be found, but eventually (about twenty minutes in) Langley and his fellow strong-arm colleague, Harry Dalton (Mark Moss), manage to run him to ground.

By this point you’re probably wishing that Langley had met Ross within the first five minutes or so, it certainly would have saved all this faffing about. Positives from the first half of the episode? Jimmy Gardner provides a nice turn as Price Snr and there’s a few brief, but entertaining, scenes between Barlow and Watt.

But it’s only when Langley meets Ross and can begin to explain today’s plot that the story really gets going. Price Jnr, Ross and Morgan pulled a bank job several years ago – Ross is doing time for it, but the money (never recovered) is still somewhere on the outside. Langley and Dalton want half of it ….

Villains robbing villains is a nice twist on the more traditional type of plot and David Sinclair exudes considerable menace as Langley (he’s not an actor that I’ve ever really noticed before, but I’ll keep an eye out for his performances in the future). More familiar faces from this era of television for me were David Hargreaves and Prentis Hancock.

Ross (Hancock) – modelling a nice moustache – is the unfortunate one who gets beaten up several times by Langley and Dalton. Although it’s very noticeable that it always happens off-screen (Ross simply reappears with a dash of blood about his mouth or a bruise on his cheek). Was the series that squeamish about pre-watershed violence?

The Task Force are less essential to the story than usual. True, they round up all the baddies at the end and retrieve the money, but the guest actors are the ones who get the most to do. Barlow and Watt share a nice (if brief) pub scene early on though and there’s some comic mileage to be mined from the bun-eating Sergeant Evans.

Slow to get going then, but it turns out to be worth it in the end. The Bounty Hunter was the first of twelve SS:TF stories directed by Gilchrist Calder who would later also work on Barlow at Large and the Barlow/Watt spin offs Jack the Ripper and Second Verdict.

Softly Softly: Task Force – An Inside Job

S03E06 (10th November 1971). Written by James Doran, directed by Keith Williams

As the episode title suggests, Barlow is convinced that a supermarket manager called Dent (Ray Mort) was involved in a robbery from his store (four thousand pounds was taken from the safe). Harry Hawkins is less sure though ….

One of those episodes with a small supporting cast, An Inside Job features a memorable performance from the always-dependable Mort. Dent is obviously a weak man (capable of sudden outbursts of bluster, but easily bested by both his wife and teenage son) which makes it easy to believe that he could have given the keys to a criminal type.

Barlow is sure this is so and delights in putting the squeeze on the increasingly twitchy Dent. When Hawkins later queries whether he’s been too hard, Barlow responds with the flicker of a wolfish smile. You really never, ever want to get on Charlie Barlow’s bad side ….

Dent seems to have few allies. His wife – Alice (Eve Pearce) – wants to be supportive but finds it easy to believe the worst of him whilst his teenage son, Philip (Spencer Banks), delights in spilling the beans about his father’s past misdemeanours.

DC Forest has another fairly substantial role – initially teemed up with the always droll Evans (who’s seemingly fully recovered from the trauma of the previous episode). It’s good to note that Julie Hallam during the last few episodes has been very solid (hopefully her performance in Aberration was just a one-off).

There’s a late visit by Hawkins to a criminal hidey-hole, which is decked out in a breath-taking example of gloriously bad-taste seventies décor. The clothes, sported by Brabham (Roy Macready) and the other villains are also very entertaining.

An Inside Job, thanks to Mort, is a vaguely uncomfortable watch. Although the crime is solved, it’s plain that the repercussions will linger on (the final scene between Barlow and Dent is very compelling).

Softly Softly: Task Force – Moving On

S03E05 (3rd November 1971). Written by Arnold Yarrow, directed by Keith Williams

It’s possible to argue that by this point SS:TF had settled into rather a cosy rut (although the series was still producing high quality stories on a regular basis). If you accept this, then Arnold Yarrow’s Moving On is certainly a shock to the system …

The episode begins quietly enough, with some more character development for PC Drake. His somewhat lackadaisical approach to paperwork and a lack of respect for his superiors irritates the more strait-laced PC Snow and there’s a nice feeling of tension teased out between them. Although later, when assigned together on the night patrol, they work together well.

With Barlow absent entirely and Watt away from the district (chasing up a subplot on a cross-channel ferry) it falls to Sergeant Evans to marshal the troops. We’ve seen flashes of Evans’ hard side before, but he’s never been quite as remorseless as this.

He kicks off by dismissing a sticker campaign that offers help with “drugs, landlords, contraception, abortion”. These aims are laudable enough, but Evans doesn’t like the people offering advice (which will become a key theme of the episode). Evans then informs the squad that their targets tonight will be “layabouts, hippies, whatever they like to call themselves”.

Evans and WDC Forest pay a visit to Ernie’s café. It’s an unappealing greasy spoon sort of place which quickly clears – leaving just a handful of people behind, the two of interest being David Greenwold (Stephen Leigh) and Mark Dean (Peter Marinker). David is a young lad of 15, nicely spoken and clearly a fish out of water (bafflingly, Evans at one point declares that Greenwold isn’t an English name). Dean is a different proposition altogether – older, also well spoken and educated but by no means cowed by Evans’ intimidating persona.

Evans spells out just why the café should be a no-go area for any respectable types – not only Ernie’s sexual proclivities (young boys) but also the way that the place is used as a drugs haunt.

Later, Snow and Drake visit the café and are equally as hectoring, especially Snow. Now present is Marion Greenwold (Shelley Harris), who’s come to seek help from Dean (the architect of the sticker campaign). Marion is only seen briefly, so when Evans discovers a woman in the railway station toilets with both wrists slashed, it’s not immediately apparent that it’s her.

Being a pre-watershed series, we obviously don’t linger on the blood (although there’s an establishing shot which makes it plain just how much there is). Evans’ bloody hands help to serve as a reminder for the rest of the episode though.

This sort of graphic violence, even when handled sensitively, is unusual for the series. Marion’s death spins the episode off into a different direction as a shocked Evans goes rogue – leaving Forest behind, he has only one thought (to track down Dean – who Marion asked for help he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, supply).

At this point, the subtext of the episode becomes especially interesting. How culpable is Dean? In Evans’ eyes wholly – which explains why he teeters on the edge of violence (eventually deciding that Dean deserves a little bit of roughing up). But before he can do any serious damage Snow stops him, memorably saying that “I’m not against bumping him one. I’d bump him one myself if he tried to be funny with me. But there’s no score in doing it for its own sake – it’s like kicking shit, you just get your own boots dirty”.

By a remarkable coincidence, the villain hunted by Watt is hiding out in the same squat as Dean. Earlier, when learning that Evans had planned to visit the squat as part of a routine sweep, Watt ordered him to stand down. Seeing red after Marion’s suicide, Evans of course went blundering in – with the inevitable result that Watt’s prey escaped. Fair to say that Watt’s not a happy man.

Moving On is an excellent vehicle for David Lloyd Meredith (who in total would clock up an impressive 107 SS:TF appearances). It certainly offers him something a little different – Evans is usually called upon to be the avuncular comic relief, but not today. Peter Marinker played well opposite him, although Mark Dean is a character I’d have like to have seen developed a little more (but with only 50 minutes to play with, there wasn’t the time).

With Arnold Yarrow having now relinquished the role of script editor to Gerry Davis, you can’t fault Davis for approaching him to pen this script, as he knew exactly what made the characters tick. Yarrow would continue to contribute scripts for the rest of SS:TF‘s run, and if they’re all as good as this one I won’t be complaining.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Aberration

S03E04 (27th October 1971). Written by Elwyn Jones, directed by Leonard Lewis

Aberration opens with a lovely scene between Barlow and Watt. Watt’s home alone (his wife, a GP, is away for the week) and he’s invited Barlow round for a slap up meal (prepared before she left by Mrs Watt – this was the 1970’s after all). Barlow then invites him over for a meal (Mrs Barlow will be doing the cooking of course).

There’s some nice character building here (we see Watt’s vulnerable side for a fleeting moment) but the scene does have a plot purpose – a locum doctor calls round asking for the surgery keys. Watt hands them over, but the next day we learn that the man wasn’t a doctor after all …

We can put this terrible lapse down to the fact that both had clearly imbibed a substantial amount of alcohol. In the cold light of day Barlow is forced to eat humble pie in front of Dr Mancroft (Raymond Huntley). Johns and Huntley share several excellent scenes – there’s nothing more enjoyable than watching two old timers squaring off against each other.

Aberration is the first episode to feature a major role for DC Forest (Julie Hallam). Forest is remarkably cheeky (talking back to both Barlow and Watt) and I have to say that I found Hallam’s performance to be quite broad. Because the other regulars are all pretty naturalistic, Hallam’s overexuberance is more noticeable. But since this was her first (and indeed last) television role, it’s worth cutting her some slack – possibly over time she’ll settle down a little.

Apart from some stolen prescription pads, the villain – James (Gary Waldhorn) – has also pinched several patient’s files. That we’re in different times is demonstrated when homosexuality is classed alongside child molesting as the sort of aberration which would be ideal fodder for a blackmailer. Later, the inoffensive-looking Norman Bird (as Tomkins) is wheeled on as a bondage fetishist (he’s one of the unlucky people being blackmailed by James).

As I’ve slowly made my way through the series, I’ve received the odd comment (very odd, in fact) complaining that I’m pursuing some agenda by highlighting moments like this. That’s not my intention – I simply find it interesting to touch upon the way attitudes and values have changed over time (ignoring them would be strange).

I’ve always accepted archive television for what it is – a window into a different world (other people can argue whether it’s a better or worse one, but I’d sooner they take their arguments away from this blog).

Tonally, Aberration is a strange one. At times Elwyn Jones portrays Barlow and Watt as a bumbling comic pair (especially when interacting with the sassy WDC Forest) but the fate of the wretched Tomkins moves the story into darker waters. It almost has the feel of a script written by someone unfamiliar with the series, but Jones was hardly that. Something of a curio then.

Softly Softly: Task Force – The Floater

S03E03 (20th October 1971). Written by Allan Prior, directed by Paul Ciappessoni

Since it’s primarily a water-based story, it’s apt that The Floater has a lazy, meandering feel.  That isn’t a criticism, but it’s certainly an episode that takes its time to get up and running. For example, the first fifteen minutes are concerned with Hawkins and Snow who – thanks to a tip-off from Snow’s informer – are targeting Ian Yellop (Roger Tallon).

They believe he uses the river to ferry drugs (low level stuff like hash) but both he and his girlfriend Rae (Vicki Michelle) appear to be clean.  It takes a third of the episode to establish this fact (no doubt other series would have dealt with the set up much quicker).

Tallon impresses as the shifty Yellop (his television debut) with Michelle (her second credited television role – the first had been a previous episode of SS:TF) also catching the eye. At this early stage of her career she was getting typecast playing girls on the wrong side of the law.  With a strong cockney accent, Michelle is delightfully twitchy as someone who may know more than she’s letting on.

With a small guest cast, Neil Wilson (an actor who’ll always be Sam Seeley from the Doctor Who story Spearhead from Space to me) is excellent value as the river copper Inspector Daley.

But it’s really Barlow’s episode. He might enter it late, but as soon as he does the tempo instantly picks up. As ever, Stratford Johns is ridiculously good.  Barlow’s implacable interrogation of Yellop carries a real punch – his sudden angry outbursts and his quieter reflective moments are equally riveting.  Tallon – an actor whose later credits seem a little thin – more than holds his own against Johns’ onslaught.

Earlier, Barlow had his first on-screen meeting with PC Drake. In story terms, it’s a pretty negligible scene (after much prompting, Drake admits that the information about Yellop came from Snow) but it’s what’s going on under the surface that’s so interesting. As we’ve seen before, Barlow delights in genially grilling his subordinates – here he gently tells Drake that he doesn’t want to be surrounded by yes men. And Barlow’s facial reaction when he discovers Snow’s part in the operation is priceless – if there’s one officer who tends to get a harder time from him than most, it’s P.C. Snow …

I love the way that the second half of the episode veers off in a different direction from the first.  First rate.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Hostage

S03E02 (13th October 1971). Written by Robert Barr, directed by Brian Parker

Hostage opens with the most sedate bank robbery I’ve ever seen. It’s true that the villains are vaguely dressed as guards (so from a distance they look official) but even when the truth becomes known (they’re taking money out of the bank with guns rather than delivering it) none of the bystanders – ladies with prams, etc – seem terribly concerned.  The Sweeney this isn’t.

With six hundred banks in the area, Watt is faced with a nightmare (especially since the firm doesn’t appear to be local). And since the Task Force can’t identify them, how on earth will they be able to predict where they’ll strike next?  It’s therefore something of a cop-out that in the very next scene Watt, Hawkins and co just happen to stumble across them. Not the tightest bit of plotting I’ve ever seen.

With the four villains – Frank (Leslie Schofield), Eddie (George Sweeney), Dick (Derek Martin) and Steve (John Hartley) – now holed up inside a bank with multiple hostages, another staggering plot development occurs.  Sgt. Evans and PC Drake (Brian Hall) wander into the bank via the back entrance and offer themselves up as hostages. Since they have no idea just how dangerous the men are, this rather beggars belief.

Leslie Schofield is the sort of actor who plays unstable types very well but it’s a pity that the other three villains don’t get to do much (George Sweeney was a very dependable criminal sort, but he remains largely mute throughout). The bank-based stand off in the second part of the episode is the definite highlight of this one, as Evans – his usual stolid self – faces off against the cocky Frank.

Whenever I see the name Robert Barr on the credits I confess to slightly shuddering, but Hostage is a pretty decent story – albeit not without its odd moments. I’ve already touched upon the way the Task Force just happen to turn up mob handed when the latest raid was in progress, but also hard to swallow is the way that Frank and the others make their escape.

They offer Watt a deal – if they’re provided with a car, then they’ll let all the hostages go and leave their guns behind, as long as Watt promises to give them a one hour head start. Really? Watt agrees to this, which is even odder.

Those expecting an all guns blazing finale will probably be disappointed, but the sting in the tail orchestrated by wily old Cullen is quite neat.

In series terms, this episode is notable for being the first to feature Brian Hall as PC Drake. Probably best known for playing Terry in Fawlty Towers, Hall tended to get typecast as criminal types. Which, as we’ll see, turned out to be useful …

Like WDC Forest in the previous episode, Drake isn’t given a big introduction – by the way the others treat him, it seems that he’s been in place for a little while. Drake has taken over the administrator’s role (previously held by Sergeant Jackson and Inspector Armstrong) albeit with a different style. Jackson and Armstrong were bookish, non-operational types – whereas Drake, a more flippant and down to earth character, is happy to get right into the thick of the action.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Once Bitten

S03E01 (6th October 1971). Written by Elwyn Jones, directed by Simon Langton

As ever, the dynamic between Barlow and Watt is fascinating. Barlow, having been away for a while, returns to find that Watt’s been efficiently minding the shop in his absence (although Watt hasn’t been averse to rifling through Barlow’s mail). Has Barlow really been romantically involved with a female informer young enough to be his daughter? The evidence of his mail suggests so but he’s not letting on.

Barlow’s keen to keep the others on their toes, intending to come down hard on any tawdry response times. But Watt rather spoils this plan by tipping the others off ….

It’s impossible not to notice that Barlow has returned to Thamesford a lovely shade of orange. This is because he’s been starring in a three-part spin off (Barlow at Large) which aired in September 1971, just before the start of SS:TF series 3. Eventually Stratford Johns would depart SS:TF for this series, so we should make the most of him here whilst we can.

WDC Donald has sadly departed and WDC Forest (Julie Hallam) has been swiftly slotted in as her replacement. Watt seems to be keen on her (“a cracker”). First impressions are that she’s a jolly sort as well as being practical (diving without hesitation into the canal to rescue one of the villains who’s suddenly realised he can’t swim).

The fact that Forest has been in place for a few months means she’s already on good terms with the regulars (accepting the offer of a pint with Evans and bantering affably with Harry Hawkins).

A hairy Tom Chadbon (playing Andrews, one of three textile warehouse robbers) and a cravat wearing Michael Sheard (as Dickenson, the keyholder of the warehouse) are the most familiar faces guesting.

Andrews’ main skill is handling dogs (a canine whisperer, he’s easily able to deal with the rather vicious guard dogs on site). A tense dog-related stand off then develops when the Task Force turn up.  Andrews and the others are trapped inside the warehouse, the dogs have been released and are roaming the yard with Hawkins the only one brave enough to chance his arm.

He loses his trousers and his dignity to the vicious canines, but I suppose it could have been worse.

A low-key sort of crime then, but Chadbon’s excellent value and the byplay between the regulars (a nice scene between Snow and Evans, for example) is typically solid. Elwyn Jones’ script is a slow burn (we open with Watt pottering around Barlow’s office) but you have to remember that we’re in an era when series openers felt under no pressure to be spectacular. And that’s fine by me.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Cash and Carry

S02E26 (10th March 1971). Written by Elwyn Jones, directed by Simon Langton

Stock is being pilfered from a local Cash and Carry.  The two men responsible – James (David Spenser) and Fox (Roland Curram) – are quickly identified but Barlow is concerned that this relatively small-scale affair might only be the prelude to a larger crime.

Cash and Carry is one of those stories which is more than content to take its time.  We initially see Snow and Radar, passing the Cash and Carry at night, become suspicious after they spy a light inside the building.  Officers are then called out in force along with the keyholder Mr Lodge (Peter Sallis).  None of them find anything so they leave empty-handed.  By this time a good ten minutes has elapsed without the plot advancing a great deal.

The next day it’s quickly worked out how such a large amount of stock could have gone missing – James and Fox work at the Cash and Carry, driving the delivery van, and they simply pile it up with stolen stock and sleep in the building overnight, leaving the next morning as if nothing has happened.  Donald likens it to the Trojan Horse, which is a neat description.

But this crime is so humdrum that there has to be more to the story.  Barlow seems to think that an attempt will be made to rob the cashiers department on its busiest day (when there could be as much as twenty thousand pounds for the taking).  If that’s the case (and Fox and James were the gang’s inside men) then it seems very foolish for them to have jeopardised the whole operation in order to make a little profit on the side.

Possibly the weakest part of Elwyn Jones’ script is Barlow’s sixth-sense which decides that an armed robbery is the real endgame. Just how did he work this out? The story would have probably been more satisfying if the information about the intended robbery had come from an informer and the stock pilfering section had been excised (the time spent on this dead-end part of the plot could have been used to develop the individual characters of the gang).

Barlow and Cullen clash over the potential operation.  Barlow believes that the gang stand their best chance of succeeding if they make their attempt before the security guards arrive to take the money away, i.e. when the store is still open. Cullen argues that if they let things play out then innocent members of the public could get hurt.  Barlow agrees, but he wants to catch them in the act and not just arrest them for conspiracy.  Given that Cullen has always been portrayed as strong-willed and single-minded it seems a little uncharacteristic that he reverses his opinion so quickly and allows the covert operation to go ahead.

When Donald replaces one of the cashiers it’s easy to believe this is something of a sexist move (seemingly the only woman on the Task Force working at the till).  But amusingly this is undercut just a few seconds later when Barlow tells Lodge that he plans to replace another of his cashiers with Armstrong, who he says even looks like a cashier.  And with Watt dressed in overalls, shifting boxes into the back of a lorry, there’s another brief moment of humour to be enjoyed.

Will there be an attempt to steal the cash?  Looking down the cast list, names such as Alan Chuntz, Dinny Powell and Terry Walsh should provide you with the answer. Mind you, it’s fair to say that it’s a very long build-up for a very brief moment of mayhem (nobody’s ever going to mistake Softly Softly: Task Force for The Sweeeny).  Evans gets shot, but only in the leg, so I’ve a feeling he’s going to live.