For those who subscribe to a strictly linear view concerning British police drama it is possible to draw a line something like this –
In the beginning (the 1950’s) there was Dixon of Dock Green. It was fine for its time, but the launch of Z Cars in 1962 made it an obsolete dinosaur. Z Cars was fine for its time, but the launch of The Sweeney in 1975 made it an obsolete dinosaur, etc.
Of course, the true picture isn’t nearly as straightforward. Acorn DVD’s recent releases of the majority of existing Dixon episodes from the early to the mid seventies reveal a series of considerable interest. And whilst the 1970’s Z Cars lack the edge and spirit of the earliest episodes from a decade earlier, they also have merit and in many ways point towards the style and format of later series, such as The Bill.
A brief potted history of Z Cars. It was created in 1962 by Troy Kennedy-Martin, who spent a period of illness confined to bed and listening to police messages on his radio. The range of calls that they answered, from trivialities to more serious matters, convinced Kennedy-Martin that there was considerable scope for drama which had hitherto been untapped.
Assembling a first rate cast, including Stratford Johns as DCI Barlow, Frank Windsor as DS Watt, Brian Blessed as PC Fancy Smith and James Ellis as PC Bert Lynch, the series was an instant success and ran until 1965. Stratford Johns and Frank Windsor went into the spin off Softly Softly and Z Cars itself was revived in 1967 in a twice weekly soap opera format of 25 minute episodes twice a week. In 1972 it returned to a weekly 50 minute format and stayed that way until the final episode was transmitted in 1978.
Like many series of the 1960’s and 1970’s there are some gaps in the archive, although it fares better than Dixon which only has 30 or so episodes in existence from over 400 transmitted.
From around 800 episodes made, Z Cars has just under 400 present in the archives. Certain years are hard hit (patchy selections from 1967, 1969 and 1970, nothing at all from 1968 or 1971) whilst other years are virtually complete.
With so much available, there’s plenty of scope when selecting episodes for DVD. And whilst the logical choice might have been to choose a run of episodes from the first series, Acorn instead have chosen to start at July 1972.
The first DVD, released last year, contained episodes from July – September 1972 and this new DVD contains the next six episodes, which takes us up to the end of October 1972. With the survival rate being rather poor for the next year or so it will be interesting to see what Acorn do next (provided of course there is another release). But one plus point of releasing a run of consecutive episodes is that we can get a handle on the nuances of the regular characters, something that is harder to do with the Dixon DVDs due to the large gaps in the archives.
It’s 1972 and the Z Cars team continue to patrol the fictional Newtown. Back in 1962 the name was well chosen, as it was a new town, with newly built housing estates where the working classes found themselves rehoused. A decade later there’s a general feeling of decay which is quite prevalent in a considerable amount of early 1970’s television, particularly the Dixons of this time. Everything looks grimy and rundown and there’s a feeling that people are just hanging on.
First episode on the set is Witness by David Ellis. This episode, like many others, juggles several plot lines at once, something which would be a hallmark of later series like The Bill. The main plot concerns the witness to a forthcoming trial facing intimidation and threats whilst the second plot line sees Det Sgt Stone (John Slater) face an unwelcome visitor from his past. George Appleton (Campbell Singer), a now retired colleague of Stone’s, decides to pay Stone a visit.
Stone is a middle-aged copper who seems to have reached his peak, career wise. This he puts down to the efforts of Appleton in years gone by, whose constant belittling seems to have irrevocably damaged Stone’s confidence. Slater is one of the stand-out performers of this era of the programme, and whilst this plot thread is fairly minor, thanks to Slater it’s the best part of the episode.
Next up is Takes All Sorts by Leslie Duxbury. Inspector Pratt (Graham Armitage) is a by-the-book officer who is despised by some of the more maverick coppers, such as PC Yates (Nicholas Smith). Yates is an old-fashioned bobby who sees nothing wrong in dishing out a bit of summary justice or accepting the odd drink or meal whilst on the beat. This brings him into direct conflict with Pratt, although there’s plenty of other things happening on this night shift, such as the theft of a yellow dumper truck and the arrival at the station of Jean Knight (Gwyneth Powell) who has evidence that will put her criminal husband away for a long time.
Takes All Sorts, thanks to the interweaving plot threads, is one of the best episodes on this release. Nicholas Smith (well known for playing Mr Rumbold in Are You Being Served?) is good value here, and also in several other episodes on the DVD.
The last episode on disc 1 is Sins of the Father by Bill Lyons. There are two main plot threads – a robbery at a local supermarket and the travails of a mother and her wayward son. Like the majority of the stories of this era, the crimes are fairly low key, but it’s a solid enough episode.
Damage by P.J. Hammond is the first story on the second DVD. It does stand out from the episodes around it, which is no bad thing, thanks to it’s slightly unusual tone.
Burglar Terry Moon (John Shedden) gets more than he bargained for when he attempts to break into a house in Newtown. He finds his hand trapped in the door, tied up with string and then burnt with matches. Stone doesn’t consider that the woman who carried out the attack was responsible for her actions – rather he blames the parents for their treatment of her. This is a chance for Slater to shine again, particularly at the end of the episode.
Day Trip by Bill Barron sees the return of Det Sgt Haggar (John Collin). As soon as he’s back in Newtown he spots a familiar face – Dilly Watson (Hilary Tindall). Dilly’s a known thief, only petty thefts, but a irritant nonetheless. Haggar thinks he’s run her out of town, but Dilly returns and together with Rose (Elisabeth Sladen) plans a job to embarrass Haggar.
Chiefly notable for the appearance of Sladen, this is a somewhat forgettable episode that has all the elements, but doesn’t ever quite click into life. Elisabeth Sladen would appear several times in Z Cars (each time playing a different character) and it was this flexability that would later impress Barry Letts and prove to be a major factor in his decision to cast her as Sarah-Jane Smith in Doctor Who.
Final episode on the set is Public Relations by Leslie Duxbury. Ken Knowles (Gareth Thomas) runs a news agency and is distinctly ambitious. Upset that Haggar never seems to tip him off when a big case breaks, he decides to go and find his own.
The clash of wills between Knowles and Haggar is the highlight of the episode, and Gareth Thomas (and his coat!) are very impressive. A good story to end this release on.
Apart from the actors already mentioned, both James Ellis (Sgt Lynch) and Ian Cullen (PC Skinner) are solid presences throughout all the episodes. Ellis had been with the series from the start and would remain firmly in place until the final episode. Cullen would leave a few years later, not by choice – as he discusses in a newly shot interview on disc one, which is one of a number of short interviews with cast members produced for this release.
For the hardened archive television fan, if you have the first release and enjoyed it then this is definitely worth purchasing. If you are more selective, then I would recommend either of the Dixon DVDs or series one of Softly Softly Task Force (provided you can find a re-released copy and not the original release with the major encoding fault) ahead of this.
Apart from Damage, there’s nothing stand-out here, but the humdrum cases were the bread and butter of Z Cars. If you want squealing tyres and armed robbers then try The Sweeney. The cases in Z Cars are much more low-key but they’re not without interest for a number of reasons, particularly the quality acting – both from the regulars and the guest casts.