Dixon of Dock Green – Collection One (Acorn DVD review)

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Introduction

Dixon of Dock Green launched on the BBC in 1955 (the same year that ITV started transmitting) and would run for an impressive 21 years, finally coming to an end in 1976.

Dixon remains a series firmly lodged in the public’s consciousness, although often for the wrong reasons.  It’s sometimes been compared negatively to later series (such as Z Cars) which are supposed to be harder-hitting, more realistic, etc.  But a full evaluation of Dixon of Dock Green is sadly, impossible.  Out of the 432 episodes made, only 32 exist – 11 in black & white and 21 in colour.  And because the black & white episodes are the ones that have tended to be most often repeated during the last 30 years, it’s probably not surprising that Dixon has found itself tagged as a cosy and resolutely old-fashioned series.

Until these DVD releases, the 1970’s episodes had been much more of a mystery.  Three of them had been repeated in the 1980’s (Conspiracy in 1981, Waste Land in 1982 and Firearms Were Issued in 1986) but there had been no public airings since.

The first DVD contains six of the first seven existing colour episodes.  A look at the series they came from help to indicate exactly how much has been lost –

Series 17 Episode 01 – Waste Land
Series 18 Episode 01 – Jig-Saw
Series 20 Episode 01 – Eye Witness
Series 20 Episode 03 – Harry’s Back
Series 20 Episode 16 – Sounds
Series 20 Episode 17 – Firearms Were Issued

Also present in the archives is the 7th episode of the 18th series – Molenzicht – but this wasn’t included due to unspecified rights issues.  The six episodes on this set span five years from 1970 to 1974 and it is interesting to consider that had a number of them not been shot entirely on film it’s probable that even fewer episodes from this period would now exist.

At the time, Joe Waters had just taken over as producer and he was keen to shake up the look of the series.  Previously it had been very studio bound, so he elected to make some episodes entirely on film in order to open it out.  The first four episodes on this set (along with Molenzicht) were film only episodes and they probably only survive today because film couldn’t be re-used, like videotape could.  The majority of the VT Dixons would have been wiped soon after transmission in order to record new programmes (a very common occurrence during the 1960’s and 1970’s).

In 2012 Richard Marson spoke to Joe Waters, who was able to explain about the changes he made.

I changed the concept of it a bit – when Ronnie Marsh did it, it was a series about the police but when I did it, it became a series about people who got involved with the police. It had to be done very carefully. It was more on the streets of East London.

We always started a series with an episode on film, to make it different. Until then it had been very studio bound. Waste Land, the first one we did all on film, was a very big hit – it got wonderful reviews because it was so very different – all shot with hand held cameras, which was very unusual then. It was revolutionary. The following year they let me do two on film. Molenzicht I did all in Holland. It’s a shame that’s not on the DVD as its one of the best ones.

It may just be an accident of fate that these film episodes survive, but whatever the reason we should be thankful as they help to paint the series in quite a different light from the “cosy” series of the 1950’s.

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Collection One Episodes

Waste Land
A Panda Car fails to report in and a policeman is missing. But what kind of man is PC Norman and is he the victim of a gang attack, an accident or something even more menacing? Dock Green police find themselves operating in strange surroundings. (Radio Times Listing)

This is, pardon the pun, an arresting episode.  It’s not surprising, as Waters said, that Waste Land garnered such good reviews as it’s an unsettling tale with no easy answers.  The all-location nature of the shooting is an undoubted benefit as it allows us a window into a grimy, decaying wasteland.  As with all the film episodes it’s a pity that no restoration was done, as the prints are extremely dirty, but for niche releases like this that’s pretty understandable.  The early film episodes also enable us to see George getting out and about.  As Jack Warner got older he tended to remain firmly rooted behind the desk at the police station, moving as little as possible, so it’s good to see him in the thick of the action here.

Jig Saw
In this episode, Sergeant Dixon is called to Dock Green Gasworks which have been derelict for some time. A young wife has disappeared and evidence accumulates that she has recently been inside this area. Foul play is suspected and the police find strange parallels with other unsolved crimes (Radio Times Listing)

Its a pity that on the DVD this episodes follows on directly from Waste Land, since it has a very similar story, but had some of the other episodes from series 17 existed then it wouldn’t stand out so much.  Again, we have a very stark picture of urban decay and the gasworks are a very good location which throw up plenty of interesting places to shoot.  As with Waste Land, its probably best not to expect a happy ending.

Eye Witness
In the first of the new series, Dixon takes an unexpected holiday accompanied by the only witness to a gangland murder. (Radio Times Listing)

This is an episode that stretches credibility to absolute breaking point.  Jack Warner could still get around at this point, but was he really the best person to send off to guard an important witness?  He wouldn’t exactly be much use in a fight would he?  Gwyneth Powell (best known as Mrs McClusky from Grange Hill) is good as the reluctant witness and the locations look nice, but this isn’t really in the same league as the previous two stories.

Harry’s Back
‘One of the best.’ That’s what everybody said about Harry Simpson – everybody that is, except Sgt Crawford. (Radio Times Listing)

The last of the all-film stories on this set, Harry’s Back has a fine guest turn by Lee Montague as Harry Simpson.  Montague is one of those actors that seems to have been working forever (and is still going strong today) and he’s very convincing as Harry, who is the sort of friendly criminal beloved by everybody in the community.  Andy Crawford (Peter Byrne) isn’t a fan though and the episode is a battle of wills between the two.  Can Crawford find a charge against Harry that will stick?  Or does Harry really have a charmed life?

Dixon (Jack Warner) and Crawford (Peter Byrne)
Dixon (Jack Warner) and Crawford (Peter Byrne)

Sounds
A child’s voice on the phone and some background noise is all the Dock Green Police have to lead them to the scene of a crime. (Radio Times Listing)

This is the first colour episode to exist on VT, which was the more usual format for BBC drama productions during the 1970’s.  It’s quite slow, but not without interest as we see the Dock Green police use every available technique to discover where the child was calling from (analysing the tape for sounds from the docks, for example).

Firearms Were Issued
An investigation brings Det-Insp Crawford and Dock Green Police under official scrutiny. (Radio Times Listing)

A shooting during a raid leads to an official investigation.  This is quite an eye-opening episode, particularly for the result of the enquiry.  As with Sounds, we see the format that would last the series out – Crawford and his colleagues responsible for the bulk of the action and Dixon behind the counter (or, in the final series, working as a civilian collator).

Conclusion

Joe Waters died in 2013 at the age of 89.  He had a long career with the BBC, working on popular programmes such as Warship, My Family and Other Animals and The Enigma Files.  Judging from another conversation he had with Richard Marson, he remained proud of Dixon of Dock Green, if a little exasperated that for so many years it was largely written off.  He did, however, have the satisfaction of seeing how warmly this DVD was received:

“Hallelujah!!! For over 40 years I’ve been sick to the teeth of being greeted by ‘evening all’ and watching and reading smart arsed critics who never saw the series (at least those that I made) who compared the very early 25 min episodes made in the 1950’s & 1960’s, ancient snippets of which had been recorded on primitive tele-recordings,with whatever the current police series was on the air, Softly Softly, The Sweeney or The Bill. An important factor which always escaped their attention was that it was transmitted between 6.15 pm & 7.00 pm so the content was highly sensitive to audience reaction.  When I went freelance in 1984 my agent made me remove the series from my C.V!”

Although I’ve not spoken a great deal about Jack Warner, he is, and always was, integral to the success of the series.  Although he was later sidelined, due to failing health, even in the episodes where he has little to do his presence is felt very strongly.

At present, there’s two releases available (collection two contains the next six existing episodes).  Hopefully a third release will follow (containing the final series, which is the only one to exist in its entirety) and then a fourth release could contain the black & white episodes.  For anybody who enjoys classic British police drama, or just decent drama, this is warmly recommended.

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