Bird of Prey (BBC 1982). Episode One – Input Classified

prey 01

Henry Jay: Civil Servant, mid-30s, good head for detail
Prospects: Steady promotion. Index-linked pension
Hobbies: Philately, Hi-fi
Current Project: Computer Fraud Report for Whitehall Trade Ministry.
Altogether a seemingly puny obstacle to a massive financial conspiracy – with the bureaucratic clout to silence the inquisitive.
(Radio Times listing, 22nd April 1982)

Bird of Prey, written by Ron Hutchinson, was a four-part conspiracy thriller broadcast in 1982.  It starred Richard Griffiths as Henry Jay, who is a mild-mannered, middle-aged civil servant and therefore just about the last person you would expect to be caught up in the middle of a vast and dangerous conspiracy.

That, of course, is one of the reasons why it works so well – had Henry been a more conventional hero (either in looks or approach) then the dramatic tension would have been far less.  But since Henry seems so ill-suited to the role of a crusading hero, it creates an interesting dynamic.  Whether the story manages to keep a sense of credibility as the bodies start to pile up, we’ll have to wait and see – but let’s start by taking a look at the first episode.

Henry Jay works for the Department of Commercial Development and has a special interest in computer security.  At the start of the story he has the following info-dump speech which he delivers to his boss Hendersly (Jeremy Child).

The Americans are considering restricting the publication of research into cryptography – code breaking. Well, you see, telephone networks are now, more or less, computer networks, as are modern office accounting and money transfer systems, and the Americans have only just woken up to the security aspects of the unregulated publication of research into cryptography because it offers ways of breaking into those networks.

Since Bird of Prey is commonly regarded as a computer thriller, it’s noticeable that we don’t see a single computer in the first episode.  Henry’s office, which he shares with Harry Tomkins (Roger Sloman), is computer free – instead there’s just typewriters and plenty of conventional files.  It’s certainly a window into a vanished world, where computers were still something of a rarity.

But if the possibility of everyone either owning a computer at home or using one in work was still a slightly alien concept in 1982, there certainly was a feeling that computers were beginning to have an increasing influence on people’s daily lives – hence Bird of Prey came out at the right time (even if the technology we’ll see in later episodes now looks rather quaint!).

The opening and closing titles are rather nostalgic for anybody of a certain age, since they mimic the computer graphics common at the time.  Dave Greenslade’s title music and score is also very evocative of the era.

It’s Henry’s report, “Fraud And Related Security Problems In The Age Of Electronic Accounting”, which is the catalyst for all of his problems.  He’s been liaising with Detective Inspector Richardson (Jim Broadbent) who shares his concerns about computer fraud and Richardson has been passing him information to use in the report.  One piece of information concerns a recent attempted bank fraud centered on Turin and London.

Louis Vacheron (Nicholas Chagrin) was caught at the London end, but he tells Richardson that he’s confident he’ll be released in a matter of months as their organisation has connections at the highest levels.  He mentions le Pouvoir (the Power) but when Vacheron is killed, it’s clear that the Power has silenced a weak link.  And Richardson believes that the Power will also remove any other links (which is a problem for Henry, since there’s a reference to this fraud in his report).

Of course, nobody, especially Henry’s wife Anne (Carole Nimmons), believes him at first.  Their marriage is best described as frosty and she spells this out quite succinctly.

I do a routine and boring job as well, only I don’t have to manufacture drama and excitement out of it. Some are born civil servants. Others achieve being civil servants. Others have being civil servants thrust upon them. You were born. Now after seven years of marriage, I accept that and the fact that you will never change or be anything else, so if you’re trying to make your job sound desperately important and exciting for my sake, don’t bother. When I said yes to you, I settled for cocoa, not champagne. Now I’m prepared to live with that. Sourly at times, mostly with mute acceptance.

Shortly afterwards, Henry is accused of soliciting an underage boy, although it’s clearly a set-up (which is confirmed by the two police officers as they leave Henry’s house).  Henry sees this as a warning – leave well alone or the next time they’ll make the charges stick.  Unfortunately for the shadowy conspiracy, they then send another policeman along to tell Henry that a woman at his office has made a complaint that he’s been following her.  But as Henry says –

So, how was I fitting in my importuning of young boys in public toilets whilst pursuing Miss Callaghan? I mean, how common is this condition I’m suffering from, that renders me such a menace to young people of either sex indiscriminately?

The first episode ends with the murder of Richardson at Henry’s office (Bird of Prey and its sequel does have a pretty high body count – so it’s best to get used to the idea that many characters won’t last the series out).  Quite why he was murdered isn’t clear at present – although the fact that they can strike at Henry’s office means that he’s not safe anywhere.

So Henry is literally on the run, armed with only a few files from the office as he tries to stay one step ahead of the people who want his head.

Next Episode – Mode Murder

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