Waste Land was the opening story of Dixon of Dock Green’s seventeenth series and it becomes clear very quickly that incoming producer Joe Waters was keen to shake up the show’s format. I’ve already written here about early 1970’s Dixon and how the actuality of the series differs from its received opinion. And one of the most significant of the small number of existing episodes from the early 1970’s is Waste Land.
Originally broadcast on the 14th of November 1970, it opens, traditionally enough, with Dixon’s piece to camera. But although Dixon is instantly a reassuring and paternal figure, his words are not designed to offer comfort. Dixon tells us that often “most of us remain ignorant of one another” and this, he says, could apply to any walk of life – including the police. Dixon’s opening and closing homilies are often one of most derided parts of the series (this view seems to be largely based on one notorious example from the black & white years, where Dixon condones domestic violence) but here he doesn’t provide the audience with reassurance. Instead, it’s a clear signal that things may not end well.
Following this, the pre-credits sequence is extremely disorientating. We see a POV shot of somebody wandering around a deserted dock (their laboured breathing indicates that something is wrong). The sense of disconnection is enforced when we hear a woman’s voice, describing how somebody feels lost – in a waste land – unaware of whether they are actually awake or asleep.
The discovery of an abandoned panda car inside the Old Orient Dock initiates a search for the missing officer, PC Norman. This explains the reason for the pre-credits sequence, although it’s interesting how it makes little narrative sense. We’re led to assume that the POV shot is of PC Norman and we later discover that the woman’s voice belongs to his wife. The third part of the sequence is the discovery of his panda car, but chronologically it’s a real jumble. Firstly, he went missing at around midnight, but the POV shots were in daylight. Secondly, we hear his wife’s voice before she’s actually entered the story. It works in the context of the episode though (even if it’s odd from a story-telling point of view).
Our first sight of George Dixon helps to reinforce that he’s a competent and knowledgeable officer (he advises a police van driver to take a short-cut to the docks). It’s a small character beat that’s useful for any new viewers – it lets them know that he’s an experienced man, who knows the area well.
The bulk of the episode takes place within the abandoned docks. It’s an impressive location and one which cuts against the perceived notion that Dixon was a series rooted in cosy nostalgia. Looking back at seventies Britain in general, often the picture is one of decay – crumbling buildings, dirty streets, etc. The grimy 16mm film stock used for television reinforces this (and this episode is a good example – the film print seems to have been dragged through a hedge backwards!).
So the docks are an area that’s depicted as threatening and unsettling. Nobody would visit there out of choice, so why did PC Norman? It’s debated that he might have been following a suspect, but even quite early on there are other, albeit unspoken, possibilities floating about.
Elsewhere, we see a sense of community and a general level of co-operation with the police that might be one area where Dixon could be said to still be peddling an idealised picture of society. A group of housewives are seen to have a clear bond with each other (except for one, who comes and goes at all hours and is therefore viewed with suspicion by the others). They’re all eager to answer Andy Crawford’s (Peter Byrne) questions and one of them even volunteers useful additional information. It’s very possible to imagine that other series might have portrayed a more isolated or disinterested community.
Jumping into this episode cold, there’s a fairly large cast of regulars of which most (apart from Dixon and Andy) aren’t particularly familiar. This isn’t helped by that fact that the archive survival rate from the early seventies runs are so poor (Waste Land, for example, is the only episode to exist from series seventeen, the other sixteen were wiped). It is nice to see George out and about though – as the years go by, Jack Warner’s difficulties with walking will become more and more obvious (later series see him immobile behind the desk at the station, hardly moving at all).
It’s a pity that the print is so poor (including at one point, a spectacular bit of film damage) but for such a niche release there’s no point in grumbling too much (it’s better to have it in this condition than not at all).
Waste Land is a bleak tale which never feels it’s going to end well. The documentary style of filming (no incidental music, for example) helps to give it a sense of reality and the lack of a neat, pat ending is another plus. It’s impossible to say whether the rest of the series maintained this same standard, but on its own merits, Waste Land is a gripping forty five minutes of drama.