Gideon’s Way – The Nightlifers

nightlifers

Peter Sloane (Anton Rodgers) is the leader of a group of rich and bored young people who turn to crime in order to relieve their ennui.  Sloane becomes addicted to random acts of violence, but whilst he appears to have no conscience, others, such as Tim Coles (Derek Fowlds), aren’t so cold-blooded.  And as they begin to squabble amongst themselves, Gideon and the others start to close in ….

Whilst it’s true that the first sight we have of Sloane is likely to elicit more of a smile than terror (with his Beatle wig and dark glasses) his instability is quickly demonstrated after he and Sue Young (Annette Andre) rob a greasy spoon cafe.  The owners are a friendly-looking couple in their fifties, which gives Sloane’s attack on the man and woman even more of an impact.  It’s no surprise that we don’t see the blows delivered to the woman, but director John Llewellyn Moxey still ensures the scene carries a punch by cutting away to Sue’s face.  She watches Sloane’s attack with a degree of amusement, which also serves as shorthand to indicate she’s on a similar wavelength to him.

The subsequent scene, as Sloane and Sue make their getaway in a car with Coles and Tony King (James Hunter), sets up the character dynamics of the four very clearly.  Coles finds Sloane’s violence both repugnant and unnecessary, whilst King says nothing.  Later, Sloane explains his philosophy to all of them .  “This nation is soft, flabby. A mass of gutless wonders led by a handful of little grey people in power. The only time Britain accomplishes anything is when we’re at war. War brings out the best in people, they develop virility of spirit.”

When Keen looks in on the crime scene on his way home (with, naturally, a beautiful young woman in tow) he reacts with a degree of bitter humour after Det. Insp. Caldwell (Roddy McMillan) suggests that the attack could be the work of teenagers, doing it for kicks.   If it is, then Keen indicates that even if they’re caught they’ll face no particular punishment.  Caldwell agrees as he ironically tells Keen to “remember, teenage crime is an environmental problem.”  It’s a rare example of cynicism in the series, since it suggests that sometimes crime does pay.

Anton Rodgers might have been pushing it a bit by attempting to play a young tearaway (he was in his early thirties at the time) but though he’s a tad long in the tooth he’s still very compelling.  Sloane’s arrogance and unswerving belief in his own invulnerability are captured well by Rodgers and this makes his eventual downfall even more satisfying.  Derek Fowlds has a good role as Coles, the only member of the gang with a conscience, whilst James Hunter (star of an excellent episode of Out of the UnknownThirteen to Centaurus) has less to do but still has a few key scenes, especially when Sloane suggests they rob King’s aunt and uncle.

The generation gap (“kids these days” says Gideon) is debated.  Gideon regards the youth of today with a jaundiced eye, whilst his wife Kate is more forgiving and sees many parallels with her own youth.  “In our day it was fast sports cars, parties on the river, Duke Ellington, chianti out of those wicker-basketed bottles.”  When Gideon counters that nowadays kids go around beating people up she responds that only a few do, but it’s not enough to convince him.  “Kate, they’re violent, restless. Sometimes I think they’re even half crazy.”

The long arm of coincidence sees Keen’s latest girlfriend Elspeth McRae (Jean Marsh) invited to the next party aboard Sloane’s houseboat by Sue (both are models).  When Keen learns about it he also goes along, as by now the police have got an interest in Sloane.  Keen and Elspeth share a similar discussion about young people to George and Kate Gideon  – and with similar results, Keen is pessimistic whilst Elspeth is optimistic.

Gideon’s Way was never a social-realism series, so the theme of youth crime (violence, drink, drugs) does end up being handled a little uneasily.  But whilst no-one could mistake this for an episode of 1970’s crime dramas like The Sweeney or Target, it does possess an undeniable period charm, helped by the first-rate guest cast.  And thanks to the likes of Rodgers and Fowlds this is one of the strongest episodes out of the twenty six made.

Gideon’s Way – The Housekeeper

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When electrician Ralph Maricut (Harry Fowler) pops over to Mr Henderson’s house to do some work he gets the shock of his life – he finds Henderson’s dead body in the bath.  The news seems to hit Henderson’s housekeeper Martha Smallwood (Kay Walsh) hard, but as we’ll see, appearances can be deceptive.

At first it seems like a simple heart attack, but a few unexplained bruises are enough for Det. Supt. Warr (John Dearth) to investigate further.  The police take an interest in Maricut, especially when they learn he’s got form for breaking and entering.  But it’s the perfect housekeeper Mrs Smallwood who’s the villain of the piece.   Aided by a number of disguises and aliases she preys on vulnerable older men – and now she’s disposed of Henderson she’s got her hooks into Percy Whitehead (Oliver Johnson).  He’s blind and lives by himself, so he appears to be ripe for the picking ……

Kay Walsh had been a notable face of British cinema, thanks to appearances in a series of classic pictures.  She starred in three films directed by David Lean (Walsh married Lean in 1940, they divorced in 1947).  The pick of these was probably Oliver Twist in which she played Nancy.  Later key credits include Stage Fright (1950, directed by Alfred Hitchcock) and Tunes of Glory (1960, directed by Ronald Neame).

She’s excellent as the housekeeper who makes a habit of killing off her charges.  Mrs Smallwood’s relationship with Whitehead is central to the episode – he trusts her completely, although the audience is privy to the numerous evil thoughts that flit across her face.  And the final few moments (when she reveals her true colours) are riveting – and a fine showcase for her.

Apart from Walsh’s villainous turn, there’s plenty to enjoy in this one.  We see the police identikit officer in action and although it’s a primitive way of doing things it does work very effectively.  There’s also the lovely moment when lothario David Keen passes on a sliver of his knowledge and experience concerning women to Gideon’s son Matthew.  His advice?  Play hard to get.  Matthew takes his advice, but needless to say doesn’t quite get the result he expected!

Harry Fowler, like Walsh, had enjoyed some substantial British film credits (including Ealing classics like Went the Day Well? and Hue and Cry).  Although Maricut was completely innocent, since he had a record it was obvious that the police would give him the once over.  Whilst Keen’s questioning wasn’t at all combative, at the end of the episode (when Gideon learns that Maricut has returned to breaking and entering) he does stop to wonder whether they were partly to blame for driving him back to crime.  A rare moment of introspection for Gideon.

It’s also nice to see John Dearth, albeit in a fairly small role.  He would later play a memorable villain in the Doctor Who story Planet of the Spiders and earlier in his career had been a hard-working utility player on the Richard Greene series The Adventures of Robin Hood.  Dearth appeared in numerous episodes, playing a different character each time, although occasionally he’d go one better and play two different characters in the same episode!

Gideon’s Way – Big Fish, Little Fish

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Mark “Frisky” Lee (Peter Maxwell) is a notorious fence who arrogantly believes he’s above the law. But he’s long been on the radar of Supt. Bill Hemmingway (Wensley Pithey) and Frisky also comes to Gideon’s attention thanks to a young pick-pocket called Peter Wray (Alan Baulch).  Peter lifts a woman’s purse from the local market and then makes a run for it – straight into the path of Gideon’s car. The boy’s not hurt, but he drops the purse and runs off.  Gideon asks Hemmingway to find the boy, as he could just be the lever they need to bring Frisky’s empire crashing down.

Big Fish, Little Fish has a memorable few opening minutes, as we follow young Peter in his frantic flight from the market.  For extra realism, director Cyril Frankel chose to shoot on a genuine market day and this certainly makes the boy’s escape much more impressive, as he struggles through dozens of (presumably) ordinary members of the public.

It’s hard not to feel sorry for Peter, especially after you’ve met his hard-faced mother (played by Carmel McSharry).  Mrs Wray has been training Peter to become an expert pick-pocket and she has her own special form of punishment whenever she’s upset with him (locking him in a windowless cupboard under the stairs).

There’s a very unexpected twist fifteen minutes in, when Frisky Lee is found murdered.  Based on what we’d seen so far it looked likely the story would proceed in a similar way to The White Rat (Gideon and the police versus an arrogant criminal).

Maxwell Shaw is gloriously demented as Frisky and it’s a pity that he exits from the story so quickly.  But there’s plenty of other good actors also guest-starring in this one.  Sydney Tafler plays Frisky’s lawyer Gabriel Lyon and Harry Towb is Tod Cowan.  Tod is a local fence and therefore is a link in the chain to Frisky’s operation.

There was something rather familiar about the actress playing Mrs Clark, but it didn’t click straight away.  She was played by Angela Baddeley, best known for her turn as the autocratic cook Mrs Bridges in Upstairs Downstairs.  During her time on UpDown she was heavily padded (giving her a much more rotund figure).  Here she doesn’t have the padding, which is why I didn’t recognise her at first.

Prime suspect in Frisky’s murder is “Happy” Roden (Jack MacGowran).  MacGowran had an eclectic career, to say the least.  He was acclaimed for his stage-work, especially the plays of Samuel Beckett, but also built up an impressive list of film and television credits – ranging from Doctor Zhivago to The Champions (so he was equally at home in heavyweight and escapist drama).

Big Fish, Little Fish, which largely takes place in and around the markets on Petticoat Lane, has a rather grimy feel.  But although there’s a “kitchen sink” tone, it doesn’t offer any particular insights into why juvenile crime is thriving or what can be done to combat it.  There’s a very clear contrast between Gideon’s contented home-life (with his wife and three children) and Peter’s wretched existence with his mother, although this goes unspoken.

Peter’s ultimate fate is never touched upon, although it seems likely he’ll be taken into care as his mother looks set for a jail term.  Therefore there’s no happy ending for the boy and the possibility must be that he’ll simply grow up to be even more of a criminal than he is now.  But whilst it’s a disturbing thought, it’s also a realistic one, and is preferable to offering a false or sugar-coated ending.

Gideon’s Way- The Big Fix

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Jimmy Watson (Griffith Davies) is a stable lad who’s been bribed to ensure one of his horses doesn’t win the big race.  But security was too tight for Watson to get to the horse and he goes on to win easily.  Later, Watson is beaten up in revenge and dies of his injuries.  Asked to investigate the continuing doping problem by the chief security officer of the Jockey Club, Bill Campbell (Robert Brown), Gideon counters that he’s more interested in Watson’s murder.  But as Campbell says, if they solve the doping mystery then the identity of the murderer should also be revealed.  So Gideon agrees to look into it.

Gideon’s rather proactive, as he sets off immediately for a meeting with the wonderfully named Bookie Thompson (Max Bacon).  Bookie is able to info-dump a great deal of information very quickly (how horses are drugged, etc) which is very useful for the plot, but Bacon’s comic timing gives the scene a little extra depth.

Following Watson’s death, the gang need another inside man, so they select Jo Short (Michael Ripper) who works for the prestigious stables run by Colonel Alec Middleton (Maurice Hedley).  Jo has worked for Middleton for twenty years and seems totally incorruptible, but it soon becomes clear that he’s heavily and debt and so reluctantly agrees to dope Port Arthur, a well-backed favourite in a forthcoming race.

Ripper, a very dependable film and television face (well known for appearing in a score of Hammer films), is perfect as the conflicted Jo.  When we see his homelife – a young child, an unruly teenage daughter and a tearaway teenage son who’s been fined fifty pounds for criminal damage – it’s obvious that he’s under great strain and is therefore ripe for the picking.  Apart from the general day-to-day problem of feeding his family, there’s the more pressing issue of his son’s pending fine.  So he agrees to dope the horse, although it’s clear from the misery on his face that it’s far from an easy decision.  But once he’s in, he finds it impossible to get out, as the gang then ask him to dope another one –  if he doesn’t, they tell him that his daughter will never look the same again.

This is a dream assignment for Keen.  Gideon suggests he goes undercover at Middleton’s stables and the first thing he does when he arrives is to passionately kiss Middleton’s gorgeous daughter Janet (Penelope Horner).  Keen insists this is because they’re being observed by Jo, and he wants to keep the pretence up that he’s nothing more than an interested visitor, but you know that he would have done it sooner or later!  He also seems quite comfortable when he and Janet stake out the next horse to be doped, as they lie together snugly in the hay.

The seedy world of the on-track bookmakers is captured quite well, although cutting between the film shot specially for the episode and stock footage of real race days never quite convinces.  And there does seem to be slightly more of a studio-bound feel to this one, for example there’s no filming in the streets of London.  We do see several establishing shots, but it’s only stock footage used to set the scene for studio locations.

Gideon’s plan is to fool the gang into thinking they’ve doped another favourite, when the real horse is actually somewhere else and well protected.  This works well, but neither Gideon or Keen seem to have realised that the gang will then decide to extract retribution from the hapless (and innocent) Jo.  The police do turn up, just about in the nick of time, although not before Jo’s been kicked unconscious.  This also enables them to make some arrests, but you’d have assumed that Gideon would have ensured that Jo would have been under strict surveillance the whole time.  Although I guess that the last minute dash to save his life has a dramatic feel to it.

Michael Ripper is always worth watching, Penelope Horner is very easy on the eye and it’s also nice to see Robert Brown (later to become a regular in the James Bond films) in a small role.  This isn’t the best the series can offer, but it’s amiable enough.

 

Gideon’s Way – The Lady-Killer

lady-killer

The Lady-Killer opens with an off-duty policeman finding a woman’s body washed up on the beach.  Our first sight of the woman’s husband Roger Clayton (Ray Barrett) is at her inquest.  Although he doesn’t speak a word, it seems obvious that he’s a wrong ‘un – Clayton remains unemotional throughout, except after the verdict of misadventure is given.  Then we see Barrett raise his eyes, look into the camera and give the ghost of a smile.

His feigned surprise at learning that his wife was a wealthy woman and then his palpable disappointment when he realises he’s only been left a few thousand pounds is a clear indication her death was no accident.  And when Keen’s latest girlfriend Ria (Justine Lord) introduces Clayton (although he’s now’s changed his name to Robert Carne) to the lonely and wealthy Marion Grove (Rosemary Leach) he wastes no time in sweeping her off her feet and he asks her to marry him.  She gladly accepts.

There’s a slight logical loophole in this story.  Ria invites the man she knows as Robert Carne to a party where he meets and romances Marion.  But since he’s only recently started using this new alias it’s strange that Ria greets him with a certain amount of familiarity – as they must be new acquaintances.

It’s easy to see that Carne’s downfall comes from his decision to use an alias.  If he hadn’t, there would have been nothing suspicious to pique Keen’s interest.  So if he’d told Marion that his previous wife had died in a tragic accident that would have made him untouchable.

But he now faces two problems – Keen is perturbed by Carne’s change of identity and decides to reinvestigate the drowning, plus Carne is also targeted by Bert Macey (John Tate).  Macey was a witness at the inquest and threatens to tell Marion the truth unless he’s handsomely paid off.  In desperation Carne throws a rock at the departing Macey, which knocks him out (and apparently kills him).  This is a little difficult to believe – partly because the rock was quite small and not thrown very hard, but also because it hit Macey on his shoulder (had it been a violent blow to the head it would have been more credible).

The two main plot-threads – Carne’s plan to murder his latest wife and Keen’s increasing suspicions – run parallel for most of the story.  It’s not until well into the final third of the episode that Keen starts to actively investigate and at the same time it becomes clear that Carne is planning to imminently strike.  It does stretch credibility that he doesn’t wait a little longer before murdering again (he’s only been married for a week or so!).  And the way he decides to kill Marion – leaving her drugged in their cottage with a fuse-box rigged to explode – also necessitates him having to speak out loud to explain what’s happening (which feels a little clumsy).

A number of coincidences have to come into play to enable Keen to rescue Marion.  But after she is found safe and well, Carne folds like a pack of cards and attempts to make a run for it.  Luckily Sergeant Fowler (Howard Lang) is on hand – firstly to grab him and then to knock him out!  Keen looks on approvingly at this example of the strong arm of the law.

Although the plotting is a little suspect, Ray Barrett is in fine form as the eponymous lady-killer.  Barrett would become a familiar voice-artist on various Gerry Anderson productions during the 1960’s (Stingray, Thunderbirds) and had, earlier in 1964, played a memorable villain in the Doctor Who story The Rescue.  Although Rosemary Leach might as well have had “victim” tattooed on her forehead, she was still able to make Marion something more than the cardboard character she could have been.  And it’s always a pleasure to see Justine Lord (who graced various cult 1960’s series like Out of the Unknown, The Saint, Man in a Suitcase and The Prisoner) although given David Keen’s ever-roving eye, it’s probably no surprise that this was her only Gideon’s Way appearance.

Gideon’s Way – The Firebug

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Tom Bishop (George Cole) is a man with a secret.  Outwardly he appears to be just another normal member of society, but he’s responsible for starting a number of fires in abandoned buildings.  After his wife and daughter were killed in a recent fire, Bishop has found himself driven to become an arsonist – in this way he hopes to demonstrate just how deadly and dangerous fire can be.  But events take a tragic turn when his latest arson attack kills fours squatters and badly injures a police officer.  But after the initial shock of learning of the fatalities, Bishop only becomes more and more obsessed to carry on  ….

Before finding his niche as Arthur Daley, George Cole seemed to spend a lot of his time playing flawed characters – people who seemed to be normal on the surface but were disturbed or homicidal underneath.  Other examples include the UFO episode Flight Path and Return of the Saint‘s The Armageddon Alternative.  Bishop fits into this pattern perfectly – his landlady regards him as a nice, quiet man but there’s clearly something slightly off-kilter about him.

The way he clutches his daughter’s doll (and the fact that it shows obvious fire damage) is a sign that something’s not quite right.  It’s the only tangible thing he has of hers – which makes it precious – but it’s also an indicator that he remains tied to the past and unable to proceed with his life.  In this way he’s not too dissimilar from Max Fischer (The State Visit) although Bishop is a much darker character.  Max had murder on his mind, but he didn’t carry it out: whereas Bishop finds himself caught in a spiral of destruction.  Although he never intended to kill anybody at first – he only set fires in buildings that he thought were empty – once his arson addiction has taken hold he finds it impossible to stop.  Whilst his shock at discovering the latest fire killed four people is evident, he’s quickly able to rationalise what’s happened and decides the innocent will have to continue to die, as only in that way will action be taken by the authorities.

George Cole is excellent throughout the episode, especially during the scene where he tells his landlady how his family died.  “There was all these people in the street. I didn’t realise at first it was my house, then I saw the fire engine. It was all over by then, the fire was out. The fireman were very nice, very kind. We looked, looked all through the ashes. All we ever found was Carrie’s doll.”

There’s obviously a sombre tone to this one, but there are a few touches of levity – centring around Gideon’s second in command, David Keen.  His eye for the ladies, something of a running gag throughout the series, is mentioned yet again and there’s also a nice comic moment when Gideon insists he finds a bike in order to examine the area of the latest fire in more detail.  He commanders one from a child (who rather reluctantly gives it up) and later makes his report to Gideon, who then looks askance at the fact he’s standing in his office still wearing bicycle clips!

Gideon decides that Bishop has to be the guilty party, since his house was the first to be destroyed in the recent wave of fires.  The audience knows that he’s right of course, but this is rather thin evidence – not that it stops the police plastering Bishop’s photograph on the front cover of the newspapers (“have you seen this man?”).  Just as well they had the right man then.

It’s slightly hard to accept that Bishop’s character devolves so quickly that by the end of the episode he’s driving around London on a scooter, lobbing sticks of dynamite about.  But the chase around the streets does give us the chance to yet again marvel about how few cars were about.  Truly it was a different age.

 

Gideon’s Way – The State Visit

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Max Fischer (Alfie Bass) reacts angrily to the news that the President of West Germany is due to make a visit to London.  It may be nearly twenty years since the end of WW2 but Fischer, a Jewish survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, finds it impossible to forgive or forget.  Fischer works in a laboratory where he has access to explosives and he slowly begins to plan a way to gain revenge for all his years of hurt ….

Although The State Visit was set twenty years after the Second World War, this was still recent enough to make it a fertile area for drama.  Whilst it’s made clear very early on that the German President is personally blameless (Fischer’s wife tells him that the man was a staunch anti-Nazi) this cuts no ice with Max.  He retorts that nowadays every German claims they didn’t support Hitler, but if that were true where did the millions who joined the Nazi party come from?  Max’s view taps into real life opinions – for many, especially those who had fought, it was impossible not to regard any German as an ex-Nazi by default.  A decade later, the Fawlty Towers episode The Germans would make this very point.

Max is initially presented as a sympathetic man and we’re asked to emphasise with his suffering.  But it becomes clear that he’s also blinkered, obsessed  and incapable of adjusting to modern life.  It’s a tricky character to play, so casting Alfie Bass would no doubt have helped to engage the audience’s affections.  Already a very familiar face on both the big and small screens by the mid sixties, Bass is able to give Max a certain dignity.  And since Bass was forced to flee his native Russia with his parents when he was a child, it could be that he was able to tap some of his own memories when approaching the part.

Gideon’s been assigned to handle the security for the visit, much to the chagrin of Deputy Commissioner Rae Cox (Gerald Harper).  Cox’s youth and inexperience are the reasons why he isn’t placed in overall charge and although Gideon does his best to pour oil on troubled waters by involving him every step of the way, there’s a clear lingering resentment on Cox’s part.  His character is made plain very early on: after receiving the unwelcome news from Gideon, he returns home to berate his wife.  All of his actions – such as chastising her for not replacing the soda siphon – show him to be a man keen to find fault in others but incapable of taking criticism himself.

Max plans to explode a bomb made of nitro glycerine during the President’s parade.  His wife Sarah (Catherine Lacey) reacts in horror, such a bomb will kill dozens of people but by now Max seems to be incapable of rational thought.  His increasing detachment from reality is shown as he rides on the bus, clutching the bomb in a vacuum flask.  He begins to hear the voices of his Nazi persecutors in his head and answers them aloud, to the bemusement of his fellow passengers.

It’s no surprise that it’s Gideon himself who talks Max down.  “You’ve got it wrong Max, you’ve got it terribly wrong. You don’t want to kill all these women and children do you, Max? Because that’s what you’ll do if you throw that thing. What harm have these people done to you, Max? You throw that bomb you’ll be as bad as any Nazi.”

If the ending is predicable, then at least it’s another good showcase for John Gregson.  And apart from a few dodgy projection shots, The State Visit is decent enough fare, helped by a number of familiar faces popping up in small roles.  David Lodge and Julian Holloway appear as Max’s colleagues and Desmond Llewelyn has an uncredited role as a senior police officer.  Interestingly, he plays it with a broad Welsh accent, which is how Terence Young initially wanted Llewelyn to play Q in the second James Bond film.  But after the reluctant Llewelyn did so, Young agreed that Q would sound much better as an Englishman!