Safe in the Streets? opens with an atmospheric piece of night-time filming. A smartly-dressed Asian man, Ali Suleiman (Saad Ghazi), is being stalked through the streets by a gang of skinheads. They corner him in an alleyway and, after relieving him of his money, give him a kicking.
Henry Mardsley (Leon Vitali) is the ringleader of the skinheads, although it’s notable that he’s spurred on to put the boot in by his girlfriend Reen (Vicki Michelle). She seems to take pleasure in Ali’s pain and discomfort and although the attack is brief it’s still brutal. This is a well-directed and unsettling opening to the story.
Hawkins later learns that such attacks are fairly common. The doctor at the local hospital tells him non-whites are targeted in this way in order to force them to go back home. But as he says, if that’s the case why is their money stolen as well?
Barlow and Watt are also in the area, taking a drink at a fairly down-at-heel bar. Delightfully, Watt tells Barlow that “I think you brought me down here tonight because you’re feeling nostalgic. For the old times, you know, out in the streets, the docks, the pubs, like this one. Only then we were ten years younger and you were two stone lighter.” It’s a lovely nod back to their Z Cars past and although Barlow demurs, there’s a sense that he’s enjoying being out on the streets again, rather than struggling with the pressures of command.
Barlow and Watt have come to talk to Nasim Khan (Marne Maitland). The script is deliberately opaque for a while about Barlow’s interest in the man, although Watt suggests that if he wasn’t white he might not be so interested. This raises the possibility that Barlow could be racist, although when Hawkins comes into the pub and tells them about the attack on Ali, Barlow reacts with fury (an innocent man going about his business who’s then robbed and attacked clearly sticks in his craw).
Whilst Watt and Hawkins head off to speak to Nasim, Barlow goes looking for the youths. His confrontation with Henry is a cracking scene, with both Stratford Johns and Leon Vitali in fine form. Henry should be the one to dominate – after all, he’s got a coffee shop full of cronies to back him up. Barlow has no-one on his side, yet the older man is slowly but surely able to dominate the younger.
Barlow gently probes him about his dislike of Pakistanis. Henry responds that they shouldn’t be over here, taking all the jobs (a viewpoint which, sadly, makes this story just as relevant today, more than 45 years later). But it’s doubtful as to whether Henry actually believes any of bigoted comments he comes out with. It’s just as likely that he simply enjoys causing aggro and the colour of his victim’s skin is immaterial. Apart from Reen, the rest of the gang are non-speaking extras, which although slightly limiting does work well in one way (their silence generates an air of menace).
When Barlow meets up again with Watt, the pair discuss the youth problem and it becomes clear they have very different opinions. Watt is all for handing out a dose of swift, brutal retribution whilst Barlow is more resigned and laid-back (he indulgently muses that they’re a lost cause). On a technical point, there’s some rather dodgy CSO at work in these scenes. Their current base of operations (a laundrette) is on videotape, whilst the streets outside are on film. Both are fine, but when the two are mixed together it looks rather odd …..
If Henry delights in making money out of the local immigrant community, then so does Khan, albeit in a different way. Khan is a fixer, smoothing the passage of illegal immigrants and finding them homes and jobs (Ali is one of his “clients”). Khan has the veneer of culture – he enjoys taking a glass of sherry every evening – but he’s still profiting from the misery of others.
He turns out to be Henry’s latest victim, which closes the story in a slightly contrived way (Henry, after a brief chase, admits to Barlow and Watt that he was responsible for the attack). Although this feels slightly unbelievable, it doesn’t detract from the quality of Allan Prior’s script. Seeing Barlow and Watt working the streets is highly entertaining, whilst the nihilism of Henry and Reen is quite disturbing (both Vitali and Michelle, chewing gum throughout, are very watchable). A fascinating time capsule of the period.