Dick Turpin – Swiftnick (6th January 1979)

Richard Carpenter, co-creator and writer of the majority of Dick Turpin, made no bones about the fact that the Turpin of this series bore no resemblance to his real-life counterpart. That’s understandable of course – the genuine Dick Turpin was a squalid thief and murderer with no redeeming features (hardly the ideal person to star in a Saturday evening tea-time series).

Carpenter’s Dick Turpin drew on the already established folklore which surrounded the character in order to create an idealistic outlaw, always ready with a wry quip to dispense justice in an England where the authorities were either lax or corrupt.

Given that Richard Carpenter would later tackle the legend of Robin Hood in Robin of Sherwood, it’s easy to imagine that he was having something a dry run in this series (thankfully though, RoS was allowed time to breathe with 50 minute episodes rather than Turpin‘s 25).

Like the Robin Hood of popular myth, the fictionalised Turpin (Richard O’Sullivan) returns home after fighting for king and country to discover his property has been seized. He then finds himself opposing Sir John Glutton (Christopher Benjamin) and Captain Nathan Spiker (David Daker) who are very close analogues to the Sheriff of Nottingham and Guy of Gisbourne.

Turpin doesn’t assemble a band of merry men, but he does (reluctantly) recruit one helper – the boyishly ingenuous Nick Smith (Michael Deeks) who is rechristened Switnick by Turpin.

Dick Turpin was the latest in a line of ITV series which stretched right back to the founding of the network in 1955 (The Adventures of Robin Hood, with Richard Greene, debuted just a few days after ITV’s launch). It’s easy to see why these sort of shows kept coming back and indeed why they remain so watchable today.

With only 25 minutes to play with, there’s no time for intricate plots or deep characterisation – you just need a few good guest actors, a simple storyline and a bit of action. This repeating formula does mean they can feel a little insubstantial at times, but they’re also great fun to dip into every so often.

Swiftnick is intriguingly set just after Turpin’s apparent hanging in York with a dogged Spiker insistant that the man who swung wasn’t in fact Turpin ….

That might explain why the episode opens with Turpin in disguise, as a doddery clerk, although it’s harder to understand why Turpin so gratuitously splashes his cash in The Black Swan (an inn run by Mrs Smith and her young son Nick).

Possibly he’s looking to unmask pretenders to his throne as Nick, posing as Turpin, later attempts a highway robbery on the apparently harmless clerk (the real Dick Turpin seems to be somewhat peeved that so many imposters are trading on his name).

Some of the redubbing on this episode is a little clumsy but the worst bit occurs when Nick faces down the ‘clerk’. Before Turpin reveals himself, the cringing clerk begs for mercy (but O’Sullivan doesn’t voice him). By now, most viewers would have twigged that the clerk was Turpin in disguise, so why O’Sullivan couldn’t have put on an accent is beyond me.

I’m also slightly confused by this part of the story. Nick is desperate for twenty guineas – unless this sun is paid immediately, Glutton will throw him and his mother out of the inn. Turpin seems sympathetic but sends the boy away with nothing. And yet in the next scene, Mrs Smith hands over this sum to Spiker (has Turpin somehow given the money to her?)

It seems likely, as Turpin and Mrs Smith (Jo Rowbottom) do have a history. Indeed, some of the dialogue seems to hint that she and Turpin fathered Nick (which would explain why Turpin agrees to look after the now outlawed Nick).

Dick Turpin: I’m going to ruin Glutton and everyone round him. I shall wear them down like water dripping on a stone and I’ll make my own justice.

Mrs Smith: Then make some for Nick. For you, and me and what we once … you know, the past.

If this part of the plot seems somewhat opaque, then the conclusion (Turpin masquerades as a Scottish doctor to bamboozle Glutton and rescue Nick) is great fun. Under the expert eye of stunt arranger Peter Diamond, both O’Sullivan and Daker demonstrate some quality swordplay moves. Their duel includes one of my favourite exchanges in the episode –

Captain Nathan Spiker: The sword is a gentleman’s weapon, Turpin.

Dick Turpin: Then why are you using it?

An effective opener then, but even this early on it’s possible to wonder how the triangle of conflict between Turpin/Spiker/Glutton can develop. Because all three seem to be such archetypes, it’s easy to imagine they’ll simply repeat today’s form of conflict (with Glutton apoplectic, Spiker defeated and Turpin riding off into the sunset) again and again. Or will Carpenter be able to throw a few surprises into the mix? Time will tell.

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