S02E14 (16th December 1970). Written by James Doran, directed by Frank Cox
News of a collision between a goods train and a passenger train shatters the early morning Monday routine. It’s a bad business – some six people are dead and numerous others are injured – but it turns out to be no accident (wheel bearings had been stripped from the goods train prior to it setting out). These bearings have long been the target of thieves, who can make a tidy sum selling them to scrap metal merchants. Barlow is incensed, he considers that the culprits are guilty of murder. But Watt, whilst sympathetic, knows it’ll be almost impossible to prove …..
Bearings has a quiet opening. Barlow pops into Watt’s office and they exchange notes about how their respective weekends went. Watt’s was restful, a few jars and a doze in his armchair whilst Barlow still seems to be suffering from the efforts of a round of golf. Barlow wonders if maybe he should take up drinking as a hobby, like Watt, to which Watt counters that since Barlow does so much drinking when he’s working he’d have no time to fit it in during his off duty time!
There’s also a chance to witness the workings of the operations room, as men and women quietly and efficiently deal with the public’s emergency calls. The operations room is the location where it’s established exactly how serious the train incident is. This isn’t surprising, as all the train shots we see are stock footage of real accidents. Given SS:TF’s limited budget, mounting a crash was never going to happen, although it’s a pity that due to the inferior picture quality of the stock footage it’s rather a jarring moment. But Evans’ radio report about what he can observe, together with the brief stock shots, help to create a reasonable impression.
Barlow might regard the theft of the wheel bearings as murder, but Watt isn’t so sure. He believes the best they can hope for is to charge the culprits with dishonest handling, how can you prove that somebody actually removed the bearings, unless you have a witness? Once it’s been established what caused the derailment, the officers click into action and proceed to question all the local scrap metal merchants
There’s a nice clash between Evans and Jackson. They might both be Sergeants, but Evans has a certain amount of disdain for the desk-bound Jackson. Although Jackson says that without paperwork and planning they’d never catch any criminals, Evans counters that it doesn’t catch thieves. “You can’t plan that look in a man’s face that says all you’ve got to do is lean on him and you’ve got him”. And Evans’ nose comes up trumps as he finds the bearings in the possession of Matthew Riley (Desmond Perry). So score one to Evans then.
Barlow conducts the interview with Riley, which means we’re guaranteed some fireworks. It’s a memorable encounter – even after learning that the removal of the bearings has caused a substantial loss of life, Riley remains unmoved. Barlow slightly loses his cool and afterwards concedes that he rather bodged the interview “That’s the trouble with shock tactics, once you’ve used them you’ve got nothing left.”
The transport police believe that Wiley (Paul Thompson) and Dawes (Jack Carr) might have been responsible for stealing the bearings, but Watt doesn’t make any headway questioning them. Evans (who seems to spend just as much time these days in plain clothes as he does in uniform) is tasked to keep them under observation. This he does and he also runs down a couple more suspects who might provide them with the break they need to gain a conviction.
Bearings is another story which finds Stratford Johns on top form. Barlow is at his intimidating best, but is still unable to make any of the suspects talk – even Johnstone (Adrian Shergold) the youngest and most inexperienced of them won’t admit anything.
The human tragedy of the crash is brought starkly into focus when a mother tearfully identities a shoe which belonged to her missing eleven-year old daughter. Barlow brandishes the shoe to Johnstone, which is finally enough to make the younger man come clean. Whether Barlow will be able to gain a conviction for murder or manslaughter is outside the parameters of the story, but he’s at least got somebody to admit what happened, which is a victory of sorts.
Bearings makes a virtue out of its lack of budget. We don’t see the train crash or its aftermath, nor do we see the police traipse around all the local scrap metal merchants (we’re told there’s quite a few in the area). Instead, the story focuses on the police’s efforts to gather evidence. The breakthrough – a distressed mother and her child’s shoe – is a rather random event, but it doesn’t feel too contrived.
It was the first of three SS:TF scripts written by James Doran (he contributed one apiece during series two, three and four). Doran wrote for many popular series during this era (for example, Parkin’s Patch, Barlow at Large, Hunter’s Walk, Public Eye, 37 episodes of Z Cars, Enemy at the Door, The Gentle Touch, Juliet Bravo) and also co-wrote the screenplay for the 1965 film adaptation of The Ipcress File.
His experience on Z Cars (dating back to 1962) seems to have been put to good use here, as Bearings could have easily slotted into the early run of SS:TF’s parent series. A cut above the norm.