Softly Softly: Task Force – Better Than Doing Porridge

S0312 (22nd December 1971). Written by Tony Hoare, directed by Keith Williams

Ernie Johnson (Patrick Troughton) is an experienced career criminal and therefore seemingly the last person to volunteer a confession to Barlow. But with Ernie’s trial just hours away, Barlow has a plan …

Better Than Doing Porridge was the first Softly Softly: Task Force script written by Tony Hoare (and one of his earliest television credits). Doing porridge was something that Hoare was more than familiar with – having spent the best part of ten years in one prison or another. Eventually deciding that writing was “better than going to a factory in the morning or doing bird” he started to turn his life around. This began during his final prison stretch where he wrote a book, called The Chaps, which was later turned into a radio play.

Hoare’s background was something that, for obvious reasons, informed most of his television work. Later he became a key writer on Minder, but before that – during the early to mid seventies – he plied his trade on a number of series (Crown Court, Villains, Within These Walls, The Sweeney) which all benefited from his previous criminal background.

This can also been seen in his work for SS:TF. The main settings of today’s episode – a holding cell and interview room beneath a crown court – and the interaction between the prisoners and warders all has an unmistakable air of authenticity.

Barlow professes to understand the way Ernie’s mind works. It’s not quite admiration – although Ernie is portrayed as an older, more honourable villain (compared to his younger and more vicious colleagues) – but rather Barlow is confident that he knows which of Ernie’s buttons to press in order to get the result he wants. Watt is a little less sure but Barlow’s desire for a result overrides any other consideration.

Apart from a few brief location shots, the episode remains underground. So the lack of natural light and an obvious feeling of claustrophobia begins to seep through the screen after a while.

After Ernie goes off to speak to Barlow and Watt, his associates – Georgie Benson (Billy Murray), Harry Grant (Ralph Watson) and David Morgan (Frank Jarvis) – remain behind. Initially, Ernie seemed to be the leader – the one that the others deferred to (because of his age and the amount of prison time he’d done?). But as the time ticks away and still Ernie doesn’t return, a palpable sense of unease begins to haunt the other three. Could Ernie, despite his strong adherence to the criminal code, be considering grassing them up?

Murray, Watson (yay, Web of Fear reunion) and Jarvis are all perfectly cast. Billy Murray makes the strongest impression out of the three and their holding cell conversations are given a little extra spice thanks to the presence of Desmond Wetherby-Jones (Michael Lees). He’s an immaculately spoken conman, due to appear in a separate trial, and though he appears to have little in common with them, he still manages to rub along quite agreeably. Glynn Edwards, as the senior prison officer, offers another solid performance.

The bulk of the episode revolves around Ernie’s increasingly fraught conversations with Barlow and Watt. They take turns playing bad cop and worse cop, although there aren’t that many threats – Barlow is content to slowly chip away at Ernie’s self image. That Ernie’s façade only shatters after his wife (Gabrielle Hamilton) convinces him to cooperate with Barlow does slightly negate the lengthy Barlow/Watt/Ernie scenes. Dramatically it would have been good to see Barlow finally break his man, but it feels more realistic this way. It goes without saying that Troughton is immaculate throughout.

Ernie’s future (a reduced sentence and then release into a criminal world that will know he’s grassed) seems bleak. Especially since the criminal code was the most important thing in Ernie’s life (until, at the last minute, he was persuaded to put his family first). Better Than Doing Porridge concludes with a satisfied Barlow and Watt leaving the cells, but Tony Hoare’s script suggests that the cost to Ernie and his family is a substantial one. Definitely an unusual episode, which makes it all the more fascinating.

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