Softly Softly: Task Force – Anywhere in the Wide World

S03E17 (26th January 1972). Written by Allan Prior, directed by Paul Ciappessoni

All the resources of the Task Force are swiftly pressed into service after fifteen-year old schoolgirl Alison Fordham goes missing …

Given she’s only been away from home a handful of hours, the amount of effort expended – house to house, dogs, helicopters – is impressive. Do they do this every time someone goes missing or might it have something to do with the fact that Alison’s father, James Fordham (David Bauer), is a man of substantial means?

Like the Task Force, we have to build up a picture of Alison from the testimonies of those who know her. It’s slim stuff – her one schoolfriend Judith Oram (Lynne Frederick) regards her with amused contempt whilst local lad Ken Buckley (Kenneth Cranham) seems to know more than he’s letting on.

With most of the episode revolving around methodical procedure, these brief interviews are welcome character moments. Both Frederick and Cranham impress – Frederick as a precocious teen and Cranham as someone with an eye for the ladies (the younger the better). Cranham’s carrot crunching accent is memorable too.

As Anywhere In The Wide World progresses, Alison’s sad and isolated life becomes even clearer. Bauer – an actor who rarely disappointed – has a key scene where the distance between Alison and her parents is made painfully obvious. To her credit, it seems that Alison’s stepmother Joan (Beth Harris) has made efforts to connect but to no avail.

But when we learn that Fordham packed his young daughter off to stay with her natural mother (an alcoholic) in America, alarm bells really began to ring. His displeasure that Alison left early (she was supposed to stay a month) is palpable. Also, when he returns home at the start of the story, it feels like his chief emotion is irritation (irritation that Alison’s disappearance might cost him a top job).

David Bauer made a habit of playing aggressive types, so he’s perfectly cast here. Fordham’s first words to Barlow (“hey, you!”) is a good example of the way that Fordham attempts to bulldoze everyone and anyone who might stand in his way. Although I doubt many have ever spoken to Barlow like that, he resists the temptation to bite back and maybe, just maybe, underneath Fordham’s brusque exterior there’s a decent man hiding. He certainly seems to love Joan (his second wife) but his feelings for Alison are harsher and more dismissive.

Paul Ciappessoni begins the episode with a memorable directorial flourish – we open on John Watt, with the camera pulling out to reveal that his image was reflected in a picture of the missing girl. Because of this, I’m happy to cut Ciappessoni some slack for a clumsy later shot. Buckley handles a packet of cigarettes that may, or may not, be significant – but does so in a very unnatural way (he doesn’t quite hold them up in front of the camera, but it’s almost as bad).

John Watt returns to duty for the first time since sustaining his injuries at the end of Priorities. The events of that episode are briefly touched upon (Barlow asks Hawkins how he is and it’s noticeable that Watt keeps his gloves on throughout) but the point isn’t laboured – it’s simply a nice callback for the regular viewers.

As with the debut episode of SS:TF (which also featured a hunt for a missing child) there’s no happy ending. Indeed, I can’t recall another story to date which has quite as bleak a conclusion as this one (the scenes aren’t graphic, but for a pre-watershed slot it carries quite an emotional punch). Barlow is given the last word, but all the featured regulars are given chances to shine in another memorable story.

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