Softly Softly: Task Force – Anywhere in the Wide World (26th January 1972)

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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 missing eight hours, the amount of effort expended – house to house, dogs, helicopters – is impressive. Do they do this everytime someone goes missing or does 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 the precocious teen and Cranham as someone with an eye for the ladies (the younger the better). Cranham’s carrot cruncher 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, 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) alarm bells really began to ring. His irritation that Alison left early (she was supposed to stay a month) is palpable.

We’ve had several of these stories before, so the regular viewer would have been primed not to expect a happy ending. Barlow has the last word, but all the featured regulars are given a chance to shine in another memorable story.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – The Removal (29th December 1971)

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The Removal opens with Garbutt and Turner (Graham Weston and Johnny Briggs) arriving at a substantial house (it stands in its own grounds). We can instantly tell that they’re wrong ‘uns because it’s night-time and they’re wearing dark glasses. This faint comic air is reinforced when the rest of the gang turn up, all wearing dark glasses too ….

I can’t decide whether this is supposed to be amusing or not though. It’s hard to take Weston and Briggs seriously as a couple of hardmen, but that may be to do with the fact that they’re both familiar actors.

The gang have arrived to strip the house bare (pictures, carpets, furniture, etc) much to the dismay of Sybil Albert (Stephanie Bidmead) and her son Tom (Paul Aston).

The gradual denuding of the house which occurs throughout the episode is fairly low in dramatic tension. Mainly this is because Garbutt and Turner – save for one brief spat – remain supremely confident throughout. Bidmead was a quality actress who died far too young (this was one of her final credits) but she doesn’t have much to work with here – Mrs Albert is little more than a fairly weepy and passive character.

There’s more interest elsewhere, with the stroppy Liz Carr (Lois Dane) proving to be a handful. The common-law wife of one of the gang, she’s very outspoken but is quietened down by the efficient DS Green (Heather Stoney). It’s the first SS:TF credit for Stoney, who instantly impresses.

Any time Snow and Evans are put in a car together you can be guaranteed some amusing dialogue (and so it proves here). Watt and Hawkins also have some good scenes, so there’s plenty going on – even if the main plot is quite linear.  The bleak-ish ending is effective too.

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Pinter at the BBC: Theatre 625 – A Night Out (13th February 1967)

Albert Stokes (Tony Selby), a shy young man, lives with his emotionally suffocating widowed mother (Anna Wing). His big night out – a works party – turns sour after he’s falsely accused of groping one of his female colleagues. After this bad start, his night just get worse and worse ….

A Night Out was Harold Pinter’s first substantial success. It debuted on the BBC Third Programme in March 1960 before transferring to television a month later as part of ABC’s Armchair Theatre strand. This version, starring Tom Bell, Madge Ryan and Pinter himself, can be seen on volume three of Network’s Armchair Theatre releases.

The opening scene establishes the strained relationship between Albert and Mrs Stokes. She reacts with surprise to the news that he’s planning on going out, despite the fact that he’s already told her several times. Her cheerful manner doesn’t waver – even when she’s bemoaning the fact that he’ll miss their regular Friday night game of Rummy – but it’s plain that in her non-confrontational way she’s keen to prevent his departure (not revealing the location of his precious tie, for example).

Anna Wing offers a well judged performance, pitched just right. When Mrs Stokes enquires whether her son isn’t “leading an unclean life, are you? … You’re not messing about with girls tonight, are you?” it lays bare her central concern (with her husband dead, Albert is all she has left and clearly can’t bear the thought of losing him). Is it just a coincidence that these themes would be deeply mined just a few years later by Galton and Simpson in Steptoe & Son? Even down to the name Albert?

Meanwhile, Tony Selby – as the softly-spoken, down-trodden Albert – is equally impressive. Although he’s treated with contempt by some of his colleagues – such as the arrogant Gidney (Patrick Cato) – Albert also has his supporters, notably Seeley (John Castle). Seeley and Kedge (Richard Moore) form an entertaining duo, enlivening the early part of the play with their inconsequential chatter. And once both reach the party they prove to be an instant hit with the ladies – indeed, they’re everything that the awkward Albert isn’t.

Albert’s humiliation at the party sends him back home, but as he finds no succour there he heads out again, only to be picked up by a prostitute (Avril Elgar). Her lengthy, rambling monologue is deliberately wearying (it’s Albert’s misfortune to have stumbled into the company of somebody who, in their own way, is as controlling as his mother). Given this, it’s plain that their encounter won’t end well.

Although Albert has found himself unable to express his true feelings to his mother (when he finally returns home again their uneasy status quo is maintained) he can at least vent his frustrations on the unfortunate chattering prostitute. If Selby has been cast in a submissive role for most of the play, then this climatic scene allows Albert’s tightly-wound persona free reign to explode. It’s nicely played by both Selby and Elgar.

A Night Out, given the fact it was the most straightforward of the Pinter Theatre 625 trilogy, attracted the most critical acclaim. But whilst it has the most linear and comprehensible storyline of the three, like the other two it’s replete with disturbing and memorable dialogue.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Man of Peace (8th December 1971)

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Even compared to other series of this era, Softly Softly: Task Force often had a very leisurely approach to storytelling. Man of Peace is a good example of this.  Watt is visited by a petty criminal and informer from his distant past (Tim Patrick, played by Allan McClelland) who has some interesting information to pass on.

But nearly ten minutes elapse before we learn what it is (Patrick claims to know where a large number of revolvers can be bought). As so often, this crime isn’t the focus of the episode.  Instead Allan Prior is much more concerned with developing character – in this case, Patrick’s.

Patrick is endlessly slippery, which helps to generate interest, as does the reactions of those he encounters. John Watt for one, who initially treats him with barely concealed contempt before kicking him out. The fact that Watt is then forced to track him down (when it becomes clear Patrick does know something) is a humiliation – made worse by the fact that Barlow is on hand to twist the knife.

An episode very much powered by a guest performance – the experienced McClennad is excellent value – Man of Peace has a faint comic air (although I don’t know whether PC Snow’s Irish accent was supposed to be that bad).

An appearance by Anthony Booth is another plus of an typically dialogue-heavy story which in the last ten minutes or so begins to generate a faint feeling of suspense.  Booth (playing Smith) was always an imposing actor and he’s well matched by Terence Rigby’s Snow.

It’s true that Snow, posing as an Irish terrorist, does infiltrate Smith’s gang rather easily (which turns out to be a rather feeble one) but as previously stated, SS:TF wasn’t a wham-bam series. Character development was always more important than simply nicking villains.

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Softly Softly Task Force: An Inside Job (10th November 1971)

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As the episode title suggests, Barlow is convinced that a supermarket manager called Dent (Ray Mort) was involved in a robbery from his store (four thousand pounds was taken from the safe). Harry Hawkins is less sure though ….

One of those episodes with a small supporting cast, An Inside Job features a memorable performance from the always-dependable Mort. Dent is obviously a weak man (capable of sudden outbursts of bluster, but easily bested by both his wife and teenage son) which makes it easy to believe that he could have given the keys to a criminal type.

Barlow’s convinced this is so and delights in putting the squeeze on the increasingly twitchy Dent. When Hawkins later queries whether he’s been too hard, Barlow responds with the flicker of a wolfish smile. You really never, ever want to get on Charlie Barlow’s bad side ….

Dent seems to have few allies. His wife – Alice (Eve Pearce) – wants to be supportive but finds it easy to believe the worst of him whilst his teenage son, Philip (Spencer Banks), delights in spilling the beans about his father’s past misdemeanours. Or was Philip simply being naïve? It’s possible to interpret his actions either way.

DC Forest has another fairly substantial role – initially teemed up with the always droll Evans – and I’m pleased to report that her performance has picked up somewhat from the previous episode.

There’s a late visit by Hawkins to a criminal hidey-hole, which is decked out in a breath-taking example of gloriously bad-taste seventies décor. The clothes, sported by Brabham (Roy Macready) and the other villains are also very entertaining.

An Inside Job, thanks to Mort, is a vaguely uncomfortable watch. Although the crime is solved, it’s plain that the repercussions will linger on (the final scene between Barlow and Dent is very compelling).

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Bookwyrm: Volume 1 – The New Adventures by Anthony Wilson and Robert Smith? ATB Publishing Book Review

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By the early nineties, with Doctor Who either dead or simply in limbo (depending on how optimistic you were) The New Adventures filled an aching gap. New Doctor Who stories available on a regular basis!

How times change. Fast forward thirty years and we’re now drowning under a surfeit of supplementary Who. The notion of attempting to read every DW novel and listen to every DW Big Finish audio currently available is surely a task beyond all but the most foolhardy or devoted.

But back in 1991 we were in virgin (sorry) territory. The New Adventures offered fans a continuation of their favourite series, but it was also much more than that. Generally the books weren’t content to simply replicate the tone and feel of television Who – the NA’s were keen to take DW to strange and new places.

I was there, right from the beginning (Timewyrm: Genesis) all the way through to the bitter end (The Dying Days) and certainly had my ups and downs with the series. For example, Original Sin really irritated me (the reveal of the baddy was the sort of fan-pleasing nonsense that I never enjoyed) but another book usually came along (Head Games or Just War, say) which made me keep the faith.

Although I was picking up the later books more out of a feeling of habit than love, the NA’s were still a very important part of my nineties fandom experience. In recent years I’ve occasionally thought about digging them out for a re-read and there’s no doubt that Bookwyrm: Volume 1 has fired my enthusiasm and made that prospect much more likely ….

The format of Bookwyrm: Volume 1 is straightforward. Each NA has its own chapter which is broken down into categories, ala The Discontinuity Guide (The Big Idea briefly summarises the plot, What You Need To Know explains how the book fits/doesn’t fit into established continuity, Timey-Wimey pinpoints any influences the book had on NuWho, plus there are sections for dialogue triumphs, disasters, etc).

Wilson and Smith? then sum up their feelings about each story. Often they’re in agreement, but sometimes not (and it’s always more interesting when opinions diverge). Indeed their trenchant viewpoints are the main reason why Bookwyrm: Volume 1 is such an entertaining read.  It might be a densely detailed book, but it’s also chatty and highly opinionated.

Sometimes these opinions chimed with my own and sometimes they didn’t.  It was slightly surprising to see Transit praised and The Highest Science mildly slated.  Back in the day, Transit was the one which generated all the brickbats whilst The Highest Science was warmly received.

But this may well have had something to do with the fact that The Highest Science was the sort of “traditional” story that the more conservative wing of fandom would have embraced. Whereas Transit was definitely “new” and therefore something to be approached with caution.  I’m keen now to go back and revisit both of them. Is Transit a lost classic? I’ll let you know in due course.

But there’s no disagreement from them or me about the quality of the first NA, meaning that John Peel receives a well deserved kicking for Timewyrm: Genesis.

Like a child in a sweet shop, Peel has discovered that writing a book means there are no limitations regarding actors who, on television, have to be paid (or, indeed, alive) to appear, so cameos and continuity references abound. Like nausea, it comes in waves, calming down for a time then springing itself upon you when you least expect. Pages 140–141, for example, mention K’Anpo, Sontarans, Vardans, the Matrix, K9, Leela, Andred, Katarina, Sara Kingdom, Daleks, Adric and Cybermen, all in the space of about 25 lines.

In many ways, it’s quite fun, and there’s a certain amount of giddy enjoyment to be had. Unfortunately, like the child in the sweet shop, too much and you get sick. We hit this point when the seventh Doctor has to call up the ghost of Christmas Past himself, Jon Pertwee, because, apparently, the seventh Doctor can’t manage some rewiring by himself (p205).

The rant about No Future‘s cover is also highly amusing, but to be honest there’s something equally pithy about every single book and this is why Bookwyrm: Volume 1 is such a rewarding and amusing read.

No Future’s cover may well be the worst cover in the entire NA line — and, hence, the worst cover in the entirety of literature. Everybody’s hair somehow contrives to be both fluffy and spiky at the same time, except for Benny, who appears to be wearing some sort of Liza Minnelli–inspired helmet. The drummer is apparently a midget with one enormous leg. The guy behind Ace is choking on an almond, for some reason. And you’ll swear blind that Mawdryn, the fifth Doctor’s nemesis with an exposed brain, has made an appearance in the book… until you realise that said exposed brain is actually supposed to be some sort of flat cap, hovering on top of his head. Either that or a pizza. They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But in this case, you probably can.

No Future the book doesn’t get a great deal more love than the cover did, which was another surprise as my 25-year old memory doesn’t record that it was that bad.  Another one to add to the re-read pile I think.

Any NA old-timers or indeed anybody who has stumbled across these books more recently will find plenty to enjoy here.  An immensely enjoyable, highly dippable tome, Bookwrym: Volume 1 comes warmly recommended.

Bookwyrm: Volume 1 is released by ATB Publishing on the 18th of March 2019. Ordering information can be found on their website.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Aberration (27th October 1971)

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There’s a lovely opening scene with Barlow and Watt. Watt’s home alone (his wife – a GP – is away for the week) and has invited Barlow around for a slap up meal (prepared before she left by Mrs Watt – this was the 1970’s after all).

There’s some nice character building here (we see Watt’s vulnerable side for a fleeting moment) but the scene does have a plot purpose – a locum doctor calls round asking for the surgery keys. Watt hands them over, but the next day we learn that the man wasn’t a doctor after all …

We can put this terrible lapse down to the fact that both had clearly imbibed a substantial amount of alcohol. In the cold light of day Barlow is forced to eat humble pie in front of Dr Mancroft (Raymond Huntley). Johns and Huntley share several excellent scenes – there’s nothing more enjoyable than watching two old timers squaring off against each other.

Aberration is the first episode to feature a major role for DC Forest (Julie Hallam). Forest is remarkably cheeky (talking back to both Barlow and Watt) and Hallam’s performance is quite broad. Because the other regulars are all pretty naturalistic, Hallam’s overexuberance is more noticeable.

Apart from the stolen prescription pads, the villain – James (Gary Waldhorn) – has also pinched several patient’s files. That we’re in less enlightened times is demonstrated when homosexuality is classed alongside child molesting as the sort of aberration which would be ideal fodder for a blackmailer. The inoffensive-looking Norman Bird (as Tomkins) is wheeled on as a bondage fetishist (he’s one of the unlucky people being blackmailed by James).

Although Barlow and Watt are clearly having an off-day (plucky young Forest tracks down James all by herself) Aberration is an interesting time capsule of the period.

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