Softly Softly: Task Force – Needle (13th December 1972)

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SS:TF, certainly during this era, used a very small pool of writers. There are pros and cons to this approach – a plus is the way it guarantees a constant tone, but on the negative side it can mean that the stories tend to feel somewhat similar.

Tony Hoare would later become a key writer on Minder, but his early work, such as his handful of SS:TF scripts and contributions to Crown Courtdemonstrates that his distinctive scripting style was already in place.

Hoare, a former inmate himself, is easily able to ensure that this prison-based story feels vivid and real.  As good as the series was, it’s sometimes noticeable that the villains can be unthreatening and lightly sketched.  Needle is quite different – there’s a sharp streak of cynicism which runs throughout.  This is unusual but not unwelcome.

After an unpopular prison officer, Watson (Edwin Brown), is brutally run down outside the prison gates, Watt and the others swiftly decamp to the prison in order to investigate. That we don’t have the usual preamble scenes at Task Force HQ is an interesting touch – no doubt this was partly logistical (saving studio space for the prison sets) but it also works in narrative terms. No sooner have we left Watson dying in the gutter than the story promptly moves onto the next stage.

As the episode progresses, Hoare’s voice seems to be coming through loud and clear. Prison life is shown to be thoroughly dehumanising – both for inmates and warders.  The crumbling Victorian structure, the indifferent diet and the constant threat of casual violence all helps to make it a hellish place.

One inmate, Bernie Bryson (Peter Armitage), later articulates why the warders are worse off than the prisoners. “They figure if they wear big boots and bark like dogs it makes them hard cases. They come straight off the dole queue, see. They ‘aint got the guts to thieve or the brains to work, but this way they can kid themselves that they’re something special. I’m here against my will and only temporary, they’re here permanently and because they need to be”.

Armitage is excellent as the cocky, unrepentant Bryson – comfortable in the knowledge that nothing can touch him. Nothing that is, except his marital problems ….

On the outside, his wife Jane (Janet Lees-Price) lives a comfortable existence in a remarkably decorated flat. Presumably Bernie chose the décor – the massive mural of classic Hollywood gangsters is certainly a talking point.

If Bernie feels a lot more real and dangerous than the series’ usual crop of villains, then so does Jimmy Cass (James Beckett). A friend of Bernie’s on the inside, Cass (one of the men who ran Watson down) finds himself becoming very friendly with the man-eating Jane on the outside.

Full of memorable touches (such as Adler keeping a close vigil on Watson, desperate to hear the dying man’s last, gasped words) Needle is certainly a cut above the norm.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Conversion (6th December 1972)

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An ingenious bank raid – carried out at the same time that the street is undergoing a gas conversion – is today’s crime. But as so often, character dynamics are pushed to the fore whilst the crime sits in the background.

Adler’s continuing mission to refer to all the regulars as “son” continues (today it’s Snow who receives that honour). Having not featured too heavily for a while, it’s nice that Terence Rigby is given more to do (although the reason becomes clear at the end of the episode).

Pete Ryan (Billy Hamon) is befriended by Snow. Something of an innocent, the early part of Conversion leaves us in no doubt that he’s very slow on the uptake (two experienced villains plan to use him when they rob the bank).

Pete, one the army of gas fitters, agrees to block the road at the appointed time (thereby allowing the getaway car to escape). This he does, but it means that he becomes a person of interest to the police – although not as you might expect.  He isn’t lifted for a grilling, instead Snow buys him drinks and listens to his story.

This all the more remarkable since Pete is aware that Snow’s a copper.  Although Snow could never be called soft, something about Pete (who’s barely more than a lad) clearly engages his sympathy.  So when Pete is killed in a road accident, Snow (who was observing him at the time) blames himself.

Spike Harran (Frank Barrie) and Tom Bishop (Graham Weston) are the two members of the gang granted speaking roles.  Many more are seen when the bank raid is carried out, but they were clearly stuntmen and non-speaking extras.  Indeed, the robbery is something of a jolting moment – up until this point the episode has proceeded in a typical fashion for SS:TF (high on character detail, low on visual excitement) so the sight of a gaggle of stuntmen throwing themselves about with wild abandon certainly catches the eye.

The early scenes between Pete, Spike and Tom have something of a comic air. Partly this is down to Tom’s tie, but the dialogue (the way that Spike and Tom have to repeat things again and again to Pete) also reinforces the feeling that the whole escapade is a bit of a lark.  But the brief violence seen during the raid, Pete’s death and Snow’s cold fury at Pete’s wasted life all help to darken the mood.

Adler once again is placed at the centre of the story. His interactions with both Snow and Evans are fascinating.  Snow is happy to give the new Task Force boss a little time to settle in (his attitude reflects his phlegmatic nature). The voluble Evans is a totally different type of person, he’s never slow to reveal his feelings ….

Adler and Snow later bring Spike back to the area.  Their train journey allows Snow to vent his feelings towards Spike, whom he feels had a part to play in Pete’s death. “If this was an old-fashioned compartment with a door there, I’d open it and shove you out”.  Snow’s impassioned tirade, which runs for several minutes, is easily the highlight of the episode.

Terence Rigby once again is excellent value, which makes it a pity that he then took something of a break from the series (sitting out the second half of series four and not returning until the fifth series).  Presumably Rigby had commitments elsewhere.

Grahame Mallard is drafted in as PC Nesbitt (he’d previously appeared in two previous episodes as two different PCs).  His introduction is typical of the series as it couldn’t really be any lower-key (he just appears out of nowhere).

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Justice (29th November 1972)

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Adler is moved back to CID by Cullen. Given what we’ve seen of Adler in previous episodes, it comes as no surprise to learn that he grasps this opportunity with both hands. But he’ll have to try and forge a close working relationship with Harry Hawkins, which may prove to be tricky ….

Adler’s character is delineated a little more at the start of this episode. He tends to be somewhat condescending (calling both Hawkins and Knowles “son”) and also there’s a nice moment concerning his love of plants.  A scene where he blithely offers Cullen some sage horticultural advice is preceded by a conversation between Knowles and one of Adler’s neighbours, Miss Polkington (Janet Burnell). She casts aspersions on Adler’s garden (hers is much better, she says).  A small touch, but it does suggest that Adler may occasionally place too much confidence in his own abilities.

Given Hawkins’ rather placid personality, putting him together with Adler is an interesting move.  Both have very different styles – Hawkins favours movement and action, Adler is methodical – which suggests that decent drama will be generated once they begin to come into conflict.  Especially since Adler is swiftly promoted and becomes Hawkins’ immediate superior ….

To be honest, the main plot (a crooked antique dealer) rather ambles along until we’re about mid-way through the episode. That’s when the antique dealer in question, Bensfield (James Bree), makes his first appearance.  James Bree was an actor who could do subtle (Secret Army) but could also deliver something a little broader (the Doctor Who story The War Games, say).  Today he’s screamingly camp. It’s the sort of turn that’s difficult to forget, especially the moment when Bensfield turns his lascivious attentions towards the stolid Hawkins.

Another familiar face popping up is Karl Howman. He plays Fletcher, Bensfield’s young, leather-jacketed bit of rough who duffs up Knowles (he was house-sitting for the antique laden Miss Polkington). Howman, in his first television role, is very squeaky but the scene he shares with Bree does manage to tease out a moment of tenderness between Bensfield and Fletcher (which helps to humanise Bensfield, making him seem like less of a camp caricature).

Plot-wise this isn’t the most interesting story, but the interaction between the regulars is pretty decent and whilst the guest players are somewhat mannered and stylised, they do catch the eye.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Paper Chase (15th November 1972)

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The aptly named Con Richards (John Abineri) and a young woman called Mary (Maggie Wells) are flooding the district with forged one pound notes.  As most of the scenes which feature them are in public places we don’t get much of a feel for their real characters. Con’s ever-changing accent is an entertaining touch though.

Paper Chase is more concerned with how this forged money impacts the recipients. The market trader Fisher (David Swift) and his wife (Paula Jacobs) are the first to be conned. Both are Jewish (very, very Jewish in fact – Mrs Fisher reacts with a heartfelt “oy vey” once she realises they’ve been passed dud notes).

They don’t twig for a while that the charming couple who bought a stack of clothes from them were dodgy (surprising, since I was instantly struck by Mary’s obvious wig). So their credulity is a little hard to swallow, especially since Snow has already been around to tip them off about the forged notes.

Swift (sporting an impressive pair of mutton-chop sideburns) is quite entertaining as a basically honest man who nevertheless attempts to later pass off the forgeries as genuine (he’s experienced enough to know that the chances of recovering his losses are slim to zero).

Poor Mrs Baker (Valerie Lush), the proprietor of a small corner shop, is also something of an innocent – but her lack of knowledge seems to be a little more credible. For a small business, the loss of ten pounds is clearly a real blow.  But even if it’s more than likely that she’ll end the story still out of pocket, at least she has the satisfaction of knowing she was the one who put the dogged Evans onto Con’s trail.

Whilst Fisher attempts a touch of fraud to resolve his loss and Mrs Baker simply stoically accepts it, our third victim – the greyhound track manager Clegg (Richard Hampton) – laughs it off as a matter of no concern (he’s insured). By the time that the episode gets to the fourth conned person (a hotel receptionist) clearly time is tight as we never learn how they feel about it.

Running alongside this theme is a subplot concerning an imminent raid on a cash-heavy business.  It’s assumed to be the greyhound track, although no robbery occurs by the time the episode concludes.  Watt’s picture of the gang (wielding pickaxes and knives) is quite vivid, although it does bring to mind a more 1950’s vision of crime (no guns are mentioned).

Paper Chase has several incidental pleasures. Alan Bennion, appearing as a bank manager, is one.  Although he racked up a fair number of credits over the years, it’s his Ice Lord appearances in Doctor Who which I instantly think of whenever I hear his name. So it’s nice to see him for once without his face being covered in latex.

The location work at the outdoor market is very evocative.  The film crew turned up on a regular market day, which makes me wonder whether some of the old biddies who crowd around our regulars were just ordinary members of the public, rather than extras.  A few are quite eye-catching.

There’s also a spot of character development for Harry Hawkins. Although he’s been a regular since the Softly Softly days, Hawkins has rarely made much of an impression (compared to the likes of Snow and Evans he seems quite stolid and far less quirky). But today he gets to cross swords with Watt (Hawkins likes to be out and about whilst Watt believes he should be more desk bound) and he also entertainingly interacts with PC Knowles, now firmly settled into the role of the office administrator.

Small touches maybe, but every little helps.

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Pinter at the BBC – Old Times (22nd October 1975)

If some of the previous plays in the set – The Basement especially – were designed specifically for television (utilising numerous scene changes in a way which would have been impossible to achieve on stage) then Old Times turns out to be a very different beast. The staging is very theatrical with no concessions made to the television format. At the time (and indeed well into the eighties) this style of production was very common, but eventually it fell out of favour. The quest for realism demanded that drama be shot on single-camera film, with the result that multi-camera videotaped recordings of this type began to look hopelessly old-fashioned to certain people. Personally, I love the clarity of this type of production as it really does stand or fall on the quality of the writing and the performances. There’s no place to hide …. The stagey nature of the piece is evident right from the opening titles. Deeley (Barry Foster) and Kate (Anna Cropper) are seated in separate chairs. The room is dark and they are immobile (whilst the fact that both are spotlighted helps to suggest their emotional distance from each other). Meanwhile, Anna (Mary Miller) stands in darkness at the back of the room.

Deeley and Kate are a married couple, awaiting the arrival of Kate’s old friend, Anna. That the play begins with Deeley and Kate discussing Anna (who is present but ignored by them) gives the piece a strange, disconnected air. This odd feeling continues when Anna suddenly steps into the light and begins interacting with the other two. Several theories have been propounded to explain the meaning of the play. Possibly the whole drama is being played out in Deeley’s subconscious (and furthermore Kate and Anna are aspects of the same person). When Anthony Hopkins tackled the role of Deeley in 1984 he asked Pinter for some pointers. The playwright’s advice? “I don’t know, just do it”. Old Times finds us in familiar Pinter territory. A previously tranquil household is transformed into a battleground for supremacy as Deeley and Anna both stake their claim on Kate. As the play unfolds, every statement has to be parsed for meaning as the three interlock. Deeley begins the play in a dominant position, quickly joining forces with Anna to reminisce about times past via a medley of their favourite songs. Kate at this point seems to be somewhat passive and colourless compared to Anna. Deeley is keen to claim ownership of his wife (remembering how they bonded over the same film – Odd Man Out) but his own memories of Anna and the revelation of her previous closeness with Kate both serve to somewhat destabilise him. (a lengthy discussion between Deeley and Anna about the best way to dry a freshly bathed Kate crackles with intensity). As ever, if you want closure and neatness then you’ve come to the wrong playwright. Old Times is an emotionally distanced experience which isn’t afraid to leave questions unanswered. The fallibility of memory, a familiar Pinter device, is key here. And if there’s some doubt about the reality of the present-day setting, how many of these past reminisces can we actually rely upon?

Softly Softly: Task Force – New Broom (8th November 1972)

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Despite the title, the primary focus of New Broom isn’t about establishing John Watt as the new Task Force boss.  Instead, it centres around a murder investigation, following the discovery of a severed arm at a rubbish dump ….

This is an unusually macabre plot element for the series and although the rest of the dismembered torso is mainly discussed and not seen, towards the end of the episode the murderer does reveal the only other body-part still in existence (a hand).

After the sensationalist opening, New Broom settles down into a pattern of pure routine.  It’s good to see a number of extras in uniform swelling the ranks in the incident room today. In some of the previous episodes we rarely saw any other police officers apart from the regulars, which tends to give the unfortunate impression that the Task Force is comprised of no more than around half a dozen officers.

John Franklyn-Robbins makes his second appearance as Chief Inspector Bill Adler. Having only skirted around the perimeters of the story in his previous episode, he’s much more central here.  A former detective, various indiscretions several years back (mainly concerning women and alcohol) have seen him reduced in rank, returned to uniform and forced to plough a frustrating furrow as a desk-bound administrator.

He’s never less than totally thorough, but it’s plain that jobs such as organising the furniture for Watt’s new office isn’t quite the sort of thing he joined the police force for.  This subplot is the episode’s one concession to portraying Watt as the new broom.  His office décor is very different from Charlie Barlow’s – Watt favours a minimalist approach (featuring strikingly modern chairs and desks) with the result that Cullen, passing by, first of all believes that there must have been a mix-up with the furniture delivery ….

Adler is later seconded to assist the murder investigation and it’s his dogged and painstaking approach (plenty of sifting of facts and staring at blackboards) which leads them to a suspect, Edward Harrison (Willie Jonah).  Adler will return in most of the remaining episodes on the third and final Pidax DVD set and I’m looking forward to seeing how his character develops.

There’s an intriguing relationship teased out here between him and Watt, which bodes well for the future.  Adler desperately wants to get back to being a detective, but Watt is content to keep him where he is for now (Adler offers to take a crack at Harrison, but Watt delegates Hawkins instead, much to Adler’s obvious disappointment).

If the majority of New Broom is interesting without being especially gripping, then the late interview between Hawkins and Harrison raises the temperature somewhat.  A good two-hander, it’s one of the highlights of the episode (the development of Adler’s character being another).

Elsewhere, Frank Windsor effortlessly slips into place as the new focus point of the series.  John Watt’s plain, no-nonsense style hasn’t really changed since he first appeared in Z Cars and New Broom makes it plain that business will carry on as usual.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Run For Your Money (1st November 1972)

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And so we have to bid farewell to Charlie Barlow.  The first run of Barlow At Large had preceded series three of Softly Softly: Task Force, but the remainder (three seasons from 1973 onwards) aired after he’d left Thamesford for good.

Poached by the mysterious Fenton (Neil Stacey) from the Home Office, Barlow faces an unknown future.  Back then, the viewers wouldn’t have had long to wait to find out what he’d let himself in for (the first episode of the new series was broadcast in February 1973). Today I’ve a feeling we’re in for a far longer wait (Barlow At Large may eventually surface on DVD, but I’m not holding my breath).  Fenton would be a regular in the series and thanks to his brief appearance with Cullen here, it’s possible to imagine the sort of combative relationship he and Barlow would later enjoy ….

Run For Your Money is a low-key departure for such an important character. His meeting with Cullen (who buys him lunch at the swanky Stag At Bay restaurant) is delightfully awkward. Barlow then treats Watt and Hawkins to a meal at the same venue later on (if you’ve got the set in the studio then it’s sensible to make the most of it). After he’s broken the news, it’s fair to say there’s conflicted feelings – John Watt has his eye on Barlow’s seat but feels uneasy drinking a toast to celebrate his departure.

Hawkins, as befits his cheery, breezy persona, seems less concerned. It’s an interesting touch that Sara is more ambitious than he is, deciding that Barlow’s departure would mean promotion for everyone.

If the lunchtime meeting between Barlow and Cullen wasn’t awkward enough, the fact that Sara and Hawkins just happened to be noshing in there at the same time added an additional frisson of social embarrassment. Although Sara, as befits her upper-crust breeding, wasn’t at all perturbed. She treats Cullen with amused disrespect and decides that Barlow (out of his earshot) is something of a sad case.

Possibly the most notable thing about The Stag At Bay is that all the waitresses have very low cut tops. Since they’re always bending over the tables this is very noticeable ….

Run For Your Money does have a spot of crime too though. Austin (Ronald Radd) has embezzled twenty thousand pounds from the company he used to work for.  A well-spoken, intelligent, middle-aged man, he’s reluctant to reveal where the money is, much to Barlow’s frustration.

Radd’s second and final SS:TF appearance adds a touch of class to the episode.  He only appears in a few scenes, but they’re incredibly watchable. The first is a three-hander between Barlow, Evans and Austin.  Taking place in the interview room, the sense of claustrophobia is ramped up by the way that the camera keeps tight focus on each of the three in turn. To be honest, I wouldn’t have minded an entire episode just featuring Johns and Radd in the interview room ….

It’s a curious thing, but so many actors back in the sixties and seventies looked a good deal older than they actually were.  Radd, for example, was only forty three when he made this episode, but could easily have passed for a man in his late fifties (indeed, Austin states that he’s fifty seven).  It would have been interesting to see Barlow break Austin in the interview room, but the mystery of the missing money (there’s a connection to the Vietnam War, which was unexpected) is solved by a spot of good old detective work.

The final shot we have of Barlow is a slow and silent zoom in the interview room (he’d gone back to confront Austin).  It’s an unshowy exit for someone who has dominated the series. He’ll be missed.

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