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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Softly Softly: Task Force – The Witness (25th October 1972)

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The Witness was one of two SS:TF directorial credits for David Maloney. Knowing his fondness for using a regular “rep” of actors, I had a quick skim through the cast list to see if I could spot any familiar names.

There’s Tony McEwan, for one. Maloney had already used him in one Doctor Who (The War Games) and would later cast him in another (Planet of Evil) in addition to Hawkeye, The Pathfinder. Given McEwan’s fairly limited list of credits, these performances constitute a fairly sizeable chunk of his television career.

Today he’s playing Carson, a lorry driver whose cargo (scotch whisky worth twenty grand) is hijacked by a gang of gun-toting masked men.  It’s not the best performance you’ll ever see (although there’s a even less convincing one later) but Carson’s interrogation is still highly entertaining, mainly because both Barlow and Watt are in the room.

The pair work well apart, but something special tends to happen whenever they team up. They’d begun the episode in Barlow’s office, enjoying a late-night drink. Barlow, still smarting that his promotion prospects have been dashed, was clearly in need of a shoulder to cry on and Watt fitted the bill nicely.  As for Watt, having done his duty he was looking forward to getting off home, but a last minute phone-call (about the robbery) dashed that.

For Barlow (fretting about his empty house) more work is just the ticket. Watt seems less enthused about rushing straight over to take charge, although the private smile he gave before they both left the office was a nice little moment, letting the audience know that he didn’t mind that much (presumably he’s just relieved that Barlow has something new to occupy him).

The always-reliable Ron Pember turns in another good performance as Wilf Taylor. He’s a member of the gang, albeit a somewhat sickly and insubstantial one.  The power behind the throne seems to be his wife, Betty (Mitzi Rogers).  SS:TF wasn’t renowned for having that many strong female guest roles (crime back in the seventies seemed very much to be a man’s world) so Betty is a notable character, even if she does end up as a victim by the end of the episode.

She runs a corner shop (which bears a passing resemblance to Awkright’s store) and right from the off is very combative.  Dominating the weak Wilf, she then steps up the intensity another couple of notches when the police come calling.

Most of her early ire is directed at DS Green (Heather Stoney). If the series didn’t specialise in decent female guest roles, then it also was struggling at this point with its female regulars.  Stoney, with her handful of appearances across the third and fourth series, always played what she was given very well, but Green was rarely placed in the centre of a story.

Mitzi Rogers has the best guest role of the episode (Betty’s heavy blue eye shadow and leopard skin coat helps to make her stand out) but James Mellor, as Albert Dirman, is also very watchable. Dirman is the Mr Big of the hijackers and reacts with cold fury when he mistakenly believes that Wilf’s talked to the police (he hasn’t, but Betty has).

Dirman’s promise to disfigure Betty with acid is a chilling one, although the threat is slightly negated when the instrument of his retribution – Stan (Gordon Bilboe) – lumbers into view.  Partly it’s because of the haircut, moustache and suit, but there’s no denying that Bilboe’s performance is rather stilted. True, he’s not gifted terribly good dialogue (mostly it’s of the “you got nothing on me, copper” variety) but Bilboe’s delivery doesn’t help ….

The late action scene (Hawkins purses a fleeing Stan) isn’t that convincing, but the main thrust of the episode – the way that Barlow manipulates both Wilf and Betty in order to nail Dirman – is very compelling.  And the final sting in the tail (even after Betty’s been attacked with an iron bar, Wilf is unwilling to talk) is a fascinating wrinkle.  Another strong series four entry.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – On The Third Day (18th October 1972)

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On The Third Day juggles two separate Barlow plotlines. In the first, he’s targeted by Timothy Redway (Anthony Heaton) a violent criminal with a grudge and in the second he undergoes a grilling at an intensive promotion board.

The former could easily have been the major theme, but instead it’s very much secondary – even though the resolution of this storyline provides the episode with its climax.  It does serve to place Barlow under pressure though (something which maybe later has a knock on effect at the board).

What’s especially interesting is that in the previous episode Mrs Barlow was killed off-screen in a road accident, so if a pretext had been required to explain why Barlow was even more prickly than usual, surely that would have sufficed.  As it is, the death of Mrs Barlow seems slightly puzzling in plot terms – it does allow us to see a brief softening of Barlow’s character, but that’s about all (although maybe its function was to highlight just how career driven Barlow is – the widowed man seems hardly different from the married one).

Still, we get to see Barlow at home, pottering about in the kitchen (it’s rather orange). Given that his kitchen décor is rather horrid in places, possibly Redway did him a favour by attempting to burn the house down ….

No surprises that the fire largely occurs off-screen. Big action set pieces were outside of the series’ budget.

By far the most interesting part of the episode occurs when Barlow travels down to Eastbourne. There, along with a group of brother officers, he undergoes a series of tests, exams and interviews. Three heavyweight actors – Richard Vernon, Patrick O’Connell and John Arnatt – are the ones in charge, which helps to make these scenes fly.

The three-hander between Barlow, Asst. Chief Constable Morton (O’Connell) and Chief Constable Daniels (Arnatt) is a cracking scene.  With Morton playing bad cop and Daniels good, Barlow’s character is slowly unpicked.  But Barlow more than holds his own, even if his distaste for the some parts of this procedure is made clear.

Barlow’s one-on-one meeting with Sir Ralph Townley (Vernon) looks set to develop along similarly entertaining lines, but alas it’s cut short by a gun-toting Redway. All those police around the place and Redway was still able to get close enough to the window in order to loose off a few shots. Somebody should be for the high jump.

Knowing that Barlow’s time with the series was drawing to a close, I wondered at first if On The Third Day was designed as an exit point. But no, Barlow’s promotion attempt is unsuccessful and so he seems fated to remain at Thamesford for the foreseeable future.  But that’s not the case, the clock is definitely ticking ….

A Barlow-heavy episode is always going to get a thumbs up from me (Stratford Johns doesn’t disappoint of course).  And with Vernon, O’Connell and Arnatt plus Donald Burton as one of Barlow’s fellow interviewees it’s plain this isn’t an episode short on decent guest stars. 

The featured regulars are also gifted some good scenes – Walter Gotell never has that much to do, but he always maximises every line (even when he’s being pleasant, there’s something rather unsettling about Chief Constable Cullen).  Meanwhile, Evans and Knowles are turning into a very decent double-act.

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Pinter at the BBC – Monologue (13th April 1973)

Clocking in at just twenty minutes, Monologue is the shortest main feature on the Pinter at the BBC set, but even with this brief running time it’s still unmistakably Pinter.

The staging is simple – a single room with one occupant. The unnamed man (Henry Woolf) addresses an absent friend represented by an empty chair. As the monologue progresses, several questions begin to form. Is his friend dead? Or did he ever exist? And what about the black girl, who drove a wedge between their friendship?

Watching the plays on the set in transmission order, the parallels between this and The Basement helps to highlight the way that Pinter always returned to certain themes (for example, how male friendship can be disrupted by the arrival of a female.

Christopher Morahan, who had directed two of Pinter’s Theatre 625 plays a few years earlier, treats the empty chair as a character in its own right. Therefore just as the camera occasionally zooms into Woolf, it also does the same with the chair. A simple camera operation, but it’s still very effective.

With Woolf addressing the empty chair rather than the camera, the viewer is therefore placed in the position of an outsider, taking a voyeuristic interest in the unfolding drama.

This is reinforced by the way that the camera begins proceedings outside the door before entering the room (and then at the conclusion of the talk discreetly exits).

Henry Woolf’s friendship with Harold Pinter dated back to the 1940’s (as detailed in this Guardian article). His relationship with this piece would also be lengthy (he performed it again at the National Theatre in 2002).

A fairly neglected piece, Monologue doesn’t offer any startling revelations, but it remains a memorable Pinter miniature.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Bank Rate (11th October 1972)

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There’s an incredibly high level of coincidence to be found in Bank Rate, but since it’s a pretty decent episode I’m prepared to cut it some slack.

Harry Hawkins’ relationship with Sara (Jenny Hanley) continues. They’ve bonded over a mutual love of horses, something which Sara’s cousin, Peter Warner (Jonathan Newth), also shares.  Warner is a bank manager whose establishment is due to be targeted by Tom Rattery (Carl Rigg), a robber who both Hawkins and Warner have met in passing. Oh, and Sara’s stable-hand, Danny Fitch (Angus Lennie), knows more than he’s telling about these bank raids ….

Newth’s an instantly recognisable actor, someone with a score of interesting credits to his name. He’s perfect casting as the superior Warner, a man keen to cultivate Hawkins for his own profitable ends. Hawkins is having none of it though – he reports the approach to Watt with horror (according to Hawkins, Warner’s offer of sharing his prize horse is akin to loaning out a woman!)

Angus Lennie could always be called upon to play the downtrodden type very well, as he does here. Mind you, it’s a slight pity that Danny’s shifty nature is so obviously signposted right from the start – the first time Danny spies Hawkins he reacts with a very guilty look (which rather gives the game away). And anyway, why would any decent criminal confide their plans to the garrulous Danny? That’s a part of the plot which doesn’t make sense.

I’m used to Havoc providing the action in early seventies drama, but today it was Action Unique (who mustered a very athletic bunch of criminals it has to be said). The final scene, which sees the robbers confronted in Warner’s bank by Hawkins and co, is priceless – especially the part where a dapper John Watt grabs a Bobby Ball look-a-like and slams his head against the desk several times!

The other moment which caught my eye was an earlier meeting between Watt, Snow, Knowles and three CID officers. It became clear very quickly that the CID men were unspeaking extras, so whilst Watt expounded at great length, they were forced to remain mute. Nodding their heads vigorously and checking their notebooks with a faint air of embarrassment were the only options left open to them ….

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Dog Eat Dog (4th October 1972)

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Dog Eat Dog is that rarest of SS:TF beasts – a Snow-centric episode. PC Snow stumbles across Colin Talbot (Greg Smith) a troubled teenager who – like Snow – has recently lost his dog.  This would seem to be the cue for the two to bond, but it’s not quite as straightforward as that.

Snow later returns with a present for him (a puppy) but Colin angrily refuses it.  Given that Rigby and Smith share several strong scenes at the start of the episode, we seem to be heading towards a story in which Colin will feature heavily. It’s therefore slightly surprising that he then disappears from view until the final ten minutes or so.

But even though he’s offscreen, the problem of Colin still dominates. His father, Harry Talbot (Windsor Davies), is a right piece of work – a workshy layabout, he despises the boy (demonstrated by the fact he strangled his dog).  Needless to say Snow doesn’t react to this news terribly well – the scene where Snow and Talbot face off is an episode highlight.  The way that Snow casually calls Talbot a “bastard” before threatening violence is all the more chilling due to Rigby’s typically measured delivery.

Another highlight is Watt’s confrontation with Snow. With Barlow absent, Watt is the episode’s authority figure – although he’s largely used here for comic effect.  After sustaining a nasty injury to his nose (Evans was forced to break heavily when Snow’s puppy ran out in front of their car) Watt’s patience with the do-gooder Snow is stretched to breaking point ….

PC Knowles (Martin C. Thurley) also gets a spot of character development. The latest of the desk-bound coordinators, he has a few mild clashes with the practical Snow (Knowles – somewhat physically underdeveloped – also admires Snow’s impressive shoulders!). This is another nice comic touch which helps to balance out the drama of Colin’s storyline.

If we trust IMDb, then this was Ewart Alexander’s sole SS:TF script, which might explain why the tone feels slightly different.  No complaints though, as it’s good to have some episodes which push the series in an unusual direction.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Surveillance (27th September 1972)

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Surveillance begins slowly (which is hardly unusual for SS:TF) although things hot up when Frank Martin (Frank Wylie), one of three safecrackers, is pursued from the scene of the crime by Snow.

Since Martin’s already loosed off one shot whilst making his escape, it seems a little unwise for Snow to slowly step towards him, especially since he’s still brandishing the gun. This moment seems to be a homage to that scene from The Blue Lamp, but Snow proves to be much more agile than poor old George Dixon (he dodges the bullet).

Martin gets away and later holes up with William Chalmers (Jon Laurimore).  Martin might be physically slighter than Chalmers, but he finds himself in a position of authority (mainly because Martin’s arrest would also implicate Chalmers). Laurimore could play this sort of dodgy role in his sleep, but he’s still more than watchable – especially later on when Chalmers and Barlow come face to face.

Wylie has the best defined guest role though. Martin’s unpredictability and simmering violence is teased out during the episode, even if it’s hard to ever believe in him as a real threat. Possibly this has something to do with the fact that SS:TF generally had a very sedate pace – violence rarely reared its head.

If Barlow loses his rag when briefly questioning another of the gang, Terry Condon (Nigel Humphreys) then he’s sweetness and light when Chalmers is wheeled in later. I’m not sure which is the most dangerous – impulsive Barlow or cold and calculating Barlow ….

Surveillance has a nice spot of night-time location filming at the beginning and the end of the episode. This helps to open up what would otherwise be a fairly static story. Overall it’s not a top-tier instalment, but Wylie and Laurimore help to keep the interest levels up.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Spit and Polish (13th September 1972)

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There’s a lot to process during the opening few minutes of Spit and Polish. A new theme tune, Hawkins in uniform, Evans in plain clothes and PC Snow’s faithful canine friend, Radar, seems to have died ….

Entirely shot on film, it’s certainly in much better nick than the last available all-film episode (Lessons from series two).  The Task Force are on the hunt for an attacker of women. At present he hasn’t done anything worse than tear their clothes, which Barlow – to Evans’ disgust – is disappointed about. A rape or serious assault would provide them with some decent forensic evidence.

Early on the women are just passive victims (mentioned, but not seen). The next target – Sara Jamieson (Jenny Hanley) – is quite different. An upwardly-mobile horsey type, she’s able to beat her assailant off with a riding crop and seems undisturbed by the attack. Later she wonders why the man didn’t target one of the many women who are begging to be raped (a moment which helps to date the story firmly in another era).

Sara is certainly something of a hit with the Task Force. She and Watt have a brief moment of banter (Watt’s a bit of a flirt on the sly) and later Sara has a lengthy chat with Snow (a good character moment for Rigby).  But it’s Harry Hawkins whom she’s got the hots for – they pop out for a spot of dinner and dancing.

Hanley’s excellent value as the pampered (but not unlikeable) rich girl. The always dependable Peter Copley pops up as Brigadier Jamieson, Sara’s father and a local big-wig (hence Barlow’s desire to keep him sweet).

Spit and Polish certainly has an expansive feel, quite different from some of the more enclosed, studio-bound episodes (it concludes with an impressive stunt featuring the attacker jumping off a ship). Whilst the rape comment (especially coming from Sara’s mouth) is very jolting, at least the episode doesn’t present her as a victim (indeed, she’s the key to running the assailant to ground) which is certainly something in its favour.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Conclusion (29th March 1972)

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Having skirted around the periphery of several stories (although it’s possible that he featured more heavily in some of the episodes not currently available on DVD) Conclusion sees PC Drake (Brian Hall) move centre stage.

SS:TF was often content not to rush, but the opening five minutes of this one – Sergeant Evans considers Drake’s solid gold pencil from all angles – takes some beating. This expensive trinket is enough to set alarm bells ringing with Evans (as is the revelation that Drake lends his colleagues money).

One such recipient is PC Snow. It’s hard to imagine two more different characters – the confident and fly Drake lined up against the methodical and painfully honest Snow. Given this, it’s slightly difficult to see them forming much of a friendship.

Drake’s convivial relationship with his local publican (compared to Snow’s refusal to accept a drink from the same landlord) helps to differentiate their characters even more. It suggests that Drake is taking bribes, although it all seems a bit too obvious. As does the fact he flashes a gold pencil about. Surely a corrupt policeman would be a little more subtle?

The crime of the week – local churches are being robbed of their valuables – takes second place to proving Drake’s guilt or innocence, but it does provide an excellent character moment for Terence Rigby. PC Snow returns to the church where his previous police dog was shot and killed.  Rarely placed in the forefront of the action, Rigby is nevertheless always excellent value – there’s something very reassuring about the implacable Snow.

The denouement probably won’t come as too much of a surprise. Brian Hall was often cast on the wrong side of the law, as he was again here when Drake’s true nature is finally brought into the light by Barlow. Once again, Stratford Johns doesn’t disappoint.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Woman’s World (16th February 1972)

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Woman’s World is another bleak episode. It opens with the news that a ten-year old boy called Norman Gordon has been stabbed to death.  We never actually see the body (when his mother is called to identify him, the camera lingers on Sergeant Evans instead) but this doesn’t lessen the impact.

As the episode title suggests, female characters play central roles. Two – both very different – feature. The first is Carol James (Lois Hantz). A cub reporter who gets wind of the murder, she’s desperate for a scoop. Initially treated with indulgence by Evans, his good-natured feeling doesn’t last long ….

Indeed, Carol doesn’t make many friends amongst the rest of the Task Force either. Both Hawkins and Barlow separately wonder if her parents know that she’s out so late (Hawkins also calls her a chit of a girl, whilst Barlow’s comment of “jailbait” is even less complimentary). It’s true that she oversteps the bounds on several occasions, but does this display of male ire have something to do with the fact she’s a young woman?

This was the first of only a handful of credits for Hantz. She’s very impressive, which makes it all the more surprising that her career in television wasn’t longer.

Cherry Morris plays Anthea Gordon, the mother of the murdered boy.  She’s outwardly harsh and domineering (she has to be, she says, as her husband is so weak). As with Hanz, it’s a very well judged performance.  Clifford Rose, as the weak husband in question, is his usual immaculate self.

Stratford Johns once again mesmerises.  Barlow’s confrontation with Carol and the way he can switch between cold fury and geniality with his subordinates are two examples why there’s never a dull moment when Johns is on screen.

The last ten minutes, when the truth is revealed, grips like a vice. A top-tier episode.

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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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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 a 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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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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