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

ss

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.

ss.5

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)

ss3.jpg

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 ….

ss

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

ss3.jpg

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.

ss4

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

ss.jpg

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.

ss1

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

ss7.jpg

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.

ss4

Pinter at the BBC: Theatre 625 – The Basement (20th February 1967)

Law (Derek Godfrey) finds his cosy basement flat invaded by an old friend, Stott (Pinter) and Stott’s young and mainly silent girlfriend Jane (Kika Markham). Whilst initially pleased to see Stott, Law is less enthused when the pair begin to take ruthless charge of his surroundings ….

Although the third and final Pinter play from his Theatre 625 trilogy may initially seems to be on familiar ground (a mysterious individual indulging in oblique power games) The Basement quickly evolves into something much more interesting than might have been expected from the opening ten minutes.

Based on the first few scenes, the television viewer of 1967 would no doubt have expected a linear development of the opening theme. We have three central protagonists – the ebullient Law, the monosyllabic and slightly threatening Stott and the unfathomable Jane – and a well designed basement flat for them to co-exist in. With a running time of just under an hour, there seems ample scope for the three of them to clash.

And so they do, just not in the way that was probably expected. Whilst Tea Party featured some jarring cuts and fantasy sequences, these are much more pronounced in The Basement. Indeed, it’s possible to have some debate as to where reality ends and fantasy takes over (the final scene – delightfully circular in nature – floats the possibility that everything we’ve witnessed has been untrue).

The first jarring reality shift comes ten minutes in, as the action abruptly switches to a beach. Whilst Jane makes an elaborate sandcastle, the ever-voluble Law does his best to stake his claim as Stott’s true friend and soul-mate. Stott meanwhile, is somewhat distanced from this action. And then we quickly cut back to the flat – and in such a way which suggests that the whole beach scene was just Law’s fantasy.

Is it a good rule of thumb that any scene set outside the environs of the flat is fake? That could be so, but then some inside also have the same dreamlike quality. Time certainly seems to pass in a non-linear fashion (one minute there’s snow on the ground, the next moment it’s summer) whilst the décor of the flat also changes from scene to scene.

The final few scenes, although flat based, are clearly fantasy (Law and Stott, each stripped to the waist, attack each other with broken bottles) although whilst the men are scrapping, Jane is shown to be working in the kitchen, which appears to anchor her – if not them – in reality. This switch between the unreal and real is fascinating.

Although The Basement was staged several times (the London production of 1970 with Donald Pleasence as Law, Barry Foster as Stott and Stephanie Beacham as Jane sounds particularly intriguing) the strength of the piece is definitely its ability to rapidly change from one reality to another. Something that was simple to achieve on television (provided you had the time and the budget) but much more difficult to achieve on stage. I’d certainly be intrigued to see a staged production of the play, but I think it probably works best as a television entity.

Critical reception was mixed, but most writers had positive things to say, even if some had to confess that they didn’t understand it all. Kenneth Eastaugh, writing in the Daily Mirror, decided that it was “a unique master course for everybody who ever aspired to write” although this was qualified by some criticism of Pinter’s performance whilst he felt that Markham was merely “adequate” in her role.

J.D.S. Halworth in The Stage and Television Today also found some fault with Pinter’s Stott, although he/she was much more positive about Markham (both critics agreed that Derek Godfrey indulged in some skilful playing).

Max Wilkinson in the Coventry Herald declared that although “I am not certain what the play was about or what it was saying … I will confidently assert it was masterly”.

The Basement might be on familiar Pinter ground (unsettling and oblique) but it’s enlivened by some humorous moments. His final original work for television, it’s yet another which has aged rather well.