Softly Softly: Task Force – Final Score

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Final Score offers a good opportunity to see Barlow in action.  He begins by questioning Mrs Young (Avis Bunnage).  She works for Khan as a cleaner and had assisted Tommy Nunn in the recent robbery from Khan’s jewellers (Tommy did the robbery, Mrs Young took possession of the stones).

She’s taciturn during Barlow’s interview with her, offering little more than non-committal answers.  The director, Paul Ciappessoni, favours close-ups of Barlow and Mrs Nunn during this scene, quickly cutting between the two.  This helps to create a sense of anxiety and claustrophobia.

Although he doesn’t make much headway with Mrs Nunn, he has rather more fun with Khan.  Having recovered the stolen stones from Mrs Young, Barlow’s interested to see if Khan will claim them (unlikely, since they were already stolen before he received them).  Stratford Johns, Norman Bowler and George Pravda all sparkle in this scene – Khan has the persona of a slightly confused foreigner, whilst Barlow alternates between charming and threatening at will.  Hawkins chips in to increase the pressure a little more.

Watt wants to turn the screw on Tommy Nunn by telling him that Mrs Young will be charged with both robbery and possession of the stones.  He asks Evans to do it and also to apologise for suspecting him, but Evans is hesitant – it’s a lie and he doesn’t like telling lies.  Watt’s reaction is swift – he tells him to go back to normal duties, as he’s too delicate for this type of work.  After Evans exits Watt’s office he’s clearly kicking himself about his offhand comment.  We’ve seen before that Evans seems to have had a certain leeway in the way he interacts with his superiors, so it’s possibly not surprising that eventually his off-hand conduct would catch up with him.

If it hadn’t been for the playing of George Pravda and Roddy McMillan the crime part of the story probably wouldn’t have been as interesting as it turned out.  Given this, it’s a little debatable whether it should have been spread out across two episodes.

There are some character moments between the regulars which help to keep the interest level up during the second half of this episode.  Snow pops up with a present for Barlow from Watt – a bottle of whisky.  Barlow then asks Snow if he’s passed his sergeant’s exam.  Snow says he has, but doesn’t want to apply just at the moment, due to his attachment to Radar.  He’s not interested in continuing as a dog-handler when he’s made up to sergeant, but he’ll stick with Radar as long as he’s able to do the job.  And after Radar retires he’ll then move up the ranks.

But just as the story seems to be rather meandering to a halt, there’s shocking news – Mrs Young is dead (she committed suicide in her cell).  Unsurprisingly we don’t witness the aftermath of Mrs Young’s death – it’s only reported – and neither is any concern expressed that her death might trigger an investigation.  Madeline Mills made her only SS:TF appearance as WPC Berry, who’d been assigned to watch Mrs Young.  Given the paucity of female characters in the series it’s a pity her character (or someone similar) wasn’t retained.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Kick Off

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Barlow and Watt are at the big match.  Whilst Watt is enjoying the luxury of the director’s box, Barlow is in much less salubrious surroundings, intently watching the crowd from a private vantage point, high up.   Inspector Armstrong (Terrence Hardiman) is also there – directing the officers towards potential trouble-spots.  Armstrong, a martinet by-the-book character, and Barlow, free and easy on the surface but with a core of steel underneath, don’t hit it off.

This isn’t surprising as Armstrong is a graduate policeman – a lawyer with a first-class degree – and therefore just the sort of copper that Barlow has little regard for.  So he amuses himself by gently needling the man, which passes the time as he searches the crowd.  Armstrong doesn’t enjoy football, rugby’s his game.  Barlow correctly guesses that he means rugby union, whereas Barlow prefers “rugby league, faster professional.”

At the start of the episode Armstrong isn’t a member of the Task Force, but it’ll possibly come as no surprise to learn that Cullen, deciding that the Inspector should have some hard practical experience, decides to deploy him there.  Armstrong’s not pleased, enquiring if he has to report directly to Barlow.  Cullen says not, but tells him that if he has a problem with Barlow then he needs to sort it out.  “You fit in with him, not the other way around. Charlie Barlow is the best head of CID that this constabulary has ever had.”

Armstrong is going places.  He’s the youngest uniformed Inspector in the division, in two years time he’ll be a Chief Inspector and his progress ever upwards to Chief Constable seems to be predestined.  Older hands, such as Watt, have a distinct lack of enthusiasm for him.  “Men a lot younger than me making Chief Constable.”  Watt’s therefore less than overjoyed when Cullen tells him Armstrong will be seconded to the Task Force, but before Cullen leaves he has this to say. “Things are moving pretty fast in this service, the old order changes, yielding place to new. Armstrong might be made Chief Constable in a force you want to serve in. It’s worth bearing that in mind in your treatment of him, I mean.”

Watt calls Armstrong in.  He enters the office ramrod straight, swagger stick under his arm, standing to attention as if he’s on parade.  This is just the sort of thing that’s guaranteed to irritate Watt and it’s plan that if Armstrong’s going to fit in he’s going to have to unbend a little.  His later encounter with Evans is a case in point.  We’ve seen how Evans has amused himself by baiting Jackson in the past, and he carries on in much the same vein with Armstrong.  When the Inspector asks him if he always dresses so sloppily, Evans’ rejoinder is unabashed.  “Yes sir. As a rule, it’s my bulk you see. Everything wrinkles on me. Oh, and I’ve got messy eating habits, too.”

Jackson has gained his promotion to Inspector and is departing for a six-month fact-finding course overseas.  And that, I believe, is the last we see of him as this appears to be David Allister’s last SS:TF credit.  Susan Tebbs also bows out at the end of the year, which is also a shame – both will be missed.

Although Jackson’s never been the most popular officer, there does seem to be genuine pleasure from the others at his promotion – Barlow’s handshake for example.  It’s a pity that the possibility of his promotion couldn’t have been touched upon in earlier episodes, as it comes totally out of the blue.  His yell of “yippee” as he hears the news is a nice touch and is also something which is completely in character (a brief display of emotion before returning to his usual business-like state).  Also, everybody seems to have recently got into the habit of calling him Jacko, something which I don’t recall hearing very often before.

Apart from these comings and goings there is a spot of crime as well.  Barlow was at the match since he was concerned that somebody might be interested in stealing the gate takings.  This didn’t happen, but as Kick Off is the first of a two-parter there’s a sense that this story isn’t over yet.

Another plot-line that’s still running concerns a thief called Tommy Nunn (Roddy McMillan).  Barlow spotted Tommy in the crowd and asked Hawkins to tail him, although Hawkins lost him in the general melee.  This is unfortunate as Tommy robbed a local jewellers just before the end of the match.  The owner, Kahn (George Pravda), seems philosophical about his loss, but things aren’t quite as they seem.  Kahn is a fence and the items Tommy stole had already been stolen – so he takes great pleasure in blackmailing Kahn (if he doesn’t pay up then the items go to the police, with a note to say where they came from).

McMillan (later to play ‘Choc’ Minty in Hazell) and Pravda (an instantly recognisable face from a score of different television series of this era) are both solid actors and help to keep the interest of this sub-plot bubbling along.  The football scenes might be a mish-mash of stock footage, brief clips of a real match (which since it’s recorded on videotape rather jars with the film shots) and studio material (which also jars with the film-work) but it creates a reasonable impression.

And as we see Hawkins tail Tommy, either the series had employed an impressive number of extras or they took the opportunity to slip their actors into the departing crowd of a real match.  There’s also the opportunity to witness how Evans deals with troublemakers at the match – give them a quick clip on the ear and send one of them off to stand somewhere else!  Since the squabbling pair were teenage girls this has the potential for being a little dodgy, but it’s never a serious plot point, it’s just there to add a bit of colour.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Bearings

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News of a collision between a goods and a passenger train shatters the early morning Monday routine.  It’s a bad business – some six people are dead and numerous others are injured – but it was no accident (wheel bearings were stripped from the goods train prior to it setting out).  These bearings have long been the target of thieves, who can make a tidy sum selling them to scrap metal merchants.  Barlow is incensed, he considers the culprits are guilty of murder.  But Watt, whilst sympathetic, knows it’ll be almost impossible to prove …..

Bearings has a quiet opening.  Barlow pops into Watt’s office and they exchange notes about how their respective weekends went.  Watt’s was restful, a few jars and a doze in his armchair whilst Barlow still seems to be suffering from the efforts of a round of golf.  Barlow wonders if maybe he should take up drinking as a hobby, like Watt, to which Watt counters that since Barlow does so much drinking when he’s working he’d have no time to fit it in during his off duty time!

There’s also a chance to witness the workings of the operations room, as men and women quietly and efficiently deal with the public’s emergency calls.  The operations room is the location where it’s established exactly how serious the train incident is.  This isn’t surprising, as all the train footage we see is stock material of real accidents.  Given SS:TF’s limited budget, mounting a crash was never going to happen, although it’s a pity that due to the inferior picture quality of the stock footage it’s rather a jarring moment.  But Evans’ radio report about what he can observe, together with the brief stock shots, help to create a reasonable impression.

Barlow might regard the theft of the wheel bearings as murder, but Watt isn’t so sure.  He believes the best they can hope for is to charge the culprits with dishonest handling, how can you prove that somebody actually removed the bearings, unless you have a witness?  Once it’s been established what caused the derailment, the officers click into action and proceed to question all the local scrap metal merchants

There’s a nice clash between Evans and Jackson.  They might both be Sergeants, but Evans has a certain amount of disdain for the desk-bound Jackson.  Although Jackson says that without paperwork and planning they’d never catch any criminals, Evans counters that it doesn’t catch thieves.  “You can’t plan that look in a man’s face that says all you’ve got to do is lean on him and you’ve got him”.  Evans’ nose comes up trumps as he finds the bearings in the possession of Matthew Riley (Desmond Perry) .So score one to Evans then.

Barlow conducts the interview with Riley, which means we’re guaranteed some fireworks.  It’s a memorable encounter – even after learning that the loss of the bearings caused a substantial loss of life, Riley is unmoved.  Barlow slightly loses his cool and afterwards concedes that he rather bodged the interview   “That’s the trouble with shock tactics, once you’ve used them you’ve got nothing left.”

The transport police believe that Wiley (Paul Thompson) and Dawes (Jack Carr) might have been responsible for stealing the bearings, but Watt doesn’t make any headway questioning them.  Evans (who seems to spend just as much time in plain clothes as he does in uniform) is tasked to keep them under observation.  This he does and he also runs down a couple more suspects who might provide them with the break they need to gain a conviction.

Bearings is another story which finds Stratford Johns on top form.  Barlow is at his intimidating best, but is still unable to make any of the suspects talk – even Johnstone (Adrian Shergold) the youngest and most inexperienced of them won’t admit anything.

The human tragedy of the crash is brought starkly into focus when a mother tearfully identities a shoe which belonged to her missing eleven-year old daughter.  Barlow brandishes the shoe to Johnstone and the others, which is finally enough to make the younger man come clean.  Whether Barlow will be able to gain a conviction for murder or manslaughter is outside the parameters of the story, but he’s at least got somebody to admit what happened, which is a victory of sorts.

Bearings makes a virtue out of its lack of budget.  We don’t see the train crash or its aftermath, nor do we see the police traipse around all the local scrap metal merchants (we’re told there’s quite a few in the area).  Instead, the story focuses on the police’s efforts to gather evidence.  The breakthrough – a distressed mother and her child’s shoe – is a rather random event, but it doesn’t feel too contrived.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Collation

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Sergeant Jackson has been studying a number of recent high-profile burglaries and has found a curious pattern.  Every night that a major break-in occurred, in roughly the same area there were several smaller ones.  These were trivial affairs though, a bottle of wine in one house, a lighter taken from a corner shop, etc.  It’s a curious state of affairs – why go to all that bother just to steal trinkets?  But John Watt doesn’t have a great deal of time to ponder, as his wife Jean (Gay Hamilton) is unable to find her watch and then discovers that their home-made pâté has vanished from the fridge.  The evidence is unmistakable, Watt is the latest victim ….

At the start of the story, Evans (after hearing about the lighter stolen from the corner shop) tells the proprietor that whilst it appears to be a trivial matter, it’ll be stored away and collated for future reference.  And it doesn’t take long before we see his words come true – on its own the theft of a lighter is meaningless, but when it’s plotted with the other robberies it becomes of great significance.

The burglary at Watt’s house is an interesting development.  Because this is a story centred around the police investigation (we don’t see the criminals until we’re well into the episode) it poses several questions.  Is it simply a coincidence that Watt was targeted or does our burglar have a sense of humour?  The drip, drip of information continues when it’s revealed that several witnesses reported seeing a police officer outside various properties, including Watt’s house, in the early hours of the morning.  Barlow reacts with a spasm of anger at the thought that one of their own might be responsible.

He’s also angry – although it’s done slightly tongue in cheek – when he learns that the Watt’s pâté has been stolen.  They had been planning to dish it up for Barlow that evening!  Their dinner party goes ahead, although Watt grumbles that the shop-bought pâté just isn’t the same.  The sight of Jean Watt, as well as their slightly awkward dinner party, gives us a few nice off-duty moments of colour.  All of the Task Force officers, but especially Barlow and Watt, are so focussed and driven that it’s often hard to imagine they have any home life at all.

One of the witnesses who saw what appeared to be a police officer acting suspiciously was young Timothy (David Arnold).  Arnold gives an extraordinary performance.  Timothy (he doesn’t like being called Tim and tells Evans and Barlow so on different occasions) might be the son of a greengrocer, but he’s remarkably well-spoken, polite and logical.  It’s hard to imagine children like him ever existed and it’s a little curious why a more naturalistic performance wasn’t sought, but the dialogue suggests Arnold was playing the role the way it was written.

His interview with Evans is a bit of a treat and Evans also has a memorable encounter with one of Watt’s neighbours.  She was burgled six months ago and cynically tells him that she never had all this fuss made (but since John Watt is a policeman he has the red-carpet treatment).  Evans protests that that’s not the case, but she’s not in a listening mood.  She is of value, as she’s the first to link a policeman to the crimes.  When Evans presses her to describe the man, she tactlessly states that the man wasn’t as stout as Evans!   Timothy’s evidence also comes up trumps when he begins to have second thoughts about whether it was a policeman he saw after all.

The Task Force manage to track down a suspect suspiciously easy, which begs a rather obvious question – why haven’t they done so before?  It surely can’t be just because John Watt has now become a victim?  And the reveal that the villains were only pretending to be police officers is maybe not too great a shock – bent coppers existed at the time, but they didn’t turn up very often in SS:TF.

One story weakness is that it’s never explained why they carried out the small burglaries which netted nothing of value.  It seems an unnecessary risk for no gain, unless they were simply doing it for kicks.  But they were hardly kids, so this suggestion is slightly difficult to swallow.

Collation is decent rather than outstanding, but there are several areas of interest, not least John Watt’s undercover work (complete with a rather clumsy looking instamatic camera).  David Lloyd Meredith is another who’s on good form, whether it’s tangling with young Timothy or sharing an observation car with Barlow.  For example, Evans can’t resist a chuckle when he learns that the codeword for the operation is pâté!  And when Timothy’s attached by the fake copper, watch the way that Barlow deals with him.  It’s certainly not gentle ….

Softly Softly: Task Force – Its Ugly Head

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A student called Bernard Pinks (Ian Sharp) is arrested at a demonstration after throwing pepper at Snow’s dog, Radar.  His solicitor, Grenville (Michael Goodliffe), later alleges that Pinks, whilst he was in custody, was subjected to a homosexual assault by Harry Hawkins ….

Its Ugly Head opens with Barlow and Watt hauled over the coals by Cullen.  They both look rather like naughty schoolchildren summoned to the Headmaster’s office for a dressing down.  The reason for Cullen’s displeasure isn’t particularly important in plot terms, but it helps to reinforce the notion that he’s an implacable individual, well versed in getting his own way.

He also has a chat to Donald about the conduct of Inspector Reynolds.  During the course of the conversation it becomes clear that Inspector Reynolds made advances to Donald when she was a uniformed officer (which was one of the reasons why Donald was glad to move to plain-clothes).  That the unseen Reynolds is later revealed to be a woman is an unexpected development.  It seems that rumours of her conduct have been fairly widespread (although Cullen knew nothing about it until recently).  Now that he does, he wants action – but without hard evidence, what can be done?

It can hardly be a coincidence that the main plot thread is also concerned with an allegation of misconduct against an officer.  Cullen and Barlow are visited by the smooth-talking Grenville, who tells Barlow that his client, Pinks, might make a counter-claim of assault against Hawkins when he appears in court the following day.  Nothing’s put down officially on paper though and it becomes obvious that this is a fishing exercise – if the police drop their charges then Pink will drop his.  It’s blackmail, pure and simple, and neither Barlow or Cullen can possibly agree to Grenville’s veiled offer, but Hawkins still has to be questioned.

A completely studio-bound episode (we hear about the demonstration, but never see it) Its Ugly Head works best as an exercise in seeing how the various member of the Task Force operate under stress.  Barlow is quick to rise to anger when Grenville makes his allegations, whilst Watt is irritated to find he’s been kept out of the loop.  Frank Windsor’s very good in this one, a particular highlight being Watt’s rather awkward chat with Donald, after he stumbles across her problems with Inspector Reynolds.

Evans is initially sanguine about being called back to the station (it puts off a wall-papering job) but his anger slowly rises when he understands where Barlow’s questioning is leading.  Evans’ self-declared awe at Barlow (he feels more comfortable standing up when being questioned by him, rather than sitting down) slowly dissipates as incredulity takes hold.  Norman Bowler, as the unfortunate Hawkins, also has his moment to shine, although it’s relatively brief – he might be the man in the spotlight, but the likes of Cullen and Donald have more screentime.

The way Donald’s colleagues feel about her, also a feature of the previous story, is touched upon again.  Some, like Snow, are almost paternalistic – he feels she’s too nice a girl to be in a job like this.  Others, such as Watt, can’t help but make mildly sexist remarks, although he’s later given a chance to make his position clearer.

Donald – the object of unwanted attention from both males and females –  clearly has a lot to put up with. That she struggles to be treated as an equal with her male colleagues can be seen during her interview with Cullen. He speaks to her in an avuncular way that just wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t been a women (imagining a similarly cosy chat with the likes of Snow or Evans makes the mind boggle!) Is this another example of the sexist nature of the series or is it simply reflecting the way the police force was at the time? Or maybe a little of both?

Michael Goodliffe was an impeccable actor with a long and impressive list of credits.  As Grenville, he’s controlled and calm until the closing minutes, when it becomes clear that the police hold the upper hand, meaning that his composure ever so slightly wavers.  Ian Sharp, the other guest artist, has less to work with, but is able to capture well the contradictions in Pinks’ character.  He might be scruffy and dirty, but he’s not ill-educated – so it’s possible to believe that he comes from an affluent background and is simply playing at being a revolutionary.

As ever, Elwyn Jones delivers a sharply-written script, full of decent character conflict.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Without Favour

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Evans pays Mrs Marlowe (Colette O’Neil) a visit.  He’s looking for her husband Jack, but is told that he’s working up North (“building a motorway so that the crime cars can get around a bit faster”).  This comes a something of a relief to Evans – there’s been a spate of robberies in the area and Jack (as an ex-convict) is an obvious suspect.

He’s been going straight for two years but is still likely to be of interest to the police after any suspicious activity in the area.  Evans blames the system for this, but it’s a moment that provides a sharp insight into policing methods – when you have no evidence, give some likely suspects a tug.  There’s no vindictiveness on Evans’ part though.  He claims part of the credit for helping Jack to go straight and therefore has something of a vested interest in seeing him keep out of trouble.

If crime doesn’t pay, then it appears going straight doesn’t either.  The Marlowes live in a grimy room in a grimy part of town.  With a background of barking dogs and screaming children, it’s a desperate sort of place.  On entering their room, Evans lights up a cigarette  and offers Mrs Marlowe one.  After a brief pause – presumably because nobody ever offers her anything for free – she accepts.  It’s odd to see an officer smoking on duty, but we can interpret it as Evans’ attempt to put her at her ease.

An off-hand remark about her poor accommodation catches Evans’ interest.  She tells him that there’s no point in complaining  to her landlord, Spence (Donal McCann), as he’d only send some of his boys around to “persuade” her to keep quiet.  Evans files this away for later.

We then switch to the Chief Constable’s office, where he’s delighted to let John Watt know he’s delegated him a very important job – speaking to the Kingley Rotary Club on crime prevention.  The juxtaposition between two very different sections of society was no doubt intentional on Alan Plater’s part and we return to this theme at the episode’s close.  Watt’s far from delighted with this important mission but begins to plan his speech anyway.  A few jokes will be essential to ensuring that everything goes off smoothly, and he’s informed that PC Snow is the man to see.  “Probably tries them on his dog” mutters Watt.  This is a lovely moment, but there’s even better to come after Snow tells him one of his best jokes.  Watt’s unimpressed expression is a joy to behold!

Evans decides to pay Spence a visit.  He’s also the boss of a local amusement arcade, which provides us with a brief nostalgic glimpse of a number of old-fashioned one-armed bandits and the like.  Spence isn’t impressed with Evans’ comment that the properties he owns are dirty and rundown.  “Dirt’s the responsibility for the people who make the dirt. Well, look at me. Look at this office. Am I dirty?”  He denies sending heavies to harass his tenants and since Evans can’t prove that he does, there’s something of a stalemate.

Since there’s no evidence of wrongdoing, it’s easy to see how Spence can later complain to Watt about Evans’ visit.  When he claims that Evans’ actions are motivated by personal enmity, it’s not an outrageous statement.  Evans clearly dislikes Spence – a slum landlord who also runs an arcade that takes money off the poor and vulnerable – but Spence counters that he’s simply offering people a service.  In many ways, this smoothly-dressed, fast-talking man looks ahead to the Thatcherite 1980’s.

The two-handed scene with Lloyd Meredith and McCann is the heart of the story.  Evans is convinced that Spence is a villain, it’s simply that the police haven’t found any evidence yet that’ll stand up in court.  In Evans’ view (and it’s no doubt one shared by many of his colleagues) Spence is a lower form of criminal life, because he doesn’t accept that he’s a villain.  Career-criminals – those who come quietly after being caught – garner a certain amount of respect from the police.  But Spence is quite different.  “You steal off other people just as much as a bank robber. You steal off their weakness. And all the time you try to justify it by garbage about providing a public service.”

Evans is later hauled over the coals by Cullen and Watt.  He admits that he wouldn’t have spoken to Spence in the way he did if it had been a formal interview or if there had been anybody else present.  It was simply a speculative interview that was intended to rattle Spence’s cage.  Cullen concedes that Evans hasn’t broken any rules and so there’s no question of a disciplinary charge but Watt has a few comments to make.

Watt starts by admitting that they all bend the law from time to time(!) but goes on to label Evans a “bloody bad policeman” and spells out the reason why.  Evans loathes Spence, which is wrong.  “Feelings get in the way of judgement. Feelings make coppers start thumping when they should be talking, asking questions, getting information. Forget about feelings, you can’t afford them.”  All Evans has done is to warn Spence to be on his guard.  But Watt agrees with Evans that he’s probably a crook and will keep an eye on him.

The story closes with the juxtaposition of Watt’s speech to the Rotary Club and Evans’ return to speak to Mrs Marlowe.  Watt’s speech is a plea for public co-operation, mirrored by Evans’ attempt to persuade Mrs Marlowe to provide evidence against Spence.

The contrast between the well-heeled Rotarians and the shabby environment inhabited by Mrs Marlowe is striking.  Mrs Marlowe is non-committal when Evans asks for her help, although she doesn’t dismiss it out of hand.  If she does co-operate, it may be because Evans has treated her and her husband with respect in the past – which can be seen as a victory for a non-confrontational type of policing.  Whilst Watt appeals to the Rotarians sense of public duty, Evans admits to Mrs Marlowe that he dislikes Spence and wants to put him behind bars.  It’s plain that Evans has pitched his appeal at her level – if he, like Watt, had played the public duty card he probably wouldn’t have got very far at all.

Remarkably, although there’s no actual crime in Without Favour, it’s still an absorbing fifty minutes.  Both the unseen Jack Marlowe and the very visible Spence may feel aggrieved at being questioned by the police when there’s no evidence connecting them to crimes, but if you’re an ex-criminal (like Jack) or someone operating on the fringes (like Spence) then it appears that’s just a price you have to pay.  Alan Plater is skilful enough to keep his voice neutral throughout, so it’s left to the viewers to decide whether he condemns or condones this practice.