Special Branch – Short Change (19th November 1969)

The Troika affair rears its head again after Christine Morris (Sandra Bryant) escapes from an open prison. She’s swiftly recaptured, but it seems that she might end up in Russia anyway ….

The move to colour is initially a little jarring (mainly because it allows us to appreciate for the first time just how gaudy many of DCI Jordan’s shirt and tie combinations are). There’s also a rejigged title sequence, which is notable for the way it features the series’ two leading actors, Derren Nesbitt and Fulton Mackay (previously the images were of unknown miscreants).

We’re don’t see the initial meeting between Inman (Mackay) and Jordan (Nesbitt), but their first scene together sets the tone. Inman is clearly throwing his weight around a little by attempting to tighten certain areas of procedure that he feels have got too lax (Jordan, of course, bridles about this).  No doubt over time they’ll find an amicable way to work together, but this initial friction isn’t unpleasing.

An early hot topic of discussion concerns the hapless DC Morrisey, who stands accused of assaulting a protestor at a demonstration. Jordan (despite indulgently regarding Morrisey as a somewhat hopeless case) stands firmly behind him – he has no evidence either way, but is happy to close ranks as he instinctively knows Morrisey would never give way to violence. But since Inman doesn’t know Morrisey he requires something more than blind faith. Mind you, as Inman later establishes his innocence (by studying the film rushes of the alleged attack) he does seem to have the best interests of his officers at heart.

Sandra Bryant returns as the unsettling Christine Morris. Apparently an innocent pawn caught up in a spy web, her coolness under pressure (not even the prospect of being sent to Holloway prison fazes her) begins to set alarm bells ringing for Inman. After a little digging it’s discovered that the real Christine Morris died in infancy, so the woman masquerading as her looks to be a Russian agent.

A pity this wasn’t discovered the first time around, which is a mark against the recently department Eden ….

The irony is that Moxon had long suspected this and is more than happy for her to be sent back to Russia. Partly because she can be swopped for a British student arrested in Moscow for selling two jumpers from Marks & Spencer, but mainly because it’ll enable a British shoe factory to be built over there.  As Moxon discloses to the Deputy Commander (David Garth) not only will the factory net HMG three million pounds, it’ll also be of benefit to the Russians (who have terrible shoes, according to Moxon).

As so often with the series, justice has to take a second seat to political maneuvering (although it’s best not to assume this particular story has concluded).

At one point the Deputy Commander wonders whether Moxon’s air of infallibility is all just a mask. He, of course, demurs – but the episode leaves a few questions unanswered. For example, since it looks like the Russians went to considerable trouble to arrange the swop, why did they attempt to spirit Christine away from prison in a rather amateurish fashion?

Much more vigorous and active than Eden, Mackay makes an instant impression as Inman. Jennifer Wilson, as DS Webb, appears to have vanished without trace. She had a pretty thankless role, but it’s surprising that she didn’t carry over into the colour era of the series.

As often happened with ITV drama from this period, there’s a mix of OB VT and film used for location work. Christine’s escape from prison is shot on film whilst her departure from the UK is captured on videotape (possibly there were logistical reasons for this – maybe it was easier to move the more lightweight VT cameras around the airport).

Short Change isn’t a story with many shocks (for once we know exactly why Moxon does what he does, and it’s difficult to argue against him) but the episode sets up the new dynamic between Inman and Jordan very effectively.

Special Branch – Reliable Sources (12th November 1969)

The ninth episode of series one, Reliable Sources is something of a milestone episode as we bid farewell to Det. Supt. Eden. There’s been a serial element running through a number of these episodes, which continues here (and in the episode to follow). Eden – after an intense grilling from the security commission – is told that he’s been cleared of any wrongdoing in respect of his handling of the Troika debacle (as have his fellow Special Branch officers). But any jubilation proves to be short-lived ….

If Reliable Sources shows us anything, then it’s how the bluff, honest Eden is no match for the devious Moxon. Right from the start, when Moxon warns Eden not to poke around in matters which don’t concern him, it’s plain that Eden will come off second best.

A Russian spy called Alexandrov (heavily involved in the Troika affair) has defected to the West. This means little to Eden, who still has a warrant for his arrest and is keen to enforce it, but Moxon firmly warns him off. When the news of Alexandrov’s defection is leaked to the papers, Eden becomes a prime suspect – especially since he’s recently lunched with Clive Bradbury (Tony Britton), an experienced Fleet Street hack who specialises in security stories.

What’s interesting is that Moxon admits to bugging Bradbury’s phone, so the true culprit of the leak would already have been known to him (although he later shrugs this off). Why then did he make Eden feel so uncomfortable? Possibly Moxon, the arch manipulator, simply can’t help himself.

The twist in the tail – the man responsible for leaking the story meets with Moxon – shouldn’t really come as a surprise. But both Eden and Jordan jump to the wrong conclusion (Moxon is corrupt) rather than the right one (Moxon is laying a false trail to confuse the Russians).

Morris Perry is on top form today and it’s nice to see both Tony Britton and David Collings guest-starring. Collings plays Bradbury’s editor, who’s just as keen as he is for a scoop on the Alexandrov affair. Although the story that’s leaked to them via Moxon’s proxy (Alexandrov’s precise whereabouts) doesn’t sound that exciting.

The fact that Eden’s been totally outplayed from beginning to end is highlighted by the way he’s unceremoniously shunted out of Special Branch and into an important-sounding (but no doubt meaningless) job for the next twelve months until his retirement is due. It’s easy to imagine Moxon’s hand in this, although given how easy Eden has been to manipulate, maybe not – after all, the next man in the hot seat might pose more of a challenge.

There’s been whispers throughout the episode that Jordan is in line for the job. He certainly seemed to think so, as when the Deputy Commander breaks the news that Det. Supt. Inman will be taking over, Jordan’s face visibly falls.

The next episode is clearly a key one as George Markstein returns to write it. Plus there’s the fact that the series moves into colour, which – together with the arrival of Fulton Mackay as Inman – helps to give these later S1 episodes the feel of a new series launch.

Special Branch – The Children of Delight (5th November 1969)

A cult orgainsation called The Children of Delight pique the interest of Special Branch. Are they simply a group of people who have found a better way to live or is there something sinister lurking beneath their tranquil façade?

Adele Rose’s sole SB script, The Children of Delight declines to answer this question directly – although there’s plenty of evidence to sift through. With Jordan and Eden remaining mostly office bound, it falls to Detective Sergeant Sarah Gifford (Sheila Fearn) to infiltrate the group. It’s a very decent guest role for Fearn (a pity her character didn’t return).

Sarah is welcomed by Mrs Bishop (Georgine Anderson), who seems reassuringly normal – a middle-aged woman who doesn’t look in the least brainwashed. But it’s not long before the first discordant note is struck – poor Mr Turner (Arnold Ridley) has transgressed their rules and is required perform manual work (scrubbing floors, etc) for a week. Anyone who could do such a thing to a nice old man like that must surely be evil.

Two cult members on the lowest of the three rungs – Mr Turner and Jimmy Cole (Wilfred Downing) – are given a chance to speak. Both seem happy and content, although we’re told that Turner has left his home and family whilst Jimmy’s mother, Mrs Cole (Anna Turner), is a constant tearful presence throughout the episode. Desperate to be reunited with her son, he nevertheless rejects her when the pair finally meet again.

The fact that John Abeneri (playing a character called Comber) is one of the Children of Delight’s higher ups doesn’t inspire confidence in their benign aims – he spends most of the episode lurking in corners, acting in a sinister way.

There’s an extraordinary scene just before the second ad break – Comber and Mrs Bishop attempt to initiate Sarah via a remarkably rough series of questions (is she a lesbian, has she committed incest, etc). Under such relentless abusive questioning she can’t help but break down and admit to being a police officer. This leads Moxon to later mutter that he knew it was a mistake to ask a woman to do this job.

For a short while it appears that a subplot – a key American scientist is one of the Children of Delight – will assume prominence, but that doesn’t really go anywhere. However, his suicide does get Jordan out of the office – his impatient conversation with a distinctly unimpressed uniformed sergeant (played by Tony Caunter) is a late highlight of the episode.

As touched upon earlier, there’s no closure to the story of the Children of Delight. They may be breaking up homes but Eden is prepared to let them be. After all, he maintains, they’re entitled to their freedoms just like everyone else. But Moxon – who initiated the investigation – bypasses Eden’s recommendations and gets the result he was looking for anyway. Sometimes you wonder why Moxon bothers to involve Special Branch, since he so often ignores their advice …

H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man – Point of Destruction

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Scott (Duncan Lamont) has seen four pilots killed during tests for his new fuel diffuser.  Accidents or sabotage? Brady, a friend of Scott’s, steps in to find out ….

The cast of Point of Destruction oozes with class.  An early example is Alfred Burke, playing the test-pilot Bob (and he doesn’t even appear in the credits).  This is a little odd as although his role is qute short, it’s still a speaking part.  Always a pleasure to see Burke though, even in a small role like this.

The moment when the control tower loses contact with Bob is an effective one – rather than the crackle of a dead radio there’s simply silence – although the sting of the incidental music shortly afterwards does underscore this moment rather too obviously and melodramatically.

Is there a saboteur on Scott’s team?  With only twenty-five minutes to play with it’s not a mystery that can be maintained for any length of time, so the reveal that Dr James Court (John Rudling) has been accepting substantial sums of money from the hard-as-nails foreign agent Katrina (Patricia Jessell) occurs very early on.  Had the episode been longer then we could have been introduced to several different members of Scott’s team, leaving us to decide which one was guilty, something which could have worked well.

Court isn’t a terribly well-defined character.  Is he motivated purely by money or is it more a case of envy?  No matter, since he performs his place in the narrative perfectly effectively.  John Rudling’s television career stretched back to 1937 (a half-hour adaptation of the play-within-a-play Pyramus and Thisbe from A Midsummer’s Night Dream) but it was only towards the end of his life – when he played Brabinger in To The Manor Born – that he became something of a household name.

If you only know Rudling from To The Manor Born then you probably wouldn’t have connected Court to Brabinger (since he looked very different here).  Barry Letts, playing the control tower officer, is someone else who isn’t instantly recognisable (if he’d had a beard then I may have twigged a little earlier).

But Alfred Burke and Duncan Lamont are both very distinctive as is Derren Nesbitt.  There’s certainly no mistaking Nesbitt, one of the longest-serving of the ITC utility players (he appeared in pretty much every ITC adventure series, almost always as a villain).  In Point of Destruction he plays Stephan, Katrina’s henchman.  Even his first scene, in which he does nothing but lurk in the background – smoking a cigarette in a threatening manner – is a treat, but he soon ramps up the villainy.

He and Katrina set off to kill Brady and he almost manages it (via a well-aimed shot with a high-powered rifle).  This then leads into a nicely mounted action scene as a wounded Brady attempts to escape.  Yes, it’s something of a diversion from the main plot, but it’s exciting nonetheless.

With a cast like this, how can you not love Point of Destruction? Maybe developing Court’s character and motivation a little more would have been a good idea, but I’m happy just to sit back and enjoy the acting.

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H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man – Crisis in the Desert

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Brady is approached by Colonel Warren (Douglas Wilmer) of Military Intelligence as one of their top agents, Jack Howard (Howard Pays), is being held prisoner in a Middle Eastern country.  Howard, badly injured after an abortive escape attempt, is being guarded in a high security hospital and only the Invisible Man – along with the alluring local assistance of Yolanda (Adrienne Corri) – has any chance of freeing him ….

Fictitious Middle Eastern countries, forever teetering on the edge of instability, would be a staple of ITC adventure series during the next decade or so and Crisis in the Desert is an early example of this genre.  Naturally, foreign location filming was beyond the series’ budget, so instead we have a reasonably dressed backlot (which doesn’t look too shabby, it must be said).

Ethnic actors would also tend to be in short supply whenever an ITC series headed abroad, so it’s no surprise to see British performers in all the main roles.  The eagle-eyed will spot Derren Nesbitt in the background, but the bulk of the action is divided between Corri as Yolanda, Eric Pohlmann as Yolanda’s associate Hassan and Martin Benson as the villainous Colonel Hassan.

These three, along with Wilmer, make Crisis in the Desert a very enjoyable watch.  Wilmer oozes charm as he persuades Brady (rather easily it must be said) to undertake a dangerous mission in the Middle East.  It’s interesting that Warren reacts with horror when Brady tells him he thinks he’s close to reversing his invisibility – it’s obvious that Warren needs an invisible man to rescue Howard, but it’s odd that he doesn’t seem to have considered the possibility that once Brady has perfected his formula it could be duplicated.  Creating a whole army of invisible agents would have obvious benefits.  Given this, it seems a little foolhardy to risk Brady’s life (and the knowledge that only he has) on this jaunt abroad.

Corri had already racked up an impressive list of credits before appearing here as the glamourous freedom-fighter Yolanda.  She looks very nice in a nurse’s uniform as well.  Pohlmann has less to do, only react to Yolanda, but he’s effective enough.  Benson is great fun as the sadistic Hassan – he opens the story by slapping Howard about and later suggests to an unfortunate surgeon (played by Derek Sydney) that he performs a little brain operation on Howard in order to make him more pliant.

Several actors black up – most notably Peter Sallis as Nesib, the ambulance driver.  This probably isn’t a performance that’s going to be at the top of his cv, but for a working actor of this era playing the most unlikely nationalities was an occupational hazard (Sallis would later appear as an equally unconvincing Chinaman in an episode of Sergeant Cork).

The main problem with Crisis in the Desert is that there’s no real need for Brady to be there at all, as although he sneaks around the hospital in his invisible state, Nurse Yolanda is in plain sight all the time.  As we’ll see, this proves to be something of a problem for the writers – often the gimmick of having an invisible man tends to be sidelined as Brady is shoehorned into plots that don’t require his invisibility skills to be utilised.

Gideon’s Way – The Tin God

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Commander George Gideon was created by John Creasey (writing as J.J. Marric) and he featured in a series of novels published between the mid fifties and mid seventies.  Gideon appeared on the big screen in 1959 (Gideon’s Day, starring Jack Hawkins, directed by John Ford) and a few years later the character would transfer to the small screen – in this twenty-six episode ITC series starring John Gregson.

Although Gideon’s Way was filmed in the mid sixties and made use of extensive location filming in and around London, it’s notable that this is very much a pre “swinging” London.  The stark black and white camerawork helps with this, plus there’s also an occasional sense of decay and desolation – especially when locations still devastated from the war some twenty years earlier are used.  Location filming also gives the series something of a documentary feel and there’s an undoubted interest in seeing a very different London to the one that exists today.

John Gregson played Commander George Gideon.  A familiar face from both films and television, Gregson was perfect casting as the reassuring, dependable Gideon.  Gideon’s Way was very much a series like Dixon of Dock Green that took it for granted that the police were incorruptible and incapable of making mistakes.  Later programmes, such as The Sweeney, would cynically chip away at this reputation, which does mean that Gideon’s Way can seem rather old-fashioned.  But this is undoubtedly part of the series’ continuing appeal, as there’s something very comforting in watching a show where there’s clearly defined moral absolutes and crime is always shown not to pay.

Another joy of Gideon’s Way is the sheer quality of the guest casts.  The Tin God is a good example, as it features Derren Nesbitt (a familiar face from many an ITC series) as John “Benny” Benson and a young John Hurt as Freddy Tisdale,  They play escaped convicts and their first appearance provides us with some evocative location work – a high shot zooming into them as they run into a train yard.  Nesbitt specialised in playing unstable characters and Benny is no different – and within a matter of minutes it’s also clear he’s the dominant personality out of the two (even before he’s pulled out a knife).

The news that Benny was one of the two escapees instantly piques Gideon’s interest.  It’s slightly incredible that Gideon knows exactly how long Benny’s been inside, the name of his wife and how many children he has (but such feats of memory are par for the course in police fiction).

We’ve already had a demonstration of how ruthless Benny can be (he casually murders a car-park attendant called Taffy Jones) and because his wife Ruby (Jennifer Wilson) informed on him, revenge is now the only thing on his mind.  The news that he’s escaped fills her with dread, although her young son Syd (Michael Cashman) is ecstatic.  Syd doesn’t believe that his father is a vicious criminal and instead directs his anger towards his mother and Gideon (as he was the copper who put him inside).

Cashman would later become a familiar television face in series like The Sandbaggers and most famously Eastenders.   Syd becomes the lynchpin in Benny’s plan to exact his revenge on Ruby, although it’s only when he finally meets his father again that he realises his mother was right all along.

The type of story (escaped convict) means that Gideon and his number two, DCI David Kean (Alexander Davion), don’t have a great deal of interaction with many characters – there’s no suspects to interrogate, for example.  But this is only a minor quibble and there’s plenty of incidental pleasures – location filming around the London docks and the sight of a policeman using a Police Box (a reminder that personal radios weren’t common at the time) are just two.

Benny’s plan to revenge himself on his wife is more subtle than might have been expected from what we’ve seen of his character so far.  He plans to take his son abroad and leave Ruby in a constant state of anxiety about Syd’s whereabouts – even if he’s alive or dead.

Benny, Freddy and Syd are hiding out in a warehouse, but it’s not long before the police surround them.  This allows John Hurt a great final scene as he realises too late just how mad Benny has become (and therefore dies in a dramatic fashion).  It also gives Derren Nesbitt an opportunity to ramp up his own performance as Benny loses the last few shreds of his sanity.

Thanks to a cracking performance by Nesbitt, The Tin God is a memorable episode.