Crown Court – Regina v Bryant (November 1972)

I’ve recently been dipping in and out of some selected Crown Court cases. To date Network have released eight volumes on DVD, although this only scratches the surface of a series which ran for over a decade and racked up close to 900 episodes. Luckily, good quality copies of many editions not yet commercially available are on YouTube.

This one, Regina v Bryant, is available on DVD (it can be found on volume one). As with most of the cases, it’s not only of considerable interest due to the quality of the cast (most episodes contain line ups which would surely gladden the heart of any archive television fan) but the story still stands up today as a satisfying piece of drama. Crown Court may have been a low budget daytime series, but there’s evidence to suggest that it was crafted with some care.

Tony Hoare (1938 – 2008) was someone very much at home in the worlds of crime and detection (not least because he spent a lengthy spell in prison prior to becoming a writer). He penned many of Minder‘s best remembered episodes as well as contributing to series such as Villains, New Scotland Yard, The Sweeney, Target, Hazell, The Gentle Touch and Bergerac. So knowing his writing background, especially his work on Minder, it’s not unreasonable to assume that he was fully on the side of the defendant.

Harry Bryant (Mark McManus) claims to be innocent of the charges of armed robbery and assaulting a police officer. Bryant doesn’t attempt to hide his criminal past, instead he contends that this is precisely why he’s been fitted up by several corrupt officers, led by Inspector Collins (Glynn Edwards).

McManus dominates the three episodes. Even though (for some reason) he was forced to adopt a cockney accent, McManus is excellent value throughout – especially since Bryant elected to dispense with the services of his counsel, Helen Tate (Dorothy Vernon), at the outset of the trial (he decides to defend himself). Ms Tate seems to have taken exception to this, as her last action was to angrily slam the courtroom door on her way out!

The obvious plus point for the viewer is that McManus therefore takes centre stage, with Bryant’s articulate but unorthodox approach certainly differing from the rank and file barristers we normally see.

In 1972 British society was still at the point where the average man or woman in the street would tend to believe in the general honesty of the police. Had a similar Crown Court story been undertaken a decade later, the mood might have been somewhat different. But this is where the series is often so fascinating – no matter where the writer’s sympathies might lie, the question of guilt or innocence would always be decided by eleven ordinary members of the public, plus one actor playing the foreman (since they had to speak at the end, an Equity member was required).

Rewatching Crown Court I often find myself shaking my head at the decisions of the Fulchester juries. Defendants I was convinced were innocent are found guilty whilst those I’ve decided were obvious wrong ‘uns are allowed to walk free. This can sometimes be infuriating, but it’s also instructive – the 21st century viewer is gifted a brief snapshot into the attitudes and morals of a different age.

Bryant was happy, despite being a career criminal, to have his numerous previous convictions read out in court. Indeed, it was his criminal experience which formed the crux of his defence. Would he really have been so naive as to keep hold of an incriminating balaclava, which Collins alleges he found in Bryant’s house? (Bryant maintains it was planted). And although a bottle of ammonia was also discovered (a similar substance was used in the attack) there was nothing to suggest it hadn’t been bought for normal household duties, as claimed by Mrs Bryant.

The eyewitness identification was also open to comment, with Collins (either by accident or design) allowing a witness to see a photograph of Bryant before he was picked out of the identification parade.

With such thin evidence my own personal decision would have been to aquit. Bryant may very well have been guilty, but for me the evidence simply wasn’t there. However, would Bryant’s decision to attack the integrity of the police at every opportunity have gone down well with the jury? I won’t spoil the verdict ….

As touched upon, McManus is very good and he’s matched by Glynn Edwards, who enjoys (if that’s the right word) a lengthy spell in the witness box. Another familar face, Diane Keen (as Mrs Bryant), has less screentime but still makes quite a telling contribution. Richard Warner, as the Hon. Mr Justice Waddington, stumbles over his lines during the early stages of the trial but eventually settles down. Like most editions, it’s directed solidly enough (at least there were no Mandrels in court to distract Alan Bromly) although the final few minutes of the third episode does feature some very audible talkback from the studio gallery.

Many editions of Crown Court still have considerable replay value today, but the central theme of Regina v Bryant (should the police automatically be trusted?) and the way that Bryant very effectively handles his own defence easily makes this one of the standouts from the earliest crop of cases.

The Feathered Serpent. Series One – Episode Six

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The Temple of Screams is populated by some rubbery-looking bats.  Also present is Otolmi, absent from the last few episodes, who is able to rescue Chimalma.  He manages to convince the Princess that when she emerges from the temple in the morning she should declare she was mistaken about Nasca.  This will give them a little breathing space to organise a plan to remove him permanently.

Mahoutec finally learns the truth about Nasca, but Nasca and Chadac ensure that he doesn’t live long enough to tell anyone.  Once again there’s an ominous sound of drumbeats on the soundtrack as Mahoutec fights and dies (in a rather bloody manner, it has to be said).  Nasca seems delighted with the outcome, clasping Chadac’s shoulder (a bit of business added by Troughton maybe?)

We finally discover what the Feathered Serpent is.  He’s the old, discredited god and Heumac will take his place and wear his robes as he’s taken to the Pyramid of the Sun for sacrifice.  Nasca matter-of-factly tells Heumac that he intends to rip out his heart and later we see Nasca planning to arrange the sacrifice to coincide at the precise moment of an eclipse.  It’s an interesting moment – Nasca might believe totally in his god but this shows that he’s not averse to using natural events in order to manipulate the populace.

The Pyramid of the Sun is seen in all its glory only briefly, but it’s a very effective use of CSO.  Heumac steps up to the mark to deal with Nasca, although the mere fact of Nasca’s death doesn’t stop him from returning for series two …..

It’s a pity about the dozen or so overacting extras (who are called upon to represent the thousands watching the attempted sacrifice).  Their allegiance switches from Nasca to Chimalma rather too quickly for my tastes.

If the conclusion of the story feels a little rushed, then The Feathered Serpent is still very effective, thanks in no small part to Patrick Troughton’s dominant performance as Nasca.  By the conclusion of the story it appears that good has triumphed over evil but the sequel series, broadcast in 1978, will show that the evil has yet to be defeated.  Even after his death, Nasca continues to threaten the rule of Chimalma and Heumac.

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The Feathered Serpent. Series One – Episode Five


The episode four cliffhanger was a good one.  We see Chimalma poisoned with a dart blown by the hidden Chadac at exactly the same time that Nasca and Mahoutec enter the room.  With the senseless Chimalma falling into Heumac’s arms, Nasca is quick to accuse him – although Heumac attempts to convince Mahoutec that if he dies then the chance to save Chimalma will be lost forever.

Heumac tells Mahoutec that Nasca is his enemy, not him.  Troughton starts to ramp up the intensity once more as Nasca begins to see his position come under threat.  At present, Mahoutec doesn’t believe Heumac’s claims of secret passages in the temples nor that Nasca murdered the Emperor, but maybe, at the very least, a seed of doubt has been sown.

Following the attack on Chimalma, Mahoutec is finally convinced that an attack on Heumac’s army is justifiable.  Unsurprisingly for a studio-bound production it’s a case of tell, can’t show.

Like Tozo in the last episode, Chimalma is totally immobile and unable to speak, although she remains conscious and aware of her surroundings.  Diane Keen has an easy time of it in the early part of the episode, having to do little else but lie down, but after Tozo finds the antidote, Chimalma is able to renter the narrative in a dramatic fashion.

Before that, there’s more examples of Nasca’s eloquent oratory as he urges Teshcata to “play the music of destruction for us now. Play it loud so it reaches the ears of our enemies. Let them hear the sound that destroyed the god they worship. Let the weapons fall from their hands and let them sway to the music and let their partners in the dance be death and despair.”  During this scene there’s an overlay of flickering flames on Troughton as the camera slowly zooms in on him.  This, together with an ominous drumbeat, helps to create a very effective sense of menace.

The return of Chimalma temporarily puts a dampener on Nasca’s dreams of conquest.  Diane Keen shows Chimalma’s core of steel as she orders that Nasca and Chadac be arrested and Mahoutec banished.  Unfortunately her guards don’t respond (watch the flicker of amusement that plays around Troughton’s face as Nasca realises that he still holds the upper hand).  Has Nasca’s influence spread so far that it now infects the palace guard?  Given that Chimalma rules by right of succession it does seem strange that she appears so powerless.  There’s a bevy of important nobles milling about, but as they’re unspeaking extras it’s probably best not to expect a great deal of help from them (they can only manage some rhubarbing).

With Chimalma accused of being mad, she’s taken to spend the night in the Chamber of Screams ….

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The Feathered Serpent. Series One – Episode Four


Once more Nasca attempts to manipulate Mahoutec.  As expected, Troughton gives a mesmeric performance in this early scene – he’s very still, not offering any excessive movements, with his rich, deep voice pitched especially low.  Nasca might be a dangerous fanatic but he’s wise enough to know that at this time he needs to appear to be the voice of reason.

Mahoutec might have been presented up until now as a narrow-minded and jealous man but, unlike Nasca, he didn’t seek the Emperor’s death in order to further his own ambitions.  Nasca and Mahoutec are presented as uneasy allies, with Mahoutec still in ignorance about the true course of events – believing Nasca’s story that the Emperor was killed by a vengeful spirit.

There’s further opportunity for Troughton to show Nasca’s evil side as he interrogates the unfortunate Tozo.  Tozo is unwilling to speak, so Nasca’s shadow, the mute Chadac (George Lane Cooper) steps up to apply some torture.  As might be expected, Chadac’s ministrations (a series of needles) isn’t presented in an explicit manner, but the fact that it’s there at all in a children’s series (and that the child identification figure is the one to suffer) is interesting.  Richard Willis is able to show Tozo’s pain and suffering which, along with Troughton’s silky-voiced villainy, gives the moment a certain impact.

That Chimalma is of royal blood is made clear after she autocratically orders Heumac to search the temple for hidden passages.  If they can find them, then it’ll prove that her father was murdered by an assassin, not the spirits of the dead.  It all seems rather convenient that he’s able to do so with great ease (also finding the paralyzed Tozo along the way) but even with six episodes to play with you have to expect a few plot contrivances.

But this episode really belongs to Troughton.  Nasca has another key scene where, dressed in a ceremonial mask and with an oppressive chanting soundtrack, he utters the following at Kukulkhan’s funeral.  “Before the coming of Teshcata, the plains of death were a desolate place. There was no shade and the tears of the dead burnt the soil. But Teshcata came and said let the sun weep tears of blood and blood fell upon the plains of death and the desert became a paradise.  And Teshcata said let all those who have blood shedded for me and those who have none, let them give me their hearts that I may look upon the love therein.”

Lurid stuff, especially after Nasca rips out Kukulkhan’s heart (which thankfully happens off-screen).  With Kukulkhan’s death, Nasca is a step closer to absolute power but there’s still the problem of Chimalma.  So she must die as well ….

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The Feathered Serpent. Series One – Episode Three


Having made the decision to temporally abandon human sacrifice, Kukulkhan agrees to spend the night alone in the temple, where he will receive council from the Spirits of the Dead.  Kukulkhan certainly receives judgement, albeit of a very grim kind, but it was dispensed on the orders of the corporeal Nasca.

A pity that Tony Steedman exits the story so early, but the removal of Kukulkhan allows Chimalma to move into the centre of the narrative as she and Nasca find themselves on opposite sides.  Troughton continues to impress as he takes full advantage of John Kane’s well-crafted dialogue.  Here, Nasca explains to Chimalma and Heumac that although he has total faith in his god, this isn’t necessarily a blessing.  “It is a torment. To be so close to divinity, to share in his mysteries and yet to be a man amongst other men with their weaknesses and squalor. It is an agony of longing.”

Mahoutec agrees to attack Heumac’s army, camped outside the city walls.  Nasca wants all of Heumac’s men – numbering one thousand – sacrificed, which causes Mahoutec pause for thought.  But he agrees anyway.

Events once again take place at night.  Moody lighting, judicious use of sound effects and a subtle instrumental track all help to create a sense of unease.  The drama continues to bubble along nicely as Mahoutec and Heumac clash.  Mahoutec dislikes and distrusts Heumac’s people (calling them scum) and personally detests Heumac since they both wish to marry the same woman.  But does Mahoutec desire Chimalma personally, or does he simply want to sit on the throne?

Mahoutec and Heumac duel, although it’s over very quickly.  Heumac wins but spares Mahoutec’s life.  This infuriates Mahoutec – when it is known he lost but wasn’t killed he won’t be able to face his men.  He demands that as the vanquished he has the right to insist Heumac kills him, but the other man declines.  “You must find your own end.”

As I’ve said, Kukulkhan departs the story with something of a whimper rather than a bang and the duel between Mahoutec and Heumac is a disappointingly brief one.  But there’s still plenty to entertain here, not least when Chimalma, Nasca and the others discover Kukulkhan’s body.  This gives Troughton an opportunity to notch his intensity level up to eleven as Nasca declares that judgement has been carried out.


The Feathered Serpent. Series One – Episode Two


George Cormack’s film and television credits were relatively few in number, but quality certainly made up for quantity.  He was one of the few members of the guest cast in the Doctor Who story The Time Monster to emerge with any dignity, for example, and his turn here as the blind ex-priest Otolomi, is another strong performance.

Otolomi befriends Tozo and explains a little of his history to the boy.  “For more than half my life I was Quala’s priest. Then my people turned to Teshcata. They staked me out in the desert with my face turned to the sun and there they left me until the power of sight was burned forever from my eyes.”

The appearance of Heumac in the throne room causes a little bit of a stir.  His likeness, via a carving, had preceded him, but it wasn’t one that had impressed Chimalma.  In the flesh Heumac is rather personable, a far cry from the rather ugly carving.  He explains that this was done deliberately, and Chimalma (who last episode wasn’t exactly looking forward to her marriage) seems to perk up a little at the sight of him!

Nasca manipulates Mahoutec whilst continuing to clash with Kukulkhan. Nasca’s more than a little upset that he’s only been given three sacrifices rather than the ten he wanted.  The plot also begins to move as Otolomi and Tozo gain position of a map which shows that the new temple, built to honour Teshcata, has secret passages which were inserted on the orders of Nasca.  Otolomi believes that possession of the map will enable him to break Nasca’s power once and for all.

Taking place during the night, this episode drips with atmosphere as shadows, lighted torches and unsettling sound effects abound.  I also like the way that Nasca skulks around the palace at will, removing stones in the walls so that he can communicate with Kukulkhan.  Nasca, of course, denies this, insisting that it must have been a spirt that the Emperor heard.

Kukulkhan makes public his desire that Chimalma and Heumac should be married.  The people approve, which means that both Kukulkhan and Heumac are now in grave danger from Nasca.  And when Kukulkhan decides that there will be no sacrifices until after their marriage that only serves to infuriate the High Priest even more ….


The Feathered Serpent. Series One – Episode One


Broadcast on ITV during June and July 1976, it’s a little difficult to believe that The Feathered Serpent was a children’s series.  Throw in a little gratuitous nudity and it wouldn’t have looked too dissimilar to the later prime-time serial The Cleopatras.

Set in Ancient Mexico,  the early episodes of series one of The Feathered Serpent revolve around the power struggle between the Emperor Kukulkhan (Tony Steedman) and the High Priest Nasca (Patrick Troughton).  Kukulkhan is a wise and enlightened man who’s grown tired of conquest and bloodshed.  He knows that the more territories they conquer, the more difficult it will become to keep their subjugated peoples suppressed, which in turn will mean that more and more brutal methods of punishment and domination will have to be found.  This doesn’t concern Nasca – he’s a man who revels in death and destruction and was instrumental in ensuring that Kukulkhan’s people turned away from worshipping Quala, a god of peace, in favour of Teshcata, a god who demands human sacrifice.

It should go without saying, but Troughton is mesmerising as Nasca.  He can do eye-rolling villainy with the best of them, but he’s also capable of stillness and subtlety.  The moment, early on here, when he plaintively asks Teshcata why he no longer speaks to him is one such example. And his realisation that his god will only be satisfied with blood – and royal blood at that – is chilling.

This initial episode covers a lot of ground.  We meet Nasca and Kukulkhan and are quickly made aware that they have diametrically opposing views – basically offering a choice between darkness and light.  Kukulkhan’s daughter, Princess Chimalma (Diane Keen) also enters the frame.  If Troughton’s one reason for watching these two serials, then Keen is most certainly another.  Although Chimalma has a certain doe-eyed beauty, she’s also a woman of spirit.  Kukulkan is keen to marry her off to Prince Heumac (Brian Deacon) a member of a rival tribe who still worships the old, peaceful, god Quala.

Kukulkhan hopes that their union will not only help to bring peace between their two tribes but will also lead his people back to the worship of Quala.  This begs one question – since Kukulkhan, even though he’s just and fair, has total autocratic power, why did he allow Nasca to replace Quala with Teshcata?  Like Troughton and Keen, Tony Steedman offers an impressive performance, raising the studio roof with an powerful display of histrionics.

One person who’s far from happy with the news of Chimalma and Heumac’s intended nuptials is Mahoutec (Robert Gary). He’s the brave, if not particularly diplomatic, leader of Kukulkhan’s army. Mahoutec has always believed that he would marry Chimalma, so when Nasca gleefully tells him what Kukulkhan intends, it’s plain that sparks will fly.

Tozo (Richard Willis) is a young boy in the employ of Heumac. Outspoken and aggressive, it seems impossible for him to keep out of trouble. Tozo serves as the audience identification figure, being the one younger member of the cast.

Despite being studio-bound, it’s plain that a little more money than usual for a children’s series was thrown at The Feathered Serpent.  The sets are substantial and impressive, although the harsh studio lighting – no doubt intended to simulate bright sunshine – does tend to give some scenes a rather theatrical, unreal air.  Night-time sequences, when the lighting can be brought right down, are naturally much more atmospheric.

With lashings of make-up (and that’s just on the men) and some odd-looking costumes, on one level this is a series that looks faintly ridiculous.  But the quality of the story and the core cast ensures that by the end of episode one most viewers should be firmly hooked.



Return of the Saint – The Debt Collectors

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After Simon comes to the aid of a runaway horse ridden by Jeri Hanson (Mary Tamm), he finds himself embroiled in the murky world of espionage.  Jeri’s sister Christine (Diane Keen) was convicted of passing military secrets and is six years into a prison sentence.  But just one day before she’s due to be released on parole she escapes.

This was engineered by Sir Charles Medley (Geoffrey Keen) of the Ministry of Defence.  Jeri tells Simon she’s convinced her sister is innocent and it appears that Sir Charles arranged Christine’s prison-break in order to flush out a traitor in MI5.  But who can be trusted?  In the world of intelligence, things are not always as they appear to be …..

The Debt Collectors was written by George Markstein.  Given his background (script-editor/writer on series such as The Prisoner, Callan and Mr Palfrey of Westminster) it’s no surprise that he delivered a dense story set in the world of British Intelligence.

And after finding some of the previous episodes to be rather linear and straightforward, it’s a pleasure to have one where people’s motivations aren’t immediately obvious.  Things appear to open normally enough, with Simon coming to the rescue of an attractive young woman.  But she’s under surveillance and when Simon is later told not to speak to her again this only strengthens his interest.

By the time this aired, in December 1978, Mary Tamm was already more than half-way through her single season as Romana in Doctor Who.  Here, she seems to be the archetypal ROTS heroine – her function in the plot being little more than providing a decorative presence and also the excuse for the Saint to become involved in the story – but there’s a twist in the tale later.

Of more immediate interest is Diane Keen as Christine.  An actress who hardly seemed to be off the television screens in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, her first scene (behind prison bars) sees her playing a hard-bitten old lag.  This is rather a stretch for Keen and it’s no surprise that once she goes over the wall Christine becomes much more of a vulnerable character.

With the revelation that there could be a traitor in MI5, several possibilities present themselves.  There’s Sir Charles and also Simon’s MI5 contact Geoffrey Connaught (Anton Rodgers).  Geoffrey Keen, best known today for playing the Minster in the James Bond films, is perfect casting and Rodgers, later to carve a niche as a sit-com performer, shares some decent scenes with Ogilvy.

The story does have a few niggling plot-holes.  Why was Christine stuck in prison for six years before Sir Charles elected to use her to flush out the mole?  And since she was due to be released the following day why engineer a prison break?  If she’s on the run then presumably that makes her more of a target for the mole.  But since she doesn’t know his identity, Christine is ultimately something of a red-herring.

Whilst the looseness of the plot (which is a little surprising given Markstein’s background as a script-editor) is a slight irritation, there’s more than enough happening to negate these quibbles.  Apart from the already mentioned performers, the likes of Neil McCarthy (a familiar television face) and Bob Shearman (best-known for his regular role in The Sandbaggers) help to bolster an already impressive cast.

The Debt Collectors is a cut above the average ROTS script and rates four halos out of five.

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Minder – The Dessert Song


Terry and Arthur rescue a Greek-Cypriot called Charlie (Peter Bland) who was being attacked in the street by three men.  They take him back to a restaurant, run by his cousin Christina (Diane Keen), who although initially unwelcoming later seeks Arthur’s help.

She tells him she’s being hounded by Omar (Godfrey James) – the brother of Christina’s late husband, who wants to take over the running of the restaurant.  Arthur’s rather taken with Christina and agrees that Terry will keep an eye on the place.  But things turn out to be slightly more complicated than they first appear …..

One notable thing about The Dessert Song is that all the actors playing Greeks – Diane Keen, Godfrey James, Peter Bland, Daniel Hill (as Johnny) and Michael Angelis (as Nick, the waiter) – are British.  It was common enough during this era of British television, as the pool of ethnic actors was much smaller than today, but it is a little distracting.

Still, it’s always a pleasure to see Diane Keen (one of those actresses who was ever-present during the Seventies and Eighties) and it’s plain that Arthur’s equally taken with Christina.  Just one episode after his misadventure with Sharon, he seems prepared to make a play for Christina’s affections.  Although it’s probable that her restaurant is more appealing to him than she is!

Once Terry is installed as the restaurant’s minder, Arthur’s quick to take advantage – dropping in for a meal (on the house, of course) and delighting in ordering Terry about.  Understandably, Terry doesn’t appreciate this, nor does he really like having to wear a shirt and tie.

Peter Bland is rather endearing as Charlie.  He appears to be harmless, if a little eccentric, but things take a strange turn when he pulls a gun on Terry and Arthur.  Luckily, no harm is done – he’s come to England to right an old family wrong and doesn’t mean them any harm – and Christina resolves to put him on the next plane back to Cyprus.  But the conniving Johnny is easily able to manipulate him into attempting to kill Omar – which means that once again Terry has to wade in and save the day.

Terry and Arthur are slightly less prominent in this episode, although Terry has some decent fight scenes and even Arthur manages to be proactive (trapping Johnny in a telephone box).  The banter between the pair of them (Terry ribbing Arthur about his interest in Christina, Arthur treating Terry like a waiter – clicking his fingers and asking for a menu!) is, as ever, top notch.

The first of twelve episodes written by Andrew Payne (including the feature-length Minder on the Orient Express from 1985) The Dessert Song might feel a little inconsequential (there’s no impressive bad guys – Omar’s quite a reasonable chap after all and Johnny’s obviously no match for Terry) but it’s still an entertaining fifty minutes.

The Legend of Robin Hood (BBC 1975) – Part Six

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Robin has sent Sir Guy an invitation to meet in single combat.  Initially Gisborne refuses, but when Marion artfully remarks that this is because he’s a coward, he naturally changes his mind.  Given that the Robin/Gisborne feud has formed an integral part of the serial, it might be expected that it would be the climax of the story.  Instead, it’s essentially a prelude to the main action.

Robin and Sir Guy meet in Sherwood Forest.  It’s a brutal fight (shot on film) which obviously took some time to record.  It was worth it though, as director Eric Davidson (and the highly experienced film cameraman Elmer Cossey) made full use of the impressive location.  Gisborne elects to start the fight with a shield and a wicked-looking mace whilst Robin only has a sword (clearly chivalry doesn’t demand that they have equal weapons!)  Indeed, there’s not a great deal of chivalry in the fight as Robin is content to aim some well timed kicks and punches to disorientate his opponent.

Eventually Robin emerges triumphant which means that Marion is finally free from Sir Guy’s advances.  But if he believes that the death of Gisborne has removed the obstacle to their union, he’s to be sadly disappointed as she returns to her own lands.

At the same time, John continues to push for power.  He’s keen to depose Longchamps and install himself as regent, but the Bishop of Durham (Malcolm Rogers) is a major obstacle.  The power-hungry Sheriff sees a chance to kill two birds with one stone – dispose of the Bishop and blacken Robin’s name – so he pays a convicted criminal to kill the Bishop whilst claiming to be one of Robin Hood’s men.

With a survivor left alive to spread the news that Robin and his friends are nothing but common criminals and murderers this marks the beginning of the end for Robin’s band of men.  Ralph Gammon and Much are hanged by soldiers in the forest and elsewhere Tuck is mortally wounded (our last sight of him is his lifeless body slumped in a forest clearing).  It’s a brutal turn of events and one which most adaptations of the Robin Hood legends wouldn’t attempt, but it’s an accurate indication of just how short life could be during this period.

Richard returns to put paid to John’s scheming and he promises Robin a full pardon and the restoration of his lands and titles, but there’s one final twist to the tale.  Robin, ill with fever, returns to Huntingdon.  He’s tended by a woman who he later discovers is Gisborne’s sister, but only after he’s drunk a goblet of poison she gave him.  It’s a logical and circular, conclusion to the story – Robin kills Gisborne so Gisborne’s sister revenges her brother’s death by killing Robin.

It has some similarity to the early ballad Robin Hood’s Death, which survives only as a fragment of a larger, now missing, work.  A later variant adds the familiar scene of Robin shooting an arrow into Sherwood and asking to be buried wherever it lands.  Here, we see Little John do it, and Marion is at his side as they both watch the arrow fall.  It’s the final scene in a quietly outstanding serial that manages to take many very familiar story elements and weave them into something cohesive.

With Little John the only merry man standing at the end, it’s possible to see the whole story as an exercise in futility.  What did Robin achieve and will things really be better now that Richard is back?  If you enjoy Robin Hood for swashbuckling derring-do and witty one-liners then this darker interpretation may not be to your liking.

When Richard captures the Sheriff and tells him that his treason will cost him his life, the Sheriff wonders if Prince John will also suffer the same fate.  Of course not, as though Prince John was an equal and willing partner, his royal blood will protect him from any punishment.  Paul Darrow is one of the serial’s many strengths and he continues this right up to his final scene.  Richard tells him that he’ll hang, but the Sheriff replies that his rank entitles him to the axe.  So he’s told that he’ll have it, with his head to be displayed on a pike on the castle gate.

Although some rate this as one of the best versions of the Robin Hood legend, there are a few dissenting voices – mainly highlighting the staginess of the studio scenes.  It’s a fair comment, but the positives of the extensive filming and the performances manage to outweigh any little niggles about a few of the studio sequences.

Martin Potter is an energetic Robin Hood (although maybe just a little too well spoken for somebody brought up as a commoner).  There are very few weak links in the cast and Potter, along with William Marlowe, Paul Darrow, Diane Keen, David Dixon and Tony Caunter are especially good.  It’s certainly a production that still holds up today and is worth seeking out (the 2 Entertain DVD is deleted, but can be found for a reasonable price).

The Legend of Robin Hood (BBC 1975) – Part Five

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Richard is a prisoner of Leopold in Austria, who demands a ransom of 150,000 marks for his release.  It’s a substantial amount, but Richard’s mother Queen Eleanor (Yvonne Mitchell) is determined to raise it.  John on the other hand would probably be quite happy if Richard remained a prisoner for the rest of his life ….

This is a familiar thread in the Robin Hood tales and Richard’s imprisonment is historical fact (as is John’s later offer of a substantial amount of money to his captors if they kept Richard a prisoner).

There’s enough money to pay the ransom – safely held in Nottingham Castle – since John has been illegally diverting taxes that should have gone to London.  Queen Eleanor meets with Robin and he informs her of this.  Evidence of John’s treachery clearly pains her, but she is powerless to interfere as she has no authority in Nottingham.  But maybe Robin and his men could sneak into the castle and steal the money?

It’s clearly a risky venture, since the castle is heavily fortified.  And Tuck asks Robin why should they “throw away our lives for King Richard? A King who’s never in England and now beggars his people with his holy wars, his crusades?”  It’s a fair point, since the historical Richard spent very little time in England during the time he was King (and he didn’t even speak English).  Robin’s response is a traditional one.  “In King Richard lies England’s only hope. It’s either his rule or the evil of a man like Nottingham.”  In fact, John turned out to be a decent king, although he certainly had his flaws.  But the Robin Hood tales require a hero and a villain and usually we see Richard on the side of the good and John on the side of the bad (irrespective of the actual historical truth).

Elsewhere, Robin and Marion’s relationship seems to be doomed.  She refuses a trinket he offers her (because it’s stolen).  Marion grieves for the way that the life of an outlaw has changed him and she considers that their love is a doomed one.  Meanwhile, Sir Guy grows impatient to marry her and tells Sir Kenneth that he’ll take her whether she’s willing or not.  He also tells him that he’ll drown him in a barrel of his own ale if he complains!  This is finally enough to convince Sir Kenneth that Marion’s marriage to Sir Guy is a very bad idea.

Highlight of the episode is the slightly incestuous relationship between Eleanor and John.  Considering his age it’s disturbing to see – at one point she cradles him like a baby as well as kissing him on the lips several times.  William Marlowe and Paul Darrow continue their excellent double act and Conrad Asquith’s Little John is allowed a nice character beat at the start of the episode (when he wonders exactly how he’s fallen into the life of an outlaw).  Little John has probably been the most underdeveloped of Robin’s men, so it’s a welcome moment.

As a former worker at Nottingham Castle he does have his uses though – he knows a secret way in (which makes the infiltration by Robin and his men a little more plausible).  Delightfully, they come across both the Sheriff and Sir Guy and take great pleasure in tying them up.  Robin tells Sir Guy that he wouldn’t attack a bound man, but the next time they meet both of them will have swords in their hands and there will be a final reckoning.  Sir Guy’s response is rather muffled by the gag!

The raid isn’t a total success though as John is captured.  Later, Sir Guy demands to know from Sir Kenneth where Robin and his friends have taken the money.  If Sir Kenneth knows then he’s not telling and it’s inevitable that the two men will fight to the death.  It’s just as inevitable that the much younger Sir Guy will emerge as the victor (and Sir Kenneth’s bloody demise is viewed by a horrified Marion).  Had the sword-fight been shot on film it might have been easier to cut it in a tighter way, alas videotape doesn’t allow such luxuries.  So it does look rather stagey and unconvincing – but it still has a certain impact, especially when Sir Guy finishes him off with a dagger to the neck.

Little John is due to hang in the grounds of Nottingham Castle, so tradition decrees that Robin will attempt a daring rescue.  This he does, but the celebration is short-lived when he learns that Sir Kenneth is dead and Marion is a prisoner of Sir Guy.  So everything is now in place for the final chapter of the story.

The Legend of Robin Hood (BBC 1975) – Part Four

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Part Four is where Robin Hood becomes the outlaw of legend.  At the start of the episode though, things are quite different.  Robin and his small band of followers are virtual prisoners in Sherwood Forest – under constant siege from the Sheriff’s men and forced to eat whatever they can find (which isn’t much).

Hunger drives them to Ralph’s village but what they discover there puts there own hardships into stark context.  The villagers are dying from malnutrition, with the children suffering the worst.  A third of their food was taken in taxes for Richard’s Crusade and another third was taken by the Sheriff.  What they’re left with is simply not enough.

Starving villagers are a familiar sight in many versions of the Robin Hood tales, but there’s often a lack of logic as to why (and there’s no particularly good reason given here).  Robin says that it’s the evil preying on the weak, but as the villagers exist to provide the food that ends up on the tables of the Sheriff and Sir Guy (amongst many others) there’s no reason to either work them to death or starve them.  If Sir Guy is so cavalier with his workforce how will he replace them?

Logical flaws aside, it’s the sight of the downtrodden masses that fires Robin’s crusading zeal.  From now on, he and his men will control Sherwood and levy a tax against all travellers through the forest.  This they will distribute back to the poor and needy.  One such recipient is the headman of Ralph’s village, Thurkill (William Simons).  It’s not a particularly large part for Simons (although he’s an actor I’ve always enjoyed watching – he’s very good, for example, opposite Alan Dobie in Cribb).  He does sport a  impressive false beard though – unconvincing facial hair is always a feature of series such as these (other examples are easy to find).

Tony Caunter’s Friar Tuck continues to impress.  Tuck is a free spirit, roaming Sherwood by himself, but often coming into contact with Robin and his friends.  In part four he attacks and kills two soldiers who are pursuing a man who they intend to brand for non-payment of taxes.  Tuck’s anger is evident, just as his remorse is afterwards.  Life and death is often casually dispensed in Robin Hood’s world, but it’s clear that in Tuck’s case there’s always a debt that has to be paid.

Sir Richard of the Lea is a figure who appeared in several early Robin Hood ballads (such as A Gest of Robyn Hode).  He appears here (played by Bernard Archard) and his story is very similar to the one in A Gest.  Sir Richard owes an Abbot a debt of four hundred marks and if he doesn’t repay the money today then his lands are forfeit.  Robin and his men feed him whilst they listen to his tale.  Afterwards Robin asks for payment and Sir Richard says they are welcome to what little money he has (he claims to only have a handful of coins).  When they confirm that he was telling the truth, Richard is touched by the man’s honesty and integrity and loans him the money he needs to reclaim his lands.

The one major difference is that here Sir Richard needed the money to equip and send his son to fight with Richard in the Holy Land, whilst in A Gest his son had been arrested for murder and the four hundred marks were used to bribe the local Sheriff.

It’s always nice to see Archard and it’s even better news that the Abbot is played by Kevin Stoney.  Stoney oozes with his trademark languid villainy and is a delight, as always, to watch.  Apart from his connection with Sir Richard, he’s also scheming with the Sheriff and Sir Guy.  All three are plotting to put John on the throne (although the absence of both Michael J. Jackson and David Dixon from this episode means that the political intrigue takes a backseat).

Instead, part four is much more concerned with the emergence of Robin as a leader of men.  We also see him start to influence the oppressed Saxons to fight back.  Sir Richard offers Robin a hundred longbows – an offer Robin gladly accepts, as he instantly sees how they can be used by the villagers.  “They proved their bravery by fighting with their bare hands. No longer peasants whipped by their masters. These will make them into an army.”

But as in any battle, there’s a price to pay.  At the end of the episode Robin loses a key member of his band and it’s an early indication that no-one (not even the familiar names) can be guaranteed to still be alive at the end of part six ….

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The Legend of Robin Hood (BBC 1975) – Part Three

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Robin and his small band of friends take shelter in Sherwood Forest, but they’re not alone.  It would be reasonable to suppose that Sherwood would be home to many different groups of outlaws (although we’ve not often seen this developed in most of the film or television adaptations).

Robin quickly becomes aware of a formidable rival gang (dressed in green) who are led by a giant of a man, John Little (Conrad Asquith).  Although some of his men aren’t trustworthy (and one later betrays Robin) Little John is presented as a dependable and honest man, although he’s somebody who’s not unused to violence.  He used to work at Nottingham Castle, but he got into an argument with his superior and threw him into the moat (after hitting his head with a hammer first, just for good measure!)

Robin and John meet for the first time and settle their differences in the traditional way – via a quarterstaff duel in the middle of a streaming lake.  It’s a nicely shot film sequence, with some effective quick intercuts (although it’s true that the scene is a little short).  After they both end up in the water, any enmity they previously felt has been forgotten and they pool resources and information.  John mentions that Sir Guy (who’s now taken charge of Robin’s estates at Huntingdon) is due to be married there.

Robin, naturally, makes haste to see Marion one more time – but thanks to one of Little John’s untrustworthy men, Sir Guy and his soldiers are waiting for him.  If only Sir Guy had dealt with him here then the story would have been over some three episodes early.  But, as usually happens, he leaves Robin locked up, although he doesn’t stay locked up for long (thanks to a little help from Marion)

There’s a lack of Paul Darrow in this episode, which is a shame, but on the plus side William Marlowe does get a very decent share of the action.  Whether he’s playfully taunting Marion or ordering his inept soldiers about, Marlowe’s always a joy to watch.  If Darrow’s Sherriff is more of an intellectual and a schemer, then Marlowe’s Sir Guy is an instinctive fighter and everything’s bubbling up nicely for the climatic confrontation between him and Robin.

So far, Robin and his men have only been concerned with their own self interest.  But towards the end of part three we see them help others less fortunate than themselves for the first time.  Prince John has burnt several villages to the ground and taken all the unfortunate inhabitants to work as slaves in a nearby silver mine.  Robin is able to free them (rather easily, it must be said) and afterwards he confronts John.

David Dixon continues to give a layered performance as John.  On the one hand, it’s possible to suggest that he’s nothing more than a stooge (manipulated easily by the likes of the Sheriff) but on the other he does seem to have a mind and a will of his own.  Robin tells him that the villagers are now free and that he’ll take enough silver to rebuild the burnt villages whilst the rest will go to fund Richard’s Crusade.

Naturally, John doesn’t take this at all well and we end with him promising that Robin will hang.  This now means that there’s three highly motivated men – the Sheriff, Sir Guy and Prince John – who all want Robin’s head, which helps to raise the stakes just a little more.

The Legend of Robin Hood (BBC 1975) – Part Two

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Making his way through Sherwood Forest, Robin is attacked and robbed.  But the sight of Robin’s ring is enough to make one of the robbers stop and think.  After bathing Robin’s wounds, he tells him his name – Will Scarlett (Miles Anderson).  It’s interesting that Scarlett and his friends aren’t actually outlaws.  Although they’re happy to waylay and rob any likely traveller, at this time they’re still free men.

They’ve suffered under the rule of the Abbot of Grantham (David Ryall) though.  The Abbot has controlled the Huntingdon estates for the last twenty years, bleeding them dry, as well as extracting bitter revenge on any malefactors.  Once such is Ralph Gammon (Stephen Whitaker) who had one of his hands cut off for stealing.

The character of the Abbot is a familiar one from many versions of the Robin Hood tales – he’s far from a holy, pious man of god – instead, he takes pleasure in the finest clothes, food and wine (whilst many around him starve).  Before he left the Huntingdon estates he stripped them bare, but Robin, together with Will and Ralph, are able to restore what the Abbot stole.

They’re helped by Friar Tuck (Tony Caunter), formally in the Abbot’s employ, but now a free agent.  Caunter isn’t the rotund Tuck we usually see, but some of his other traits are present and correct (such as a love of wine).  He’s also deeply argumentative and is clearly someone who won’t be pushed around.  When Will tells him to kneel before Robin, his lord and master, Tuck indignantly replies that “I only ever bow to Christ, which annoys my so-called betters on earth profoundly.”  After helping Robin to locate his pilfered possessions, Tuck disappears, but it’s certain we haven’t seen the last of him.

Palace intrigue is a key part of this episode (and indeed the whole serial).  The Queen Mother (Yvonne Mitchell) has returned and urges Richard to make John regent in his absence.  Richard refuses (his choice is Longchamps) but he does grant John a portion of the kingdom to administrate (including Nottingham).  Amongst Yvonne Mitchell’s key credits are the 1954 adaptation of Nineteen Eighty Four and the Out of the Unknown episode The Machine Stops.  This isn’t a particularly taxing part, but she manages to portray the Queen’s icy detachment very effectively.

The revelation that the Abbot, the Sheriff and Sir Guy are all involved in a plot to murder the King is another indication that this version of Robin Hood is, at present, more concerned with courtly intrigue than it is with the down-trodden and repressed Saxons.  Robin learns of the plot and is eventually able to warn the King, but by then his unexplained absence has brought disfavour upon him.

Richard has disinherited him as well as branding him an outlaw.  But in their final meeting, before Richard departs for the Crusades, he strongly implies that as an outlaw he’ll be able to stay in England and do some good.  It’s slightly odd that on the one hand Richard makes him an outlaw and on the other seems to tacitly approve of him, but it means that all the pieces are now in place.

Robin Hood, and his band of men, are outlaws and they face two implacable enemies – the Sheriff of Nottingham and Sir Guy of Gisborne.  And since Richard has agreed to the marriage between Sir Guy and the Lady Marion, that provides yet another reason for conflict …..

The Legend of Robin Hood (BBC 1975) – Part One

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The stories of Robin Hood have proven to be evergreen and have featured in numerous film and television adaptations over the years.  On British television, probably the two best-remembered takes on the character are Richard Greene’s The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955-1960) and Richard Carpenter’s much later, somewhat radical reworking of the legend, as seen in Robin of Sherwood (1984-1986).

The Legend of Robin Hood, broadcast in 1975, was a six-part serial which drew some of its inspiration from the earliest surviving written material (namely the ballads, such as A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode).  Naturally, some elements (such as Robin’s beheading of the Sherrif) are omitted and The Legend of Robin Hood is also content to cherry-pick material from later interpretations of the stories (neither Maid Marion or King Richard appear in the ballads, for example).

One of the strengths of The Legend of Robin Hood is that it’s a serial, rather than a series, so the tale it tells is finite – with a beginning, a middle and an end.  As enjoyable as the Richard Greene series was, it did have a seemingly endless number of episodes, which ensured that character development could never be anything other than minimal.  Although Robin of Sherwood was also a series, the decision by Michael Praed to jump ship (for the dubious pleasures of Dynasty) after series two did mean that his character (Robin of Locksley) could have a clearly defined fate, something also shared by Martin Potter’s Robin.

After serving a decent apprenticeship in numerous films and television series, The Legend of Robin Hood seemed to be Potter’s first step towards a more substantial career.  But for whatever reason this never happened and his credits eventually spluttered to a halt – after an episode of All Creatures Great and Small in 1988 there’s nothing until the rather undistinguished television movie The Outsiders in 2006.  But although his later career never developed in the way I’m sure he would have wanted, he still makes a first-class Robin Hood.

He’s supported by an impressive roster of acting talent – Diane Keen as Maid Marion, Paul Darrow as the Sheriff of Nottingham, William Marlowe as Sir Guy of Gisborne, John Abineri (later to take a key role in Robin of Sherwood) as Sir Kenneth Neston, David Dixon as Prince John, Tony Caunter as Friar Tuck, Conrad Asquith as Little John, Michael J. Jackson as King Richard and Yvonne Mitchell as Queen Eleanor.

Part one opens with the Earl of Huntingdon (Anthony Garner) preparing to leave for France.  Before he goes, he places his infant son, Robin, in the charge of Father Ambrose (David King).  Ambrose is charged to find the young Robin a safe place to live and when he’s of age he’ll be told that he’s the rightful heir to the Huntingdon estates.  In some versions of the Robin Hood legend he’s a lowly-born Saxon and in others he’s the noble Earl of Huntington, so it’s a nice twist that this adaptation is able to incorporate both.

Robin is brought up by the forrester John Hood (Trevor Griffiths) and remains ignorant of his true identity.  This isn’t the most effective part of the story as it’s hard to understand why the young Robin would have been removed from the manor at Huntingdon – surely his father could have found somebody he trusted to act as guardian in his absence?  It also has to be said that Robin takes the news that he’s the Earl of Huntingdon very calmly (Martin Potter registering no more emotion than if he’d just been told it was raining outside).  But now the truth is known he sets off to London to seek an audience with King Richard and claim his inheritance.

He’s somewhat delayed, as on the way he meets Lady Marion and her uncle, Sir Kenneth Neston.  Neston, like Robin, is a proud Saxon, so Robin is perturbed to discover that he plans to marry his niece to Sir Guy of Gisborne.  Earlier, Robin saw an example of Sir Guy’s brutal justice (a man arrested for stealing berries from one of Sir Guy’s bushes) so he queries why.  Neston believes that marriages between Saxons and Normans will dilute the Norman influence – Robin is polite, but noncommittal.

William Marlowe always offered a nice line in dangerous villains and his Sir Guy is no different.  Although Sir Guy is polite and courteous in this episode (and also seems sincere in his love for Marion) Marlowe manages to give the impression that he could erupt into violence at any moment.  He dominates the first scene with the Sheriff of Nottingham and the Abbot of Grantham (David Ryall) although a later scene between the Sherriff and the Abbot gives a chance for Paul Darrow to show that he can be equally as dangerous.

There’s no doubt that the DVD picked up some sales due to Darrow’s appearance.  Thanks to his always watchable performance as Avon in Blakes 7, he’s maintained a healthy fan following.  Whilst he resists the temptation (unlike some of the later Sheriffs) to go way over the top, his Sheriff does have flashes of cold violence, which are rather Avon-like.

Diane Keen is a winsome and appealing Maid Marion.  It’s a more traditional performance than some of the later, more warrior-like, versions.  This Marion, whilst she has a mind of her own, is presented as a heroine to be saved (screaming and almost insensible when attacked by a gang of outlaws, for example).

Michael J. Jackson may lack the imposing presence of some other notable Richards, such as Julian Glover or John Rhys-Davies, but despite his rather slight frame he’s still commanding.  He easily manages to best his brother John, who pleads with him to be made regent before Richard departs for the Holy Land.  David Dixon (later to be the unearthly Ford Prefect in the BBC1 adaptation of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) offers a similarly off-kilter performance here.  Although he has only a few moments screen time in part one, Dixon still makes an impact as John comes over as a spoilt, weak and unstable man who is easily manipulated.

Many adaptations of the Robin Hood stories open with Richard already in the Holy Land.  This one is a little different, as we see Richard preparing to leave (with Robin due to join him).  Richard has recognised Robin as the rightful heir to the Huntingdon estates and he bestows further honour on him by making him his squire.  The outspoken Robin isn’t pleased though as he believes that strife will befall the kingdom if the King leaves to fight the Saracens.

Although Robin’s not yet an outlaw (and we’ve yet to meet the Merry Men) quite a lot of ground has been captured in this first episode.  Production wise, it’s typical of the era (interiors shot on VT and exteriors on film).  For anybody used to programmes from this era, the production values are pretty typical (although it must be said that some of the interior sets do look uncomfortably stagey).  Possibly the worst production flaw comes at 45:54, when the edge of the backcloth (which has been hung to simulate evening outside the windows of the Throne Room) is clearly visible.

Martin Potter is an earnest and likeable Robin Hood, although it’s true that he does sound rather well spoken for somebody brought up in humble surroundings.  But whilst he lacks the impish humour of some of the other Robins, he still comes over as a likeable leading man and the first fifty minutes have laid the ground nicely for the remainder of the serial.


The Sandbaggers – Special Relationship


An East German spy called Mittag (Brian Ashley) has obtained aerial photographs of a new missile complex which is probably targeting R.A.F. bases in West Germany.  This information is vital, but there’s a problem – Mittag is convinced he’s under observation, so he won’t travel over to the West.  Instead, he wants somebody to collect the pictures in person.

The question is, who?  There seems to be a shortage of possibilities, as whoever goes has to be Berlin-orientated (i.e. able to pass themselves off as an East Berliner).  Laura has all the qualifications, but Burnside is very reluctant to consider her.  Is it because of their growing relationship or is there another reason?

Willie offers to go – although Burnside points out how foolish that would be, since he doesn’t speak German.  He breezily says he’ll go over the Wall, and it’s clear that he’s made the offer to save Burnside from having to send Laura.  Eventually, Burnside decides that Laura is the right person for the job, and she’s sent in.  But the nightmare happens and she’s caught by the authorities, which leaves Burnside with a limited number of options, all of them bad.

Special Relationship is the ultimate example of how compartmentalised Neil Burnside is.  There’s no doubt that he’s in love with Laura (he’s seen smiling several times in the early part of the episode, which is far from normal behavour) and after she’s detained he starts to make frantic attempts to secure her release.  Given their relationship this is understandable, but there’s another reason.  Before she was sent to East Berlin, Laura was briefed on the Hungarian networks – and if this information is extracted from her it could mean the deaths of dozens of people.  Was this the real reason why Burnside was reluctant to send Laura in?  As so often, there’s no “right” answer – maybe it’s a combination of this and his genuine feelings for her.

Time’s not on his side – within forty eight hours she’ll have told them everything she knows, so she has to be recovered before then.  A swop would seem to be the best option, but there’s nobody currently held by the British who fit the bill.  The French have somebody though, but will they agree to hand him over?  They do, but the price is incredibly high – they want access to the information supplied to the British by the Americans (via the special relationship).  They also want a signed agreement from “C” and Sir Geoffrey Wellingham confirming this.

If the Americans found out that their information was being passed over to the French it would be the end of the special relationship, but Burnside has no other options.  He speaks to “C” first.  “C” says that if they sign it, both he and Sir Geoffrey will be finished, politically.  Burnside agrees, but tells him that his career is drawing to a close anyway.  “C” concurs but ruefully muses that “I had hoped not to end mine in disgrace.”  He reluctantly signs.

Sir Geoffrey is harder to convince.  He’s still smarting over Burnside’s treatment of his daughter and even when Burnside tells him that he’s in love with Laura, Sir Geoffrey doesn’t believe him.  “I think you’re lying Neil.  The way you always lied, cheated, double-dealt to get your own way.”  Burnside makes no defence of his past, but tells him he’s not lying this time.  Sir Geoffrey signs as well.

So this is a three-cornered problem.  Protect the Hungarian networks, maintain the special relationship and save Laura Dickens’ life.  Two out of the three can be done, but not all.  By this point in the story it should already be clear which will have to be sacrificed.

Laura is shot and killed at the rendezvous point before she’s exchanged for the Russian prisoner.  Her death has saved the Hungarian networks and since the exchange didn’t go ahead it allows Burnside to declare the document drafted to the French null and void.  So it’s Laura who was expendable, killed on Burnside’s command.  It’s a powerful moment, with her dead body lying almost at Burnside’s feet.  The split-second before she was shot we see her smile at him, which just twists the knife a little more.

Caine lashes out at Burnside.  This event signals a change in their relationship which will be reflected in the following two series.

CAINE: You bastard! Why?
BURNSIDE: You know why. I had to get Laura away from them, into the open to save the Hungarians. To do that I had to set up the swap with …
CAINE: But why the hell didn’t you swap?
BURNSIDE: I couldn’t. The only way I could convince the Americans was by guaranteeing that there would be no swap. Look, you must see it Willie.

It’s another jarring move by Ian Mackintosh.  Having killed off two Sandbaggers in Is Your Journey Really Necessary? it didn’t seem likely that another death would happen so soon.  Everything looked to be set up to develop Laura’s character further, as she’d only featured in four episodes and there was still considerable scope for broadening her relationship with Burnside.  Her sudden, brutal death brings this to an end – and it’s also an incredibly powerful way to bring the first series of The Sandbaggers to a close.

The Sandbaggers – A Feasible Solution


A top missile engineer, Professor Colby (Donald Churchill), has disappeared in Cyprus.  When news filters through that a Russian expert in missile guidance has also gone missing, it starts alarm bells ringing. Burnside, Laura and Willie kick around possibilities about who could have taken them.  In the end it seems that a group operating in Cyprus, such as the Greek Cypriot National Front, are the most likely suspects. Smuggling missiles into or out of Cyprus would be tricky – much better to have them prepared inside the country.

Another complication occurs when the deputy head of station in Cyprus is brutally killed. Logically, it makes no sense – until now it was only a theory that forces within Cyprus were responsible for kidnapping the scientists, but this murder seems to prove it. Burnside dispatches Caine to Cyprus and he’s accompanied by the replacement deputy, Jill Ferris (Sarah Bullen).

Wille’s not happy about minding a woman, but she quickly proves to be more than capable – which raises his suspicions, as she’s supposed to be fresh out of the training school. The answer is that she’s a Russian agent, who’s disposed of the real Jill Ferris (the Russians also killed the previous deputy head of station, so they could replace him with one of their own). Since the Russians only have a limited presence in Cyprus it makes sense for them to work covertly with the SIS. For now, Caine is told to play along with her – which may be a problem as he seems to find her somewhat attractive.

A Feasible Solution is a somewhat unusual episode of The Sandbaggers since it features quite a heavy amount of gunplay and plenty of dead bodies.  As soon as Caine and the bogus Jill Ferris arrive in Cyprus, they find themselves pitched into an intensive gun battle.  It’s interesting to hear Willie say that he doesn’t really like guns and Burnside comments that it’s the first time in over a year that Willie Caine has been armed.  Although he’s the chief Sandbagger, it seems that killing people isn’t something he particularly cares for – although he’s undoubtedly good at it.

Once again we see the UK doubling for a foreign country.  It works quite well here – thanks to the fact that the sun shone when the filming took place.  The soundtrack of chirping insects also helps to create the illusion of being abroad.  The missing scientists are almost a Macguffin, since the thrust of this part of the story is concerned with the relationship between Willie and Jill, as well as providing us with a more action-orientated episode than is usual.

Back in the UK, Burnside pays a visit to the section psychiatrist Philip Jeremiah (Richard Cornish).  Burnside tells him he’s convinced that Laura Dickens has some sort of hang-up and he wants to know what it is.  Jeremiah replies that she has no hang-up which will affect her performance as a Sandbagger, but there is something.  “She was dominated by her parents and told that all men are beasts, that sex is simply for the propagation of the species.”

The conclusion seems to be that Laura is very emotionally fragile. When Burnside asks how she would respond to kindness, say a dinner invitation, Jeremiah tells him not to try and hustle her into bed. “Incurable romantic” mutters Burnside in return. But he seems to have got the answer he wanted, and this is the clearest evidence yet that he’s interested in her as a person and not just as a Sandbagger.

Burnside and Laura have their dinner.  It’s another good scene from Marsden and Keen, with Burnside acting somewhat hesitant (a departure from his usual gruff, professional attitude).  When they return to his flat for a drink, she tells him that, given her past, he’ll have to be patient.  He replies that he can be, and the scene ends with Burnside laughing.  Which isn’t something you see every day!

By the end of the episode, he’s back to his usual, cold self though.  Caine has returned – and he’s managed to rescue Professor Colby.  The fake Jill Ferris also located the Russian scientist, Yugorov, although since he defected willingly she kills him.  Caine and Ferris go their separate ways, much to Burnside’s annoyance.  “You were alone with Colby and Yugorov whilst she made a dummy run with the ambulance. You didn’t think to put a bullet in Yugorov, blame it on the opposition? With Yugorov dead and out of the way, she’d have kept her cover and stayed on as the Cyprus number two and we could have fed her false information.”

A Feasible Solution is a good story for Ray Lonnen, as it allows us to see how well Caine works in the field.  It also develops the Burnside/Laura relationship – which is going to be resolved in the next story, which was also the final story of the first series, Special Relationship.

The Sandbaggers – Always Glad To Help


The M.O.D. are concerned about a Russian merchant vessel called the Karaganda.  They believe it may be a spy ship and want Burnside’s help to investigate it.  He considers that the Royal Marines and the S.B.S. (Special Boat Service) would be the best people for the job and refuses.  The Director General of Intelligence at the M.O.D. (Gerald James) threatens to go over his head, but Burnside, as usual, isn’t intimidated.

Back at HQ, we see Peele visit Burnside in his office.  It’s interesting to see how Caine and Burnside react.  Caine immediately stands up when Peele enters the room but Burnside doesn’t.  Since Peele outranks Burnside he should have stood up too, but he’s clearly got no time for such formalities.  He’s even less time for Peele’s request that they need to reduce the special section’s travel costs by 10%.  “If they go first class they arrive fit, if they go economy they arrive tired.  The difference could be their lives.”

Once again, Burnside ridicules Peele’s lack of operational experience.  Although Peele was the one-time head of the Hong Kong station, Burnside retorts that “the only thing you put at risk was your liver.”  This initial spat is merely the prelude for the main part of the episode, as we see Peele and Burnside once more cross swords.

Hamad (Peter Miles) is the Crown Prince of a small Middle Eastern nation.  He’s approached Wellingham and asked for his help in engineering a coup and thereby removing his father (a pro-Russian supporter) from power.  Wellingham is keen to assist, for various reasons.  “We help him get rid of his father, he turns the Sheikdom pro-West.  Buys British weapons, gets a British firm to build the new refinery.”

There’s no two ways about it – Peter Miles isn’t of Middle Eastern descent.  Sixties and Seventies television were full of British actors playing various nationalities (of varying believability) and The Sandbaggers was to be no differerent.  It’s difficult to take Peter Miles (especially when he’s slightly browned-up)  that seriously, which is a slight problem.  Also noticeable is the scene in Wellingham’s club, just after we’ve seen Hamad for the first time.  Roy Marsden’s face seems to be caked in orange make-up.  It’s very odd and doesn’t re-occur elsewhere during the story.

Anyway, back to the story.  Wellingham is keen to press ahead as quickly as possible, but Burnside is cautious.  He made his position clear in First Principles – a mission can only succeed when there’s clear and solid information.  At present, too much is unknown.  Most importantly, is it known for sure that Hamad would be sympathetic to the British government?  To overthrow a dictator and then put somebody worse in their place is far from desirable.

Burnside outlines some of the essential information he requires to Peele.  “How much support does Hamad have in the country, how well organised is it and how quickly can it be rallied?”  Burnside isn’t impressed by Peele’s statement that they should move ahead simply because Wellingham wants it to happen.  “To hell with Wellingham, he’s feathering his own nest as usual.”

In order to try and answer the question as to where Hamad’s sympathies lie, Burnside elects to find out by using Laura’s undeniable feminine charms.  But before this, they have a typically stormy meeting – Laura tells him she wants to leave the Sandbaggers at the earliest possible opportunity (mainly because he’s their boss).  Burnside responds by calling her a bitch once she’s exited the office.  Caine cheerfully tells Burnside that they’re clearly both in love with each other – they just don’t know it yet.

Laura makes an immediate impression on Hamad by rolling over her car in front of his.  They quickly begin a relationship and he seems besotted with her.  Peter Miles’ staccato delivery is oddly unnerving and the casual clothes that Hamad wears when they go bowling are interesting, shall we say.  Diane Keen does her best and it’s a memorable part of the story, but possibly not for the right reasons.

Much better is a scene between Burnside and Laura at his flat.  The fact she’s there at all is noteworthy – as you get the impression that not many people are invited around.  There’s some nice playing from both Marsden and Keen here.  Maybe Willie was right and there is a spark of attraction, but who will make the first move?

Burnside goes to make coffee and opens up a little.  “All of us have aspects of our lives with which it’s difficult to cope. In the office, I’ve learnt to survive. At home, I’m unprotected – from visitations, faces, eyes, voices.  Two more in the last few weeks.”

As the preparations for the proposed coup go ahead, Peele is dismayed to find the M.O.D. dragging their feet.  When he’s told it’s because Burnside refused to help them over the Karaganda, he promises to get it sorted, which he does – much to Burnside’s disgust.

Burnside’s slow and methodical information gathering regarding Hamad is proved to be the prudent course – eventually it’s proved that had the British intervened it would have been disastrous.  The Karaganda was discovered to have an underwater hatch as an outlet for divers, so according to Peele it’s shared honours.  “You were right about Hamad, I was right about the Karaganda.”  Burnside’s reply is cutting and it looks as if his frosty relationship with Peele isn’t going to thaw any time soon.

Always Glad To Help has some nice character touches for Burnside and an impressive car stunt (when Laura overturns her Mini in front of Hamad).  As I’ve said, Peter Miles is a bit of a weak link, but that’s more down to his miscasting then anything else.  Otherwise it’s typical Sandbaggers – the majority of the battles we see in the series aren’t fought overseas, but rather closer to home – and with words, not guns.

The Sandbaggers – The Most Suitable Person


There’s a lot going on in The Most Suitable Person.  Firstly, Des Yardley, a member of the Morocco station, is found murdered in Gibraltar.  He’s normally based in Tangier, so his presence in Gibraltar is a mystery – as is the reason for his death.  Burnside elects to send Willie Caine to investigate.  He knows that Caine isn’t the world’s best investigator, but he’s good at stirring things up – and this should enable him to flush out the murderer.

With Caine in Gibraltar, this makes finding replacements for Landy and Denison ever more pressing.  The problem is that Burnside has exacting standards and there doesn’t seem to be any trainees even remotely suitable.  Out of the current crop of active SIS agents, Caine knows that Colin Grove (Jonathan Coy) is very keen to join the special section, but Burnside is dismissive – he doesn’t think he’s even remotely suitable.  And when Bob Sherman tells him that Grove has been seeing a Hungarian psychiatrist, it raises the possibility that he’s a serious security risk – with both British and American secrets potentially passed over to a hostile power.

In addition to the mysterious death of Yardley and the investigation into Grove’s conduct we also have a third element to the story, the newest recruit to the Sandbaggers – Laura Dickens (Diane Keen).  Laura is by far the best of the new recruits, but Caine knows that the boss isn’t going to like it – because she’s a woman.

Laura Dickens (Diane Keen)
Laura Dickens (Diane Keen)

Burnside reluctantly agrees to see her (and there’s a nice moment when, just before she enters his office, he tidies up his desk and straightens his tie!).  He asks her if she’s interested in joining the special section and she tells him no, she’s not.  Her cool dismissal of a posting that most people would give almost anything to achieve, clearly intrigues him.  Laura explains the reasons why.

I’ve never been very good at playing Cowboys and Indians.  You see, I can’t help feeling that special sections exist because they create work for each other. You manipulate yours, so the other side manipulate theirs. It may keep everybody happy but what does it achieve in the long term?

It’s her belief that she’s wrong for the job than convinces Burnside that she’s exactly right.  “Volunteers for the special section usually see themselves as James Bond.  I’d rather have someone, male or female, who sees the job in perspective.  A while ago I tried to change the name, special section, into something less evocative.  As far as I’m concerned it’s only special because few people are right for it.”

Laura agrees to join the Sandbaggers on a temporary secondment – until Burnside can find permanent replacements for Sandbaggers Two and Three.  He then dispatches her to Tangier in order to discover what Yardley was working on.  Before she goes, he gives her his personal phone number and tells her she can use it to contact him anytime.  Professional or personal business?  The Burnside/Laura relationship begins here, and it’s something that will be a prime focus of the remaining series one episodes.

Meanwhile, Willie’s following up leads in Gibraltar (actually it’s filmed, like most of the foreign locations in the series, around the Manchester area!).  He gets to experience a bit of gunplay – although it’s clear that The Sandbaggers isn’t aiming at James Bond-style glamour and action.  When Caine returns a borrowed car to Detective Chief Inspector Gomez (Stephen Grief), he offers to clean it first – because he’s been sick in it (following the gun battle).  It’s a small character beat that helps to highlight that even the most experienced of agents are subject to normal stresses and strains.

The three plot-threads of this episode does mean that it feels a little fragmented and subsequently it’s not as compelling a drama as say, Is Your Journey Really Necessary?. Laura’s introduction is the obvious highlight and she quickly proves to be a more than capable officer – she uncovers the reason for Yardley’s trip to Gibraltar and this information helps to foil a terrorist attack on a passenger plane.

The truth about Grove is also established, which allows Burnside the satisfaction of getting one up on MI5.  He explains this to Peele at the end of the episode, thereby giving Jerome Willis a nice character moment.  Willis was absent from the previous episode, and is only on the periphery in this one, which is a shame as he was always a very watchable actor.  But the next episode does offer him a little more scope ….