Softly Softly: Task Force – In The Public Gaze

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Returning home after a less than enjoyable social function, Cullen spies a young officer, PC Pugh (Martin C. Thursley), being attacked by two men – Dawson (Michael Finbar) and Wilson (Gawn Grainger).  Without a seconds hesitation Cullen steams in, pulls both men off the stricken officer and bangs their heads together.  Although Cullen obviously saved Pugh from further punishment he’s laid himself open to an assault charge, which is further complicated after Dawson drops dead the next day ….

Episodes where Cullen is central to proceedings are rather rare, so In The Public Gaze is something of a treat.  Gotell’s firing on all cylinders right from the start as he subdues PC Pugh’s two attackers.  Snow, next on the scene, reacts with barely disguised admiration at the way the Chief Constable handled himself and it’s impossible not to agree with him.  Prior to the attack we have an opportunity to observe Cullen’s wry sense of humour as he tells his driver they might as well listen to the light programme on the way home and then proceeds to switch the radio over to the police frequency!

Walter Gotell and Stratford Johns share some sharply-written two-handed scenes as Cullen and Barlow mull over the possibilities.  Cullen declares that he’s not a man of violence whilst Barlow reflects on the way he’s trying to conserve his energies.   For example, Chief Superintendent Leach (Reginald Marsh), is a capable enough officer, but not when he’s worried or flustered.  And the arrival of the Chief Constable at his station is just the sort of thing to drive Leach to distraction so Barlow is careful to treat him with kid gloves, rather than lose his temper with him.  Marsh doesn’t have a great deal to do but he’s quite effective at looming in the background looking anxious.

It’s stated several times that Wilson is a troublemaker who will delight in laying the blame for his injuries at Cullen’s door.  What’s interesting is that we don’t see Wilson or Dawson during the period that they’re in custody – either whilst they’re being interviewed or later when they’re charged.  The first time we hear either of them speak is the following day, when the pair are presented at the magistrates court, prior to a possible trial.

Most other police series would have chosen to display them as cocky, arrogant types, but that isn’t the case here.  Both are hesitant and stumbling in the way that they question Pugh about the attack, which is an unexpected touch.  Armstrong conducts the police case, but he’s unsuccessful in keeping Cullen out of the witness box .  This infuriates Barlow, who maintains that a word in the right ear could have saved them all this hassle.  Cullen ironically jibes him about the old boy network, but Barlow doesn’t see anything wrong in bending the law in a good cause.

After Dawson’s death, the story moves to the coroner’s court.  It’s established that Dawson had an aneurism and so could have died at any time, but was there a reason why it happened now?  The Chief Constable is called to give evidence and Gotell once again commands the screen as Cullen gives a clear, concise statement about the events in question.  When questioned about whether he’s set any guidelines concerning the amount of force which should be used by his officers, he answers in the negative but adds “I do not want my men to get involved in a fight. But if they do, I expect them to win.”

A verdict of death by natural causes is recorded, but Wilson continues to harangue Cullen. The coroner makes the good point (he’s the first to do so) that Wilson has to share some of the blame since he involved Dawson in the attack on Pugh, but this falls on deaf ears.  And Wilson doesn’t let up – bombarding the press and members of the police committee with letters.  Barlow muses to Armstrong that something has to be done about him ….

In The Public Gaze is another excellent script by Elwyn Jones.  As touched upon, Gotell excels throughout whilst the solution to neutralising Wilson is a neat one.  PC Snow is responsible for delivering the metaphorical knock-out punch, with Terence Rigby on typically good and intimidating form.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Final Score

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Softly Softly: Task Force – Sweet are the Uses of Adversity

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A prostitute called Vera (Maggy Maxwell) is beaten up.  This irritates Hawkins, in charge of the Task Force during Watt’s absence, as Snow was keeping her under surveillance at the time ….

Sweet are the Uses of Adversity is a story that allows Hawkins to demonstrate his skills as a leader.  He’s clearly somewhat hesitant about taking command – demonstrated by his reluctance to use Watt’s office.  This was a suggestion made by Sergeant Jackson, a man who’s plainly very ambitious (much more ambitious than the easy-going Hawkins that’s for sure).  An interesting character-beat is developed when Jackson admits that he’s always fancied being either a butler or a valet and we see him put those skills in operation later in the episode.  Hawkins, the worse for wear after a night’s surveillance, is greeted by a chirpy Jackson who presents him with a fresh shirt and a razor.  Hawkins is irritated.  “Look, valet, am I going on parade or something?”  But Jackson’s response that Cullen wants to see him in half an hour is more than enough to make him spring into action!

In previous episodes we’ve seen Watt and Barlow gently (and not so gently) restrain some of Jackson’s impulses.  He’s a man who wants to get on in the force and is happy to ally himself to anybody – such as Hawkins – who might smooth his passage.  But it’s undeniable that Jackson makes a good point with his suggestion that Hawkins uses Watt’s office.  Hawkins must be seen to be in charge if he’s to command the respect of those below him.   Which raises the concept that command is – in part – little more than an acting job.

Jackson continues to operate as the power behind the throne by providing various avenues for Hawkins to investigate.  Whether Hawkins would have achieved so much without Jackson’s input is debatable – we’ve seen the Sergeant provide Watt with invaluable advice previously, but here he seems even more proactive.  That he desires to be the one in command has been a running thread since his earliest appearances.

Snow is mildly roasted by Hawkins, but Snow argues he was detailed to keep a watch on the house (he wouldn’t have been able to observe what was happening inside).  Evans, who’d taken over from Snow on watch, is first on the scene following the arrival of the ambulance for Vera.  This is a much more harder-edged Evans, somewhat removed from his more relaxed and jovial persona.

A woman’s touch is required, so Donald interviews Vera in the hospital.  She can’t tell the detective a great deal – names are not used in her business – but does reveal that the man was probably a Geordie.  The sight of Vera, middle-aged and careworn even without the bruises, makes a change from the more usual depiction of prostitutes as young and attractive.  Jennifer (Irene Bradshaw), the other prostitute in the house, fits the more stereotypical profile of the young and glamorous working girl.

Geordie (credited as such on the end titles, since we never learn his name) seems to be responsible for a number of other break-ins and assaults in the area, although the speed at which the Task Force jump to this conclusion feels a little contrived.  At one house, Evans radios in to say that he’s found some fingerprints which look very similar to the ones they’d taken from other recent crime scenes.  That Evans could zero in to suspect fingerprints is impressive enough, but to be able to match them with his naked eye to previously taken dabs is a step too far!

We then start to follow Geordie (Alan Tucker).  He’s very much a loner, and this lack of interaction with others allows Tucker the chance to show the character’s instability in a variety of non-verbal ways.  Using a knife to deface a table in one of the houses which he’s burgled is an obvious example.  Later he buys a bottle of milk from a milkman and then proceeds to smash it over the unfortunate milkman’s head.  This flash of violence – albeit mostly achieved offscreen – is unsettling.  Alan Tucker, as Geordie, doesn’t utter a word until the forty sixth minute.  His lack of speech works very well in maintaining an aura of menace and unpredictability around the character. His motivations remain a mystery though. We discover he has a job, so he’s not stealing money for need – presumably he just enjoys robbery with violence.

Hawkins’ inexperience sees him make decisions which possibly aren’t the best.  He later rallies the troops with a pep talk, although it’s slightly frustrating that this happens off-screen (we only hear about it from Donald and Evans).  Evans is impressed, calling it a beautiful speech.  Donald is slightly more cautious, for her it was a shrewd but cagey talk.

Sweet are the Uses of Adversity is an archetypical episode of SS:TF, with Elwyn Jones’ script concentrating on the character interactions of the regulars.  Norman Bowler and David Allister, as Hawkins and Jackson, get the lion’s share of the action, but Snow, Evans, Donald and Cullen all have a chance to shine as well.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Collation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Softly Softly: Task Force – Its Ugly Head

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Good Listener

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PC Snow and Radar are patrolling in the park, where they meet an old lady called Miss Thomson (Sylvia Barter).  She’s clearly agitated and Snow, seeing this, suggests she tells her story to Radar.  As strange as this seems it does the trick and Miss Thomson explains that she’s worked as a bookkeeper at a local company for the last fifteen years.  It’s recently been taken over by a man called Overson (Jonathan Newth) and Miss Thomson is concerned that something fraudulent is going on.

The opening scene has another example of a film/VT mix which isn’t very effective.  Location filming always cost more (and was a lengthier process) than taping scenes on videotape in the studio, so it’s easy to see why SS:TF tried to limit the time they spent on location.  The problem comes when you mix film and videotape in the same scene.  Here, the establishing shots of the park are on film.  We them move to videotape for the dialogue, which is jarring enough, but there’s also a moment when Terence Rigby delivers several lines on videotape with a film background.  This looks very odd indeed.

PC Snow is a copper rather in the Dixon mould, shown by the way that he has time to stop and chat.  Possibly this might also have something to do with the fact that he spends most of his time with Radar.  He admits he does talk to his dog, but presumably the dog doesn’t answer back!

Sgt Jackson (David Allister) is a more complicated figure than Snow.  He tended to exist around the fringes of the action in series one and rarely initiated events.  Unlike the much more avuncular Sgt Evans, Jackson doesn’t seem to possess any sense of humour and is also deeply ambitious.  We see an example of this here – Hawkins is happy to shuffle off the job of investigating the fraud to the Commerce Division, but Jackson is keen to keep it in-house.  He argues that it’ll be good experience for them (and won’t look bad on their records if the right result is gained).

Jackson, clearly enjoying being in charge, sends Snow around to the company warehouse to sniff around.  He meets the manager, Bert Fowler (Douglas Livingstone) and the assistant bookkeeper Betty Adams (Marilyn Harrington).  Both are friendly enough to Snow’s face, but clearly have little time for the police.  Because they have something to hide?  For his part, Snow’s not impressed with Betty, later telling Hawkins that she’s “a little tartlet and tough with it.”

When Barlow finds out that Jackson is running his own enquiry without the authorisation of the Commerce Division, he entertains himself by making the Sergeant sweat for a few minutes.  There’s no finer sight than Barlow in full flight, although he’s prepared to wait and see what Hawkins and Snow (on photographic reconnaissance) turn up.

When Hawkins and Snow return, Barlow continues in pretty much the same vein, taking shots at all of them.  I also love Stratford Johns’ reaction when PC Snow admits that he talks to Radar.  Barlow succulently sums the situation up. “Barmy. I think this is a nut house, not a police office.”

The crime in this story is very much secondary to the interactions of the regulars.  I’ll probably end up sounding like a broken record as I make my way through the series, but Stratford Johns is always so amazingly watchable.  When he leaves SS:TF for yet another spin off series (hopefully Simply will consider releasing Barlow in the future) it’s going to leave something of a hole.

Jonathan Newth, an actor who’s appeared in a score of popular series from the 1960’s onwards (and is still going strong today) is perfect as the icy kingpin.  He considers himself to be fireproof (as the police aren’t interested in long frauds) but now that Barlow’s on the case all bets are off ….

Another good script from Elwyn Jones.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Baptism

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Tommy Abbott (Ian Hogg) has broken out of prison and returns home to a less than warm welcome from his wife Sal (Diana Bishop).  John Watt is concerned to learn that Abbott’s on the loose.  Reports have reached him that Abbott could be developing schizoid tendencies, which might make him a danger either to himself or others ….

When Abbott first appears he has two fellow escapees, Michaelson (Louis Mahoney) and Jewkes (John Garrie), with him.  Let’s be kind and say that their performances are on the broad side – especially Mahoney – but things pick up when Abbott is left alone with his wife.

This was a fairly early credit for Hogg, probably best known for the eighties police series, Rockliffe’s Babies (which is long, long overdue for a DVD release).  Abbott may be the focus of the Task Force’s attention, but until the last fifteen minutes or so he doesn’t have a great deal of screentime.

He winds up at the chemical plant where he used to work.  Sal is convinced that he plans to kill himself and also hints that she was raped by him earlier (which might confirm Watt’s theory about Abbott’s devolving personality).  Barlow, never the most tactful of people, labels Abbott as a nutter and doesn’t seem at all concerned to learn that he might be contemplating suicide.

Other programmes might have discussed whether the penal system had created Abbott’s problems, but SS:TF only lightly skirts around this issue. A psychologist is brought in, but he contributes little of value. There is a grudging comment that if Abbott is captured then he’ll receive treatment (had he stayed locked up, the inference is that he wouldn’t) but that’s as far as the debate goes.

We see several examples of Watt’s protective (or sexist, depending on your point of view) treatment of WDC Donald.  It’s slightly eye-opening but no doubt reflected the attitudes of the time.

PC Snow and his new police-dog Radar (who replaced Inky, shot down in the line of duty in the final episode of series one) believe they’ve located Abbott, but if he’s inside the chemical plant then they’ll have to tread very carefully (Abbott is carrying a box of matches and one spark could cause an inferno).

Baptism is a static, talky episode but things pick up towards the end when Abbott makes his reappearance and we see Barlow entertain himself by browbeating Michaelson.  Mahoney has some decent material to work with here and the battle of wits between Barlow and Michaelson is a good one.