Softly Softly: Task Force – Money for Sale (17th January 1973)

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The Task Force are on the trail of Alfred Felton. A distinguished-looking criminal in his fifties, Felton has disappeared (the fact he was carrying a great deal of stolen money when he vanished piques Watt’s interest).

In the past John Watt has berated Harry Hawkins for his willingness to dash about. Senior staff, says Watt, should be more office bound. Today he seems to have forgotten that maxim – Watt spends the early part of the episode out and about and in full investigation mode.  It’s quite a rarity these days to see him playing detective, and even rarer that he’s digging around all by himself.

Felton’s car – a Wolseley – seems to be key. Find that and they might have a good chance of locating Felton. Watt tracks the car down to a scrapyard run by Paddy Reilly (Paddy Joyce).  One of those instantly recognisable actors, Joyce is highly entertaining as the endlessly slippery Reilly – a man who breezily breaks the law without a second thought.

Reilly doesn’t get the third degree from Watt though, that’s reserved for Powers (John White) – the man who sold the car to Reilly.  Powers, a man with a taste in flamboyant shirts, is eventually worn down by Watt.  Since Stratford Johns’ departure, there hasn’t been quite so many pulsating interview scenes, but Frank Windsor handles this one pretty well.

As the episode rumbles on, the main question remains unanswered – is Felton dead or alive? And if he is dead, who killed him? That the resolution of the mystery only occurs towards the tail end of the episode helps to explain why Money for Sale feels somewhat static. It doesn’t help that Felton’s criminal associates don’t appear until the last ten minutes or so – as when they do they help to give the story a little extra push.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Time-Table (3rd January 1973)

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Jack Rogers (Peter Whitbread) was a notable safebreaker in his day, but now seems to have gone straight.  But that doesn’t prevent him from being a person of interest to the Task Force whenever a job with his signature is pulled.

The first meeting between Hawkins and Rogers is an interesting one. Rogers is polite and helpful whilst Hawkins is antagonistic and confrontational. Given that this bank raid occurred up North (in Manchester) it seems barely credible that out of all the potential suspects up and down the country we zero in on Rogers.  Are we being set up for a story in which an innocent man is pursued?

We don’t have long to wait for the answer, indeed in the very next scene it’s revealed that Rogers was responsible.  Surprising that the mystery wasn’t eked out – there would have been dramatic capital in leaving it unclear for a while as to whether Rogers was guilty or innocent.  Watt later confides to his senior staff that in the past his mantra has been “concentrate on the criminal, not the crime”.  He has absolutely no evidence that Rogers was involved (in fact he has a water-tight alibi) but Watt is still content to keep chipping away at him.  That’s a slightly disturbing modus operandi, it has to be said.

Rogers has a powerful ally. His employer, Simmonds (Bryan Pringle), is someone who, according to Rogers, was prepared to take a chance on an ex-con.  The truth is once again revealed quickly – the older Simmonds has been corrupted by the younger Rogers and the pair have now formed a criminal partnership (Simmonds acting as a decoy whilst Rogers carries out the crimes).

What has made the previously law-abiding Simmonds suddenly turn crooked? It’s teased out subtly to begin with, but by the way the pair talk to each other it’s plain that there’s a mutual attraction.  This is handled in a far more restrained way than James Bree’s screamingly camp antiques dealer a few episodes back.  Their relationship is an intriguing part of the episode and Pringle’s self-important and wounded air as Simmonds easily bests Adler to begin with (even forcing the policeman to cough up some pennies for using his phone!) is nicely played too.

The precise mechanics of exactly how Simmonds covers for Rogers during the first two crimes is a bit of a puzzle. And a lengthy film sequence in which the pair drive identical vans around and around does tend to drag.

This apart, Time-Table contains plenty of interest. Whitbread and Pringle are both very solid, Watt’s clash with a budget-conscious Cullen catches the eye, whilst wedding bells contain to ring for Hawkins and Sara.  Evans views the forthcoming nuptials with a jaundiced eye – how will the upwardly mobile Sara survive on Hawkins’ relatively modest salary? The notion of her getting a job never seems to have been considered.

I also like the way that Watt (a man who clearly leads from the front) takes it upon himself to visit Sara in order to enquire what wedding present she’d like the force to give them.  An old-fashioned barometer, in case you were wondering.  And the way that Watt turns the screws on an increasingly frantic Rogers and Simmonds concludes the episode in a satisfactory fashion.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Needle (13th December 1972)

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SS:TF, certainly during this era, used a very small pool of writers. There are pros and cons to this approach – a plus is the way it guarantees a constant tone, but on the negative side it can mean that the stories tend to feel somewhat similar.

Tony Hoare would later become a key writer on Minder, but his early work, such as his handful of SS:TF scripts and contributions to Crown Courtdemonstrates that his distinctive scripting style was already in place.

Hoare, a former inmate himself, is easily able to ensure that this prison-based story feels vivid and real.  As good as the series was, it’s sometimes noticeable that the villains can be unthreatening and lightly sketched.  Needle is quite different – there’s a sharp streak of cynicism which runs throughout.  This is unusual but not unwelcome.

After an unpopular prison officer, Watson (Edwin Brown), is brutally run down outside the prison gates, Watt and the others swiftly decamp to the prison in order to investigate. That we don’t have the usual preamble scenes at Task Force HQ is an interesting touch – no doubt this was partly logistical (saving studio space for the prison sets) but it also works in narrative terms. No sooner have we left Watson dying in the gutter than the story promptly moves onto the next stage.

As the episode progresses, Hoare’s voice seems to be coming through loud and clear. Prison life is shown to be thoroughly dehumanising – both for inmates and warders.  The crumbling Victorian structure, the indifferent diet and the constant threat of casual violence all helps to make it a hellish place.

One inmate, Bernie Bryson (Peter Armitage), later articulates why the warders are worse off than the prisoners. “They figure if they wear big boots and bark like dogs it makes them hard cases. They come straight off the dole queue, see. They ‘aint got the guts to thieve or the brains to work, but this way they can kid themselves that they’re something special. I’m here against my will and only temporary, they’re here permanently and because they need to be”.

Armitage is excellent as the cocky, unrepentant Bryson – comfortable in the knowledge that nothing can touch him. Nothing that is, except his marital problems ….

On the outside, his wife Jane (Janet Lees-Price) lives a comfortable existence in a remarkably decorated flat. Presumably Bernie chose the décor – the massive mural of classic Hollywood gangsters is certainly a talking point.

If Bernie feels a lot more real and dangerous than the series’ usual crop of villains, then so does Jimmy Cass (James Beckett). A friend of Bernie’s on the inside, Cass (one of the men who ran Watson down) finds himself becoming very friendly with the man-eating Jane on the outside.

Full of memorable touches (such as Adler keeping a close vigil on Watson, desperate to hear the dying man’s last, gasped words) Needle is certainly a cut above the norm.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Conversion (6th December 1972)

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An ingenious bank raid – carried out at the same time that the street is undergoing a gas conversion – is today’s crime. But as so often, character dynamics are pushed to the fore whilst the crime sits in the background.

Adler’s continuing mission to refer to all the regulars as “son” continues (today it’s Snow who receives that honour). Having not featured too heavily for a while, it’s nice that Terence Rigby is given more to do (although the reason becomes clear at the end of the episode).

Pete Ryan (Billy Hamon) is befriended by Snow. Something of an innocent, the early part of Conversion leaves us in no doubt that he’s very slow on the uptake (two experienced villains plan to use him when they rob the bank).

Pete, one the army of gas fitters, agrees to block the road at the appointed time (thereby allowing the getaway car to escape). This he does, but it means that he becomes a person of interest to the police – although not as you might expect.  He isn’t lifted for a grilling, instead Snow buys him drinks and listens to his story.

This all the more remarkable since Pete is aware that Snow’s a copper.  Although Snow could never be called soft, something about Pete (who’s barely more than a lad) clearly engages his sympathy.  So when Pete is killed in a road accident, Snow (who was observing him at the time) blames himself.

Spike Harran (Frank Barrie) and Tom Bishop (Graham Weston) are the two members of the gang granted speaking roles.  Many more are seen when the bank raid is carried out, but they were clearly stuntmen and non-speaking extras.  Indeed, the robbery is something of a jolting moment – up until this point the episode has proceeded in a typical fashion for SS:TF (high on character detail, low on visual excitement) so the sight of a gaggle of stuntmen throwing themselves about with wild abandon certainly catches the eye.

The early scenes between Pete, Spike and Tom have something of a comic air. Partly this is down to Tom’s tie, but the dialogue (the way that Spike and Tom have to repeat things again and again to Pete) also reinforces the feeling that the whole escapade is a bit of a lark.  But the brief violence seen during the raid, Pete’s death and Snow’s cold fury at Pete’s wasted life all help to darken the mood.

Adler once again is placed at the centre of the story. His interactions with both Snow and Evans are fascinating.  Snow is happy to give the new Task Force boss a little time to settle in (his attitude reflects his phlegmatic nature). The voluble Evans is a totally different type of person, he’s never slow to reveal his feelings ….

Adler and Snow later bring Spike back to the area.  Their train journey allows Snow to vent his feelings towards Spike, whom he feels had a part to play in Pete’s death. “If this was an old-fashioned compartment with a door there, I’d open it and shove you out”.  Snow’s impassioned tirade, which runs for several minutes, is easily the highlight of the episode.

Terence Rigby once again is excellent value, which makes it a pity that he then took something of a break from the series (sitting out the second half of series four and not returning until the fifth series).  Presumably Rigby had commitments elsewhere.

Grahame Mallard is drafted in as PC Nesbitt (he’d previously appeared in two previous episodes as two different PCs).  His introduction is typical of the series as it couldn’t really be any lower-key (he just appears out of nowhere).

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Paper Chase (15th November 1972)

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The aptly named Con Richards (John Abineri) and a young woman called Mary (Maggie Wells) are flooding the district with forged one pound notes.  As most of the scenes which feature them are in public places we don’t get much of a feel for their real characters. Con’s ever-changing accent is an entertaining touch though.

Paper Chase is more concerned with how this forged money impacts the recipients. The market trader Fisher (David Swift) and his wife (Paula Jacobs) are the first to be conned. Both are Jewish (very, very Jewish in fact – Mrs Fisher reacts with a heartfelt “oy vey” once she realises they’ve been passed dud notes).

They don’t twig for a while that the charming couple who bought a stack of clothes from them were dodgy (surprising, since I was instantly struck by Mary’s obvious wig). So their credulity is a little hard to swallow, especially since Snow has already been around to tip them off about the forged notes.

Swift (sporting an impressive pair of mutton-chop sideburns) is quite entertaining as a basically honest man who nevertheless attempts to later pass off the forgeries as genuine (he’s experienced enough to know that the chances of recovering his losses are slim to zero).

Poor Mrs Baker (Valerie Lush), the proprietor of a small corner shop, is also something of an innocent – but her lack of knowledge seems to be a little more credible. For a small business, the loss of ten pounds is clearly a real blow.  But even if it’s more than likely that she’ll end the story still out of pocket, at least she has the satisfaction of knowing she was the one who put the dogged Evans onto Con’s trail.

Whilst Fisher attempts a touch of fraud to resolve his loss and Mrs Baker simply stoically accepts it, our third victim – the greyhound track manager Clegg (Richard Hampton) – laughs it off as a matter of no concern (he’s insured). By the time that the episode gets to the fourth conned person (a hotel receptionist) clearly time is tight as we never learn how they feel about it.

Running alongside this theme is a subplot concerning an imminent raid on a cash-heavy business.  It’s assumed to be the greyhound track, although no robbery occurs by the time the episode concludes.  Watt’s picture of the gang (wielding pickaxes and knives) is quite vivid, although it does bring to mind a more 1950’s vision of crime (no guns are mentioned).

Paper Chase has several incidental pleasures. Alan Bennion, appearing as a bank manager, is one.  Although he racked up a fair number of credits over the years, it’s his Ice Lord appearances in Doctor Who which I instantly think of whenever I hear his name. So it’s nice to see him for once without his face being covered in latex.

The location work at the outdoor market is very evocative.  The film crew turned up on a regular market day, which makes me wonder whether some of the old biddies who crowd around our regulars were just ordinary members of the public, rather than extras.  A few are quite eye-catching.

There’s also a spot of character development for Harry Hawkins. Although he’s been a regular since the Softly Softly days, Hawkins has rarely made much of an impression (compared to the likes of Snow and Evans he seems quite stolid and far less quirky). But today he gets to cross swords with Watt (Hawkins likes to be out and about whilst Watt believes he should be more desk bound) and he also entertainingly interacts with PC Knowles, now firmly settled into the role of the office administrator.

Small touches maybe, but every little helps.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – New Broom (8th November 1972)

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Despite the title, the primary focus of New Broom isn’t about establishing John Watt as the new Task Force boss.  Instead, it centres around a murder investigation, following the discovery of a severed arm at a rubbish dump ….

This is an unusually macabre plot element for the series and although the rest of the dismembered torso is mainly discussed and not seen, towards the end of the episode the murderer does reveal the only other body-part still in existence (a hand).

After the sensationalist opening, New Broom settles down into a pattern of pure routine.  It’s good to see a number of extras in uniform swelling the ranks in the incident room today. In some of the previous episodes we rarely saw any other police officers apart from the regulars, which tends to give the unfortunate impression that the Task Force is comprised of no more than around half a dozen officers.

John Franklyn-Robbins makes his second appearance as Chief Inspector Bill Adler. Having only skirted around the perimeters of the story in his previous episode, he’s much more central here.  A former detective, various indiscretions several years back (mainly concerning women and alcohol) have seen him reduced in rank, returned to uniform and forced to plough a frustrating furrow as a desk-bound administrator.

He’s never less than totally thorough, but it’s plain that jobs such as organising the furniture for Watt’s new office isn’t quite the sort of thing he joined the police force for.  This subplot is the episode’s one concession to portraying Watt as the new broom.  His office décor is very different from Charlie Barlow’s – Watt favours a minimalist approach (featuring strikingly modern chairs and desks) with the result that Cullen, passing by, first of all believes that there must have been a mix-up with the furniture delivery ….

Adler is later seconded to assist the murder investigation and it’s his dogged and painstaking approach (plenty of sifting of facts and staring at blackboards) which leads them to a suspect, Edward Harrison (Willie Jonah).  Adler will return in most of the remaining episodes on the third and final Pidax DVD set and I’m looking forward to seeing how his character develops.

There’s an intriguing relationship teased out here between him and Watt, which bodes well for the future.  Adler desperately wants to get back to being a detective, but Watt is content to keep him where he is for now (Adler offers to take a crack at Harrison, but Watt delegates Hawkins instead, much to Adler’s obvious disappointment).

If the majority of New Broom is interesting without being especially gripping, then the late interview between Hawkins and Harrison raises the temperature somewhat.  A good two-hander, it’s one of the highlights of the episode (the development of Adler’s character being another).

Elsewhere, Frank Windsor effortlessly slips into place as the new focus point of the series.  John Watt’s plain, no-nonsense style hasn’t really changed since he first appeared in Z Cars and New Broom makes it plain that business will carry on as usual.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – The Witness (25th October 1972)

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The Witness was one of two SS:TF directorial credits for David Maloney. Knowing his fondness for using a regular “rep” of actors, I had a quick skim through the cast list to see if I could spot any familiar names.

There’s Tony McEwan, for one. Maloney had already used him in one Doctor Who (The War Games) and would later cast him in another (Planet of Evil) in addition to Hawkeye, The Pathfinder. Given McEwan’s fairly limited list of credits, these performances constitute a fairly sizeable chunk of his television career.

Today he’s playing Carson, a lorry driver whose cargo (scotch whisky worth twenty grand) is hijacked by a gang of gun-toting masked men.  It’s not the best performance you’ll ever see (although there’s a even less convincing one later) but Carson’s interrogation is still highly entertaining, mainly because both Barlow and Watt are in the room.

The pair work well apart, but something special tends to happen whenever they team up. They’d begun the episode in Barlow’s office, enjoying a late-night drink. Barlow, still smarting that his promotion prospects have been dashed, was clearly in need of a shoulder to cry on and Watt fitted the bill nicely.  As for Watt, having done his duty he was looking forward to getting off home, but a last minute phone-call (about the robbery) dashed that.

For Barlow (fretting about his empty house) more work is just the ticket. Watt seems less enthused about rushing straight over to take charge, although the private smile he gave before they both left the office was a nice little moment, letting the audience know that he didn’t mind that much (presumably he’s just relieved that Barlow has something new to occupy him).

The always-reliable Ron Pember turns in another good performance as Wilf Taylor. He’s a member of the gang, albeit a somewhat sickly and insubstantial one.  The power behind the throne seems to be his wife, Betty (Mitzi Rogers).  SS:TF wasn’t renowned for having that many strong female guest roles (crime back in the seventies seemed very much to be a man’s world) so Betty is a notable character, even if she does end up as a victim by the end of the episode.

She runs a corner shop (which bears a passing resemblance to Awkright’s store) and right from the off is very combative.  Dominating the weak Wilf, she then steps up the intensity another couple of notches when the police come calling.

Most of her early ire is directed at DS Green (Heather Stoney). If the series didn’t specialise in decent female guest roles, then it also was struggling at this point with its female regulars.  Stoney, with her handful of appearances across the third and fourth series, always played what she was given very well, but Green was rarely placed in the centre of a story.

Mitzi Rogers has the best guest role of the episode (Betty’s heavy blue eye shadow and leopard skin coat helps to make her stand out) but James Mellor, as Albert Dirman, is also very watchable. Dirman is the Mr Big of the hijackers and reacts with cold fury when he mistakenly believes that Wilf’s talked to the police (he hasn’t, but Betty has).

Dirman’s promise to disfigure Betty with acid is a chilling one, although the threat is slightly negated when the instrument of his retribution – Stan (Gordon Bilboe) – lumbers into view.  Partly it’s because of the haircut, moustache and suit, but there’s no denying that Bilboe’s performance is rather stilted. True, he’s not gifted terribly good dialogue (mostly it’s of the “you got nothing on me, copper” variety) but Bilboe’s delivery doesn’t help ….

The late action scene (Hawkins purses a fleeing Stan) isn’t that convincing, but the main thrust of the episode – the way that Barlow manipulates both Wilf and Betty in order to nail Dirman – is very compelling.  And the final sting in the tail (even after Betty’s been attacked with an iron bar, Wilf is unwilling to talk) is a fascinating wrinkle.  Another strong series four entry.

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