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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Softly Softly: Task Force – Bank Rate (11th October 1972)

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There’s an incredibly high level of coincidence to be found in Bank Rate, but since it’s a pretty decent episode I’m prepared to cut it some slack.

Harry Hawkins’ relationship with Sara (Jenny Hanley) continues. They’ve bonded over a mutual love of horses, something which Sara’s cousin, Peter Warner (Jonathan Newth), also shares.  Warner is a bank manager whose establishment is due to be targeted by Tom Rattery (Carl Rigg), a robber who both Hawkins and Warner have met in passing. Oh, and Sara’s stable-hand, Danny Fitch (Angus Lennie), knows more than he’s telling about these bank raids ….

Newth’s an instantly recognisable actor, someone with a score of interesting credits to his name. He’s perfect casting as the superior Warner, a man keen to cultivate Hawkins for his own profitable ends. Hawkins is having none of it though – he reports the approach to Watt with horror (according to Hawkins, Warner’s offer of sharing his prize horse is akin to loaning out a woman!)

Angus Lennie could always be called upon to play the downtrodden type very well, as he does here. Mind you, it’s a slight pity that Danny’s shifty nature is so obviously signposted right from the start – the first time Danny spies Hawkins he reacts with a very guilty look (which rather gives the game away). And anyway, why would any decent criminal confide their plans to the garrulous Danny? That’s a part of the plot which doesn’t make sense.

I’m used to Havoc providing the action in early seventies drama, but today it was Action Unique (who mustered a very athletic bunch of criminals it has to be said). The final scene, which sees the robbers confronted in Warner’s bank by Hawkins and co, is priceless – especially the part where a dapper John Watt grabs a Bobby Ball look-a-like and slams his head against the desk several times!

The other moment which caught my eye was an earlier meeting between Watt, Snow, Knowles and three CID officers. It became clear very quickly that the CID men were unspeaking extras, so whilst Watt expounded at great length, they were forced to remain mute. Nodding their heads vigorously and checking their notebooks with a faint air of embarrassment were the only options left open to them ….

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Dog Eat Dog (4th October 1972)

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Dog Eat Dog is that rarest of SS:TF beasts – a Snow-centric episode. PC Snow stumbles across Colin Talbot (Greg Smith) a troubled teenager who – like Snow – has recently lost his dog.  This would seem to be the cue for the two to bond, but it’s not quite as straightforward as that.

Snow later returns with a present for him (a puppy) but Colin angrily refuses it.  Given that Rigby and Smith share several strong scenes at the start of the episode, we seem to be heading towards a story in which Colin will feature heavily. It’s therefore slightly surprising that he then disappears from view until the final ten minutes or so.

But even though he’s offscreen, the problem of Colin still dominates. His father, Harry Talbot (Windsor Davies), is a right piece of work – a workshy layabout, he despises the boy (demonstrated by the fact he strangled his dog).  Needless to say Snow doesn’t react to this news terribly well – the scene where Snow and Talbot face off is an episode highlight.  The way that Snow casually calls Talbot a “bastard” before threatening violence is all the more chilling due to Rigby’s typically measured delivery.

Another highlight is Watt’s confrontation with Snow. With Barlow absent, Watt is the episode’s authority figure – although he’s largely used here for comic effect.  After sustaining a nasty injury to his nose (Evans was forced to break heavily when Snow’s puppy ran out in front of their car) Watt’s patience with the do-gooder Snow is stretched to breaking point ….

PC Knowles (Martin C. Thurley) also gets a spot of character development. The latest of the desk-bound coordinators, he has a few mild clashes with the practical Snow (Knowles – somewhat physically underdeveloped – also admires Snow’s impressive shoulders!). This is another nice comic touch which helps to balance out the drama of Colin’s storyline.

If we trust IMDb, then this was Ewart Alexander’s sole SS:TF script, which might explain why the tone feels slightly different.  No complaints though, as it’s good to have some episodes which push the series in an unusual direction.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Spit and Polish (13th September 1972)

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There’s a lot to process during the opening few minutes of Spit and Polish. A new theme tune, Hawkins in uniform, Evans in plain clothes and PC Snow’s faithful canine friend, Radar, seems to have died ….

Entirely shot on film, it’s certainly in much better nick than the last available all-film episode (Lessons from series two).  The Task Force are on the hunt for an attacker of women. At present he hasn’t done anything worse than tear their clothes, which Barlow – to Evans’ disgust – is disappointed about. A rape or serious assault would provide them with some decent forensic evidence.

Early on the women are just passive victims (mentioned, but not seen). The next target – Sara Jamieson (Jenny Hanley) – is quite different. An upwardly-mobile horsey type, she’s able to beat her assailant off with a riding crop and seems undisturbed by the attack. Later she wonders why the man didn’t target one of the many women who are begging to be raped (a moment which helps to date the story firmly in another era).

Sara is certainly something of a hit with the Task Force. She and Watt have a brief moment of banter (Watt’s a bit of a flirt on the sly) and later Sara has a lengthy chat with Snow (a good character moment for Rigby).  But it’s Harry Hawkins whom she’s got the hots for – they pop out for a spot of dinner and dancing.

Hanley’s excellent value as the pampered (but not unlikeable) rich girl. The always dependable Peter Copley pops up as Brigadier Jamieson, Sara’s father and a local big-wig (hence Barlow’s desire to keep him sweet).

Spit and Polish certainly has an expansive feel, quite different from some of the more enclosed, studio-bound episodes (it concludes with an impressive stunt featuring the attacker jumping off a ship). Whilst the rape comment (especially coming from Sara’s mouth) is very jolting, at least the episode doesn’t present her as a victim (indeed, she’s the key to running the assailant to ground) which is certainly something in its favour.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Anywhere in the Wide World (26th January 1972)

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All the resources of the Task Force are swiftly pressed into service after fifteen-year old schoolgirl Alison Fordham goes missing …

Given she’s only been missing eight hours, the amount of effort expended – house to house, dogs, helicopters – is impressive. Do they do this everytime someone goes missing or does it have something to do with the fact that Alison’s father, James Fordham (David Bauer), is a man of substantial means?

Like the Task Force, we have to build up a picture of Alison from the testimonies of those who know her. It’s slim stuff – her one schoolfriend Judith Oram (Lynne Frederick) regards her with amused contempt whilst local lad Ken Buckley (Kenneth Cranham) seems to know more than he’s letting on.

With most of the episode revolving around methodical procedure, these brief interviews are welcome character moments. Both Frederick and Cranham impress – Frederick as the precocious teen and Cranham as someone with an eye for the ladies (the younger the better). Cranham’s carrot cruncher accent is memorable too.

As Anywhere In The Wide World progresses, Alison’s sad and isolated life becomes even clearer. Bauer – an actor who rarely disappointed – has a key scene where the distance between Alison and her parents is made painfully obvious. To her credit, Alison’s stepmother Joan (Beth Harris) has made efforts to connect but to no avail.

But when we learn that Fordham packed his young daughter off to stay with her natural mother (an alcoholic) alarm bells really began to ring. His irritation that Alison left early (she was supposed to stay a month) is palpable.

We’ve had several of these stories before, so the regular viewer would have been primed not to expect a happy ending. Barlow has the last word, but all the featured regulars are given a chance to shine in another memorable story.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – The Removal (29th December 1971)

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The Removal opens with Garbutt and Turner (Graham Weston and Johnny Briggs) arriving at a substantial house (it stands in its own grounds). We can instantly tell that they’re wrong ‘uns because it’s night-time and they’re wearing dark glasses. This faint comic air is reinforced when the rest of the gang turn up, all wearing dark glasses too ….

I can’t decide whether this is supposed to be amusing or not though. It’s hard to take Weston and Briggs seriously as a couple of hardmen, but that may be to do with the fact that they’re both familiar actors.

The gang have arrived to strip the house bare (pictures, carpets, furniture, etc) much to the dismay of Sybil Albert (Stephanie Bidmead) and her son Tom (Paul Aston).

The gradual denuding of the house which occurs throughout the episode is fairly low in dramatic tension. Mainly this is because Garbutt and Turner – save for one brief spat – remain supremely confident throughout. Bidmead was a quality actress who died far too young (this was one of her final credits) but she doesn’t have much to work with here – Mrs Albert is little more than a fairly weepy and passive character.

There’s more interest elsewhere, with the stroppy Liz Carr (Lois Dane) proving to be a handful. The common-law wife of one of the gang, she’s very outspoken but is quietened down by the efficient DS Green (Heather Stoney). It’s the first SS:TF credit for Stoney, who instantly impresses.

Any time Snow and Evans are put in a car together you can be guaranteed some amusing dialogue (and so it proves here). Watt and Hawkins also have some good scenes, so there’s plenty going on – even if the main plot is quite linear.  The bleak-ish ending is effective too.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Man of Peace (8th December 1971)

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Even compared to other series of this era, Softly Softly: Task Force often had a very leisurely approach to storytelling. Man of Peace is a good example of this.  Watt is visited by a petty criminal and informer from his distant past (Tim Patrick, played by Allan McClelland) who has some interesting information to pass on.

But nearly ten minutes elapse before we learn what it is (Patrick claims to know where a large number of revolvers can be bought). As so often, this crime isn’t the focus of the episode.  Instead Allan Prior is much more concerned with developing character – in this case, Patrick’s.

Patrick is endlessly slippery, which helps to generate interest, as does the reactions of those he encounters. John Watt for one, who initially treats him with barely concealed contempt before kicking him out. The fact that Watt is then forced to track him down (when it becomes clear Patrick does know something) is a humiliation – made worse by the fact that Barlow is on hand to twist the knife.

An episode very much powered by a guest performance – the experienced McClennad is excellent value – Man of Peace has a faint comic air (although I don’t know whether PC Snow’s Irish accent was supposed to be that bad).

An appearance by Anthony Booth is another plus of a typically dialogue-heavy story which in the last ten minutes or so begins to generate a faint feeling of suspense.  Booth (playing Smith) was always an imposing actor and he’s well matched by Terence Rigby’s Snow.

It’s true that Snow, posing as an Irish terrorist, does infiltrate Smith’s gang rather easily (which turns out to be a rather feeble one) but as previously stated, SS:TF wasn’t a wham-bam series. Character development was always more important than simply nicking villains.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Aberration (27th October 1971)

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There’s a lovely opening scene with Barlow and Watt. Watt’s home alone (his wife – a GP – is away for the week) and has invited Barlow around for a slap up meal (prepared before she left by Mrs Watt – this was the 1970’s after all).

There’s some nice character building here (we see Watt’s vulnerable side for a fleeting moment) but the scene does have a plot purpose – a locum doctor calls round asking for the surgery keys. Watt hands them over, but the next day we learn that the man wasn’t a doctor after all …

We can put this terrible lapse down to the fact that both had clearly imbibed a substantial amount of alcohol. In the cold light of day Barlow is forced to eat humble pie in front of Dr Mancroft (Raymond Huntley). Johns and Huntley share several excellent scenes – there’s nothing more enjoyable than watching two old timers squaring off against each other.

Aberration is the first episode to feature a major role for DC Forest (Julie Hallam). Forest is remarkably cheeky (talking back to both Barlow and Watt) and Hallam’s performance is quite broad. Because the other regulars are all pretty naturalistic, Hallam’s overexuberance is more noticeable.

Apart from the stolen prescription pads, the villain – James (Gary Waldhorn) – has also pinched several patient’s files. That we’re in less enlightened times is demonstrated when homosexuality is classed alongside child molesting as the sort of aberration which would be ideal fodder for a blackmailer. The inoffensive-looking Norman Bird (as Tomkins) is wheeled on as a bondage fetishist (he’s one of the unlucky people being blackmailed by James).

Although Barlow and Watt are clearly having an off-day (plucky young Forest tracks down James all by herself) Aberration is an interesting time capsule of the period.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Hostage (13th October 1971)

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Hostage opens with the most sedate bank robbery I’ve ever seen. It’s true that the villains are vaguely dressed as guards – meaning that from a distance they look official – but even when the truth becomes known (they’re taking money out of the bank with guns rather than delivering it) none of the bystanders – ladies with prams, etc – seem terribly concerned.  The Sweeney this isn’t.

With six hundred banks in the area, Watt is faced with a nightmare (especially since the firm doesn’t appear to be local). And since the Task Force can’t identify them, how on earth will they be able to predict where they’ll strike next?  It’s therefore something of a cop-out that in the very next scene Watt, Hawkins and co just happen to stumble across them. Not the tightest bit of plotting I’ve ever seen.

With the four villains – Frank (Leslie Schofield), Eddie (George Sweeney), Dick (Derek Martin) and Steve (John Hartley) – now holed up inside a bank with multiple hostages, another staggering plot development occurs.  Evans and PC Drake (Brian Hall) wander into the bank via the back entrance and offer themselves up as hostages. Since they have no idea just how dangerous the men are, this rather beggars belief.

Leslie Schofield is the sort of actor who plays unstable types very well but it’s a pity that the other three villains don’t get to do much (George Sweeney was a very dependable criminal sort, but he remains largely mute throughout). The bank-based stand off in the second part of the episode is the definite highlight of this one, as Evans – his usual stolid self – faces off against the cocky Frank.

Those expecting an all-guns blazing finale will probably be disappointed, but the sting in the tale orchestrated by wily old Cullen is quite neat.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Once Bitten (6th October 1971)

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With Simply’s Softly Softly: Task Force releases seemingly stalled at series two, I’ve finally taken the plunge and picked up the German releases from Pidax.  Each of the three DVD sets contains eight episodes – all with dual German/English language tracks – although some episodes from this period are skipped (presumably because German language tracks weren’t available).

As ever, the dynamic between Barlow and Watt is fascinating. Barlow, having been away for a while, returns to find that Watt’s been efficiently minding the shop in his absence (although Watt hasn’t been averse to rifling through Barlow’s mail). Has Barlow really been romantically involved with a female informer young enough to be his daughter? The evidence of his mail suggests so but he’s not letting on.

Barlow’s keen to keep the others on their toes, intending to come down hard on any tawdry response times. But Watt rather spoils this plan by tipping the others off ….

WDC Donald has sadly departed, with WDC Forest (Julie Hallam) swiftly slotted in as her replacement. Watt’s assessment of her (“a cracker”) is an eye-opener. A professional or personal opinion? First impressions are that she’s a jolly sort as well as being practical (removing her skirt as she dives into the canal to rescue one of the villains).

A hairy Tom Chadbon (playing Andrews, one of three textile warehouse robbers) and a cravat wearing Michael Sheard (as Dickenson, the keyholder of the warehouse) are the most familiar faces guesting.

Andrews’ main skill is handling dogs (he’s able to deal with the rather vicious guard dogs on site). A tense dog-related stand off then develops when the Task Force turn up.  Andrews and the others are trapped inside the warehouse (the dogs are now released and roaming the yard) with only Harry Hawkins brave enough to chance his arm.

He loses his trousers and his dignity to the vicious canines, but I suppose it could have been worse.

A low-key sort of crime then, but Chadbon’s excellent value and the byplay between the regulars (a nice scene between Snow and Evans, for example) is typically solid.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Cash and Carry

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Stock is being pilfered from a local Cash and Carry.  The two men responsible – James (David Spenser) and Fox (Roland Curram) – are quickly identified but Barlow is concerned that this relatively small-scale affair might only be the prelude to a larger crime.

Cash and Carry is one of those stories which is more than content to take its time.  We initially see Snow and Radar, passing the Cash and Carry at night, become suspicious after they spy a light inside the building.  Officers are then called out in force along with the keyholder Mr Lodge (Peter Sallis).  None of them find anything so they leave empty-handed.  By this time a good ten minutes has elapsed without the plot advancing a great deal.

The next day it’s quickly worked out how such a large amount of stock could have gone missing – James and Fox work at the Cash and Carry, driving the delivery van, and they simply pile it up with stolen stock and sleep in the building overnight, leaving the next morning as if nothing has happened.  Donald likens it to the Trojan Horse, which is a neat description.

But this crime is so humdrum that there has to be more to the story.  Barlow seems to think that an attempt will be made to rob the cashiers department on its busiest day (when there could be as much as twenty thousand pounds for the taking).  If that’s the case (and Fox and James were the gang’s inside men) then it seems very foolish for them to have jeopardised the whole operation in order to make a little profit on the side.

Possibly the weakest part of Elwyn Jones’ script is Barlow’s sixth-sense which decides that an armed robbery is the real endgame.  Just how did he work this out? The story would have probably been more satisfying if the information about the intended robbery had come from an informer and the stock pilfering section had been excised (the time spent on this dead-end part of the plot could have been used to develop the individual characters of the gang).

Barlow and Cullen clash over the potential operation.  Barlow believes that the gang stand their best chance of succeeding if they make their attempt before the security guards arrive to take the money away, i.e. when the store is still open. Cullen argues that if they let things play out then innocent members of the public could get hurt.  Barlow agrees, but he wants to catch them in the act and not just arrest them for conspiracy.  Given that Cullen has always been portrayed as strong-willed and single-minded it seems a little uncharacteristic that he reverses his opinion so quickly and allows the covert operation to go ahead.

When Donald replaces one of the cashiers it’s easy to believe this is something of a sexist move (seemingly the only woman on the Task Force working at the till).  But amusingly this is undercut just a few seconds later when Barlow tells Lodge that he plans to replace another of his cashiers with Armstrong, who he says even looks like an accountant.  And with Watt dressed in overalls, shifting boxes into the back of a lorry, there’s another brief moment of humour to be enjoyed.

Will there be an attempt to steal the cash?  Looking down the cast list, names such as Alan Chuntz, Dinny Powell and Terry Walsh should provide you with the answer. Although it’s fair to say that it’s a very long build-up for such a brief moment of mayhem (nobody’s ever going to mistake Softly Softly: Task Force for The Sweeeny).  Evans gets shot, but only in the leg, so I’ve a feeling he’s going to live.

Even allowing for a few fisticuffs, Cash and Carry concludes the second series in a pretty low-key way.  It lacks the character drama that characterised most of the other stories, so has to go down as one of the lesser entries.  But generally the standard across the twenty six episodes was very consistent and I hope that it won’t be too long before series three is available.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Black Equals White

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A group of protesters have barricaded themselves on the first floor of a local hotel – their target being a group of businessmen and their wives.  The leader of the protest group, Leroy (Neville Aurelius), wants the businessmen to sign a letter admitting that their company discriminates against hiring black people in all but the most menial of positions. Barlow is keen to ensure that a peaceful solution is found, but this may not be possible ….

The colour problem was a topic that regularly turned up during this era of television.  Sometimes it was handled in a rather ham-fisted manner (the Callan episode Amos Green Must Live springs to mind) but on other occasions, as here, it provided some genuine food for thought.  Although that’s not to say that Black Equals White doesn’t have a few cringeworthy moments.

The protestors are a mixed group, male and female, black and white.  To begin with, Leroy is seen to be the obvious leader and he appears to advocate a policy of non-violence. This concept of a peaceful protest is shared by most of the others (there are quite a few “hey mans” bandied about and this, together with the endless protest songs. are a couple of reasons why this part of the story hasn’t aged terribly well).

But after a while it becomes clear that there’s another strong character upstairs, Mac (James Copeland).  Unlike Leroy, Mac is white and he also advocates more direct and threatening action.  Barlow later succulently sums Mac up.  “Party member I reckon. Closed mind, bitter.  Wherever there’s trouble that’s where you’ll find him.”  Given that Mac’s aims and ideals seem to be diametrically opposed to Leroy’s, it’s strange that they’ve joined forces, but an answer is provided at the end.

The hotel manager, Mr Henry (Angus MacKay), wants them out and he wants them out now.  MacKay’s ever increasing exasperation at the way that Barlow and Watt seems to be dragging their heels provides the episode with a rare shaft of humour.

A successful raid manages to extricate Leroy and he’s brought downstairs.  This only inflames Mac, who brings out a petrol bomb and tells the others that they may just have to use it.  Given that the rest are long-haired student types it seems clear this isn’t what they signed up for, although as most of them are non-speaking extras there’s not a great deal of debate.

Barlow and Leroy cross swords.  Neville Aurelius continues to play his part broadly whilst Stratford Johns is quite subdued and restrained.  This isn’t a bad choice from Johns as it allows Barlow to soak up Leroy’s various barbs without displaying the anger that Leroy was no doubt hoping to see.  Some of Leroy’s points might have struck home but there’s counter-arguments too – Snow mentions that unemployment isn’t just a problem for blacks.  In the end Barlow tells Leroy that the law isn’t perfect but it’s what they have and it’s what everybody has to live by.  Leroy sneers that white man’s laws don’t apply to him.

Barlow pleads with Leroy to ask the others to leave peacefully but he refuses which leaves Barlow no alternative but to send officers up in force.  It’s an interesting choice that we don’t see what happens to the protestors, instead we hear their screams whilst the camera focusses on both Barlow and Leroy.  Barlow’s faintly disgusted whilst Leroy seems satisfied.  He might not have openly advocated violence like Mac but he’s pleased enough that it’s happened, admitting to Barlow that it helps the cause.

Mr Henry pops up to express his feelings as the screams continue (“good god”).  But any fleeting thoughts that he’d suddenly gained a conscience are negated when his next words are “I’m losing business”.  Black Equals White may be content to paint its characters in fairly broad brush strokes but that doesn’t mean that it’s completely without merit.  Stratford Johns once again commands the screen as Barlow

All this plus Pat Gorman gets a couple of lines as well.  He may be one of the most familiar extras from this era of British television, but I can’t recall him speaking that often.   Which makes this appearance a notable one for Gorman watchers (I suspect we’re a small, but dedicated, group).

Softly Softly: Task Force – Held for Questioning

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The Task Force are out in numbers, looking for safebreaker Tommy Lee (Norman Jones).  Watt suspects that Lee was responsible for three recent robberies (in the latest, a security guard was shot and injured).  Hawkins brings in Jack Taylor (Denis Quilley), a known associate of Lee – although unlike Lee, Taylor has never been convicted of any crime.  Hawkins is convinced that Taylor knows where Tommy Lee is, but he proves to be a tough nut to crack ….

After a run of indifferent episodes, Robert Barr finally comes up with something very decent.  The clash between Hawkins and Taylor (and later Watt and Taylor) is most watchable, although the story does have one major plot flaw.   Watt strongly suspects that Lee and Taylor are partners and also that Lee will attempt to contact Taylor at the filling station he owns.  If that’s the case, then why bother to arrest Taylor?  They could have simply posted a few men in the vicinity, well hidden, and nabbed Lee when he turned up (which is pretty much what they do in the end anyway).  And since neither Hawkins or Watt manage to get Taylor to talk, the whole evening at the station has to be written off as a complete waste.

Denis Quilley was a heavyweight actor (he enjoyed lengthy spells at the National Theatre aappearing opposite the likes of Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud) which means that his casting helps to give Held for Questioning an extra lift.  To begin with, Taylor claims he hasn’t seen Lee for five years.  Later he admits that they have met a few times recently, but that he’s not involved with Lee’s criminal activities.

Taylor maintains an air of amused indifference during his interview with Hawkins.  He rarely seems flustered, meaning that any progress Hawkins makes is agonisingly slow.  There are a few flashpoints but it’s not until Watt turns up that the sparks really start to fly.  Watt asks exactly the same questions, but does so in a highly aggressive manner, causing the first signs of real anger from Taylor.  Windsor and Quilley – facing each other eyeball to eyeball – are both mesmerising in this scene.

There’s also a fascinating clash between Taylor and the duty officer, Chief Inspector Rankin (Michael Griffiths).  Taylor is well-known to the officers at the station, especially Rankin.  When the Chief Inspector pops his head around the interview room door, Taylor takes the opportunity to aim a few will-timed jibes in his direction.  His claim that he was attacked by several officers the last time he was there could be dismissed as simple troublemaking, but Cullen’s arrival confirms that it did actually happen (and officers were suspended).

Given that Taylor’s never been convicted of any crime (up until now) this moment shines a little light on police methods at the time.  Barr’s script doesn’t condone or condemn, but the inference is plain – it’s also spelled out earlier by Hawkins – you may be innocent in the eyes of the law but that doesn’t stop you from being regarded as guilty by the police.  It’s a brief, but disquieting, moment.

Norman Jones, as Lee, doesn’t have a great deal to do as he’s holed up for most of the episode, vainly attempting to contact Taylor.  In fact it’s easy to see how the story could have dispensed with his on-screen appearances completely (a quick message to say that he’d been captured would have sufficed).  Indeed, if the story really wanted to do something a little different then it could have taken place entirely within the confines of the interview room (at first I thought that was the way the episode would go).  A bit of a shame they didn’t go down this route, as all the best scenes do take place within the interview room, everything outside is of secondary importance.

A few minor quibbles apart, this is a fine showcase for Windsor, Bowler and Quilley.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Games

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A thirteen-year old girl called Emma Jones (Jane Sharkey) is brought into one of the local stations by Donald.  Emma has cuts and bruises to her face and tells Donald that she was attacked by an unknown man.  One of Emma’s school friends, David Ransom (Andrew Benson), provides a statement which gives a clear description of her attacker – a tramp with a flapping shoe.  Watt, passing through all the stations in the area whilst investigating their security procedures, becomes intrigued with the case and begins to dig ….

One aspect of the series which is sometimes overlooked is that the Task Force is a mobile unit which can be deployed to assist officers and stations in the force area.  That theme is sort of touched upon here, as the entire story takes place within an unfamiliar police station.  But there is a touch of contrivance about this since Watt and Armstrong aren’t there because of this case, they’re simply in the right place at the right time to lend their assistance to Hawkins and Donald (although it’s clear that Hawkins begins to rue Watt’s presence just a little).

Watt’s first appearance is memorable.  Striding through the station door with Armstrong and another officer either side, Watt tells the desk sergeant (played by Colin Rix) that he’s “a militant Black Panther.”  Pointing to the two officers with him he then tells the befuddled sergeant that “he’s got a petrol bomb in his hands, and he’s a skinhead under detention. With over a hundred mates outside threatening blue murder if you don’t let him go, what would you do?”  The sergeant manages to provide a suitable reply to this hypothetical question, which pleases Watt slightly, although he’s not too impressed with the fairly flimsy security procedures currently in place.

If Stratford Johns (sitting this episode out) is never less than first-class, then the same must be said of Frank Windsor.  This is an excellent script for Watt, allowing him to take centre-stage (even if it’s really Hawkins’ investigation not his).

Donald takes a statement from the girl and is as sensitive as you’d expect.  Emma seems a little shell-shocked at first but then slowly springs into life.  But there’s a lingering sense that something isn’t quite right and many might have guessed the answer before Watt spells it out.  Emma wasn’t attacked – she threw herself down the embankment deliberately, causing her injuries.  David’s statement is false as well, meaning that both children have deliberately told a pack of lies.  This then explains the episode title  …..

We don’t find out what David’s reasons were (although the probability is that he agreed to help Emma because he’s fond of her).  Emma’s motivation is much clearer – after her father remarried (and with someone not much older than herself, she says with vague disgust) she admits to feeling neglected.  And although she still lives with her mother, Mrs Jones is more interested in her new boyfriend than she is with her daughter, so there’s neglect on that side as well.

It’s telling that we never see either of Emma’s parents in the flesh, which helps to reinforce Emma’s sense of isolation.  Instead, a neighbour called Mrs Lacey (Jean Boht) is on hand to explain to Watt why Mrs Jones can’t be contacted.  She’s spending the day with her boyfriend, who happens to be married, and so the pair don’t want to be bothered.  Watt is aghast at this, surely she would want to know that her daughter was attacked?  But Mrs Lacey (maybe speaking for Mrs Jones as well) tells Watt that the girl’s only got cuts and bruises, so why make a fuss?

The lack of parental interest is reinforced later – Watt sends a car round for Mrs Jones and we’re told how her boyfriend was less than pleased to be disturbed by the police.  But it’s interesting that since Emma’s parents are denied a voice of their own we’re clearly not seeing the full picture – only the one that Emma wants us to see.  And it’s open to debate exactly how truthful that is.

Hawkins and Watt regard the two children very differently.  Hawkins wants to throw the book at them and their parents, but Watt elects to let them go with the minimum of fuss.  Since they want to be the centre of attention he’s simply denying them this chance.

This is a tight studio-bound story by Arnold Yarrow.  Jane Sharkey only had two further television credits following this (both were on The Bill some two decades later) which is slightly surprising as she’s got a decent screen presence.  The sub-plot of the hunt for a suspect tramp means that the station is overrun by them, most notably Terence de Marney as Timothy Lee.  A very experienced theatre, film and television actor, this was his penultimate credit before his death in 1971.

After a few fairly indifferent episodes, Games is a return to form.