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 an 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).