Softly Softly: Task Force – Something Big

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Detective Chief Superintendent Alan (John Woodvine) of the Regional Crime Squad asks for Barlow’s help.  He’s interested in two known criminals, Hulton (William Abney) and McBride (Godfrey Quigley), whom he believes are in the Task Force’s area.

Watt discovers they’ve been seen in the company of Peter Thornley (Jeremy Wilkin).  Thornley owns a substantial house which is packed with valuable works of art.  But Hulton and McBride aren’t interested in burglary – they want to use Thornley’s house for a high-stakes evening of gambling.  It isn’t the gambling that interests Alan though, he’s hopeful that the evening will entice a much wanted criminal, Rendell (David Morrell), into making a rare public appearance ….

I’ve not been the greatest admirer of Robert Barr’s contributions to series two and although Something Big is solid enough, there’s still something lacking.  Peter Thornley remains a rather nebulous character, since it’s never established exactly why he should decide to throw in his hand with Hulton and McBride.  It can’t be money, since Thornley inherited numerous valuable pieces (paintings by Constable, etc) from his father.  He does seem mildly besotted with Pat Anderson (Vicki Woolf), a hostess introduced to him by Hulton and McBride, but since, like Thornley, she has very little dialogue it’s a relationship that’s never established with any substance.

Thankfully John Woodvine is on hand to bring a touch of class to the story.  There’s a vague sense of combative one-upmanship between Barlow and Alan, but although Alan plays his cards close to his chest to begin with, he doesn’t leave Barlow in the dark for too long.  In truth, Alan’s dialogue is nothing special, but Woodvine has the sort of natural gravitas which is able to give light and shade to even fairly undistinguished material.

A brief appearance by Desmond Llewellyn proves to be another highlight in a fairly average story that rather splutters to a conclusion.  We’re told that Rendell could be armed and is certainly dangerous, but everything passes off without a hitch when he’s taken into custody.  Rendell is another character who barely utters a handful of words, meaning that it’s hard to feel at all invested in his fate.  A shame that they couldn’t have featured the same character in an earlier story, that way his appearance here would have had a certain impact.

As it is, his capture stirs no emotions.  We’ve been told he’s a bad ‘un, but we’ve never had the chance to witness it for ourselves.  Show not tell is a basic rule of storytelling, but unfortunately it’s not adhered to here.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Final Score

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Softly Softly: Task Force – Kick Off

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Barlow and Watt are at the big match.  Whilst Watt is enjoying the luxury of the director’s box, Barlow is in much less salubrious surroundings, intently watching the crowd from a private vantage point, high up.   Inspector Armstrong (Terrence Hardiman) is also there – directing the officers towards potential trouble-spots.  Armstrong, a martinet by-the-book character, and Barlow, free and easy on the surface but with a core of steel underneath, don’t hit it off.

This isn’t surprising as Armstrong is a graduate policeman – a lawyer with a first-class degree – and therefore just the sort of copper that Barlow has little regard for.  So he amuses himself by gently needling the man, which passes the time as he searches the crowd.  Armstrong doesn’t enjoy football, rugby’s his game.  Barlow correctly guesses that he means rugby union, whereas Barlow prefers “rugby league, faster professional.”

At the start of the episode Armstrong isn’t a member of the Task Force, but it’ll possibly come as no surprise to learn that Cullen, deciding that the Inspector should have some hard practical experience, decides to deploy him there.  Armstrong’s not pleased, enquiring if he has to report directly to Barlow.  Cullen says not, but tells him that if he has a problem with Barlow then he needs to sort it out.  “You fit in with him, not the other way around. Charlie Barlow is the best head of CID that this constabulary has ever had.”

Armstrong is going places.  He’s the youngest uniformed Inspector in the division, in two years time he’ll be a Chief Inspector and his progress ever upwards to Chief Constable seems to be predestined.  Older hands, such as Watt, have a distinct lack of enthusiasm for him.  “Men a lot younger than me making Chief Constable.”  Watt’s therefore less than overjoyed when Cullen tells him Armstrong will be seconded to the Task Force, but before Cullen leaves he has this to say. “Things are moving pretty fast in this service, the old order changes, yielding place to new. Armstrong might be made Chief Constable in a force you want to serve in. It’s worth bearing that in mind in your treatment of him, I mean.”

Watt calls Armstrong in.  He enters the office ramrod straight, swagger stick under his arm, standing to attention as if he’s on parade.  This is just the sort of thing that’s guaranteed to irritate Watt and it’s plan that if Armstrong’s going to fit in he’s going to have to unbend a little.  His later encounter with Evans is a case in point.  We’ve seen how Evans has amused himself by baiting Jackson in the past, and he carries on in much the same vein with Armstrong.  When the Inspector asks him if he always dresses so sloppily, Evans’ rejoinder is unabashed.  “Yes sir. As a rule, it’s my bulk you see. Everything wrinkles on me. Oh, and I’ve got messy eating habits, too.”

Jackson has gained his promotion to Inspector and is departing for a six-month fact-finding course overseas.  And that, I believe, is the last we see of him as this appears to be David Allister’s last SS:TF credit.  Susan Tebbs also bows out at the end of the year, which is also a shame – both will be missed.

Although Jackson’s never been the most popular officer, there does seem to be genuine pleasure from the others at his promotion – Barlow’s handshake for example.  It’s a pity that the possibility of his promotion couldn’t have been touched upon in earlier episodes, as it comes totally out of the blue.  His yell of “yippee” as he hears the news is a nice touch and is also something which is completely in character (a brief display of emotion before returning to his usual business-like state).  Also, everybody seems to have recently got into the habit of calling him Jacko, something which I don’t recall hearing very often before.

Apart from these comings and goings there is a spot of crime as well.  Barlow was at the match since he was concerned that somebody might be interested in stealing the gate takings.  This didn’t happen, but as Kick Off is the first of a two-parter there’s a sense that this story isn’t over yet.

Another plot-line that’s still running concerns a thief called Tommy Nunn (Roddy McMillan).  Barlow spotted Tommy in the crowd and asked Hawkins to tail him, although Hawkins lost him in the general melee.  This is unfortunate as Tommy robbed a local jewellers just before the end of the match.  The owner, Kahn (George Pravda), seems philosophical about his loss, but things aren’t quite as they seem.  Kahn is a fence and the items Tommy stole had already been stolen – so he takes great pleasure in blackmailing Kahn (if he doesn’t pay up then the items go to the police, with a note to say where they came from).

McMillan (later to play ‘Choc’ Minty in Hazell) and Pravda (an instantly recognisable face from a score of different television series of this era) are both solid actors and help to keep the interest of this sub-plot bubbling along.  The football scenes might be a mish-mash of stock footage, brief clips of a real match (which since it’s recorded on videotape rather jars with the film shots) and studio material (which also jars with the film-work) but it creates a reasonable impression.

And as we see Hawkins tail Tommy, either the series had employed an impressive number of extras or they took the opportunity to slip their actors into the departing crowd of a real match.  There’s also the opportunity to witness how Evans deals with troublemakers at the match – give them a quick clip on the ear and send one of them off to stand somewhere else!  Since the squabbling pair were teenage girls this has the potential for being a little dodgy, but it’s never a serious plot point, it’s just there to add a bit of colour.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Company Business

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Three batches of platinum, worth thousands, have been stolen from Nitrosyn Chemicals over the past ten months. Watt decides to send a man in undercover to root through their paperwork, and his unexpected choice is Jackson ….

Since he’s desk-bound and decidedly non-operational most of the time, there’s considerable novelty value in witnessing a plain-clothes Jackson working a case from the sharp end.  And John Elliot’s script certainly gives David Allister much more scope than usual.

Jackson tends to be presented as a humourless, cold and logical man.  But with Company Business we see quite a different character – one who’s able to interact with others by displaying humour and charm.  He catches the eye of a secretary at the factory, Ruth Kemp (Wendy Gifford), and it’s plain that she’s keen to get to know him better.  Jackson demurs though – is this because he’s afraid of an emotional attachment or is he simply concentrating on the job in hand?

Only the managing director, Fisher (Donald Douglas), knows the real reason for Jackson’s presence (everybody else thinks he’s a time and motion expert).  Jackson expresses a wish to meet the senior staff in an informal setting and Fisher tells him that it couldn’t be easier – one of Nitrosyn’s key personnel, Calwell (William Dexter) is throwing a party and he adds Jackson to the invite list.

Calwell immediately catches Jackson’s attention.  Both he and his wife Linda (Penelope Lee) are charming, but Jackson immediately senses something slightly off about him.  And after he visits Calwell’s boat, his suspicions harden into certainty.  The boat has had a considerable amount of work undertaken recently – where has the money come from?

For Jackson it’s obvious, Calwell is the thief. He tells this to Donald, who’s acting as his contact.  And he also explains the reason why his colleagues don’t suspect him.  “Oh, they’re all on the old boy net, the old school club, it wouldn’t be cricket. They make me a bit sick.”

Donald is posing as Jackson’s girlfriend, something which she’s not terribly keen about at all!  This is made obvious when they meet in the hotel bar for a debrief.  She’s slightly miffed at being kept waiting and rather flinches when Jackson, playing the part of the dutiful boyfriend with gusto, attempts to kiss her.  But they manage to get a good meal (on expenses) so it’s not all bad.

If Donald’s a little exasperated with Jackson then so is Watt.  Jackson’s theory is interesting, but it’s just that – a theory.  Watt’s irritated that Jackson’s not checking the paper trail like he was supposed to, instead he’s off playing detective.  It’s been hammered home time and again across numerous stories that Jackson’s not a detective – we’ve seen how others, especially Evans and Barlow, tend to treat him with veiled (and not so veiled) contempt.  To them he’s a penpusher, plain and simple.

Watt isn’t quite so prejudiced, but he’s not best pleased that Jackson seems to be stringing this job out.  He’s especially horrified at the thought that Jackson and Donald might be enjoying a slap-up meal at the taxpayers expense every week!  So next time, Watt takes Donald’s place and can’t help but start with a dig about food.  “I surprised you didn’t choose the Chinese joint up the road. That’s very plushy.”

There’s further wonderfully deadpan lines delivered so well by Frank Windsor after Jackson tells Watt that he’s stood up a beautiful girl, Ruth, in order to be here.  Watt’s sympathy is in rather short supply.  “And I’m missing me hot dinner, so let’s get on.”

The thefts are, of course, not the point of the story.  Company Business is concerned with Sergeant Jackson’s skills, or otherwise, as an investigating policeman.  His abilities as an administrator and organiser are second to none, but does he have the instinct to be able to tell the guilty from the innocent?

The group of regulars in this one is quite small.  Hawkins doesn’t have a great deal to do, except react to Watt, leaving Jackson, Donald and Watt as the main players.  As I’ve said, the chance to see Jackson as a more rounded character is a welcome rarity and Donald and Watt are both well served with some of the sharper lines in the script.  Things work out well in the end, although it’ll come as no surprise to learn that the dour Watt is quick to tell Jackson that one job doesn’t make him a detective.

 

Softly Softly: Task Force – The Lie Direct

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PC Snow and Radar discover the dead body of a woman, later identified as Alice Forrester, in a parked car.  Barlow decides that Watt should lead the investigation and it doesn’t take long before a prime suspect – Jim Colley (Tony Calvin) – is found.  He even confesses, but something nags at both Barlow and Watt.  Colley is proven to be a born liar, so could his confession be false as well?

The Lie Direct opens with Snow and Radar on night duty.  A parked car in a lonely wood catches Snow’s attention and he decides to take a closer look.  It takes a few minutes before he makes his grisly discovery, but before that happens we cut to the bedroom of Watt and his wife (Jean, a doctor).  The camera lingers over their two bedside phones – one either side – so it’s clear that one or more are going to be ringing soon.  There’s a similar shot of Barlow’s bedroom, which again informs us about what is shortly going to happen.

Jean is called out to pronounce that life is extinct, whilst her husband sleeps on.  Barlow is informed of the murder – as is routine – and we then have a good example of his devilish sense of humour.  He tells the duty office that he’d be happy to come down to the scene, but they might like to contact Mr Watt to see if he’d prefer to go instead.  As soon as he puts the phone down, there’s a wolfish grin on Barlow’s face as he gets up and starts to get dressed.  He’s interrupted Watt’s peaceful night, which no doubt is the reason for his jubilation!

From the moment we first meet Colley there’s something unsettling about him.  He tells Donald that he’s Mrs Forrester’s lodger (but that’s all, she’s far too old for him).  When he’s told of her death his reaction is remarkably casual, there’s not a trace of shock or surprise.  We later learn that Colley and Mrs Forrester were married a month ago and they had a row on the day she disappeared – over money – which gives him a powerful motive for murder.

He obligingly confesses, but since this doesn’t happen at the end of the story there’s a sense that we’re not seeing the full picture.  Tony Calvin is mesmerising as Colley.  Is Colley the coolest murderer ever, is he mad, or is he simply an innocent who’s unaware of the hole he’s digging himself into?  As the episode progresses, this is the question that all the officers have to ask themselves.

Donald was convinced of his guilt from the moment she first spoke to him, whilst Watt is much more cautious.  He makes his position clear – they have to examine all the possibilities, since approaching any potential suspect with a closed mind is dangerous.  Colley later tells them that Mrs Forrester had a boyfriend (albeit a rather old “boy” – he’s in his sixties) which is another avenue to be explored.

Allan Prior delivers another decent script that serves the selected regulars – Barlow, Watt, Hawkins, Donald, Snow – incredibly well.  After leaving the investigation in Watt’s capable hands, Barlow returns later to question Colley.  We might expect Barlow to be in full intimidating mode, but that’s not the case – unexpectedly he also demonstrates compassion.  When the case is over, he mulls events over with Jean.  Even after all he’s seen over the years he still manages a certain amount of disconnection, as he tells her it’s the court who decide innocence or guilt, not him.  He just has to deliver them up.  Whether he’s being truthful here is debatable, as we’ve seen him get personally involved on many, many occasions ….

Watt is irritated throughout.  He’s irritated at being woken up and his irritation remains after Barlow leaves him in charge.  Watt succinctly sums his superior officer up (“bastard!”) but unsurprisingly does so when he’s not in earshot.  Hawkins is cheerful, positive and keen to tackle the enquiry without Barlow breathing down their necks.  Donald does a fair amount of questioning of suspects and witnesses (notably Colley and Mrs Forrester’s sister) and whilst Snow doesn’t say much, it’s always worth listening whenever he does speak.

Thanks to Colley’s unusual behaviour – he never responds in the way you’d expect – this is an above average effort.

Softly Softly: Task Force – A World Full of Rooms

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A prostitute called Sylvie Ashford (Jennifer Wilson) is knifed in her room.  Watt wants the culprit found and convicted, but he comes up against a wall of silence which is hard to break down ….

A World Full of Rooms opens with Sylvie entertaining what appears to be a client.  We later learn that Charley Smith (Milton Johns) is generally referred to as Mad Charley Smith, which given his actions and demeanour comes as no surprise.  Over the decades Johns has carved out a nice niche playing sadistic characters, of which Mad Charley is a prime example.

Sylvie’s slowing spiralling unease as she realises that the still, sinister man has an agenda of his own is nicely played by Wilson.  To emphasise the way she begins to feel trapped, the camera closes in on her face. An obvious move, but still effective.

Charley’s looking for Sylvie’s ponce, Tommy Bartrum, who’s disappeared.  Tommy works for Jackie Frankitt (Alex Scott) as does Charley.  Jackie’s currently inside, so his business interests (prostitution, naturally) are being looked after by his sister Mollie (Elizabeth Seal).  It appears that Tommy’s absconded with some of Jackie’s money, hence the interest.

The attack on Sylvie has disrupted the smooth running of the neighbourhood, which concerns Detective Sergeant Foster (Aubrey Richards).  Foster has been a vice detective for thirty years and it’s plain that he operates in a very hands-off mode.  He regards the vice scene in the area as disorganised and low-key, so sees no reason why everything should be stirred up by Watt’s aggressive questioning.  Rarely seen without a fag dangling from his mouth, Foster is the antithesis of a policeman like Watt.

As the Task Force’s token woman, it falls to Donald to go to the hospital to try and make Sylvie talk.  Considering that it wasn’t a life-threatening attack, it seems a little strange that Donald spends so much time with her.  It’s also slightly odd that Sylvie seems to have a private room complete with a television set.  Clearly prostitution pays ….

Sylvie tells Donald that “you’re a different animal to me. You live in the fresh air, see. I live in a room, with little rodents. Ever since I was 16, I’ve lived in rooms, whole world full of little rodents.”  Donald tries to get her to name her attacker, but Sylvie knows what her fate would be.  She’s offered protection, but Donald’s offer is an empty one (which presumably she realises – after all, how long could they really protect her?).

Jake Rollins (Keith Marsh) and John Johnson (John Bown) are also reluctant to talk to the police.  They live in the flat below Sylvie and Jake is able to identity Charley as Sylvie’s attacker.  But Jake also knows what would happen if he was to give evidence.  Jake and John are clearly a couple, although it’s not stated outright.  After Watt and Snow leave their room, Snow remarks that they were quite helpful, considering.  Watt looks at him but doesn’t say anything.  Later Watt uses the same remark to Snow in an ironic way, although Snow doesn’t respond either.  Snow’s prejudices are therefore made clear, but not in an overt way.

Watt is able to persuade both Jake and Sylvie to name Mad Charley.  His bullying of Sylvie is something of an eye-opener (the episode closes with a shot of Sylvie’s weary face lying in her hospital bed).  She might have agreed to give a statement, but at what cost to her?  And what cost to Jake and John?  Watt may have got the result he wanted – enough evidence to charge Charley – but there’s an uncomfortable sense that the witnesses may be looking over their shoulders for the rest of their lives.  Does Watt appreciate this, or is the “result” the only thing that matters?

Another taut script from Allan Prior, A World Full of Rooms is enlivened by several of the guest players, notably Milton Johns and Jennifer Wilson.  At the start of the story, Charley is totally in control, but when we see him again (towards the end) this control is starting to crack.  If Johns has always been good at playing sadists, then he’s even better at playing sadists who have some sort of character flaw, like Mad Charley.  The scenes between Wilson and Tebbs, as Sylvie recounts her life, don’t advance the plot a great deal, but they help to make her seem like a real person, rather than the cliché figure of the middle-aged prostitute she otherwise might have been.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Bearings

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News of a collision between a goods and a passenger train shatters the early morning Monday routine.  It’s a bad business – some six people are dead and numerous others are injured – but it was no accident (wheel bearings were stripped from the goods train prior to it setting out).  These bearings have long been the target of thieves, who can make a tidy sum selling them to scrap metal merchants.  Barlow is incensed, he considers the culprits are guilty of murder.  But Watt, whilst sympathetic, knows it’ll be almost impossible to prove …..

Bearings has a quiet opening.  Barlow pops into Watt’s office and they exchange notes about how their respective weekends went.  Watt’s was restful, a few jars and a doze in his armchair whilst Barlow still seems to be suffering from the efforts of a round of golf.  Barlow wonders if maybe he should take up drinking as a hobby, like Watt, to which Watt counters that since Barlow does so much drinking when he’s working he’d have no time to fit it in during his off duty time!

There’s also a chance to witness the workings of the operations room, as men and women quietly and efficiently deal with the public’s emergency calls.  The operations room is the location where it’s established exactly how serious the train incident is.  This isn’t surprising, as all the train footage we see is stock material of real accidents.  Given SS:TF’s limited budget, mounting a crash was never going to happen, although it’s a pity that due to the inferior picture quality of the stock footage it’s rather a jarring moment.  But Evans’ radio report about what he can observe, together with the brief stock shots, help to create a reasonable impression.

Barlow might regard the theft of the wheel bearings as murder, but Watt isn’t so sure.  He believes the best they can hope for is to charge the culprits with dishonest handling, how can you prove that somebody actually removed the bearings, unless you have a witness?  Once it’s been established what caused the derailment, the officers click into action and proceed to question all the local scrap metal merchants

There’s a nice clash between Evans and Jackson.  They might both be Sergeants, but Evans has a certain amount of disdain for the desk-bound Jackson.  Although Jackson says that without paperwork and planning they’d never catch any criminals, Evans counters that it doesn’t catch thieves.  “You can’t plan that look in a man’s face that says all you’ve got to do is lean on him and you’ve got him”.  And Evans’ nose comes up trumps as he finds the bearings in the possession of Matthew Riley (Desmond Perry). So score one to Evans then.

Barlow conducts the interview with Riley, which means we’re guaranteed some fireworks.  It’s a memorable encounter – even after learning that the loss of the bearings caused a substantial loss of life, Riley is unmoved.  Barlow slightly loses his cool and afterwards concedes that he rather bodged the interview   “That’s the trouble with shock tactics, once you’ve used them you’ve got nothing left.”

The transport police believe that Wiley (Paul Thompson) and Dawes (Jack Carr) might have been responsible for stealing the bearings, but Watt doesn’t make any headway questioning them.  Evans (who seems to spend just as much time these days in plain clothes as he does in uniform) is tasked to keep them under observation.  This he does and he also runs down a couple more suspects who might provide them with the break they need to gain a conviction.

Bearings is another story which finds Stratford Johns on top form.  Barlow is at his intimidating best, but is still unable to make any of the suspects talk – even Johnstone (Adrian Shergold) the youngest and most inexperienced of them won’t admit anything.

The human tragedy of the crash is brought starkly into focus when a mother tearfully identities a shoe which belonged to her missing eleven-year old daughter.  Barlow brandishes the shoe to Johnstone and the others, which is finally enough to make the younger man come clean.  Whether Barlow will be able to gain a conviction for murder or manslaughter is outside the parameters of the story, but he’s at least got somebody to admit what happened, which is a victory of sorts.

Bearings makes a virtue out of its lack of budget.  We don’t see the train crash or its aftermath, nor do we see the police traipse around all the local scrap metal merchants (we’re told there’s quite a few in the area).  Instead, the story focuses on the police’s efforts to gather evidence.  The breakthrough – a distressed mother and her child’s shoe – is a rather random event, but it doesn’t feel too contrived.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Do Me A Favour

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The Task Force officers are investigating a spate of lorry thefts.  This leads them to a farm owned by a Mr and Mrs Kerr (Jon Rollason and Chloe Ashcroft).  The Kerrs have recently made the acquaintance of a man called Mott (Victor Maddern) who told them that he works at the local market and is looking for somewhere to store his stock.  It turns out that Mott is planning to stash the stolen gear at the farm, which means that a stake out is set up ….

Those hardy souls who have been reading all these reviews will know that I haven’t been terribly impressed with Robert Barr’s scripts so far, and this one – his third for the second series – is sadly on pretty much the same level as his others.  If one were being generous then you could say that the opening (focusing on Snow and Evans tailing a lorry that may or may not be hijacked any minute) is an accurate reflection of the routine and humdrum nature of the majority of police work (nothing happens).  But it doesn’t make for very entertaining viewing of course.

There are consolations to be found with the guest cast however.  Victor Maddern had a wonderfully long career playing twitchy underachievers and is perfect casting as Mott.  Mott is the acceptable face of the gang (which makes sense, since he has to be the one to sweetalk the Kerrs into letting him use their shed).  Whenever I see Victor Maddern I find it impossible not to think of this Dixon of Dock Green outtake.  I’m probably not alone in this ….

Jon Rollason (who was one of The Avengers for a very short time – about three episodes in fact) and Chloe Ashcroft (forever remembered for Play School) are both rather good.  Mr Kerr is keen to assist the police and possibly grab a substantial reward whilst Mrs Kerr is much more concerned for their personal safety.  Ashcroft is slightly off-key throughout, although this may have been a performance choice rather than a case of bad acting.  Ken Hutchison, another familiar television face, is amongst the heavies in the gang.

Do Me A Favour was the second of the all-film episodes and, like the first, it does rather look as if it’s been dragged through several hedges backwards.  But once you get over the shock of the faded film quality, it’s interesting to compare the story with the more typical SS:TF fare.  It’s obviously more “filmic” and is also less reliant on dialogue and character-byplay, which for me is quite detrimental (there’s little of the usual interaction between the regulars for example).  Although whether this is because of the nature of film compared to videotape or just because Barr’s script didn’t concentrate on this aspect of the series is a moot point.

So overall this is passable but a little uninvolving.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Collation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Softly Softly: Task Force – Who Wants Pride …?

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An empty security van – with a very neat hole in its side – is discovered in a secluded wood.  Three men (one of them with a military bearing) were seen running away from it after a loud explosion.  All the evidence suggests it was a test for the military man to demonstrate his skills with explosives.  The question is will they try again, but the next time with a loaded van?

It’s a little while into the story, about ten minutes or so, before we meet the criminals.  This means that the police, especially Barlow, have time to consider who they might be.  The man with a military bearing is of particular interest – is he army, or ex-army?   It concerns Barlow that he might be an soldier, as they – like the police – should have a strong devotion to duty.  Barlow then muses to Watt that this man will have pride in his service, like themselves, which wouldn’t be easy to break.  The cynical Watt counters that for “the money they can take knocking off security vans, who wants pride?”

Shortly after we discover that the soldier is called Jim O’Donnell (Ray Lonnen).  He’s an army regular who wants a little extra money so that he and his girlfriend, Betty Patterson (Jeannette Wild), can buy a flat and settle down.  Betty’s brother Tom (Bill Wilde) and David Marks (Jess Conrad) are the villains keen to use Jim’s expertise.  Jim agrees – but only one job.

Ray Lonnen would later become identified with military/espionage roles (The Sandbaggers and Harry’s Game, for example) which makes this neat casting in retrospect, although at the time he was probably best known for the fruit and veg soap opera Market in Honey Lane.  He’s always an actor that I enjoyed watching, even if his Irish accent does take a little bit of getting used to.

The first meeting we see between Jim, Tom and David is a bit of a nightmare for the cameramen.  There clearly wasn’t a great deal of manoeuvrability around Betty’s flat, as twice there’s a very pronounced camera wobble after it collides with the furniture.

A successful robbery is carried out, although Jim is disappointed that he didn’t get as much money as he’d hoped, so he decides to do one more.  Watt is distressed at the fate of the guards inside the van – dazed and deafened by the blast.  “Beat them stupid with pick handles, throw ammonia at them and now this.”

Presumably Jim would have known this would have happened, although earlier he airily stated that they’d hardly be scratched.  Is this a case of self delusion or is he not quite the expert he appears to be?  Things start to unravel for him after the Special Investigation Branch (SIB) starts to poke around his camp.  Knowing that he’s sure to be found out, he decides to go over the wall – taking more explosives as well as a machine gun.  Jim’s character – a man who lives for danger – is now brought sharply into focus.  His plan is to return to Ireland, along with Betty, where he’s convinced he’ll be safe.

Who Wants Pride …? is a better story than Robert Barr’s previous series two script, Time Expired, but it’s still a little sub-par.  Ray Lonnen’s always worth watching, even if he’s not the most convincing Irishman ever, but the focus on Jim does mean that there’s not a great deal of time to concentrate on the regulars.

But even though Jim gets a decent amount of screentime, he remains a rather nebulous character. The main problem is that it’s hard to understand why he would jeopardise his army career in this way. That he’s possibly a little unstable is suggested on several occasions, most notably when he tells the others that he’s taken the gun in order to ensure he’ll be able to return to Ireland safely. How exactly? It’s also inferred that once he’s back home he’ll be fighting again, although it’s not clear whether it’ll be on the side of the Catholics or the Protestants. There’s plenty of dramatic potential in the concept of an Irishman fighting in the English army (divided loyalties) but it’s not something that’s developed.

It’s also an issue that Jim, Tom and David are placed under very close surveillance towards the end of the story – ensuring that the tension is sapped a little.  They may be planning another job, but since they’re being shadowed every step of the way the story ends with a whimper rather than a bang.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Its Ugly Head

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Without Favour

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Evans pays Mrs Marlowe (Colette O’Neil) a visit.  He’s looking for her husband Jack, but is told that he’s working up North (“building a motorway so that the crime cars can get around a bit faster”).  This comes a something of a relief to Evans – there’s been a spate of robberies in the area and Jack (as an ex-convict) is an obvious suspect.

He’s been going straight for two years but is still likely to be of interest to the police after any suspicious activity in the area.  Evans blames the system for this, but it’s a moment that provides a sharp insight into policing methods – when you have no evidence, give some likely suspects a tug.  There’s no vindictiveness on Evans’ part though.  He claims part of the credit for helping Jack to go straight and therefore has something of a vested interest in seeing him keep out of trouble.

If crime doesn’t pay, then it appears going straight doesn’t either.  The Marlowes live in a grimy room in a grimy part of town.  With a background of barking dogs and screaming children, it’s a desperate sort of place.  On entering their room, Evans lights up a cigarette  and offers Mrs Marlowe one.  After a brief pause – presumably because nobody ever offers her anything for free – she accepts.  It’s odd to see an officer smoking on duty, but we can interpret it as Evans’ attempt to put her at her ease.

An off-hand remark about her poor accommodation catches Evans’ interest.  She tells him that there’s no point in complaining  to her landlord, Spence (Donal McCann), as he’d only send some of his boys around to “persuade” her to keep quiet.  Evans files this away for later.

We then switch to the Chief Constable’s office, where he’s delighted to let John Watt know he’s delegated him a very important job – speaking to the Kingley Rotary Club on crime prevention.  The juxtaposition between two very different sections of society was no doubt intentional on Alan Plater’s part and we return to this theme at the episode’s close.  Watt’s far from delighted with this important mission but begins to plan his speech anyway.  A few jokes will be essential to ensuring that everything goes off smoothly, and he’s informed that PC Snow is the man to see.  “Probably tries them on his dog” mutters Watt.  This is a lovely moment, but there’s even better to come after Snow tells him one of his best jokes.  Watt’s unimpressed expression is a joy to behold!

Evans decides to pay Spence a visit.  He’s also the boss of a local amusement arcade, which provides us with a brief nostalgic glimpse of a number of old-fashioned one-armed bandits and the like.  Spence isn’t impressed with Evans’ comment that the properties he owns are dirty and rundown.  “Dirt’s the responsibility for the people who make the dirt. Well, look at me. Look at this office. Am I dirty?”  He denies sending heavies to harass his tenants and since Evans can’t prove that he does, there’s something of a stalemate.

Since there’s no evidence of wrongdoing, it’s easy to see how Spence can later complain to Watt about Evans’ visit.  When he claims that Evans’ actions are motivated by personal enmity, it’s not an outrageous statement.  Evans clearly dislikes Spence – a slum landlord who also runs an arcade that takes money off the poor and vulnerable – but Spence counters that he’s simply offering people a service.  In many ways, this smoothly-dressed, fast-talking man looks ahead to the Thatcherite 1980’s.

The two-handed scene with Lloyd Meredith and McCann is the heart of the story.  Evans is convinced that Spence is a villain, it’s simply that the police haven’t found any evidence yet that’ll stand up in court.  In Evans’ view (and it’s no doubt one shared by many of his colleagues) Spence is a lower form of criminal life, because he doesn’t accept that he’s a villain.  Career-criminals – those who come quietly after being caught – garner a certain amount of respect from the police.  But Spence is quite different.  “You steal off other people just as much as a bank robber. You steal off their weakness. And all the time you try to justify it by garbage about providing a public service.”

Evans is later hauled over the coals by Cullen and Watt.  He admits that he wouldn’t have spoken to Spence in the way he did if it had been a formal interview or if there had been anybody else present.  It was simply a speculative interview that was intended to rattle Spence’s cage.  Cullen concedes that Evans hasn’t broken any rules and so there’s no question of a disciplinary charge but Watt has a few comments to make.

Watt starts by admitting that they all bend the law from time to time(!) but goes on to label Evans a “bloody bad policeman” and spells out the reason why.  Evans loathes Spence, which is wrong.  “Feelings get in the way of judgement. Feelings make coppers start thumping when they should be talking, asking questions, getting information. Forget about feelings, you can’t afford them.”  All Evans has done is to warn Spence to be on his guard.  But Watt agrees with Evans that he’s probably a crook and will keep an eye on him.

The story closes with the juxtaposition of Watt’s speech to the Rotary Club and Evans’ return to speak to Mrs Marlowe.  Watt’s speech is a plea for public co-operation, mirrored by Evans’ attempt to persuade Mrs Marlowe to provide evidence against Spence.

The contrast between the well-heeled Rotarians and the shabby environment inhabited by Mrs Marlowe is striking.  Mrs Marlowe is non-committal when Evans asks for her help, although she doesn’t dismiss it out of hand.  If she does co-operate, it may be because Evans has treated her and her husband with respect in the past – which can be seen as a victory for a non-confrontational type of policing.  Whilst Watt appeals to the Rotarians sense of public duty, Evans admits to Mrs Marlowe that he dislikes Spence and wants to put him behind bars.  It’s plain that Evans has pitched his appeal at her level – if he, like Watt, had played the public duty card he probably wouldn’t have got very far at all.

Remarkably, although there’s no actual crime in Without Favour, it’s still an absorbing fifty minutes.  Both the unseen Jack Marlowe and the very visible Spence may feel aggrieved at being questioned by the police when there’s no evidence connecting them to crimes, but if you’re an ex-criminal (like Jack) or someone operating on the fringes (like Spence) then it appears that’s just a price you have to pay.  Alan Plater is skilful enough to keep his voice neutral throughout, so it’s left to the viewers to decide whether he condemns or condones this practice.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Lessons

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Lessons opens with Barlow teaching a group of cadets how to work a murder scene.  The training officer, Chief Inspector Fox (John Ringham), expresses his surprise to Watt that Barlow agreed so readily to play teacher, but Watt knows that Barlow is never more in his element than when he has an attentive audience.  He covers all the essentials – don’t contaminate the crime scene, ensure that life really is extinct, etc – and thanks to his convivial, easy-going nature he seems to have got the message across.

In story terms, it’s no surprise that a real-life murder is discovered shortly afterwards – now we’ll have the chance to see how well Barlow’s theories work in practice.  The presence of Fox is also interesting.  He’d been seconded to training for the last two years, but has just returned to active service.  Fox has long desired to be back at the sharp end and now has his wish – but how will he shape up after such a long spell in the classroom?

The discovery of the body – a girl’s naked corpse on the beach – is tightly filmed.  We observe events from the viewpoint of the man who finds her.  He spies a trail of clothes, leading to a fence partitioning two sides of the beach.  After seeing an arm lolling out, he rushes over (at this point we don’t see the body) but by his expression it’s evident that something bad has happened.  He rushes off for help, but the seafront is eerily deserted, so he hurries over to the nearest phone box.

The picture then cuts to a quick reveal of the dead girl, before showing a grim-faced Barlow approaching the scene.  This rapid cutting is an interesting choice – it’s a little jarring to jump ahead quite so quickly, but it helps to keep the story moving along.

The girl is soon identified – Myra Vernon, aged fourteen.  “A dangerous age” mutters Barlow.  Her father (played by Glynn Edwards) looks very distraught after identifying the body, leading Barlow to offer him a drop of something.  The lack of incidental music (the series never featured any) and the stark, sea-front setting makes the moment seem quite brutal.

There’s some good character work in this story.  Early on, Jackson and Evans are discussing the first murder case Barlow investigated in the area.  Evans still feels sorrow for the murderer, considering him to be as much of a victim as the murdered child,  something which Jackson doesn’t understand.  And later at the murder scene there’s a brief scene between Jackson and Hawkins which serves to illuminate the Sergeant’s character a little more.

After discussing whether Mr Vernon is the sort of person likely to go to pieces after learning that his daughter is dead, Jackson is easily able to banish this thought from his mind and go about his business.  Hawkins calls him a hard case, whilst Jackson counters that he’s simply objective.  Barlow’s irritation with Jackson is also made evident – the senior man is vaguely contemptuous that the Sergeant has little practical knowledge of the nitty-gritty of policework (he’s never worked directly on a murder enquiry, for example).   Jackson may be a decent administrator, but he’s not a thief-catcher, which explains Barlow’s regular baiting of him.

Cadet Wellbeloved (Crispin Gillbard) had earlier played the body in Barlow’s training exercise, but now he’s of even more use.  As a local man, he knows that the tide on this part of the beach will be coming in very soon (and not in two hours time, as the tide books report).  This means there’s something of a scramble to document all the evidence before it’s washed away.  Fox is perturbed that they’re not following the correct procedure, but Barlow tells him that it’s the “difference between textbook and the real thing, Mr Fox. Tides wait for no man”.

Susan (Sally Thomsett), a schoolfriend of Myra’s, has some information.  Presumably Susan was supposed to have been the same age as Myra, although Thomsett was twenty when this was recorded.  Susan reveals that Myra was seen chatting to a window-cleaner, shortly before she disappeared, which gives the police a suspect to pursue.  The window-cleaner, Dave (Graham Berown), is quickly run to ground and seems to be rather shifty.  The truth emerges shortly afterwards, and although it gives Jackson the chance to experience the sharp end of policing, Barlow’s still less than impressed with him …

Lessons was the first episode of SS:TF to be shot entirety on film.  Dixon of Dock Green had also begun to do the same thing at around this time (the first all-film Dixon, Waste Land, aired a month after this).  It helps to give the story a very different feel, although this effectiveness is somewhat blunted by the rather poor picture quality.  The above screen-shot shows just how faded the colours are.  It’s a slight pity, but considering that many other series from around this time (especially Dixon) are poorly represented in the archives, the fact that every episode of SS:TF still exists is rather amazing (so if some are rather dog-eared, that’s better than them not being around at all).

Arnold Yarrow was something of a renaissance man.   He penned several episodes of SS:TF whilst working as the story editor at the same time.  And when he wasn’t wearing those two hats, he also pursued a successful acting career.  For me he’ll forever be plucky Bellal from the Jon Pertwee Doctor Who story Death to the Daleks.

With a very limited cast of suspects, Lessons isn’t a whodunnit.  Yarrow’s script focuses on the procedural nature of a murder enquiry and also serves as a good vehicle for the regulars (Yarrow’s familiarity with the characters, due to his work as the show’s story editor, no doubt had something to do with this).

Softly Softly: Task Force – Safe in the Streets?

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Safe in the Streets? opens with an atmospheric piece of night-time filming.  A smartly-dressed Asian man, Ali Suleiman (Saad Ghazi), is being stalked through the streets by a gang of skinheads.  They corner him in an alleyway and, after relieving him of his money, give him a kicking.

Henry Mardsley (Leon Vitali) is the ringleader of the skinheads, although it’s notable that he’s spurred on to put the boot in by his girlfriend Reen (Vicki Michelle).  She seems to take pleasure in Ali’s pain and discomfort and although the attack is brief it’s still brutal.  This is a well-directed and unsettling opening to the story.

Hawkins later learns that such attacks are fairly common.  The doctor at the local hospital tells him non-whites are targeted in this way in order to force them to go back home.  But as he says, if that’s the case why is their money stolen as well?

Barlow and Watt are also in the area, taking a drink at a fairly down-at-heel bar.  Delightfully, Watt tells Barlow that “I think you brought me down here tonight because you’re feeling nostalgic. For the old times, you know, out in the streets, the docks, the pubs, like this one. Only then we were ten years younger and you were two stone lighter.” It’s a lovely nod back to their  Z Cars past and although Barlow demurs, there’s a sense that he’s enjoying being out on the streets again, rather than struggling with the pressures of command.

Barlow and Watt have come to talk to Nasim Khan (Marne Maitland).  The script is deliberately opaque for a while about Barlow’s interest in the man, although Watt suggests that if he wasn’t white he might not be so interested.  This raises the possibility that Barlow could be racist, although when Hawkins comes into the pub and tells them about the attack on Ali, Barlow reacts with fury (an innocent man going about his business who’s then robbed and attacked clearly sticks in his craw).

Whilst Watt and Hawkins head off to speak to Nasim, Barlow goes looking for the youths.  His confrontation with Henry is a cracking scene, with both Stratford Johns and Leon Vitali in fine form.  Henry should be the one to dominate – after all, he’s got a coffee shop full of cronies to back him up.  Barlow has no-one on his side, yet the older man is slowly but surely able to dominate the younger.

Barlow gently probes him about his dislike of Pakistanis.  Henry responds that they shouldn’t be over here, taking all the jobs (a viewpoint which, sadly, makes this story just as relevant today, more than 45 years later). But it’s doubtful as to whether Henry actually believes any of bigoted comments he comes out with. It’s just as likely that he simply enjoys causing aggro and the colour of his victim’s skin is immaterial. Apart from Reen, the rest of the gang are non-speaking extras, which although slightly limiting does work well in one way (their silence generates an air of menace).

When Barlow meets up again with Watt, the pair discuss the youth problem and it becomes clear they have very different opinions.  Watt is all for handing out a dose of swift, brutal retribution whilst Barlow is more resigned and laid-back (he indulgently muses that they’re a lost cause).  On a technical point, there’s some rather dodgy CSO at work in these scenes.  Their current base of operations (a laundrette) is on videotape, whilst the streets outside are on film.  Both are fine, but when the two are mixed together it looks rather odd …..

If Henry delights in making money out of the local immigrant community, then so does Khan, albeit in a different way.  Khan is a fixer, smoothing the passage of illegal immigrants and finding them homes and jobs (Ali is one of his “clients”).  Khan has the veneer of culture – he enjoys taking a glass of sherry every evening – but he’s still profiting from the misery of others.

He turns out to be Henry’s latest victim, which closes the story in a slightly contrived way (Henry, after a brief chase, admits to Barlow and Watt that he was responsible for the attack).  Although this feels slightly unbelievable, it doesn’t detract from the quality of Allan Prior’s script.  Seeing Barlow and Watt working the streets is highly entertaining, whilst the nihilism of Henry and Reen is quite disturbing (both Vitali and Michelle, chewing gum throughout, are very watchable).  A fascinating time capsule of the period.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Sunday, Sweet Sunday

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John Watt has deployed the Task Force to the seaside.  Sunday is the day when the skinheads turn up, creating havoc wherever they go.  But this week – possibly because of the strong police presence – there’s no sign of them.  So Watt sends his team out onto the streets to sniff out crime wherever they can find it ….

Sunday, Sweet Sunday has a nice, wrong-footing opening.  After Watt has explained about the skinhead problem, the audience is primed for their arrival.  PC Snow is one of the officers waiting on the train platform for them and several shots of slowly approaching trains serves to ramp up the tension just a little more.

So after they don’t turn up, the Task Force hits the streets looking for miscreants wherever they can find them.  PC Snow is less than impressed with Stephens (Windsor Davies), the bingo caller at the local amusement arcade.  Snow reminds him that he promised the players a prize if they completed a line – so why did he ask two ladies to play off for the prize when they both completed a line at the same time?  Terence Rigby is as delightfully deadpan as usual.

WDC Donald runs across the cheeky chappie photographer Daley (Christopher Beeney).  Daley takes photographs of holiday makers and then offers them several prints for the princely sum of five shillings.  Donald twigs that he hasn’t put any film in his camera all morning, meaning that he just pockets the money and moves on.  Earlier, Sgt Evans confessed to Donald that he finds the seaside to be a somewhat depressing place – it simply exists to fleece holidaymakers of their money.

His comments are echoed by Daley.  He admits that he’s ripping people off, but attempts to justify his actions by telling Donald that “people come to the seaside expecting to be taken for a ride. Well, most of them on the seaside are pretending that they’re giving you value. I mean, you’ve got fruit machines, you’ve got bingo, bags of chips. It’s all a big con. Really it is. So I don’t bother pretending.”  Beeney essays a nice comic turn (I especially like his reaction when Watt arrests him.  “That’s not fair, you should wear a helmet”!)

Watt agrees to meet Mr Hughes (Donald Morley) for a drink.  He’s never heard of him, but it’s noticeable that when Watt speaks to him on the phone he straightens up when he discovers he’s friendly with the Chief Constable!  Hughes is a local businessman who, along with others, is concerned about an influx of hippies.  The hippies don’t actually do anything, but Hughes wants them moved on.  Watt’s a stickler for the law and views Hughes with disfavour – if the hippies haven’t broken any laws then there’s nothing he can do.  Frank Windsor bristles with indignation during this nicely-played scene.

And with Evans chasing a Borstal-escapee, Kennedy (Andrew Neil), through the fairground and onto the beach, as well as the conman Miller (Michael Hawkins) lurking about, there’s no shortage of incident in Alan Plater’s script.  Although Chief Constable Cullen isn’t terribly impressed when Watt discusses his haul, deadpanning that the home office is very worried about seaside photographers!

Possibly because of the faded film sequences, the seaside sequences have a certain seedy glamour.  They’re a lovely time capsule of the period though, especially the rather run-down fairground.  A typically dense story from Plater which is a rather good vehicle for Susan Tebbs.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Baptism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Softly Softly: Task Force – Series Two. Simply Media DVD Review

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Series two of Softly Softly: Task Force was broadcast between September 1970 and March 1971.  Whereas series one (discussed here) had sixteen episodes, series two ran for twenty six episodes (an obvious sign that series one had been a success).

Below is a brief episode guide –

Baptism – 16th September 1970
Written by Elwyn Jones. Featuring Ian Hogg

Sunday, Sweet Sunday – 23rd September 1970
Written by Alan Plater. Featuring Christopher Beeney, Windsor Davies and Michael Hawkins

Safe in the Streets? – 30th September 1970
Written by Allan Prior. Featuring Leon Vitali, Vicki Michelle and George Tovey

Good Listener – 7th October 1970
Written by Elwyn Jones. Featuring Jonathan Newth

Time Expired – 14th October 1970
Written by Robert Barr

Lessons – 21st October 1970
Written by Arnold Yarrow. Featuring John Ringham, Glynn Edwards and Sally Thomsett

Without Favour – 28th October 1970
Written by Alan Plater. Featuring Collette O’Neil

Never Hit a Lady – 4th November 1970
Written by Allan Prior.  Featuring Neil McCallum and Richard Beale

Its Ugly Head – 11th November 1970
Written by Elwyn Jones.  Featuring Michael Goodliffe

Who Wants Pride…? – 18th November 1970
Written by Robert Barr. Featuring Jess Conrad and Ray Lonnen

Collation – 25th November 1970
Written by Elwyn Jones

Do Me a Favour – 2nd December 1970
Written by Robert Barr. Featuring Chloe Ashcroft, Victor Maddern and Jon Rollason

Sweet Are the Uses of Adversity – 9th December 1970
Written by Elwyn Jones. Featuring Del Henney

Bearings – 16th December 1970
Written by James Doran

A World Full of Rooms – 23rd December 1970
Written by Allan Prior. Featuring Milton Johns

The Lie Direct – 30th December 1970
Written by Elwyn Jones. Featuring Tony Calvin and Geoffrey Palmer

Ground Level – 6th January 1971
Written by Alan Plater. Featuring Glyn Owen

Company Business – 13th January 1971
Written by John Elliot. Featuring Wendy Gifford

Kick Off – 20th January 1971
Written by Elwyn Jones. Featuring Roddy McMillan and George Pravda

Final Score – 27th January 1971
Written by Elwyn Jones. Featuring Roddy McMillan and George Pravda

Something Big – 3rd February 1971
Written by Robert Barr. Featuring Desmond Llewellyn, John Woodvine and Jeremy Wilkin

Games – 10th February 1971
Written by Arnold Yarrow. Featuring Jean Boht

In the Public Gaze – 17 February 1971
Written by Elwyn Jones. Featuring Gawn Grainger and Reginald Marsh

Held for Questioning – 24th February 1971
Written by Robert Barr. Featuring Denis Quilly and Norman Jones

Black Equals White – 3rd March 1971
Written by Allan Prior. Featuring Angus MacKay

Cash and Carry – 10th March 1971
Written by Elwyn Jones. Featuring Gertan Klauber and Peter Sallis

The regular cast is pretty much unchanged since series one. Stratford Johns continues to dominate as Chief Supt. Barlow, whilst Frank Windsor returns as the straight-talking Det. Sup. Watt.  Norman Bowler (Det. Insp. Hawkins) doesn’t have such a sharply-defined character as either Barlow or Watt, but he’s still a very solid presence.  Walter Gotell, probably best known playing Gogol in the James Bond films, makes the occasional appearance as Chief Constable Arthur Cullen.

David Lloyd Meredith provides a dash of humour as the rather Welsh Sgt. Evans whilst Terence Rigby (always a rather idiosyncratic actor) is, as PC Snow, another actor who’s always worth watching.  PC Snow was distraught at the end of series one after his police-dog Inky was shot and killed, so series two sees him develop his working relationship with Inky’s replacement.  Susan Tebbs, as Det. Con. Donald, remains the show’s sole female regular.  Terrence Hardiman is a new recruit, turning up towards the end of the season as Inspector Armstrong.

As listed in the episode guide above, a host of familiar faces pop up during the course of the twenty six episodes and there’s also some very sharply written scripts, especially those provided by Alan Plater (a Z Cars veteran).  Elwyn Jones (who had created the Softly Softly: Task Force format) was another writer who had racked up numerous credits on Z Cars and Softly Softly and would be just as prolific on Softly Softly: Task Force and the later spin-off, Barlow.  Like Plater, he really understood how the series worked and his episodes, including the series opener and closer, are some of the strongest.

It’s interesting that both SS:TF and Dixon of Dock Green started to produce several all-film episodes at the same. It’s just a pity that these ones – Lessons and Do Me A Favour – look pretty poor (very faded colours on both throughout). Given the age of the material that’s not a surprise, but generally what we have across the seven discs is quite watchable. There’s no particular issues with the VT sequences (apart from the occassional bit of tape damage) but the film inserts on certain stories are rather grubby.

With so many episodes, it’s inevitable that the quality dips from time to time, but generally the level remains pretty consistent throughout the run.  During the next month or so I’ll be posting reviews of every episode, which will enable me to examine them in a little more detail.

Softly: Softly Series Two is released by Simply Media on the 26th of September 2016.  RRP £44.99.

Softly Softly: Task Force Series Two to be released by Simply Media – 26th September 2016

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Series two of Softly Softly: Task Force will be released by Simply Media in late September, featuring twenty six episodes across seven discs.  Review here.

The second series of Softly Softly Task Force, the classic long running hit BBC police drama, is coming to DVD for the very first time in the UK on 26 September 2016. A revamp of Softly, Softly, itself an offshoot from Z-Cars, it has become one of the BBC’s most successful spin-offs.

Stratford Johns (Z-Cars) stars as the no-nonsense DCS Charlie Barlow, a superior officer not averse to thrashing his suspects into submission, and Frank Windsor (Z Cars) as his mellower sidekick DS John Watt. Together with their special squad, they tackle the toughest cases Thamesford has to offer.

 

Z Cars – A Place of Safety

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Tx 24th June 1964

A Place of Safety has something of an abstract opening.  We see a man climbing up several flights of stairs, but then the camera seems to lose interest in him as it tracks away – firstly to record some children going down the stairs and then to observe a woman slowly walking upwards.

But we can still hear his voice.  He’s banging on a door, demanding entry – promising that things will be worse if he has to come back.  The relative peace is then shattered as the man falls down the stairs.  We cut to the inside of a room to reveal a man holding a bloody axe.

If parts of Newtown (Z Cars‘ fictional location) were indeed new, then others most certainly were not.  The building where the man (who we later learn is a bailiff called Wallace) lies injured is a crumbling wreck, mostly populated by those on the poverty line (and who also happen to be black).  This doesn’t seem to please Fancy Smith (Brian Blessed) who is visibly exasperated when he’s unable to get any of the other residents to utter a word.  He ironically comments that they’re deaf, but the inference seems to be that they can’t, rather than won’t, speak English.

To begin with, it’s possible that the same could be said for the man with the axe – Adignu Sadik (Johnny Sekka).  Barricading the door, he’s depicted as a mute, irresolute figure.  He’s not alone, as his wife Nana (Alaknanda Samart) and his two young children are also present.  Bathed in sweat, Sadik doesn’t utter a word during these early scenes – not even when he’s tempted out of the room by Detective Chief Inspector Barlow (Stratford Johns).

Indeed it’s not until about twenty minutes in, when he’s being questioned at the police station by Detective Sergeant Watt (Frank Windsor), that Sadik utters his first words.  And he’s revealed to be an articulate, softly spoken man, unable to explain why he should have exploded in a sudden burst of anger against Wallace.

That Sadik is not an unthinking, violent creature is surely an intentional piece of scripting – as several characters have already expressed negative opinions about Sadik and the black community in general.  Wallace’s boss, Lowther (Norman Bird) regards them as savages whilst Fancy makes the unoriginal observation that they all look alike.

A Place of Safety doesn’t offer any glib answers or pat solutions and nor does it shie away from suggesting that the police are capable of prejudice just like anybody else.  Barlow gently probes Lowther to try and find out what Wallace was like as a person – did he enjoy his job too much?  Lowther reacts angrily.  Wallace was an ex-copper, doing a dirty job, he says, but he didn’t deserve to be the victim of an unprovoked assault.  After he leaves, Watt tells Barlow that Wallace does have a reputation as a troublemaker, but nothing ever comes of this (we never see Wallace after his tumble down the stairs, so he’s not a defined character).

Lowther bitterly believes that Barlow’s attempting to find excuses to excuse Sadik’s attack.  But when Barlow and Watt are alone, Barlow admits quite the reverse – he suffers from prejudice as well, so he’s doubly keen to ensure that he treats Sadik fairly.

Johnny Sekka is excellent as Sadik, a man with no previous history of violence who finds events has spiraled out of his control.  But the script also poses the question  about exactly how much sympathy we should have for him.  Another very strong performance comes from Alakanda Samarth as his wife, Nana.  She has several key scenes, but possibly the most notable one is right at the end.

With her husband locked up, she and her children have been thrown out onto the streets.  Watt arranges a temporary place for them to stay, but the children can’t remain with their mother.  Fancy and Jock drop her off and there’s an intriguing moment of tension between her and Fancy.  We’ve already seen that the bluff Fancy has an undisguised raft of prejudices and Nana is prepared to meet him head on – she’s proud and independent and can clearly pick up the negative signals from Fancy (and isn’t prepared to ignore them)

An excellent episode by John Hopkins, which also works as a fascinating slice of social history.