Gideon’s Way – The Great Plane Robbery

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Terence Bailey (George Baker) has organised what seems to be the perfect crime – a million pounds in gold bullion, hijacked from a Russian plane.  Bailey remains confident that he’s covered all the angles, but then cracks begin to show amongst his gang …..

The Great Plane Robbery is something of a pun title, which would have been obvious to most of the audience at the time (The Great Train Robbery had occurred the previous year, 1963).

What’s remarkable about the plane robbery is just how straightforward it is.  There seems to be no security at all, either on the plane or at the airport.  They were carrying a million pounds in gold, for goodness sake!  You’d have assumed there would have been the odd guard lounging around, but no.  So Bailey’s right-hand man, Frank Dobson (Edwin Richfield) and the others are pretty much able to scoop it out of the plane at their leisure.  And even when the people in the airport control tower spot there’s a robbery taking place, all they can do is stare through their binoculars and sound the alarm.  The police are obviously a long way away, because Dobson and the others are easily able to make their escape before anybody turns up.

Edwin Richfield graced many a series with his presence (UFO, Doctor Who, The Avengers, Z Cars, Dixon of Dock Green, Adam Adamant Lives!).  He’s perfect as Bailey’s trusted second-in-command, who becomes rather disenchanted when a newcomer, Harold (Jeremy Burnham), turns up.  Harold is somewhat fey and camp and this doesn’t seem to go down well with Dobson (after Harold rests his hand on Dobson’s arm, he angrily tells Harold that he doesn’t like people touching him).  But that doesn’t seem to be the only reason why Harold irritates him – Dobson has enjoyed his time as Bailey’s closest confidant, but now there’s a newcomer who knows more than he does.  Their simmering discontent will later have serious consequences for Dobson ….

Jeremy Burham’s something of a renaissance man, not only an actor (including The Saint, The Avengers, Randall and Hopkirk and The Persuaders!) but a writer as well (Bergerac, Inspector Morse, The Gentle Touch, Minder, The Professionals, When the Boat Comes In, to mention but a few).  He helps to liven up the middle part of the episode, which otherwise might have sagged a little.

For me, this is one of the less essential GW episodes, and it only really succeeds because of the quality of the cast (as well as a few entertaining sequences which we’ll come to in a minute).  George Baker is certainly one of the reasons why it works as well as it does.  Much later he’d become very well known for playing a detective, but in the early part of his career he did a nice line in criminals, as he does here.  Bailey is a confident, cultured man.  He treats everybody around him with a casual air of indifference – he’s top dog and he knows it.  Of course, it’s his air of superiority which makes his eventual comeuppance all the more satisfying.

Memorable moments include young Malcolm and Gideon clashing over the best way to deal with the malfunctioning television.  Gideon is convinced he knows best, but Malcolm does know best and manages to restore the picture.  As with most of Giles Watling’s scenes throughout the series, this has no impact on the plot – it’s simply a nice character moment that helps to humanise Gideon.  Police officers, especially senior ones, with stable home lives are a rarity on television and whilst there’s an undeniable sense that their family set-up is simply too idealised to be true, it works nonetheless.

A quite different sort of family can be seen when we visit one of the gang, Kautsky (George Murcell).  His wife (played by Freda Bamford) is a remarkable creation, with big hair and a fag dangling from her lip.  And their son, Sid (John Hall), is remarkable too.  Although Hall was only in his early twenties when this episode was made, he looks a good deal older – meaning that it’s hard to take him seriously as the rebellious teen he’s written as.  His long hair is a bit of an eye-opener too.  Long hair for men isn’t really something that we’ve seen too often on GW – as touched upon before, the series has more of a fifties sensibility than a sixties one.  However, it’s not really the hair that’s an issue, more of the fact that it just looks so false (it surely must have been a wig).  If you can watch Hall’s performance and not think of Peter Sellers in What’s New Pussycat then you have more self control than me.

Not the best that the series can offer then, but it still has its moments.

Doomwatch – Train and De-Train

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Train and De-Train opens with John Ridge investigating several hundred wildlife deaths in Somerset.  The evidence suggests that some form of pesticide has been used, so Quist asks Toby to contact all pesticide manufacturers in the area and obtain samples.

Rather conveniently a container is found near the dead animals marked “AC” which suggests that Alminster Chemicals are involved (that’ll save Toby a lot of running about).  It’s also a coincidence that the chief chemist at Alminster is Mr Ellis (David Markham) who was Toby’s old tutor.

One of the main themes of the story concerns Toby’s rashness and way he acts without considering the consequences.  This sets him apart from the others, even Ridge, who all favour a more rigid, analytical approach.  In science, you have to be sure of your facts – something which Toby has trouble with (although it’s ironic that his information is what finally saves the day).

It seems likely that Alminster are responsible for the animal deaths.  They’re developing a new pesticide called AC3051, for export use in counties which have seen vast areas devastated by locusts, and it’s probable that they’ve tested it in Somerset, hence the animal deaths, but there’s no proof.  Toby’s first mistake occurs when he meets Alminster’s managing director John Mitchell (George Baker).

Toby’s delight in meeting his old tutor is tempered when he realises how badly he’s being treated by Alminster.  Ellis has been the victim of a creeping campaign by Mitchell which is designed to break his morale and force him to resign.  First Ellis’ carpet from his office went, then his parking space was reassigned, next his phone was taken away and the ultimate insult is when he finds somebody else in his office.  After demanding an explanation from Mitchell, he receives a blunt answer.  “Oh for god’s sake, do you not see that you’re no use to us anymore?”

Ellis is fifty one and therefore is regarded as over the hill.  As Ridge later explains, it’s the American way of business – if you can’t force the person to resign with these sort of methods then you “de-train” them – make them take a more lowly position in the company.

Mitchell is quite clear – they have to export and it has to be in considerable numbers.  If not, the company has no future.  This touches upon a similar argument to the one expressed in The Red Sky, where commercial interests are seen to be (in some people’s eyes) the most important thing.  George Baker is splendidly controlled and arrogant as Mitchell, which makes his eventual comeuppance at the end of the episode (his mishandling of matters sees him replaced) even more satisfying.

So Toby’s not only appalled at Mitchell’s off-hand manner, he’s also angry at the way Ellis has been treated.  This eventually makes him launch into a tirade against Mitchell, which is tape-recorded and forwarded onto Quist.  Quist has no compunction in (temporarily) firing Toby  because, irrespective of the rights and wrongs, he’s proved not to have the objectivity that a scientist requires.

Although Train and De-Train revolves as much around office politics at Alminster as it does about the pesticide issue, it’s still another strong series one entry.  With Quist largely absent, it’s Toby who’s the focus of the story, meaning that for once Ridge has to play the voice of reason.  David Markham seems a little distracted as Ellis, but that may be as scripted.  Ellis is portrayed as the sort of compromised scientist that any of the Doomwatch team may become – if they let their standards slip.

Ellis knew that 3051 was dangerous, but went ahead with the tests in Somerset anyway.  Following his resignation he commits suicide, but beforehand he writes a letter to Mitchell.  Mitchell treats the letter with contempt – using it to light a cigar – but a copy was sent to Toby and it’s this piece of evidence that sinks Alminster, as it links them to the pesticide tests.

Given that 3051 was designed for use against locusts I’ve never really understood why they decided to test it in Somerset (not many locusts about there).  Mitchell does make the very good point to Quist that although 3051 could be dangerous in an environment with varied wildlife, that won’t be an issue in the places where it’ll be used.  So the tests only serve to draw attention to Alminster.

Mitchell also mentions that the locusts are responsible for deaths now – so they have to press the pesticide into service straight away.  Yes, there may be some ecological side-effects, but they can be worked on in due course (to delay would be to cause more deaths).  Mitchell’s undeniably motivated by the profit margin, but there’s a certain logic in what he says.

The shades of grey that make up Don Shaw’s script are fascinating.  It would have been easier to make Alminster and Mitchell “evil”, but although George Baker relishes the ruthless side of Mitchell’s character things are not as straightforward as they seem at first.

Minder – You Gotta Have Friends

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Billy Gilpin (David Buck) is a wanted man.  The police want to question him about the attempted murder of Lord Ingrave, whilst local villain Bobby Altman (George Baker) is also keen to track him down.  Billy worked for Altman and has absconded with seventy thousand pounds worth of bearer bonds.

As Terry gave Billy a lift, that makes him an object of interest for both the police and Altman.  The police are fairly easy to deal with but the barely stable Altman is another matter.  He’s convinced that Billy gave Arthur the bonds and issues a stark ultimatum – if Arthur doesn’t return them, his life expectancy will be very short.

Moments of levity are few and far between in You Gotta Have Friends.  They mostly occur at the start, as we see a very drunken Arthur making his way home after a night spent with his friends at the Lodge.  He’s accosted by Billy who urgently needs a ride out of town.  Arthur’s in no fit state to drive (some lovely drunk acting from Cole in this scene) but he knows just the man – Terry, of course.  It may be the middle of the night, and Terry’s rather preoccupied with the lovely young Valerie, but this doesn’t really register with Arthur.

After this, things take a darker turn when Terry’s picked up by the police for questioning the following day.  In the years to come he probably would have been quizzed by either Chisholm or Rycott and that would pre-condition the viewer to know that nothing particularly serious is going to happen.  But here we have the more imposing form of D.I. Barnett (Allan Surtees).

Although Terry’s never really in serious trouble, it’s the tone of the scenes at the station which feel different from similar moments from later series.  The bleak, whitewashed walls do seem to have a more oppressive feeling here.  Even Terry’s temporary cell-mate, Whaley (a decent cameo from Roy Kinnear), might not be all that he appears.  On the surface, Whaley looks like a friendly chap, genuinely interested in Terry’s plight – but is he one of Barnett’s tame grasses, there to act as a possible prosecution witness?  We never find out for sure, so Terry may just be acting a little paranoid (possibly brought on by his brief confinement).

George Baker is imposing and powerful as Bobby Altman.  His meeting with Terry demonstrates he has trouble keeping his temper under control.  This, together with his group of minders (including Brian Hall and Prentis Hancock), give us an early indication that he won’t be a pushover.  When Altman tells Terry that he’s going to kill Arthur, we believe him.  And whilst Terry could easily take the older Altman, he’s told quite plainly that with the superior numbers on his side, Altman would always emerge victorious.

There’s a fairly heavy use of library music in this episode and since most of the cues tend to be dramatic and suspenseful ones, that simply adds to the tension.

Later, Altman abducts Arthur and gives him one more chance to tell him where the bonds are.  As Arthur doesn’t have them he can’t do this – but Altman has long since passed the point of reason.  A health-fanatic, he forces Arthur to go for a jog with him and pushes him to the point of collapse.  When Terry rescues him, it’s slightly played for laughs, but before this it’s another disturbing scene.

Luckily for Arthur, Terry arrives in the nick of time with the bonds, which had been in the possession of Lady Ingrave (Deborah Grant).  Despite their mis-matched backgrounds, she was in love with Billy and the pair planned to disappear together (although his death – he’s later fished out of the river – puts paid to that).

The Arthur/Terry dynamic is quite obviously what makes Minder work.  Arthur might be self-centered and manipulative, but there has to be some kernel of respect between the two of them – otherwise the series simply wouldn’t work.  This is demonstrated when Terry finds a barely-conscious Arthur, with Altman towering above him.  He hands over the bonds, but has no hesitation is aiming a well-thrown punch in Altman’s direction, knocking him down.

Honour is therefore satisfied.  Altman’s got his bonds back, but Terry’s struck a blow for his friend.  And despite the power (and man-power) Bobby Altman has, he knows that this is one time he should walk away.

You Gotta Have Friends brought the first series of Minder to a conclusion.  It would be Leon Griffiths’ last script for a few years, due to ill-health, but he’d set up a very firm foundation which ensured that the many writers who followed in his footsteps would have plenty to work with.

Zodiac – The Cool Aquarian

cool

Written by Roger Marshall
Directed by Don Leaver

Whilst Gradley was a confirmed astrological sceptic in Death of a Crab, at the start of this episode he seems to have revised his opinion somewhat when he calls on Esther to ask her advice. Of course, it just might be that he wants to spend more time in the delectable Ms Jones’ company – which is completely understandable.

Gradley has received a tip-off that something’s going to happen on Thursday evening.  He doesn’t know what and he doesn’t know where, but he hopes that Esther will be able to provide him with the answers.  Esther is incredulous.  “You mean, 4:45 Lloyds Bank, Lower Sloane Street, a ginger-headed man with a thirty denier nylon mask and a left-footed limp? Of course I can’t. You really do have some strange ideas about astrology.”

Whilst Gradley is left to ponder on this problem, the episode develops two seperate plot-lines.  The first concerns two businessmen – Reuben Keiser (Michael Gambon) and Mark Braun (George Baker).  They’re very different types – Keiser is somewhat sharp and unscrupulous (as he says himself he’s “more barrow boy than Harrow boy”) whilst Braun is more refined and keener to do the right thing.

The second sees Gradley pay a visit on George and Paula Sutton (Bill Maynard and Betty Alberge).  Their niece, Sheila, has disappeared and shortly afterwards they receive a note to say she’s been kidnapped.  The two plot-threads converge when Kesier receives a ransom note.  He’s never met Sheila, but unless he pays one hundred thousand pounds the girl will die.

As the kidnap happened on Thursday evening, Esther wonders if this is the job that Gradley received a tip-off about.  Although that does seem unlikely, since it transpires the kidnap was a one-person job – why would they inform on themselves?

Remarkable coincidence number one is that Esther already knows Keiser and Braun (she’s supplied both of them with astrological readings).  Remarkable coincidence number two is that when Braun persuades Keiser to call the police, it’s Gradley who’s assigned to the case.

Like Death of a Crab, the solution to the mystery isn’t particularly taxing, but producing a baffling puzzle doesn’t seem to be this series’ raison-d’etre.  Instead, Marshall’s script focuses more on the characters, especially Gradley and Esther.  Just two episodes in, there’s an obvious “will they, won’t they” vibe about their relationship.

The story boasts a cracking guest cast.  Gambon and Baker are two actors that enhance any production and whilst Bill Maynard’s role is a little more serious than many of his signature parts, it’s still a pleasure to see him.  He does have one good comic scene though, when he and his wife manage to give a description of Sheila to Gradley that takes an age – mainly because they can’t agree on the most basic questions (her height, whether she’s pale or not, etc).

Also well worth watching is the ever dependable Trevor Baxter as Esther’s temporary butler, Neville.  He proves to be an invaluable help to Gradley (picking out a few clues from the ransom note) and Gradley’s way of thanking him seems to involve putting on an apron and helping him clean the silver!

Esther saves the day by casting a horoscope which leads the police to the place where Sheila is being held.  This is a slight cop-out and is probably one of the series’ main flaws.  As previously mentioned, the temptation to use Esther to pull a rabbit out of the hat can be damaging to the integrity of the narrative.

But although this is a problem and the mystery isn’t that mysterious at all, The Cool Aquarian is still an enjoyable fifty minutes.