Jig-Saw was the first story of Dixon’s eighteenth series, originally broadcast on the 20th of November 1971. Although it shares some similarities with Waste Land (a hunt for a missing person in a vast, crumbling industrial site) it also feels quite different – this one is much more a standard police procedural story.
Forbes (Victor Maddern) is the nightwatchman of a derilict gasworks. Making his rounds, he finds an open door and after he enters the building he finds that somebody has locked him in. He calls Dock Green nick and they take a look around. Although they don’t find anybody, they do spot some scattered possessions which belong to a woman who went missing earlier in the week – and this is enough to initiate a search of the area.
One attraction of television of this vintage, particularly when shot in these sort of locations, is the glimpse it gives us of a landscape that would be unrecognisable today. The gasworks were an example of Britain’s industrial past, but by the time the series was made it was a relic and scheduled for demolition. Both Dixon and Andy Crawford professes admiration for the place (and offer a hint of regret that it’s no longer active) whilst one of the other detectives shows it no sentiment at all – in a few years, he says, it’ll probably be a housing estate. This moment shows that Dixon and Crawford are two of a kind – sharing similar views and opinions.
If they sometimes have a father/son relationship, it’s not surprising (since Andy married George’s daughter way back in 1956). Although Crawford is a detective sergeant, he has no qualms in seeking the advice or opinion of Dixon (who’s just a humble uniformed sergeant). Other police programmes (such as The Bill) would have a much sharper divide between the uniformed and plain clothes divisions, but thanks to the special relationship between Dixon and Andy, that’s blurred here.
As the search continues, both Dixon and Andy view the missing woman’s husband, Colin Warren (Charles Houston), with suspicion. He lied about where he was on the night of his wife’s disappearance (he was seeing another woman) so what else might he have lied about? There’s also the possibility that this might not be an isolated attack – the gasworks are close to a canal towpath where several woman were assaulted a few years previously.
The possibilities soon stack up. Warren might have killed his wife or she may have left of her own accord. But there are other suspects, such as the nightwatchman Forbes, who has been receiving psychiatric treatment – which is is confirmed by his colleague Morris (Windsor Davies) .
Glynn Edwards is solid as Chief Inspector Jamieson, he wasn’t a regular but did pop up from time to time over the years (in a variety of roles). Jig-Saw also gives us a chance to see Nicholas Donnelly as Sergeant Johnny Willis, who had a long association with the series (some two hundred episodes between 1961 and 1976).
Victor Maddern appeared in Dixon four times – playing four different characters. By far his most celebrated appearance was his final one, It’s A Gift (broadcast in 1975). This wasn’t for any particular part of the story though, rather it’s for this outtake which has become a favourite of many people.
Jig-Saw ends with a chase and the apprehension of the criminal. It therefore offers a tidy solution to the mystery, even if it’s still rather downbeat. Whilst Eric Paice’s script never hits the heights of Waste Land (which he also wrote) it’s still an efficient character piece that also makes good use of its impressive location.
Waste Land was the opening story of Dixon of Dock Green’s seventeenth series and it becomes clear very quickly that incoming producer Joe Waters was keen to shake up the show’s format. I’ve already written here about early 1970’s Dixon and how the actuality of the series differs from its received opinion. And one of the most significant of the small number of existing episodes from the early 1970’s is Waste Land.
Originally broadcast on the 14th of November 1970, it opens, traditionally enough, with Dixon’s piece to camera. But although Dixon is instantly a reassuring and paternal figure, his words are not designed to offer comfort. Dixon tells us that often “most of us remain ignorant of one another” and this, he says, could apply to any walk of life – including the police. Dixon’s opening and closing homilies are often one of most derided parts of the series (this view seems to be largely based on one notorious example from the black & white years, where Dixon condones domestic violence) but here he doesn’t provide the audience with reassurance. Instead, it’s a clear signal that things may not end well.
Following this, the pre-credits sequence is extremely disorientating. We see a POV shot of somebody wandering around a deserted dock (their laboured breathing indicates that something is wrong). The sense of disconnection is enforced when we hear a woman’s voice, describing how somebody feels lost – in a waste land – unaware of whether they are actually awake or asleep.
The discovery of an abandoned panda car inside the Old Orient Dock initiates a search for the missing officer, PC Norman. This explains the reason for the pre-credits sequence, although it’s interesting how it makes little narrative sense. We’re led to assume that the POV shot is of PC Norman and we later discover that the woman’s voice belongs to his wife. The third part of the sequence is the discovery of his panda car, but chronologically it’s a real jumble. Firstly, he went missing at around midnight, but the POV shots were in daylight. Secondly, we hear his wife’s voice before she’s actually entered the story. It works in the context of the episode though (even if it’s odd from a story-telling point of view).
Our first sight of George Dixon helps to reinforce that he’s a competent and knowledgeable officer (he advises a police van driver to take a short-cut to the docks). It’s a small character beat that’s useful for any new viewers – it lets them know that he’s an experienced man, who knows the area well.
The bulk of the episode takes place within the abandoned docks. It’s an impressive location and one which cuts against the perceived notion that Dixon was a series rooted in cosy nostalgia. Looking back at seventies Britain in general, often the picture is one of decay – crumbling buildings, dirty streets, etc. The grimy 16mm film stock used for television reinforces this (and this episode is a good example – the film print seems to have been dragged through a hedge backwards!).
So the docks are an area that’s depicted as threatening and unsettling. Nobody would visit there out of choice, so why did PC Norman? It’s debated that he might have been following a suspect, but even quite early on there are other, albeit unspoken, possibilities floating about.
Elsewhere, we see a sense of community and a general level of co-operation with the police that might be one area where Dixon could be said to still be peddling an idealised picture of society. A group of housewives are seen to have a clear bond with each other (except for one, who comes and goes at all hours and is therefore viewed with suspicion by the others). They’re all eager to answer Andy Crawford’s (Peter Byrne) questions and one of them even volunteers useful additional information. It’s very possible to imagine that other series might have portrayed a more isolated or disinterested community.
Jumping into this episode cold, there’s a fairly large cast of regulars of which most (apart from Dixon and Andy) aren’t particularly familiar. This isn’t helped by that fact that the archive survival rate from the early seventies runs are so poor (Waste Land, for example, is the only episode to exist from series seventeen, the other sixteen were wiped). It is nice to see George out and about though – as the years go by, Jack Warner’s difficulties with walking will become more and more obvious (later series see him immobile behind the desk at the station, hardly moving at all).
It’s a pity that the print is so poor (including at one point, a spectacular bit of film damage) but for such a niche release there’s no point in grumbling too much (it’s better to have it in this condition than not at all).
Waste Land is a bleak tale which never feels it’s going to end well. The documentary style of filming (no incidental music, for example) helps to give it a sense of reality and the lack of a neat, pat ending is another plus. It’s impossible to say whether the rest of the series maintained this same standard, but on its own merits, Waste Land is a gripping forty five minutes of drama.
Acorn have announced a mouth-watering series of special features for Dixon of Dock Green – Collection Three, due for release in 2015.
Audio Commentary on Domino with actor Stephen Marsh (P.C. Harry Dunne).
Audio Commentary on Alice with director Michael E. Briant.
The Final Cases: Documentary on the making of this last series, with actors Nicholas Donnelly (Sgt. Johnny Wills), Richard Heffer (D.S. Alan Bruton), Gregory de Polnay (D.S. Mike Brewer) and production assistant Vivienne Cozens.
Good Evening All: A tribute to Jack Warner, with Nicholas Donnelly, Richard Heffer, Stephen Marsh, Gregory de Polnay and Vivenne Cozens.
Personnel Files: Extended Interviews with Nicholas Donnelly, Richard Heffer and Gregory de Polnay.
Acorn have also released a teaser video to further wet the appetite.
It can be pre-ordered from Acorn now (for release in early 2015). If it follows the path of previous Acorn releases. then it should stay as an Acorn exclusive for a few months before going on general release.
Having the episodes themselves would have justified the purchase price, but this set of special features is more than welcome. More information on collection three can be found here whilst there’s an overview of collection one here.
I’m delighted to hear that Acorn will be releasing a third DVD of Dixon of Dock Green episodes. More details can be found on their website here.
Collections one and two contained all the existing colour episodes broadcast between 1970 and 1975 (with the exception of Molenzicht which was omitted for unspecified rights reasons).
Collection three will have all eight episodes from the 22nd and final series (broadcast in 1976). This is the only series of Dixon of Dock Green to exist in its entirety, which sadly indicates just how depleted the Dixon archive is.
The eight episodes are as follows –
1. Domino (13th March 1976)
2. The Job (20th March 1976)
3. Vagrant (27th March 1976)
4. Everybody’s Business (3rd April 1976)
5. Alice (10th April 1976)
6. Jackpot (17th April 1976)
7. Legacy (24th April 1976)
8. Reunion (1st May 1976)
This final series sees George Dixon (Jack Warner) working as a civilian collator at Dock Green police station, following his retirement from the force. Given that Jack Warner was eighty years old at the time, this was a reasonable move (indeed, his obvious age and immobility had been a problem for a few years prior to this).
Missing from the final series was Andy Crawford (played by Peter Byrne). As Byrne had been a regular since 1955, his decision not to take part in this series was puzzling – as it was pretty obvious that the series (due to Warner’s age) wouldn’t be continuing for much longer.
I’ve written here about my appreciation of the first collection of episodes, released in 2012, and hopefully these final eight will be of a similar standard.
This just leaves the black and white episodes which could (maybe if sales of this DVD are good) make up collection four some time in the future.
Dixon of Dock Green launched on the BBC in 1955 (the same year that ITV started transmitting) and would run for an impressive 21 years, finally coming to an end in 1976.
Dixon remains a series firmly lodged in the public’s consciousness, although often for the wrong reasons. It’s sometimes been compared negatively to later series (such as Z Cars) which are supposed to be harder-hitting, more realistic, etc. But a full evaluation of Dixon of Dock Green is sadly, impossible. Out of the 432 episodes made, only 32 exist – 11 in black & white and 21 in colour. And because the black & white episodes are the ones that have tended to be most often repeated during the last 30 years, it’s probably not surprising that Dixon has found itself tagged as a cosy and resolutely old-fashioned series.
Until these DVD releases, the 1970’s episodes had been much more of a mystery. Three of them had been repeated in the 1980’s (Conspiracy in 1981, Waste Land in 1982 and Firearms Were Issued in 1986) but there had been no public airings since.
The first DVD contains six of the first seven existing colour episodes. A look at the series they came from help to indicate exactly how much has been lost –
Series 17 Episode 01 – Waste Land
Series 18 Episode 01 – Jig-Saw
Series 20 Episode 01 – Eye Witness
Series 20 Episode 03 – Harry’s Back
Series 20 Episode 16 – Sounds
Series 20 Episode 17 – Firearms Were Issued
Also present in the archives is the 7th episode of the 18th series – Molenzicht – but this wasn’t included due to unspecified rights issues. The six episodes on this set span five years from 1970 to 1974 and it is interesting to consider that had a number of them not been shot entirely on film it’s probable that even fewer episodes from this period would now exist.
At the time, Joe Waters had just taken over as producer and he was keen to shake up the look of the series. Previously it had been very studio bound, so he elected to make some episodes entirely on film in order to open it out. The first four episodes on this set (along with Molenzicht) were film only episodes and they probably only survive today because film couldn’t be re-used, like videotape could. The majority of the VT Dixons would have been wiped soon after transmission in order to record new programmes (a very common occurrence during the 1960’s and 1970’s).
In 2012 Richard Marson spoke to Joe Waters, who was able to explain about the changes he made.
I changed the concept of it a bit – when Ronnie Marsh did it, it was a series about the police but when I did it, it became a series about people who got involved with the police. It had to be done very carefully. It was more on the streets of East London.
We always started a series with an episode on film, to make it different. Until then it had been very studio bound. Waste Land, the first one we did all on film, was a very big hit – it got wonderful reviews because it was so very different – all shot with hand held cameras, which was very unusual then. It was revolutionary. The following year they let me do two on film. Molenzicht I did all in Holland. It’s a shame that’s not on the DVD as its one of the best ones.
It may just be an accident of fate that these film episodes survive, but whatever the reason we should be thankful as they help to paint the series in quite a different light from the “cosy” series of the 1950’s.
Collection One Episodes
Waste Land A Panda Car fails to report in and a policeman is missing. But what kind of man is PC Norman and is he the victim of a gang attack, an accident or something even more menacing? Dock Green police find themselves operating in strange surroundings. (Radio Times Listing)
This is, pardon the pun, an arresting episode. It’s not surprising, as Waters said, that Waste Land garnered such good reviews as it’s an unsettling tale with no easy answers. The all-location nature of the shooting is an undoubted benefit as it allows us a window into a grimy, decaying wasteland. As with all the film episodes it’s a pity that no restoration was done, as the prints are extremely dirty, but for niche releases like this that’s pretty understandable. The early film episodes also enable us to see George getting out and about. As Jack Warner got older he tended to remain firmly rooted behind the desk at the police station, moving as little as possible, so it’s good to see him in the thick of the action here.
Jig Saw In this episode, Sergeant Dixon is called to Dock Green Gasworks which have been derelict for some time. A young wife has disappeared and evidence accumulates that she has recently been inside this area. Foul play is suspected and the police find strange parallels with other unsolved crimes (Radio Times Listing)
Its a pity that on the DVD this episodes follows on directly from Waste Land, since it has a very similar story, but had some of the other episodes from series 17 existed then it wouldn’t stand out so much. Again, we have a very stark picture of urban decay and the gasworks are a very good location which throw up plenty of interesting places to shoot. As with Waste Land, its probably best not to expect a happy ending.
Eye Witness In the first of the new series, Dixon takes an unexpected holiday accompanied by the only witness to a gangland murder. (Radio Times Listing)
This is an episode that stretches credibility to absolute breaking point. Jack Warner could still get around at this point, but was he really the best person to send off to guard an important witness? He wouldn’t exactly be much use in a fight would he? Gwyneth Powell (best known as Mrs McClusky from Grange Hill) is good as the reluctant witness and the locations look nice, but this isn’t really in the same league as the previous two stories.
Harry’s Back ‘One of the best.’ That’s what everybody said about Harry Simpson – everybody that is, except Sgt Crawford. (Radio Times Listing)
The last of the all-film stories on this set, Harry’s Back has a fine guest turn by Lee Montague as Harry Simpson. Montague is one of those actors that seems to have been working forever (and is still going strong today) and he’s very convincing as Harry, who is the sort of friendly criminal beloved by everybody in the community. Andy Crawford (Peter Byrne) isn’t a fan though and the episode is a battle of wills between the two. Can Crawford find a charge against Harry that will stick? Or does Harry really have a charmed life?
Sounds A child’s voice on the phone and some background noise is all the Dock Green Police have to lead them to the scene of a crime. (Radio Times Listing)
This is the first colour episode to exist on VT, which was the more usual format for BBC drama productions during the 1970’s. It’s quite slow, but not without interest as we see the Dock Green police use every available technique to discover where the child was calling from (analysing the tape for sounds from the docks, for example).
Firearms Were Issued An investigation brings Det-Insp Crawford and Dock Green Police under official scrutiny. (Radio Times Listing)
A shooting during a raid leads to an official investigation. This is quite an eye-opening episode, particularly for the result of the enquiry. As with Sounds, we see the format that would last the series out – Crawford and his colleagues responsible for the bulk of the action and Dixon behind the counter (or, in the final series, working as a civilian collator).
Joe Waters died in 2013 at the age of 89. He had a long career with the BBC, working on popular programmes such as Warship, My Family and Other Animals and The Enigma Files. Judging from another conversation he had with Richard Marson, he remained proud of Dixon of Dock Green, if a little exasperated that for so many years it was largely written off. He did, however, have the satisfaction of seeing how warmly this DVD was received:
“Hallelujah!!! For over 40 years I’ve been sick to the teeth of being greeted by ‘evening all’ and watching and reading smart arsed critics who never saw the series (at least those that I made) who compared the very early 25 min episodes made in the 1950’s & 1960’s, ancient snippets of which had been recorded on primitive tele-recordings,with whatever the current police series was on the air, Softly Softly, The Sweeney or The Bill. An important factor which always escaped their attention was that it was transmitted between 6.15 pm & 7.00 pm so the content was highly sensitive to audience reaction. When I went freelance in 1984 my agent made me remove the series from my C.V!”
Although I’ve not spoken a great deal about Jack Warner, he is, and always was, integral to the success of the series. Although he was later sidelined, due to failing health, even in the episodes where he has little to do his presence is felt very strongly.
At present, there’s two releases available (collection two contains the next six existing episodes). Hopefully a third release will follow (containing the final series, which is the only one to exist in its entirety) and then a fourth release could contain the black & white episodes. For anybody who enjoys classic British police drama, or just decent drama, this is warmly recommended.