SS:TF, certainly during this era, used a very small pool of writers. There are pros and cons to this approach – a plus is the way it guarantees a constant tone, but on the negative side it can mean that the stories tend to feel somewhat similar.
Tony Hoare would later become a key writer on Minder, but his early work, such as his handful of SS:TF scripts and contributions to Crown Court, demonstrates that his distinctive scripting style was already in place.
Hoare, a former inmate himself, is easily able to ensure that this prison-based story feels vivid and real. As good as the series was, it’s sometimes noticeable that the villains can be unthreatening and lightly sketched. Needle is quite different – there’s a sharp streak of cynicism which runs throughout. This is unusual but not unwelcome.
After an unpopular prison officer, Watson (Edwin Brown), is brutally run down outside the prison gates, Watt and the others swiftly decamp to the prison in order to investigate. That we don’t have the usual preamble scenes at Task Force HQ is an interesting touch – no doubt this was partly logistical (saving studio space for the prison sets) but it also works in narrative terms. No sooner have we left Watson dying in the gutter than the story promptly moves onto the next stage.
As the episode progresses, Hoare’s voice seems to be coming through loud and clear. Prison life is shown to be thoroughly dehumanising – both for inmates and warders. The crumbling Victorian structure, the indifferent diet and the constant threat of casual violence all helps to make it a hellish place.
One inmate, Bernie Bryson (Peter Armitage), later articulates why the warders are worse off than the prisoners. “They figure if they wear big boots and bark like dogs it makes them hard cases. They come straight off the dole queue, see. They ‘aint got the guts to thieve or the brains to work, but this way they can kid themselves that they’re something special. I’m here against my will and only temporary, they’re here permanently and because they need to be”.
Armitage is excellent as the cocky, unrepentant Bryson – comfortable in the knowledge that nothing can touch him. Nothing that is, except his marital problems ….
On the outside, his wife Jane (Janet Lees-Price) lives a comfortable existence in a remarkably decorated flat. Presumably Bernie chose the décor – the massive mural of classic Hollywood gangsters is certainly a talking point.
If Bernie feels a lot more real and dangerous than the series’ usual crop of villains, then so does Jimmy Cass (James Beckett). A friend of Bernie’s on the inside, Cass (one of the men who ran Watson down) finds himself becoming very friendly with the man-eating Jane on the outside.
Full of memorable touches (such as Adler keeping a close vigil on Watson, desperate to hear the dying man’s last, gasped words) Needle is certainly a cut above the norm.