Softly Softly: Task Force – Justice (29th November 1972)

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Adler is moved back to CID by Cullen. Given what we’ve seen of Adler in previous episodes, it comes as no surprise to learn that he grasps this opportunity with both hands. But he’ll have to try and forge a close working relationship with Harry Hawkins, which may prove to be tricky ….

Adler’s character is delineated a little more at the start of this episode. He tends to be somewhat condescending (calling both Hawkins and Knowles “son”) and also there’s a nice moment concerning his love of plants.  A scene where he blithely offers Cullen some sage horticultural advice is preceded by a conversation between Knowles and one of Adler’s neighbours, Miss Polkington (Janet Burnell). She casts aspersions on Adler’s garden (hers is much better, she says).  A small touch, but it does suggest that Adler may occasionally place too much confidence in his own abilities.

Given Hawkins’ rather placid personality, putting him together with Adler is an interesting move.  Both have very different styles – Hawkins favours movement and action, Adler is methodical – which suggests that decent drama will be generated once they begin to come into conflict.  Especially since Adler is swiftly promoted and becomes Hawkins’ immediate superior ….

To be honest, the main plot (a crooked antique dealer) rather ambles along until we’re about mid-way through the episode. That’s when the antique dealer in question, Bensfield (James Bree), makes his first appearance.  James Bree was an actor who could do subtle (Secret Army) but could also deliver something a little broader (the Doctor Who story The War Games, say).  Today he’s screamingly camp. It’s the sort of turn that’s difficult to forget, especially the moment when Bensfield turns his lascivious attentions towards the stolid Hawkins.

Another familiar face popping up is Karl Howman. He plays Fletcher, Bensfield’s young, leather-jacketed bit of rough who duffs up Knowles (he was house-sitting for the antique laden Miss Polkington). Howman, in his first television role, is very squeaky but the scene he shares with Bree does manage to tease out a moment of tenderness between Bensfield and Fletcher (which helps to humanise Bensfield, making him seem like less of a camp caricature).

Plot-wise this isn’t the most interesting story, but the interaction between the regulars is pretty decent and whilst the guest players are somewhat mannered and stylised, they do catch the eye.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Bank Rate (11th October 1972)

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There’s an incredibly high level of coincidence to be found in Bank Rate, but since it’s a pretty decent episode I’m prepared to cut it some slack.

Harry Hawkins’ relationship with Sara (Jenny Hanley) continues. They’ve bonded over a mutual love of horses, something which Sara’s cousin, Peter Warner (Jonathan Newth), also shares.  Warner is a bank manager whose establishment is due to be targeted by Tom Rattery (Carl Rigg), a robber who both Hawkins and Warner have met in passing. Oh, and Sara’s stable-hand, Danny Fitch (Angus Lennie), knows more than he’s telling about these bank raids ….

Newth’s an instantly recognisable actor, someone with a score of interesting credits to his name. He’s perfect casting as the superior Warner, a man keen to cultivate Hawkins for his own profitable ends. Hawkins is having none of it though – he reports the approach to Watt with horror (according to Hawkins, Warner’s offer of sharing his prize horse is akin to loaning out a woman!)

Angus Lennie could always be called upon to play the downtrodden type very well, as he does here. Mind you, it’s a slight pity that Danny’s shifty nature is so obviously signposted right from the start – the first time Danny spies Hawkins he reacts with a very guilty look (which rather gives the game away). And anyway, why would any decent criminal confide their plans to the garrulous Danny? That’s a part of the plot which doesn’t make sense.

I’m used to Havoc providing the action in early seventies drama, but today it was Action Unique (who mustered a very athletic bunch of criminals it has to be said). The final scene, which sees the robbers confronted in Warner’s bank by Hawkins and co, is priceless – especially the part where a dapper John Watt grabs a Bobby Ball look-a-like and slams his head against the desk several times!

The other moment which caught my eye was an earlier meeting between Watt, Snow, Knowles and three CID officers. It became clear very quickly that the CID men were unspeaking extras, so whilst Watt expounded at great length, they were forced to remain mute. Nodding their heads vigorously and checking their notebooks with a faint air of embarrassment were the only options left open to them ….

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Held for Questioning

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The Task Force are out in numbers, looking for safebreaker Tommy Lee (Norman Jones).  Watt suspects that Lee was responsible for three recent robberies (in the latest, a security guard was shot and injured).  Hawkins brings in Jack Taylor (Denis Quilley), a known associate of Lee – although unlike Lee, Taylor has never been convicted of any crime.  Hawkins is convinced that Taylor knows where Tommy Lee is, but he proves to be a tough nut to crack ….

After a run of indifferent episodes, Robert Barr finally comes up with something very decent.  The clash between Hawkins and Taylor (and later Watt and Taylor) is most watchable, although the story does have one major plot flaw.   Watt strongly suspects that Lee and Taylor are partners and also that Lee will attempt to contact Taylor at the filling station he owns.  If that’s the case, then why bother to arrest Taylor?  They could have simply posted a few men in the vicinity, well hidden, and nabbed Lee when he turned up (which is pretty much what they do in the end anyway).  And since neither Hawkins or Watt manage to get Taylor to talk, the whole evening at the station has to be written off as a complete waste.

Denis Quilley was a heavyweight actor (he enjoyed lengthy spells at the National Theatre aappearing opposite the likes of Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud) which means that his casting helps to give Held for Questioning an extra lift.  To begin with, Taylor claims he hasn’t seen Lee for five years.  Later he admits that they have met a few times recently, but that he’s not involved with Lee’s criminal activities.

Taylor maintains an air of amused indifference during his interview with Hawkins.  He rarely seems flustered, meaning that any progress Hawkins makes is agonisingly slow.  There are a few flashpoints but it’s not until Watt turns up that the sparks really start to fly.  Watt asks exactly the same questions, but does so in a highly aggressive manner, causing the first signs of real anger from Taylor.  Windsor and Quilley – facing each other eyeball to eyeball – are both mesmerising in this scene.

There’s also a fascinating clash between Taylor and the duty officer, Chief Inspector Rankin (Michael Griffiths).  Taylor is well-known to the officers at the station, especially Rankin.  When the Chief Inspector pops his head around the interview room door, Taylor takes the opportunity to aim a few will-timed jibes in his direction.  His claim that he was attacked by several officers the last time he was there could be dismissed as simple troublemaking, but Cullen’s arrival confirms that it did actually happen (and officers were suspended).

Given that Taylor’s never been convicted of any crime (up until now) this moment shines a little light on police methods at the time.  Barr’s script doesn’t condone or condemn, but the inference is plain – it’s also spelled out earlier by Hawkins – you may be innocent in the eyes of the law but that doesn’t stop you from being regarded as guilty by the police.  It’s a brief, but disquieting, moment.

Norman Jones, as Lee, doesn’t have a great deal to do as he’s holed up for most of the episode, vainly attempting to contact Taylor.  In fact it’s easy to see how the story could have dispensed with his on-screen appearances completely (a quick message to say that he’d been captured would have sufficed).  Indeed, if the story really wanted to do something a little different then it could have taken place entirely within the confines of the interview room (at first I thought that was the way the episode would go).  A bit of a shame they didn’t go down this route, as all the best scenes do take place within the interview room, everything outside is of secondary importance.

A few minor quibbles apart, this is a fine showcase for Windsor, Bowler and Quilley.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Games

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A thirteen-year old girl called Emma Jones (Jane Sharkey) is brought into one of the local stations by Donald.  Emma has cuts and bruises to her face and tells Donald that she was attacked by an unknown man.  One of Emma’s school friends, David Ransom (Andrew Benson), provides a statement which gives a clear description of her attacker – a tramp with a flapping shoe.  Watt, passing through all the stations in the area whilst investigating their security procedures, becomes intrigued with the case and begins to dig ….

One aspect of the series which is sometimes overlooked is that the Task Force is a mobile unit which can be deployed to assist officers and stations in the force area.  That theme is sort of touched upon here, as the entire story takes place within an unfamiliar police station.  But there is a touch of contrivance about this since Watt and Armstrong aren’t there because of this case, they’re simply in the right place at the right time to lend their assistance to Hawkins and Donald (although it’s clear that Hawkins begins to rue Watt’s presence just a little).

Watt’s first appearance is memorable.  Striding through the station door with Armstrong and another officer either side, Watt tells the desk sergeant (played by Colin Rix) that he’s “a militant Black Panther.”  Pointing to the two officers with him he then tells the befuddled sergeant that “he’s got a petrol bomb in his hands, and he’s a skinhead under detention. With over a hundred mates outside threatening blue murder if you don’t let him go, what would you do?”  The sergeant manages to provide a suitable reply to this hypothetical question, which pleases Watt slightly, although he’s not too impressed with the fairly flimsy security procedures currently in place.

If Stratford Johns (sitting this episode out) is never less than first-class, then the same must be said of Frank Windsor.  This is an excellent script for Watt, allowing him to take centre-stage (even if it’s really Hawkins’ investigation not his).

Donald takes a statement from the girl and is as sensitive as you’d expect.  Emma seems a little shell-shocked at first but then slowly springs into life.  But there’s a lingering sense that something isn’t quite right and many might have guessed the answer before Watt spells it out.  Emma wasn’t attacked – she threw herself down the embankment deliberately, causing her injuries.  David’s statement is false as well, meaning that both children have deliberately told a pack of lies.  This then explains the episode title  …..

We don’t find out what David’s reasons were (although the probability is that he agreed to help Emma because he’s fond of her).  Emma’s motivation is much clearer – after her father remarried (and with someone not much older than herself, she says with vague disgust) she admits to feeling neglected.  And although she still lives with her mother, Mrs Jones is more interested in her new boyfriend than she is with her daughter, so there’s neglect on that side as well.

It’s telling that we never see either of Emma’s parents in the flesh, which helps to reinforce Emma’s sense of isolation.  Instead, a neighbour called Mrs Lacey (Jean Boht) is on hand to explain to Watt why Mrs Jones can’t be contacted.  She’s spending the day with her boyfriend, who happens to be married, and so the pair don’t want to be bothered.  Watt is aghast at this, surely she would want to know that her daughter was attacked?  But Mrs Lacey (maybe speaking for Mrs Jones as well) tells Watt that the girl’s only got cuts and bruises, so why make a fuss?

The lack of parental interest is reinforced later – Watt sends a car round for Mrs Jones and we’re told how her boyfriend was less than pleased to be disturbed by the police.  But it’s interesting that since Emma’s parents are denied a voice of their own we’re clearly not seeing the full picture – only the one that Emma wants us to see.  And it’s open to debate exactly how truthful that is.

Hawkins and Watt regard the two children very differently.  Hawkins wants to throw the book at them and their parents, but Watt elects to let them go with the minimum of fuss.  Since they want to be the centre of attention he’s simply denying them this chance.

This is a tight studio-bound story by Arnold Yarrow.  Jane Sharkey only had two further television credits following this (both were on The Bill some two decades later) which is slightly surprising as she’s got a decent screen presence.  The sub-plot of the hunt for a suspect tramp means that the station is overrun by them, most notably Terence de Marney as Timothy Lee.  A very experienced theatre, film and television actor, this was his penultimate credit before his death in 1971.

After a few fairly indifferent episodes, Games is a return to form.

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.