Running for two series and twelve episodes between 1995 and 1996, Out of the Blue is a somewhat overlooked police series. Filmed in Sheffield, it’s a bleak and unsettling show which doesn’t attempt to wrap each episode up with a happy ending (or at times a definite conclusion). The frenetic hand-held camerawork gives the series a fly-on-the-wall atmosphere at times (seemingly inspired by the likes of Hill Street Blues and Homicide: Life on the Street).
If Out of the Blue has a flaw then it’s probably that there’s few surprises – many of the regulars are character types we’ve seen many times before in other police series (the unorthodox maverick, the woman making her way in a man’s world, etc).
But the fact that Out of the Blue didn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel shouldn’t count too strongly against it. One plus point is the fact that all twelve episodes were scripted by Peter Bowker and Bill Gallagher (often together, sometimes apart) – this gives the series a feeling of unity whilst the strong cast (a mixture of experienced hands and younger talent) is also something to be counted in its favour.
With a large cast of regulars and only six episodes to play with, the first episode of series one has to hit the ground running. Several cases (the murder of a man already dying of cancer, the rape of a middle-aged woman) help to bring the motely group of detectives into sharp focus.
DI Eric Temple (John Duttine) has the job of keeping them in order. He generally isn’t called on to do a great deal except bark some gruff orders, but having a familiar television face (and a good actor, of course) like Duttine helps to bring Temple to life.
DS Becky Bennett (Orla Brady) is the lone female detective, meaning that she’s a source of fascination for her unreconstructed male colleagues. Her decision during series one to conduct a clandestine affair with PC Alex Holder (Stephen Billington) will no doubt set tongues wagging …
DC Warren Allen (Darrell D’Silva) carries something of a torch for Becky, but his general persona – the nice guy who never gets the girl – suggests that he’s going to end up disappointed.
DC Marty Brazil (Neil Dudgeon) and DC Ron Ludlow (Peter Wight) make for a classic team. Marty is a wisecracking, unpredictable loose cannon (Dudgeon making the strongest impression during these early episodes) whilst Ron is the more dependable, solid type. Ron’s a devoted family man, although the fact that he’s still involved with his divorced ex-wife suggests he’s been taking his family duties rather too far (especially since his current wife has been kept totally in the dark).
DS Franky Drinkall (John Hannah) is a high-flier, tipped for the top – although his epilepsy looks set to put paid to that. His long-suffering partner, DC Bruce Hannaford (Lennie James), has to take the brunt of his moody outbursts.
Although Hannah had been acting since the late eighties, Out of the Blue was his first regular television role. Almost immediately afterwards he would star as the unorthodox McCallum, which was just a slight change from playing the unorthodox Franky. Since Franky is such a monumentally unlikeable character it’s to Hannah’s credit that he never attempts to soften his playing, instead he allows us to plainly see just what a monster DS Drinkall is.
Franky’s epilepsy and the fall-out from it, would be a running thread throughout the first series. It’s just a pity that, due to the fact there were only six episodes, it isn’t a plotline that has too much room to breathe (we learn about it in episode one, everyone else does in episode two, etc). A longer episode count would have enabled it to be spread out a little more, which would have worked to the series’ benefit.
Rounding off the team is DC Tony Bromley (Andy Rashleigh). Newly transferred, he spends much of the first episode as a silent observer, but he later makes his presence felt. A former teacher (and a devout believer in God) he makes for an unlikely copper, but his character – a patient, non-judgemental listener – will prove to be useful on occasions.
Most of the episodes tend to juggle several storylines, with many of the crimes having clear consequences for both the victims and perpetrators. One of the most striking things about the series is how the lines are blurred between the law-breakers and the law-makers. Not, for once, in the area of police corruption – instead we see that a number of serious crimes weren’t triggered by evil intent, instead the criminals were motivated by fear or boredom. This is more disturbing than plain malice and although Peter Bowker and Bill Gallagher don’t hammer the point home, it seems to be suggested that both the system and the environment has its part to play in shaping the actions of those who operate on the wrong side of the law.
Following a dramatic conclusion to the first series, Out of the Blue returned for a second and final run of six episodes in late 1996. The cast pretty much remained the same, although Becky’s love interest had departed. The major change saw David Morrissey fill the gap left by the departed John Hannah. Morrissey played DS Jim “Lew” Lewyn, a maverick copper with secrets. Mmm, not at all like Franky then ….
Although Lew’s not a terribly original character, he helps to shake up the established team. Temple might have been aware of some of Franky’s less admirable traits, but there was no doubt that he respected him. But Lew arrives with considerable baggage and Temple isn’t prepared to cut him the same sort of slack.
Whilst Lew is treating suspects to his own unique brand of policing, the others have various personal problems to overcome. Warren’s run of bad luck on the emotional front seems to be over after he snags a new girlfriend – Lucy Shaw (Nicola Stephenson). But she turns out to be somewhat unstable, so Warren’s soon back to square one and not even the solicitous Becky can cheer him up (he decides he doesn’t want her pity).
Bruce is also feeling the pressure. He’s always been tightly wound, but there are times when even an innocent remark can set him off – on one notable occasion he and Warren come to blows at the pub.
The storylines continue to be as uncompromising as ever. Episode three, which concerns a male rape, attracted a certain amount of attention at the time whilst the fourth – featuring Neil Stuke as Tommy Defty, a seemingly untouchable drug-dealer – is a particular highlight. The final episode (revolving around the death of a fourteen-year old prostitute) is yet another strongly-scripted and well-played story.
Out of the Blue failed to be renewed for a third series. Possibly this was because, as previously touched upon, it wasn’t doing anything we hadn’t seen before. This was a pity because there was potential there – maybe an increased episode count would have helped to strengthen and broaden both the format and the characters.
Shot on 16mm film, Out of the Blue looks somewhat gritty and grainy. This no doubt chimes with the series’ aesthetic – bright colours and sunshine wouldn’t have been the correct tone – but the picture quality probably also reflects the age of the masters (although what we have is perfectly watchable).
Although it never made a great deal of impact at the time, Out of the Blue is still of considerable interest. Not only for the strong cast, but also for the way that it generates a snapshot of the seedier end of mid nineties Britain. Warmly recommended.
Out of the Blue is released by Simply Media on the 10th of July 2017. RRP £34.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here.