Blakes 7 – Animals

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Long regarded as one of the worst episodes of Blakes 7, I have to confess that my latest rewatch of Animals has found me in a generous mood.  But when you start with low expectations (it’s an Allan Prior script for goodness sake) the only way is up …

Now that Avon’s gang has a base there’s no need for all of them to venture out on each adventure, which explains why only Tarrant and Dayna are aboard Scorpio as the episode opens.  The downside to this is that we don’t see Avon, Vila and Soolin until we’re about twenty minutes in, but the opening part of the story is undeniably a good opportunity for Josette Simon, who gets a series of lengthy two-handed scenes opposite Peter Byrne (playing Justin).

We’re told that Justin was one of a number of specialist tutors who helped to educate the younger Dayna.  Given that Dayna’s father was a rabid isolationist, this is rather hard to understand – the later revelation that Justin was working for the Federation at the same time is another slight head scratcher.

If Animals is remembered for anything then it’s for the animals.  Mary Ridge makes no effort to hold them back for a shock reveal (we first see them head-on when the episode is only two minutes old).  I guess that when you’ve got a group of actors standing around in such ridiculous costumes you might as well just bite the bullet and show them in all their, well, glory.

Rather like the Space Rats in the previous story, the animals are a major problem.  If their design had been a little less comic then I’ve no doubt the story would have a slightly higher reputation.  It’s also interesting that there’s another obvious parallel with Stardrive – both stories feature an ex-Federation scientist working in secret on an obscure planet.  A pity Chris Boucher couldn’t have jumbled the running order up a little ….

With Tarrant limping back to base in the damaged Scorpio and the others yet to make an appearance, it’s Dayna who has to carry the narrative onwards.  Her relationship with Justin is an odd one which has attracted a certain amount of debate over the years.  There’s off-hand comments on both sides to suggest that they previously had a bond which went beyond teacher/pupil boundaries, which given Dayna’s age at the time strays into slightly uncomfortable territory.  Or was it unrequited love back then, which is now suddenly flourishing?  Either possibility is valid.

Before teleporting Dayna down, Tarrant offhandedly refers to Justin as a mad scientist.  Dayna shrugs this off, but his genetic experimentations on the animals certainly seems to cross the bounds of acceptable behaviour. She asks him why.

DAYNA: Look, what was the object of the work? It must have had some object, some war object if the Federation backed it and built this place.
JUSTIN: The war object was to create a species, not necessarily human, that could go into areas heavy with radioactivity and act as shock troops. The federation had suffered losses of up to sixty percent front line troops. Now just think what a few squads of radiation proof space commandos could do.
DAYNA: Oh, I’m glad you never succeeded. It was a horrible idea.
JUSTIN: No, it was justified by the times.

It’s all slightly heavy-handed, but it taps into similar debates regarding animal experimentations which have raged for decades. Dayna’s reaction is interesting – she starts off appalled but slowly changes her mind.  Is this because of her lingering respect and love for Justin or does she see a way that his research could be used by Avon and the others in their fight against the Federation?

Compared to Doctor Plaxton in Stardrive, who barely had a handful of lines to outline her worldview and motivations, Justin is generously given several lengthy speeches in order to present his case. He says that his experiments on both humans and animals (which included painful brain grafts) now distress him, but he has to carry on. “I’m trying in a way to make sense of it all, trying to get something good out of it all. Don’t you see that? If this discovery simply goes for war purposes, to kill, then it’s all been in vain.”  His desire to continue the work so that eventually he can achieve something good out of the pain, misery and suffering he’s caused is logical, even if we don’t necessarily have to agree with it.

Rather unexpectedly, Servalan’s lurking about and becomes interested in Justin’s research. She interrogates the only man left alive who knows about it – Ardus (Kevin Stoney). You have to feel a little sorry for Stoney, he appeared in two different episodes of B7 playing rather small and nondescript parts. And both were scripted by Allan Prior too, which seems a tad unfair!  Although it should come as no surprise to learn that Stoney’s cameo here is played very well – his character may exist simply as an infodumper, but Stoney was too good an actor not to impress even with a very minor role.

Servalan’s (or Sleer’s I should say) ship is piloted by a female crew who apper to be Mutoids – although if so they’ve undergone something of a glam makeover. She also has several male subornates on hand – who are very much the type we’ve seen so often in the series before. But there’s no point in taking too much interest in them as I’m sure they’ll have been replaced next time with almost identical characters.

Servalan’s manipulation of Dayna – first torture and then brainwashing to hate Justin – is ruthless even by her standards.  Josette Simon does seems a little stiff when she’s playing brainwashed Dayna, but luckily these scenes don’t go on to long.  The ending is a typically bleak late period B7 one – everybody loses, but Dayna loses the most.  Possibly Josette Simon might look back on her hysterical sobbing with a tinge of regret (that is if she ever rewatches her B7 episodes – which I guess is rather unlikely) but apart from her over emoting and the silly looking animals, this one stands up pretty well.

Peter Byrne, who’d played Andy Crawford on Dixon of Dock Green for twenty years, makes the most of a very substantial guest role, whilst the peerless Kevin Stoney livens up proceedings for a few minutes.  All in all this was pleasantly entertaining.

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Dixon of Dock Green – Conspiracy

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No police series could ever hope to avoid the thorny topic of corruption within the force, but it’s fair to say that it was always a difficult one for Dixon of Dock Green to face.  This is due to the overwhelmingly positive picture of the police force always painted by the series (which by the mid 1970’s made it clearly something of an anachronism).

Z Cars’ first episode (Four of a Kind, tx 2/1/62) showed us coppers who made bets on duty and would think nothing of giving their wife a black eye.  So for all of Dixon’s strengths, Z Cars (and other later series including The Sweeney) did tend to be streets ahead when it came to showing the police’s weaknesses as well as their strengths.

But Dixon did occasionally tackle police corruption.  The most famous example is The Rotten Apple (1956), largely because it’s one of only a handful of episodes from the 1950’s and 1960’s to survive.  And the fact that the bent copper was a very young Paul Eddington also helped to keep it in the public consciousness (via clips in documentaries, for example).

A more recent episode, Eye Witness, also had an interesting throwaway moment – when the villain told his henchmen that they’d be able to track down the witness currently held in police protection since they had a pipeline into most police stations up and down the country.  Nothing actually comes of this in story terms (the witness is found another way) but it’s an subtle acknowledgment that corruption was rife in the 1970’s.

N.J. Crisp’s Conspiracy (originally transmitted on the 10th of May 1975) is essentially a three-hander – shared between Dixon, Crawford and PC Len Warren (Andrew Burt).  Dixon receives an anonymous letter claiming that Warren was seen drinking with a criminal out on probation, Ben Randall (Jon Laurimore).  Warren is the chief prosecution witness in Randall’s upcoming case, which makes the allegations even more damaging.

Dixon regretfully tells Andy that ten years ago they could have simply thrown this letter in the bin, but now it has to be investigated.  Andy’s keen to call in A10 (the department created to investigate matters like this) but Dixon wants to keep it in-house for now (which causes friction between them).

Warren is portrayed as an ambitious man, keen for promotion.  His over-zealous nature and his strict adherence to the law means that he has few friends (either within or outside the force).  He’s a loner, who likes to bend the rules occasionally, and Dixon tells Andy that he sees much of the young PC Crawford in him (although Andy doesn’t take this as a compliment!).

Although the circumstantial evidence of Warren’s guilt is strong (and the story does throw in a few scenes that seem deliberately designed to show him in a bad light, which is something of a cheat) eventually it’s proved that he didn’t accept a bribe from Randall.  But he’s already decided to resign, since he found the investigations into his private affairs (such as questions about how he could afford to buy a new car) to be incredibly intrusive.  Dixon tells him that it’s part of the price he has to pay for being a police officer, but for Randall it’s clearly unacceptable.

Conspiracy was originally planned to be the final Dixon episode (another series was only given the go-ahead very late in the day).  When you know this, it’s easy to see how it was crafted in order to conclude the series.  For one thing, Dixon is much much centre-stage than normal (by this time he’s usually relegated to giving sage advice from behind the station desk).  There’s also several key speeches from Dixon which make specific points.  The first is directed at Andy.

I remember, a long time ago now, a young copper on the beat pressing hard to get into CID. I remember that same young copper as a detective constable, always convinced that he knew best. And later as a detective sergeant who wasn’t above ignoring the book when it suited him. You, Andy. You’ve crossed your fingers and taken a few shortcuts in your time. Mostly they worked out but sometimes they didn’t. Do you know why it took you so long to become a detective-inspector? You got the reputation for bending the rules. But you’re a good copper. And so is Warren.

The second occurs a few minutes later and is directed at Warren.  It’s a signature moment for Jack Warner and it’s very clear that he feels every word.  As the camera slowly closes in on Dixon’s face, Warner seems to be struggling to hold his emotions together – as presumably he believed this would be the last time he’d play the role.  It’s a beautifully delivered monologue.

All the years I’ve spent as a copper, I think every minute’s been worth it. Oh, the police force isn’t perfect. It can’t be. It’s manned by ordinary men. I know we talk about red tape and frustration when a villain goes free and the harm done by the occasional bent copper. But, for all the criticism, the police are there to protect the public, and that’s what we do. We curb violence. We do our best to deal with villains who want to prey on society. I’ve been proud to have been a part of that. Even a small part. It’s been my life for a long time now and I don’t regret any of it.

Dixon and Andy then exit the station as the camera tracks up to show the blue lamp above the door, which is followed by the end credits.  This is a subtle nod to the original film and had the series ended there then it would have been a very decent conclusion.

Instead, we’ve one more series to look forward to, although Conspiracy is still the end of an era as Peter Byrne decided not to return.  As a regular since the very first episode in 1955 (which was titled PC Crawford’s First Pinch) Crawford was as much a part of the fabric of the series as Dixon himself and his presence will certainly be missed.

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Dixon of Dock Green – A Slight Case of Love

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A Slight Case of Love opens in a non-linear fashion, but the reason why quickly becomes clear.  We see a woman telling her fiance that their marriage is impossible, since she has to care for her invalid mother.  This is repeated twice more – with different men but the same woman (although her appearance changes each time).  We then see each of the men hand over a cheque for one thousand pounds.

And this is only the tip of the iceberg as the woman, Kate Harris (Moira Redmond), has also conned at least four other men.  Crawford and Brewer have little to go on – apart from the irate responses of her victims.  One of them, George Bunning (Alec Wallis), can probably be taken as typical, as he’s incredibly angry and demands immediate action from Crawford – warning him that if there’s not a satisfactory conclusion he’ll make Crawford suffer.  Needless to say, Andy’s neither impressed or cowed by this.

This makes the response of Harris’ eighth victim, Lewis Naylor (Julian Glover), even more extraordinary.  He’s also keen to find her, but he doesn’t want her to go to prison – he still wants to marry her and so wouldn’t want his wife to have received a prison sentence.

Naylor is a powerful man (a merchant banker) and it’s hard at first to know if his motives are quite what he claims them to be.  This is due to Julian Glover’s icily efficient and clipped performance.  It’s one we’ve seen from him many times before (his career has often consisted of him playing villains and rogues) so there’s a certain ambiguity in his playing.  But it soon becomes clear that he’s completely sincere and, though he knows he’s not the first she’s conned, to him it doesn’t matter.

Later, we see why Kate has carried out these deceptions – together with her sister Fleur (Isla Blair) she owns a pottery business that is suffering from considerable financial difficulties.  If they don’t find eight thousand pounds then the bank will foreclose on their loan.  It explains why, although when the law catches up with her it’ll hardly be a defence.

Naylor does visit Dock Green but it becomes clear to him that whilst they also want to find the woman, when they do she’ll suffer the full penalties of the law.  So he leaves to hire a private detective to track her down whilst Brewer ponders on the two mugshot pictures he’s picked out.  No other victims were able to identify anybody from the photos held by the police, which strikes Brewer as a little odd.  Dixon surmises that it may be because although Naylor knows they’re not the ones, he wants to question them to see if they know Kate’s true identity.

This is a reasonable assumption, but it’s never followed through and the true reason seems to be that it allows the Dock Green boys to visit the two suspects, add them both to the identity parades, and also bulk out the running time of the episode.  But both encounters are good fun, especially Andy’s run-in with Heather (Mela White).  Andy and Heather are old acquaintances, although she insists that she’s now going straight and tells him she’s writing a memoir of her colourful career entitled Horizontal Confessions.  Andy caustically responds that it should be titled A Hard Time Was Had By All (!).

A Slight Case of Love is an interesting tale of morality.  Both Kate and Fleur are unrepentant – they needed eight thousand pounds and they took it from people who wouldn’t miss a thousand each (Kate considers they would be able to write it off as petty cash).  As a hard-headed, rational businessman, Naylor’s desire to marry her (even though he knows that she’s a serial con-artist) seems inexplicable – and can only be explained away by the fact that he’s in love.

Naylor’s private detective manages to find Kate, which allows the Dock Green coppers to take her into custody.  Five of her victims are lined up to pick her out of an identity parade – four do so and one doesn’t (the one who doesn’t is, naturally, Naylor).  Dixon’s outro tells us that Kate was convicted but also that on her release Naylor was waiting and he closes by saying that it’s “not every discharged prisoner who comes out to spend her honeymoon in the Bahamas.”

Julian Glover gives an excellent performance and he’s the main reason why this episode works as well as it does.  A lesser actor might have struggled with the apparant contridications of his character, but Glover is never less than totally assured.  Moira Redmond (a familar face from both films and television) has a hard role to play – does she love Naylor or is she simply marrying him for his money?  But this ambiguity is something that Redmond can play with and it helps to provide a little spark to the story.  Glover’s real-life wife, Isla Blair, played Fleur.  It’s the less rewarding, more passive role, but it’s always a pleasure to see her.

This is one where the detection is pretty minimal (and it’s the private detective that does most of the work anyway, although Crawford is happy with that).  Instead, the focus is on the rather mismatched pairing of Kate Harris and Lewis Naylor.

Timeshift – Live on the Night: The Story of Live TV Drama

I’ve uploaded some bits and bobs to my YouTube channel over the last few days and one of them is this Timeshift documentary from 2004.

It tells the story of live British television drama – from the early days and then right up to date.  Covering programmes like the original Quatermass serials, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Dixon of Dock Green and Z Cars and featuring interviews with Nigel Kneale, Peter Byrne and Brian Blessed amongst others, it ties neatly into some of the shows that I’ve written about in recent months.

Dixon of Dock Green – Looters Ltd.

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Charlie Barnet (Sam Kydd) is an old time villain, newly released from prison.  In his prime he could scale any building – but a bad fall on his last job put paid to that and now he’s reduced to walking with a stick.  On the way back to his welcome home party he notices a man (played by Robin Ford) being mugged and intervenes.

He leaves his name and address with Sgt Wills and promises to pop into the station later to make a statement.  But when Dixon learns his identity, he realises that it’s unlikely that he’d make an appearance under his own steam, so he decides to gently gatecrash his party.

The relationship between Dixon and Charlie is a familiar one from the series (and in fact you can date it right back to the original film The Blue Lamp).  Charlie may be a criminal, but he’s an honourable one and there’s something of a grudging respect shown by Dixon towards him – one professional to another.  When Dixon crashes the party, there’s an awkward silence from most of the guests (mistrust of the police is obviously ingrained) but Charlie’s polite and hospitable, offering him a drink.  Dixon accepts (compare this to Harry’s Back where we see Dixon look askance at a drink bought for him by Harry).  George then offers to find Charlie some work.

At the start of The Blue Lamp, a voice-over contrasts the type of decent old-school criminal (like Charlie) with the younger, wilder criminal element who use violence without thinking.  It’s an interesting dichotomy –  which is also expressed in this story as on the one hand we have Charlie and on the other we see his son Ray (Terry Cowling).

By a remarkable coincidence, Ray was one of the muggers who attacked the man in the street (Ray later gave Charlie the mugged man’s gold wristwatch as a present).  Charlie tells his son he’s ashamed of him, but doesn’t want him to go straight.  “I’m talking about you learning a proper trade. I don’t want no son of mine to turn out to be a small-time mugger. A proper trade. Like I had.”  He offers to have a word with one of his friends, but he’s told that “the young-un’s today, they’re too wild.”  which reiterates the chasm between old-school career criminals and the younger ones.

The rest of the family are doing nicely – Charlie’s wife Olive (Margery Mason) and their daughter Diana (Gwyneth Powell) run a thriving business, offering virtually anything for sale at reasonable weekly installments.  Naturally, all of their stock is stolen – they’re prolific shoplifters.

Sam Kydd delivers a nice turn as the head of a thoroughly criminal household and Gwyneth Powell (previously seen in Eye Witness), Margery Mason and Terry Cowling offer very solid support.  And the opening party scene is great fun, with the sort of bad-taste visuals that clearly mark this as the mid seventies!

Gerald Kelsey was a prolific writer for Dixon (forty three episodes between 1963 and 1976) although the majority no longer exist.  But on the evidence of this one he had a good grasp of what made the series tick – namely the conflict between the police and their prey.

Dixon of Dock Green – Baubles, Bangles and Beads

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Baubles, Bangles and Beads opens with a scene that could have come from The Sweeney.  A police car is in hot pursuit of another car which contains three dangerous-looking characters (played by Brian Glover, Johnny Shannon and Frank Jarvis).  They’re desperately looking for a place to stash a bag of stolen jewellery, but the police car is too close behind.  In desperation they fling it out of the window and it lands in somebody’s back garden.  Unfortunately for them, it doesn’t remain there for long …..

Given how much of Dixon is lost (only thirty two episodes exist from over four hundred made) it’s hard to get a feel for the variety of stories that the series might have tackled.  And one thing we haven’t seen so far with the colour episodes is one played for laughs, until Baubles, Bangles and Beads.

It’s an interesting culture clash as we see three old school villains – Chuck (Brian Glover), Bert (Jonnny Shannon) and Syd (Frank Jarvis) – confronted with the bewildering world of alternative religion.  The bag of jewellery was found by Eric (Leon Vitali) who has been squatting with Phil (Peter Denyer).  Both are seeking enlightenment – although Phil seems to be further down this road than Eric (which is something he takes great pleasure in pointing out to his unfortunate friend several times).

Eric’s a simple trusting soul whilst Phil is rather humourless and dogmatic.  When Eric expresses dismay over Phil’s purchase of tomatoes (Eric can’t eat them as they make him sick) Phil has no sympathy.  “That’s what I call giving in to your lower centres. Don’t you realise the body is always trying to subvert your higher consciousness?”

They move from the squat to another location and in the room opposite is Marion (Kitty Stevenson) and several of her friends.  Like Eric and Phil, Marion and the others are also seeking enlightenment, although they do so in ways that shock Eric.  When he pops over to ask for a match, he rushes back to Phil to tell him that they’re meditating – but with no clothes on.  Phil takes the news quite calmly.  “That’s nothing. That’s your trouble, that is. You’re carnal oriented. I’ll go see ’em.”  Marion later explains that “to deny the body, one must first see it as it is, in all its gross intransigence.”

She’s learnt this from Guru Rhum Rhaji.  His Temple – the Temple of Godly Effulgence – is close to their flat and Eric, iimpressed with what he’s learnt about him, joins Marion to pay homage.  Eric’s delighted to hear that Rhaji doesn’t charge people to enter his Temple (unlike Phil’s guru, Shashti Ap Davies, who requires 10% of all his disciples earnings).  Rhaji is pleased to accept gifts though – although he refuses the one offered by Eric (a rather indifferent picture).  So the next time he goes along, Eric takes something that he’s sure will be acceptable – the bag of jewellery.  And unsurprisingly, Rhaji accepts this offering.

Rhaji bears some similarity to the likes of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.  By the mid seventies, he would have been best known by many people for his brief association with The Beatles (and also for their later denunciation of him as a fake).  Baubles, Bangles and Beads also takes this line – that some religions are nothing more than a con.  As Sgt Wills says, the people who believe (like Eric, Phil and Marion) are decent enough, but the inference is they’re nothing more than fools being misled by tricksters.

This is made plain when Rhaji and his sidekick are exposed as two very English con-men – Ernie Bishop and Gus Todd.  This is a funny scene (although the fact they’re browned up and affecting cod Indian accents probably means that not everybody will see the joke).  Once they’ve been rumbled by Dixon, they remove their false beards and turbans (with Gus changing from an Indian accent to a Cockney one, telling Dixon that it’s “nice to get this clobber off. Don’t half make you sweat, you know.”)  Ernie’s unrepentant, telling Dixon and Wills that “we’ve all got to earn a crust haven’t we?”  He then admits that there’s “more money in religion, pays quite well.”

Although the message of the story may strike some as a little narrow-minded, the comedic performances of Peter Denyer, Leon Vitali and Kitty Stevenson make up for it.  Denyer (who died far too young, at just 62 in 2009) had two signature roles – Dennis Dunstable in Please Sir! and Ralph in Dear John.  Both of those characters were rather dim, as is Phil here, but the difference with Phil is that he doesn’t realise it.  Denyer perfectly captures Phil’s parrot-like nature (it’s clear that everything he says has been learnt by rote from Shashti Ap Davies and he has no original thoughts of his own).

Leon Vitali also appeared in Please Sir! (although just one episode) and later was a regular in the spin-off series The Fenn Street Gang.  He also seems to have been a favourite of Stanley Kubrick (appearing in both Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut).  Although Eric seems somewhat naive, he ends up in a much better position than Phil – since he elects to stay with Marion (who’s going to teach him mediation and maybe other things).  One delightful scene later in the story occurs when Marion decides that the only way for Eric to conquer his carnal thoughts is to confront them head on – and as the camera tastefully pans away, the audience can guess the rest.

This was Kitty Stevenson’s sole television credit, which is a little surprising since she gives a deft comic performance.  Elsewhere, Brian Glover, Johnny Shannon and Frank Jarvis are three very familiar television faces who help to enliven proceedings.

This is one of two episodes from series twenty one that only exists as an off-air recording (presumably made at the BBC, although domestic video recorders were available at the time).  There’s some picture interference, but for a recording of this age it’s not too bad.  It’s obviously several rungs down from the original VT, but it’s better to have it than not.

An unexpected comic episode, it may not be to everyone’s tastes but I found plenty to enjoy.

Dixon of Dock Green – Seven for a Secret – Never to be Told

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Seven for a Secret – Never to be Told has an eye-catching opening.  A man enters a house, cigarette in mouth.  Once inside he strikes a light and there’s a deafening explosion.  Gas is the culprit, but it wasn’t a leak – all the gas points had been deliberately turned on.  The discovery of a woman’s body points to suicide, but there’s a few things (such as an open window) which strike Dixon as odd.

The dead woman was called Mrs Pengelley.  Her neighbour paints a less than flattering picture of her – an alcoholic who also enjoyed the company of many male friends.  She did have a husband, Alf (Forbes Collins), but he claims not to have seen her for several years.  One of her recent liaisons, Ralph Harding (Andrew Bradford), has disappeared – and what concerns the Dock Green officers is that he has the Pengelley’s sixteen-year old daughter Chrissie (June Page) with him.

Dixon’s pieces to camera, which traditionally top and tail the programme, can often set the mood of the episode as well as informing the viewer about the type of story they can expect.  Here, Dixon’s quite upfront in telling us that there wasn’t actually a Pengelly case at all – which leads the viewer to suppose that no crime was committed.  That’s a nice piece of misdirection and it keeps the story ticking along until all the pieces of the puzzle are put into place right at the end.

It’s clear from the start that there’s a bond of secrecy between Ralph and Chrissie (hence the title).  The obvious inference is that he’s killed Mrs Pengelly and taken the girl away for reasons of his own.  There’s certainly several indications that this might be so and Bradford gives a nicely off-kilter performance.  Later, we learn that Ralph suffered as a boy at the hands of his abusive father and was institutionalised for several years.  As for Chrissie, her father told Crawford and Brewer that she was “a bit backward, like.”  June Page captures this well – giving her a child-like naivety and a blankness that marks her out as a potential victim.

This was another all-film episode and moving into the countryside in the second half (as Crawford and Brewer pursue Ralph and Chrissie) allows for a sharp change from the normal visuals.  The Dock Green environs are rather grimy and rundown, so the beauty of the open countryside is very different.  It’s just a pity that, as with all the film inserts we’ve seen, it now looks so poor (a decent restoration would have made a considerable difference).

Jack Warner has a few nice scenes, as he questions several witnesses, although his lack of mobility is pretty obvious.  He’s either very static or if he has to walk, we only see him take a few steps before the camera cuts away.  The most obvious example of this is at the fairground, where the brief shot of him walking makes it painfully obvious just how slow he now is.

Seven for a Secret – Never to be Told was the second story of the twenty first series (originally broadcast on the 22nd of February 1975).  It’s odd that it followed the series opener, Target, since that was another all-film production (you would have assumed they’d want to spread the few film stories out a bit).  It’s undeniably a slow, character piece but June Page and Andrew Bradford are both worth watching – as they’re a strangely mis-matched couple whose bond with each other only becomes clear right at the end.

Also good value is Denis Goacher as Sgt. Dawes, the country copper who assists Crawford and Brewer in tracking down Ralph and Chrissie.  His performance has a delightful slowness to it and this clashes with the urgency of the London officers.  But he’s no fool – he spots a clue that Crawford and Brewer miss and his knowledge of the area proves to be invaluable.

Not the most memorable Dixon episode to have survived, but Derek Ingrey’s script is not without merit.  He was quite a prolific writer for the series – penning nineteen episodes between 1972 and 1976.  Two more of his scripts from this series (Baubles, Bangles and Beads and A Slight Case of Love) exist as do all of the five stories he contributed to the final series in 1976.

Dixon of Dock Green – Target

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Target was the opening story of Dixon’s twenty first series (originally broadcast on the 15th of February 1975).  It’s a slow burner of an episode, as it takes a long while to establish who the target is, but there’s plenty of interest before the plot really kicks into action.

We open in a supermarket and the camera follows a man we later learn is called Smith (Anthony Steel).  He’s clearly not a well man as he staggers outside in a barely conscious state.  Vere Lorrimer’s camerawork in the early part of the episode quite effectively illustrates Smith’s distressed state (the cameras of this era are too bulky to be used hand-held, but there’s more fluidity in some shots than you’d normally expect).

When Smith exits the supermarket, the sounds of drilling trigger a flashback – and for a split-second Smith believes he hears gunfire and that the young black man, Winston Dallas (Willie Jonah), who’s concerned for his well-being is an enemy.  Winston manages to get Smith back to his flat, but Smith then pulls a gun and Winston flees.  This is enough to involve the coppers at Dock Green, but when they arrive they find complications – as Smith’s flat is already being watched.

There’s some nice humourous touches in Ben Bassett’s script.  When Crawford realises that three Special Branch officers have been staking out the flat (complete with a tent, pretending to be workman) he takes great pleasure in telling them that every criminal worth his salt knows about that particular dodge.  Wills later remarks that they tried to catch Jack the Ripper with a tent!  Mike Brewer then waylays a French onion seller and offers him a tidy sum of money so he can borrow his bike, onions and beret.  Did French onion sellers, especially such cliched ones ever exist?  Well they do here.

The Special Branch officers tell Crawford that they’re waiting for the arrival of a man called Kumal (Yashaw Adem), who was responsible for a particularly brutal massacre in Central Africa.  Smith is a friend and colleague, so they’re confident he’ll show up.

Once Smith recovers from his bout of malaria, his character’s drawn out thanks to several conversations with the owner of the flat, Joyce Baird (Freda Knorr).  Anthony Steel is excellent in these scenes – Smith is a man who’s unrepentant that his profession is killing, but he’s not a mindless thug.  Mercenaries like him regularly featured in the news back in the seventies (and in films such as The Wild Geese) and whilst such a character has less resonance today, thanks to Steel’s performance it’s still compelling.

As for Dixon himself, he has little to do, which is rather surprising for a series opener – instead Crawford and Brewer handle most of the action.  Although there’s a little gunplay along the way, it’s still far removed from action-orientated series such as The Sweeney.   Instead, Target is a decent character piece and a solid start to this series.

Dixon of Dock Green – Firearms Were Issued

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Crawford leads a raid on a suspected gang of armed robbers.  Due to the possibility that they may still be armed, the Dock Green officers are also issued with firearms.  Dixon, in his role as desk sergeant, is precise in ensuring that all the correct procedures are carried out before a single gun is issued.  But events go seriously wrong and an unarmed man is shot and later dies, which means that Crawford and the others find themselves under investigation.

Apart from Crawford, Det. Con Cox (Peter Tilbury), Sgt. Wills (Nicholas Donnelly) and PC Dewar (David Masterman) are the other officers issued with firearms.  Before the operation, we’re given some indication about how two of them may react. Wills is an experienced firearms officer and so it can be assumed he will be cool under fire.  Cox is much less experienced (he’s only ever fired a gun on the training ground) whilst Dewar is an unknown factor.

The raid takes place at night-time and is effectively filmed.  The darkness makes it harder to understand what happened when the fatal shot was fired (which was obviously the intention).

Part of the conflict in Firearms Were Issued is driven by the different policing styles of Crawford and Dixon.  The younger man has a willingness to bend or break the rules in order to achieve the right result – something which is anathema to Dixon.  This is highlighted when Crawford attempts to leave the station to try and contact the informant who phoned in the original tip off.  Dixon’s quite firm – if he leaves the station then he’ll have to let the appropriate people know.  It’s a nice character moment for both, especially Peter Byrne.

Dixon is an old school, by-the-book copper – and a major part of the character’s appeal has to be Jack Warner himself.  Since he’d been playing the part so long, he’d become a virtual embodiment of “the good old days”.  But this nostalgia for better, simpler times gone by isn’t always a good thing.  It may have provided reassurance for a section of the audience at the time, but in the decades to come it was probably a key factor in the less than flattering readings we’ve seen the series receive.

But though the episodes on the first DVD have been more diverse than the reactionary Dixon of legend, it’s fair to say that the resolution of Firearms Were Issued will give critics of the series some ammunition.  It’s a much less progressive message than, say, Sounds, but although it’s an eyebrow raising conclusion it’s far from the norm (based on the small sample available anyway).

The investigation is quite intense and it leads to some decent character conflict between the Dock Green officers and Det. Chief Supt. Donovan (Percy Herbert).  The officers are insistent that the gang were armed but an intensive search fails to locate any weapons.  Did one of them shoot an unarmed man?  And if so, why?

Percy Herbert’s an intimidating presence as Donovan (he had a long career, including notable appearances in films such as Bridge on the River Kwai and The Guns of Navarone).  The versatile actor/writer Peter Tilbury made the second of his two appearances as Cox whilst the ever reliable Cyril Shaps played the somewhat shifty Green.

Whether Kendrick was armed or not, when the fatal shot was fired he was running away.  But Dixon sums it up as follows.

The four men who went out that night had every reason to believe that they were going to deal with armed and dangerous men. Later, the report for ballistics confirmed that Sgt. Wills had shot Kendrick. An inquest was held and the jury returned a verdict of justifiable homicide.  I think I’d have done the same as Dewar and Wills in those circumstances.

Dixon of Dock Green – Sounds

sounds

A few mysterious sounds of the end of the phone are enough to spark major activity at Dock Green nick.  The story opens with Anne Turner (Marion Lines) and her daughter Janey (Lyn Doyle) returning home.  “Home” at present appears to be a rather dingy flat in a very run-down area.  Anne notices the door is unlocked, which concerns her.  She sends Janey downstairs to play and calls Dock Green police station.

But after only a few words, WPC Hawkins (Jacqueline Stanbury) hears a choking noise as if she’s being strangled.  Dixon takes over the call and a few moments later Janey picks up the receiver, telling Dixon that her mother’s asleep.  Then either Janey replaces the receiver or somebody does it for her.  It’s little enough to go on, but Crawford, Brewer and Dixon put their heads together to try and work out what they can establish from the few sounds recorded from the call.

Sounds (the sixteenth episode of series twenty, originally broadcast on the 13th of April 1974) is very much an episode of two halves.  The first is concerned with the hunt for Anne and Janey and the second (which is the more dramatically interesting) details what happens once they’ve been found.

To begin with, they scour the tape for clues – they can hear the sound of machinery and also the hooter of a tug on the river.  Officers at Dock Green obviously have an affinity with the river, as Crawford’s able to ascertain that two hoots means the tug is turning to starboard.  He then asks for the name of every ship on the river that sounded its hooter at the time the call was made.  This should help to narrow down the search field.

An expert, Dave (David Wood), is called in to examine the tape.  He’s the antithesis of Dixon – since he sports long hair and colourful clothes – but since he’s an expert in his field, there’s grudging respect.  Dave is able to isolate the machinery noises much more clearly.  Neither Dave or Dixon can quite put their finger on what the machinery could be, but WPC Hawkins is able to smugly tell them that it’s a Heidelberg Superspeed Platen printing press.

This impressive feat of deduction is explained when she tells them that the recording could be heard in the station office and at at exactly the time it was being played, a stationary delivery was made and the printer’s apprentice recognised the sound!  This is a little difficult to believe, but it’s necessary in terms of moving the plot forward, as by now we’re half-way through the episode.

This information allows Crawford and Brewer to locate the flat, but there’s no sign of anybody and all personal belongings have been removed.  One clue is that there’s two telephone numbers – one is the Dock Green nick and the other is a local security firm.

Whilst the search for the missing woman and child has been interesting, we now enter the dramatic heart of the episode.  One of the guards from the security firm, Davis (Michael Graham Cox), pays Dixon a visit.  He’s keen to help – frankly he’s too keen and it’s clear right from the start that he has his own agenda.  It doesn’t take too long for the story to emerge.  Anne is his wife (at present she’s reverted to using her maiden name) and whilst their marriage has obviously been punctuated with bouts of domestic violence, he considers himself to be untouchable.  He knows that there’s no case without Anne’s testimony and he also knows that she’ll say that her present injuries are due to her slipping on one of Janey’s toys.

This is what she tells Dixon, but he obviously doesn’t believe it.  When he asks her if he’s beaten her up before she tells him that “it’s just between him and me, isn’t it? A private matter, nothing to do with the police.”  Dixon counters by telling her to “stop repeating everything he tells you. There’s no need to be afraid of him.”  But it’s clear that Anne won’t change her story.  Although she may be frightened of him, there’s also a sense that she genuinely loves him and believes that things will change.  The unspoken inference is that things won’t get better, but without Anne’s testimony, the police are powerless.

Davis is presented as a loathsome character – an arrogant man who’s sure he’s beyond the law’s reach.  And indeed he is – all Dixon can do is to tell him to leave the station before he gets thrown out.  It’s a small victory, but it’s all they have.

Sounds is a bleak little tale.  It gives us a glimpse inside an abusive marriage and we’re left to wonder what will happen in the future.  In his closing speech, Dixon hopes that Anne will someday pluck up the courage to make a statement (for Janey’s sake if for no one else’s) but that’s the only sliver of hope we’re left with.

This isn’t the first time that Dixon has touched upon the area of domestic abuse.  And due to the fragmentary nature of Dixon’s archive holdings, it’s difficult to know for sure when the series shifted from the viewpoint presented in the 1956 episode, Pound of Flesh.

There, Dixon observed that “if I arrested every bloke in Dock Green who clocked his wife, I’d be working overtime”.   Since Pound of Flesh is one of the rare episodes to exist from the early run, it’s hardly surprising that this quote and clip has been used on more than one occasion as a club to beat the series with.

It could be argued that Dixon’s comment was an accurate representation of the attitudes of mid fifties Britain.  In Sounds, which was made nearly twenty years later, it’s obvious that times have changed and spousal abuse is now taken more seriously.  But it’s still seen as a crime which is unlikely to result in a conviction, for the reasons that we’ve seen.

The lack of any positive solution might come a surprise to those who regard Dixon as a twee, predictable series – but as we’ve seen so far, the truth is somewhat different from the legend.

Dixon of Dock Green – Harry’s Back

harry's back

Harry’s Back (the third story of series twenty, broadcast on the 12th of January 1974) features a familiar plot which many police series have used from time to time.  An untouchable villain, who rarely makes a mistake, is doggedly pursued by a lone officer (even though he’s warned off by his superiors).

In Harry’s Back, Andy Crawford is the officer and Harry Simpson (Lee Montague) is his prey.  Harry’s a beloved figure in his local community (“one of the best”) and his early scenes help to establish his character.  To begin with, we see him return home after some months spent abroad with his new fiance Marion Croft (Susan Tebbs).  He’s greeted by an old man, who offers to carry his suitcases up to his flat – Harry agrees, even though he can see the man is struggling with the weight of the cases.  Harry slips him a few notes and tells him to take his time.  Andy later bitterly reflects that Harry’s a past-master in “buying admiration” and this is an early example.

Harry then runs into Sgt. Wills and although Wills is polite, he’s obviously not delighted to see that Harry’s back.  His disdain would seem to be shared by most of the Dock Green coppers, although Andy’s the only one who actively targets him.  This brings him into something of a conflict with Dixon – although the confrontation, if one can call it that, is very mild.

Dixon’s is an old-school copper.  He’d be happy to pursue Harry if there was clear evidence of wrongdoing, but there isn’t – so he’s content to let him lie.  The inference is that eventually Harry, like all criminals, will trip himself up and that’s the time when Dixon will pounce.  Andy takes the opposite view.  He has no hard evidence but his suspicions are enough to make him want to keep a very close eye on him.  Although this makes it easy for Harry to claim that he’s being harassed.

Throughout the story we see several more examples of Harry’s largesse.  He visits the wife of one of his old friends, Lenny Lane, and gives her a considerable sum of money.  This, he tells her, is simply what she’s owed (he says Lenny couldn’t give it to her himself because he’s lying low).  Later, he visits his local and buys everyone a round.  This is a scene that doesn’t quite work, mainly because everybody seems just a little too delighted to see him.  It just doesn’t ring true.

He also bumps into Dixon and Det. Sgt. Mike Brewer (Gregory de Polnay).  This is another interesting scene, more for what remains unsaid than what is actually said.  We’ve already had several examples of Harry’s generosity and been offered several different opinions about it.  Is he just a warm-hearted man or is he attempting to buy respect and favours?

His encounters with the various Dock Green officers are noteworthy in this respect.  He offers to send Brewer’s wife some perfume and later he tells Andy that he has a nice little house he can let him have, which will save him some money (the clear inference is that he’s offering him a bribe to lay off).

It also seems obvious why he doesn’t offer to buy Dixon and Brewer a drink – you know that Dixon would politely decline.  Harry returns to his friends and a few moments later two large whiskies are sent over to Dixon and Brewer – courtesy of Harry.  A simple generous gesture or his way of offering them a small bribe?  It’s down to the viewer to decide.

Another scene that’s open to interpretation occurs when Harry meets his prospective in-laws.  He’s only known Marion for a few weeks and this, together with the fact that he’s much older than her, makes Mr and Mrs Croft concerned that the pair of them are rushing into marriage.  Mr Croft (Peter Hughes) works in insurance and when Harry tells him it’s about time he took out some life insurance (say fifty thousand) the atmosphere changes instantly.

Is Mr Croft happy because he spies a rich commission or is he reassured that Harry’s demonstrated how responsible he is?  The tone of the story may suggest the former (Harry’s offering another bribe) but the scene can be taken either way.

N.J. Crisp was an incredibly experienced writer – penning 66 episodes of Dixon between 1964 and 1975 as well as contributing to numerous other popular series, such as Dr Finlay’s Casebook, Colditz and Secret Army.  It’s therefore a slight shame that Harry’s downfall occurs via two rather clumsy plot points.

The first concerns Harry’s unsmiling number two Bernard Moss (Michael Sheard).  Moss needs a clean driving licence and he buys one from Freddie Barnet (Esmond Knight) for fifty pounds.  Freddie suspects that there’s going to be trouble but when he knows that Harry needs it, he’s reassured.  Moss uses the driving licence to hire a car which is later used to rob a cosmetics van.

Freddie is presented right from the start as a weak link and therefore needs little persuading to tell the police that it was Moss who borrowed the licence.  Moss and Harry are known associates, so it clearly puts Harry in the frame.  Why didn’t they simply steal a car?  That way there would have been no link to Harry at all.

The second feels even more contrived.  Andy has a warrant to search Harry’s flat for evidence relating to the robbery, but the news that Lenny Lane’s body has been found (with a bullet hole in his head) makes him also keen to pin the murder on him.  But Harry’s flat appears to be spotless and it looks as if he’s going to walk away empty-handed – until (somehow) Andy realises that a safe deposit key is concealed inside a footstool.  When opened, the safety deposit box contains, amongst other items, a gun which ballistics confirm was the weapon used to murder Lane.

The way that Andy found the key is a little hard to swallow anyway, but the notion that Harry would keep such an incriminating piece of evidence beggars belief!  We’ve already seen that Dixon doesn’t always have to give us neat, happy endings, so there were several ways this one could have gone.

Harry gets convicted (as happened).

Harry walks away free, but Andy vows to get him next time.

Harry goes free, but divine intervention punishes him anyway (see Eye Witness for a good example of this.  Mr Colly isn’t convicted of the murder but shortly after is killed in a hit-and-run incident.  An accident or not?  Dixon leaves it for us to decide).

The second option may have been the best choice here, as finding the key and the gun occurs so late in the day that it can’t help but feel like something of an afterthought.

This apart, Harry’s Back has plenty to commend it, not least Lee Montague’s performance as Harry.  For most of the story he’s a relentlessly cheerful chap, but just occasionally his mask slips (such as when he suggests to Moss that the hapless Freddie needs to be persuaded not to talk to the police any more).  Michael Sheard is hardly stretched with the role of the taciturn Moss, but it’s always a pleasure to see him.

Susan Tebbs’ longest-running role was as Det. Con. Donald in the first few series of Softly Softly: Task Force.  Marion Croft is a fairly anonymous part, but since I enjoyed her appearances in SS:TF, it was nice to see her here.

Harry’s Back was one of Gregory de Polnay’s earliest appearances as Mike Brewer (and the first that exists).  He remained a regular until 1975, so as we move into a period where the archive survival rate is a little more healthy, we’ll be seeing more of him.  As a Doctor Who fan, I know him best for playing robot detective D84 in the 1977 story The Robots of Death.  But it’s only now, when I realised that he’d formally been a regular in Dixon, that it’s possible to surmise that his casting in Doctor Who was something of an in-joke!

Although the ending slightly lets it down, this is still a strong episode and it’s also notable for a late example of Dixon pounding the beat.  Soon, he’d be forced to mostly remain rooted behind the station desk.

Dixon of Dock Green – Eye Witness

eye witness

Until quite recently, critical analysis of the 1970’s runs of both Dixon of Dock Green and Z Cars tended to be rather limited.  Usually they were lazily painted as out-of-date dinosaurs – made completely irrelevant by the rise of brash new upstarts like The Sweeney.

Now, thanks to Acorn’s DVD releases, we can begin to get a picture of both BBC series which has enabled a small, but concerted, reassessment.  The Sweeney has long been seen as the anti-Dixon – but I’m not entirely sure that direct comparisons between the two are particularly valid, mainly because they operated in such different areas of the television schedules.

Dixon was a pre-watershed, family show and The Sweeney was a post-watershed, adult show.  Therefore it’s hardly surprising that the tone of each series was very different (although Dixon could throw in a darker, harder-edged story from time to time and The Sweeney was no stranger to lighter, more off-beat stories).

What’s certain is that the television schedules could easily accommodate both programmes (there’s no reason why all police series have to follow the same template).  Having said all this, whenever Dixon tackled a story that revolved around topics that The Sweeney could also have covered, comparisons are inevitable.

We’ve now moved ahead to series twenty.  There is another surviving episode from series eighteen (Molenzicht) but it remains unreleased due to unspecified rights issues and all of series nineteen was wiped.  Derek Ingrey’s Eye Witness kicked off series twenty and was originally broadcast on the 29th of December 1973.

Anne Hastings (Gwyneth Powell) witnesses a gangland murder and is immediately taken into police custody for her own protection.  As the only eye witness, she’s a vital part of the police’s case – without her testimony there’d be no hope of a conviction.  So it’s clear that her silence (by whatever means necessary) would be welcomed by a number of people, not least the intimidating Mr Colly (Steve Plytas).  But Anne Hastings is no innocent – she’s antogonistic and headstrong, which makes minding her something of a problem.

Although Gwyneth Powell would become a household name to a later generation (thanks to her decade or more running Grange Hill) she also enjoyed a very active career during the seventies in a variety of different series.  In Dixon alone she appeared five times, playing five different characters.  Her first two appearances, both in 1972 (The Bad Debt Men and The Fingerman) have been wiped, but her later two turns in Looters Ltd (1975) and Domino (1976) do exist.  Outside of Dixon, she gave memorable performances in The Guardians and Villains, amongst others.

On the wrong side of the law, Steve Plytas (possibly best remembered as Kurt, the Manuel-obsessed chef in the Fawlty Towers classic Gourmet Night) is intimidating as the gang’s Mr Big.  Stephen Greif has enjoyed a long career, often playing villains, so his role here as Tony isn’t too much of a stretch, but even when he’s got little to do he’s still watchable.

It’s difficult to avoid it, but the major flaw in this story is the fact that Dixon is assigned to mind Anne Hastings.  Yes, he does have the assistance of a female police officer (and the three of them travel out of town to a location that hopefully isn’t known to the gang) but this really stretches credibility to breaking point.  Jack Warner was seventy eight when this was made and he does look his age.  When selecting an officer to guard a vital witness against dangerous gun-toting criminals, who in their right mind would choose Dixon?!

If you can ignore this (fairly major) lapse in credibility, then Eye Witness is a decent enough story.  The location work is especially nice since it’s a break from the streets around Dock Green.  But it’s undenialble that the clash between an old-school copper like Dixon and a gang of violent armed criminals is jarring.  They would have worked perfectly well in The Sweeney, but they seem a little out of place here.  Dixon could do stories like this, but the series was always better when it played to its own strengths and concentrated on character-driven drama.

It’s a watchable yarn but it’s easily the weakest of these early surviving episodes.

Dixon of Dock Green – Jig-Saw

jig-saw

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.

Dixon of Dock Green – Waste Land

waste land

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.

Dixon of Dock Green – Collection One (Acorn DVD review)

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Introduction

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.

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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?

Dixon (Jack Warner) and Crawford (Peter Byrne)
Dixon (Jack Warner) and Crawford (Peter Byrne)

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).

Conclusion

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.