Running between 1959 and 1962, Probation Officer was a series that wasn’t afraid to tackle heavyweight topics – as seen in this episode (available on YouTube as a taster for the upcoming DVD release). The colour problem was a fruitful area for television drama across numerous decades and we it tackled here by Julian Bond in a very uncompromising fashion.
Probation officer Philip Main (John Paul) is approached by a middle-aged black man called Mr Alexander (Earl Cameron). Alexander is concerned about his son, Johnny (Lloyd Reckord), who’s in a relationship with a white girl, Mary Sadler (Felicity Young) and Alexander can only see grief ahead for the pair of them. Cameron, a physically imposing actor, comes across well here as he expresses fear that the relationship will force Johnny to hit back against the wall of prejudice he is sure to meet (as we’ll see, this is exactly what happens).
The most notable thing about Paul in this first scene is how often he blinks. Maybe this was a deliberate touch to suggest that Main (still very much a newcomer to the probation service) is keen, but a little out of his depth. He agrees to talk to Johnny though, and he asks his colleague Iris Cope (Honor Blackman) if she’ll speak to Mary.
After Alexander exits the office, two of Main’s colleagues – Jim Blake (David Davies) and Bert Belman (John Scott) – enter. Because this is only the second episode (and I’ve yet to see the first) it’s impossible to know how Bert was previously presented. It’s probable though that he was positioned in episode one as just another member of the team – if so it makes his racial outburst all the more jarring. Referring to Alexander as Sambo and a Darkie, he makes his views quite clear in just a few sentences.
It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to learn that Johnny is very touchy and quick to rise to offence (Main refers to the large chip on his shoulder). Main’s conversation with him doesn’t achieve a great deal and it’s an eye-opener that Main suggests maybe he and Mary should move to a different part of the country where they’d be more accepted. Truly the past is a foreign country.
Iris fares little better with Mary’s parents. How they’re presented to us is another interesting touch. First we see Mrs Sadler (Dee Duffell), who appears to be reasonable enough, but dig a little under the surface and she displays a strong racist streak. The loud slam of the front door indicates that Mr Sadler (Toke Townley) has returned home. It might have been expected that he’d be just as uncompromising as his wife, but instead he’s a mild man who – unlike Mrs Sadler – genuinely wants the best for his daughter. If that means a relationship with Johnny, then so be it.
Johnny confronts a gang of youths (led by Larry Martin). They are nebulous characters (lacking names for example) who exist only to further this part of the plot – the reason why they dislike Johnny aren’t articulated, presumably because they’re obvious. Fight scenes in videotaped drama could often come across as rather amateurish, this problem is seen here as the gang give Johnny a beating. He fights back – badly injuring one of them – and within seconds the police and a doctor are on the scene. The others have vanished, leaving just the unconscious youth and Johnny.
With Johnny facing the prospect of prison, events have taken a dark turn. But salvation is at hand from a very unlikely source. Johnny is found guilty, but the Judge (A.J. Brown) is sympathetic and decides to put him on probation for three years. “I urge you to govern your temper, to return good manners for ill, to meet insults with fair words. It is because it is my sincere belief that only so will you shame my fellow countrymen into giving you the place which is rightly yours. Violence is a sign of weakness, Alexander. Your strength lies in the justice of your cause.”
This may be a little preachy, but it’s a noble sentiment nonetheless. As to whether Alexander and Mary will have any sort of life together is left for the audience to decide. We see the pair of them walk past the gang. This time there was no confrontation, but if they continue to live in the same streets how long will it be until tempers boil over again? And even if they move, will they encounter similar people elsewhere?
Julian Bond’s script offers no sugar-coated conclusion, but neither is it without hope. This is a well-acted instalment which bodes well for the forthcoming DVD. The guest cast, especially Cameron and Record are impressive and if the story feels a little contrived in places (the trial, and Mary’s last minute dash to give evidence, is dealt with rather hastily) it’s a still a thought-provoking piece.