Johnny Duffield (Julian Briercliffe) is a nine year old tearaway who’s been in and out of trouble ever since he was six. Currently in care, he delights in absconding and sleeping rough. He comes to Jean’s attention after stealing an invalid car – she’s determined to get him back on the straight and narrow, but he proves to be a tough nut to crack ….
Regarded with weary resignation by Joe and George, Johnny immediately piques Jean’s interest. She finds it impossible to believe that the system is incapable of keeping him under control, but it quickly becomes clear that there are no easy answers. Jean’s husband, Tom (David Hargreaves), has recently taken up a job at social services and this provides the plot with a little dollop of friction. Jean and Tom could be said to be on different sides, although it turns out that they want the same thing (although Tom’s colleagues aren’t averse to using him in order to neuter Jean’s sting!)
This was Julian Briercliffe’s sole acting credit. He certainly makes an impression as the bold, but vulnerable Johnny. We’re told that Johnny’s constructed a wall between himself and the rest of the world – with his mother dead and a father (played by John Rees) who’s been unable to control him, his immediate horizons seem rather bleak.
Mr Duffield might be initially presented as an unsympathetic type, but his character is given some dashes of light and shade as the episode progresses. Due to his busted legs, he’s forced to take in any work he can get – at present he’s button carding (“women’s work” he bitterly tells Jean). When he later confesses that Johnny never loved him, it’s possible to wonder whether he’s telling the truth or if he’s simply hardened his heart to save himself from further pain.
The title suggests one of the main features of the episode. Police walls can’t hold Johnny, as he’s apt to make a dash for freedom at the drop of hat. The first time it happens – outfoxing Joe at Hartley nick – is somewhat embarrassing for all concerned. And the sight of Joe and George (puffing down the high street after him) is a little embarrassing too. Jean’s obviously not too pleased, but when he absconds later, she’s the one who was closest to him. This is something that Joe can’t help but mention ….
If the story has a slight weakness then it’s the fact that mid-way through Johnny suddenly gains a friend from nowhere. In plot terms this makes perfect sense – as it allows Johnny to unburden himself (talking about his mother and his future plans) – but it can’t help but feel a little clunky.
This slight niggle apart, we see some nice performances throughout the episode. David Ashton plays Mr MacRae, the social worker at Johnny’s care home. Like everybody else he’s concerned about him – but he’s also confident that if anybody can fend for themselves out on the moors, then it’s this boy. It’s not really an uncaring attitude, since MacRae has attempted – and failed – to get through to him. A few years later Ashton would be a regular in Brass, playing Doctor MacDuff.
Another familiar face making an appearance is Robert Vahey (later to be the long suffering Bill Sayers from Howards’ Way). Vahey is Tom Collinson, a local reporter who’s convinced that Hartley is the location of a major IRA arms dump. His obsession has nothing at all to do with the main story, but his regular appearances help to sprinkle the episode with a dash of comic relief.
Martin Matthews is very solid as Jim Naylor. Naylor, along with his wife Cynthia (Eileen Helsby), is interested in fostering Johnny. His wayward streak doesn’t bother them and Naylor, as a former orphan, knows better than most how Johnny’s mind works. It’s interesting that he seems to be the first person to get through to the boy – this is despite the fact that everybody else (both the police and social workers) have been equally as patient. Fair to say that this is a story which isn’t criticising the system (Johnny is shown to be something of an anomaly). Since everybody’s done their best to help him, the finger of blame isn’t pointed at any specific person or organisation.
It’s maybe just a little pat that Johnny lands on his feet with a warm and loving couple who are so keen to look after him. But although we end on an optimistic note, there’s still the possibility that things might not work out in the future ….
Not a story that has too many surprises, but the major location shoot (we see plenty of Hartley and the surrounding moors) keeps the interest ticking along.