Softly Softly: Task Force – The Witness (25th October 1972)

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The Witness was one of two SS:TF directorial credits for David Maloney. Knowing his fondness for using a regular “rep” of actors, I had a quick skim through the cast list to see if I could spot any familiar names.

There’s Tony McEwan, for one. Maloney had already used him in one Doctor Who (The War Games) and would later cast him in another (Planet of Evil) in addition to Hawkeye, The Pathfinder. Given McEwan’s fairly limited list of credits, these performances constitute a fairly sizeable chunk of his television career.

Today he’s playing Carson, a lorry driver whose cargo (scotch whisky worth twenty grand) is hijacked by a gang of gun-toting masked men.  It’s not the best performance you’ll ever see (although there’s a even less convincing one later) but Carson’s interrogation is still highly entertaining, mainly because both Barlow and Watt are in the room.

The pair work well apart, but something special tends to happen whenever they team up. They’d begun the episode in Barlow’s office, enjoying a late-night drink. Barlow, still smarting that his promotion prospects have been dashed, was clearly in need of a shoulder to cry on and Watt fitted the bill nicely.  As for Watt, having done his duty he was looking forward to getting off home, but a last minute phone-call (about the robbery) dashed that.

For Barlow (fretting about his empty house) more work is just the ticket. Watt seems less enthused about rushing straight over to take charge, although the private smile he gave before they both left the office was a nice little moment, letting the audience know that he didn’t mind that much (presumably he’s just relieved that Barlow has something new to occupy him).

The always-reliable Ron Pember turns in another good performance as Wilf Taylor. He’s a member of the gang, albeit a somewhat sickly and insubstantial one.  The power behind the throne seems to be his wife, Betty (Mitzi Rogers).  SS:TF wasn’t renowned for having that many strong female guest roles (crime back in the seventies seemed very much to be a man’s world) so Betty is a notable character, even if she does end up as a victim by the end of the episode.

She runs a corner shop (which bears a passing resemblance to Awkright’s store) and right from the off is very combative.  Dominating the weak Wilf, she then steps up the intensity another couple of notches when the police come calling.

Most of her early ire is directed at DS Green (Heather Stoney). If the series didn’t specialise in decent female guest roles, then it also was struggling at this point with its female regulars.  Stoney, with her handful of appearances across the third and fourth series, always played what she was given very well, but Green was rarely placed in the centre of a story.

Mitzi Rogers has the best guest role of the episode (Betty’s heavy blue eye shadow and leopard skin coat helps to make her stand out) but James Mellor, as Albert Dirman, is also very watchable. Dirman is the Mr Big of the hijackers and reacts with cold fury when he mistakenly believes that Wilf’s talked to the police (he hasn’t, but Betty has).

Dirman’s promise to disfigure Betty with acid is a chilling one, although the threat is slightly negated when the instrument of his retribution – Stan (Gordon Bilboe) – lumbers into view.  Partly it’s because of the haircut, moustache and suit, but there’s no denying that Bilboe’s performance is rather stilted. True, he’s not gifted terribly good dialogue (mostly it’s of the “you got nothing on me, copper” variety) but Bilboe’s delivery doesn’t help ….

The late action scene (Hawkins purses a fleeing Stan) isn’t that convincing, but the main thrust of the episode – the way that Barlow manipulates both Wilf and Betty in order to nail Dirman – is very compelling.  And the final sting in the tail (even after Betty’s been attacked with an iron bar, Wilf is unwilling to talk) is a fascinating wrinkle.  Another strong series four entry.

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Angels – Model Patient (27th October 1975)

Three storylines – all about loneliness – form the backbone of this episode. The most substantial concerns Norman Pettit (Ron Pember), the seemingly model patient of the title. Following a hospital stay of some three and a half months he’s now due to leave, but the thought of this clearly terrifies him ….

With hundreds of credits to his name, Pember was one of those instantly recognisable actors. Often to be found playing chirpy types, the deeply disturbed Pettit offered him the chance to flex his acting muscles somewhat. It’s a excellent performance which begins slowly before working up to a final point of revelation.

Having locked himself into a toilet cubicle, it takes a little while before we first see him (those toilet doors were built to last). Once extracted, Pettit is totally uncommunicative, which results in Sita calling for social worker Sarah Tuddenham (Anne Kidd). To begin with this is a painfully slow exercise as Pettit is almost comatose (even the simple act of picking up a cup of tea requires considerable effort).

But over time Sarah is able to coax him back to life and he begins to confirm what the audience had possibly already guessed. It’s previously been established that he lives alone, so discovering that Pettit has become totally institutionalised (and therefore can’t bear the thought of leaving the bustle of the hospital behind to return to his empty house) shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. There is a later revelation which is a little more unexpected though.

Pettit’s story is one from which it’s hard to gain much solace or hope for the future. Pember’s dialled-down economical playing is simply devastating and whilst I’ve appreciated him in many other quality programmes (Secret Army, say) I can’t recall many other performances from him quite as impressive as this one.

Also deeply lonely is Miss Windrup, although unlike Petitt she doesn’t have the chance to articulate her feelings. One of the notable things about this first series is the way that certain plotlines have been seeded well in advance. An earlier episode gently suggested Miss Windrup’s isolation, but Model Patient is where the theme is really developed.

Miss Windrup opens the episode via a dialogue-free scene. There’s a nice shot from outside her office, which has the camera positioned behind a bannister. Either by accident or design this gives the fleeting impression that her office is a prison with bars. Something that was scripted or simply a directorial choice by Ken Hannam?

The way that Miss Windrup lingers in her conversations with several colleagues, obviously hopeful that a more substantial dialogue will emerge, is an one example of how friendless she is. Visiting the wards to talk to the patients and nurses simply hammers the point home.

Her formidable training persona might turn out good nurses, but it doesn’t help to build up friendships. The moment when she invites Ruth, yet to begin her shift, round to her flat (only to immediatly realise that young Ruth would sooner be anywhere else) is a good example of this. The awkwardness of the scene is compounded by the fact that Ruth either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care that Miss Windrup, in her own way, had been making a cry for help.

Fair to say this episode is a bleak one. Apart from the plotlines of Mr Petitt and Miss Windrup, it’s also mentioned that a briefly seen patient is terminally ill (although neither he or his wife knows this yet).

The closest to light relief we get comes when Ruth playfully suggests to Jo that she should invite Shirley to an upcoming party. Ruth, stuck on the night shift, can’t go, but she seems to take great delight at the thought of Jo being lumbered with Shirley! This is the third of the three loneliness storylines – it’s already been established that Shirley is friendless – but at least this one gives us a sliver of hope for the future. Shirley’s eagereness to attend (after a brief moment of hesitation) provides a chilly episode with a rare moment of warmth.

With the scenes between Ruth, Jo and Shirley confined to the canteen and corridors, it’s Sita who’s required to carry the ward scenes today. She’s assisted by the cynical Antipodian Val James (Ginette McDonald) who contrasts nicely with Sita’s ingenious kindness and consideration.

Depressing it might be, but there’s no denying the quality of Model Patient, with Ron Pember’s performance lingering long in the memory.

All Good Things – Simply Media DVD Review

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Broadcast in six episodes during May and June 1991, All Good Things by Lesley Bruce is a rather obscure piece of archive television, which given its cast-list – Brenda Blethyn, Warren Clarke, Ceila Imrie, Ron Pember, Jemma Redgrave, Ken Stott and Barbara Young amongst others – is a little surprising.

Lesley Bruce’s television credits aren’t too extensive (although she did contribute to popular drama strands such as Play for Today, Screenplay, Screen Two and Theatre Night).  We open with a married couple, Shirley Frame (Blethyn) and Phil (Clarke), who are seen arguing as they drive towards an unknown destination.  The reason for this isn’t made clear until Shirley opens the car door and we observe that she’s heavily pregnant.

Phil’s not keen about the baby’s impending arrival (their other children are now in their teens and he was looking forward to a little bit of peace and quiet – and possibly taking up a hobby, like the saxophone).  Shirley, en-route to the ante-natal class, admits – presumably for the first time – that she also doesn’t want the child (although they’ve left it far too late to do anything about this).

A sharp gear-change from comedy (Shirley’s rant is observed by all the other attendees of the ante-natal class who stare silently at her) to potential tragedy occurs when she suddenly collapses.  Is she going to lose the baby?  Well no, everything turns out fine – meaning that the scene feels a little forced and manipulative.  In drama there’s a sense that you have to “earn” moments like this, by developing your characters and the way they interact with each other.  If you just drop events casually into the narrative with no preparation it just doesn’t feel right.

But after this slightly shaky start, the opening episode – The Blessing – develops well.  Both Blethyn (b. 1946) and Clarke (1947 – 2014) were well established actors at the time and this is possibly why they’re able to quickly make Shirley and Phil seem like a real couple.  Although possibly the method of recording (All Good Things was an all-videotape production) also helped.  This was a style of television drama that (soaps apart) would vanish a few years later (from then on, drama tended to be shot either on film or tape processed to look like film) but it’s not a handicap here – videotape has an immediacy which film lacks, thereby giving the series something of a documentary “real” feel.

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With a gorgeous new baby, Shirley should be the happiest woman in the world, but she’s not.  “Sometimes I feel so lonely, and bored, and bad-tempered, I could scream and yell and tear my hair out in great huge hulking handfuls!”  So Shirley needs a new direction in her life, but what?

After a little consideration she decides to go and help people – there must be plenty who need help she reasons, they just have to be found.  Naturally she begins close to home, but things don’t go well after she makes a start with her mother, Hetty Snr (Barbara Young).  Hetty, still smarting from a painful divorce, is brought to tears after Shirley loses her temper and shouts at her.  Shirley’s attempts to help her sister-in-law Elaine (Jemma Redgrave) ends in much the same way, with Elaine left a sobbing mess.

Some people might possibly decide after this that being a Good Samaritan isn’t the wisest career move but Phil – always one to attempt to put a helpful spin on matters – suggests that maybe they didn’t respond because they were family.  He’s clearly only saying this to make her feel better, but she takes it to heart and it sets up the premise for the remaining episodes – Shirley will venture out into the world, meeting total strangers and attempting to fix their lives.  But given her lack of success so far (and the fact that her own life is far from perfect) what are her chances of success?

In The Suicide, Shirley prevents a young man, Vincent Gibney (John Lynch), from committing suicide. She wants to prove to Vincent that there’s still good in the world (something he doubts) and to this end she gives him her phone number, telling him that he can call on her anytime. The inevitable happens of course, Vincent arrives and makes himself at home (much to Phil’s growing exasperation). Once again there’s a sharp disconnect between Shirley’s hopes and the reality of the situation. Lynch is entertaining as Vincent, but once again it’s Blethyn who receives all the best lines. Here, she’s finally reached the end of her tether. “My God, I can see now why everyone else gave up on you! You’ve got to be the blindest, most self-regarding, insensitive wimp anyone’s ever dragged back from the edge of the parapet.”

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It might be expected that Vincent would vanish after this episode, to be replaced by a new poor soul for Shirley to look after next time. But that’s not the case as he’s present for the remainder of the series, as is Karen (Liza Hayden), who features in the next episode, Reading Lessons. This interconnectivity is a definite strength as it allows the narrative to become denser as the episodes tick by.  Karen’s another lost sheep who Shirley scoops up, but once again her good intentions seem to bring nothing but discord and discontent.

If Warren Clarke has been a little overshadowed so far, then that’s redressed somewhat in The Flat. Phil’s irritation that, thanks to Vincent and Karen, he can no longer call his house his own finally bubbles over. Clarke and Blethyn excel towards the end as they both consider the state of their marriage. Earlier, Jemma Redgrave and Ken Stott impress again as Elaine and Lawrence’s marriage continues to buckle under the strain.

In The Trip North, Shirley heads off for a bonding weekend with one of her sons (which, unsurprisingly has some rocky moments) leaving Phil at home holding the baby, literally.  I love the scene where Phil’s shaving, crooning Teddy Bear whilst holding baby Hetty at the same time. The baby clearly finds this fascinating! This leads onto a more dramatic scene where baby Hett’s facial expressions ensure that she remains the centre of attention. Never work with children or animals ….

The series concluded with Marriage Guidance. Whilst Shirley has expended all her energies into helping others, her own life has fractured (a bitter, if obvious, irony – something which is also spelled out visually in the opening credits). Phil’s relationship with Doll (Deborah Findlay) offers him peace and security – two things which are now in short supply at home. Doll and Phil are work colleagues and their affair has slowly developed over the course of the series as Shirley’s drive to help others has also increased.  Finally he elects to tell Shirley that he’s leaving her, but when it comes to the crunch will he have the guts to come right out and say it?

It’s a disquieting and bleak conclusion, which leaves the viewer free to decide what happened next. There was certainly scope for a second series to pick up where this one left off, but despite the excellent cast and generally strong writing, this was the end of the line for All Good Things.

Headed by Blethyn and Clarke, this is a series that certainly doesn’t lack on the acting front. The layered developing narrative is another plus and although it’s not always an easy watch, it is a rewarding one. With the emphasis more on drama than comedy, All Good Things is an interesting archive curio which I’m glad Simply have brought blinking out into the light.

All Good Things is released by Simply Media on the 28th of November 2016.

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