Softly Softly: Task Force – Justice (29th November 1972)

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Adler is moved back to CID by Cullen. Given what we’ve seen of Adler in previous episodes, it comes as no surprise to learn that he grasps this opportunity with both hands. But he’ll have to try and forge a close working relationship with Harry Hawkins, which may prove to be tricky ….

Adler’s character is delineated a little more at the start of this episode. He tends to be somewhat condescending (calling both Hawkins and Knowles “son”) and also there’s a nice moment concerning his love of plants.  A scene where he blithely offers Cullen some sage horticultural advice is preceded by a conversation between Knowles and one of Adler’s neighbours, Miss Polkington (Janet Burnell). She casts aspersions on Adler’s garden (hers is much better, she says).  A small touch, but it does suggest that Adler may occasionally place too much confidence in his own abilities.

Given Hawkins’ rather placid personality, putting him together with Adler is an interesting move.  Both have very different styles – Hawkins favours movement and action, Adler is methodical – which suggests that decent drama will be generated once they begin to come into conflict.  Especially since Adler is swiftly promoted and becomes Hawkins’ immediate superior ….

To be honest, the main plot (a crooked antique dealer) rather ambles along until we’re about mid-way through the episode. That’s when the antique dealer in question, Bensfield (James Bree), makes his first appearance.  James Bree was an actor who could do subtle (Secret Army) but could also deliver something a little broader (the Doctor Who story The War Games, say).  Today he’s screamingly camp. It’s the sort of turn that’s difficult to forget, especially the moment when Bensfield turns his lascivious attentions towards the stolid Hawkins.

Another familiar face popping up is Karl Howman. He plays Fletcher, Bensfield’s young, leather-jacketed bit of rough who duffs up Knowles (he was house-sitting for the antique laden Miss Polkington). Howman, in his first television role, is very squeaky but the scene he shares with Bree does manage to tease out a moment of tenderness between Bensfield and Fletcher (which helps to humanise Bensfield, making him seem like less of a camp caricature).

Plot-wise this isn’t the most interesting story, but the interaction between the regulars is pretty decent and whilst the guest players are somewhat mannered and stylised, they do catch the eye.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Paper Chase (15th November 1972)

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The aptly named Con Richards (John Abineri) and a young woman called Mary (Maggie Wells) are flooding the district with forged one pound notes.  As most of the scenes which feature them are in public places we don’t get much of a feel for their real characters. Con’s ever-changing accent is an entertaining touch though.

Paper Chase is more concerned with how this forged money impacts the recipients. The market trader Fisher (David Swift) and his wife (Paula Jacobs) are the first to be conned. Both are Jewish (very, very Jewish in fact – Mrs Fisher reacts with a heartfelt “oy vey” once she realises they’ve been passed dud notes).

They don’t twig for a while that the charming couple who bought a stack of clothes from them were dodgy (surprising, since I was instantly struck by Mary’s obvious wig). So their credulity is a little hard to swallow, especially since Snow has already been around to tip them off about the forged notes.

Swift (sporting an impressive pair of mutton-chop sideburns) is quite entertaining as a basically honest man who nevertheless attempts to later pass off the forgeries as genuine (he’s experienced enough to know that the chances of recovering his losses are slim to zero).

Poor Mrs Baker (Valerie Lush), the proprietor of a small corner shop, is also something of an innocent – but her lack of knowledge seems to be a little more credible. For a small business, the loss of ten pounds is clearly a real blow.  But even if it’s more than likely that she’ll end the story still out of pocket, at least she has the satisfaction of knowing she was the one who put the dogged Evans onto Con’s trail.

Whilst Fisher attempts a touch of fraud to resolve his loss and Mrs Baker simply stoically accepts it, our third victim – the greyhound track manager Clegg (Richard Hampton) – laughs it off as a matter of no concern (he’s insured). By the time that the episode gets to the fourth conned person (a hotel receptionist) clearly time is tight as we never learn how they feel about it.

Running alongside this theme is a subplot concerning an imminent raid on a cash-heavy business.  It’s assumed to be the greyhound track, although no robbery occurs by the time the episode concludes.  Watt’s picture of the gang (wielding pickaxes and knives) is quite vivid, although it does bring to mind a more 1950’s vision of crime (no guns are mentioned).

Paper Chase has several incidental pleasures. Alan Bennion, appearing as a bank manager, is one.  Although he racked up a fair number of credits over the years, it’s his Ice Lord appearances in Doctor Who which I instantly think of whenever I hear his name. So it’s nice to see him for once without his face being covered in latex.

The location work at the outdoor market is very evocative.  The film crew turned up on a regular market day, which makes me wonder whether some of the old biddies who crowd around our regulars were just ordinary members of the public, rather than extras.  A few are quite eye-catching.

There’s also a spot of character development for Harry Hawkins. Although he’s been a regular since the Softly Softly days, Hawkins has rarely made much of an impression (compared to the likes of Snow and Evans he seems quite stolid and far less quirky). But today he gets to cross swords with Watt (Hawkins likes to be out and about whilst Watt believes he should be more desk bound) and he also entertainingly interacts with PC Knowles, now firmly settled into the role of the office administrator.

Small touches maybe, but every little helps.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – New Broom (8th November 1972)

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Despite the title, the primary focus of New Broom isn’t about establishing John Watt as the new Task Force boss.  Instead, it centres around a murder investigation, following the discovery of a severed arm at a rubbish dump ….

This is an unusually macabre plot element for the series and although the rest of the dismembered torso is mainly discussed and not seen, towards the end of the episode the murderer does reveal the only other body-part still in existence (a hand).

After the sensationalist opening, New Broom settles down into a pattern of pure routine.  It’s good to see a number of extras in uniform swelling the ranks in the incident room today. In some of the previous episodes we rarely saw any other police officers apart from the regulars, which tends to give the unfortunate impression that the Task Force is comprised of no more than around half a dozen officers.

John Franklyn-Robbins makes his second appearance as Chief Inspector Bill Adler. Having only skirted around the perimeters of the story in his previous episode, he’s much more central here.  A former detective, various indiscretions several years back (mainly concerning women and alcohol) have seen him reduced in rank, returned to uniform and forced to plough a frustrating furrow as a desk-bound administrator.

He’s never less than totally thorough, but it’s plain that jobs such as organising the furniture for Watt’s new office isn’t quite the sort of thing he joined the police force for.  This subplot is the episode’s one concession to portraying Watt as the new broom.  His office décor is very different from Charlie Barlow’s – Watt favours a minimalist approach (featuring strikingly modern chairs and desks) with the result that Cullen, passing by, first of all believes that there must have been a mix-up with the furniture delivery ….

Adler is later seconded to assist the murder investigation and it’s his dogged and painstaking approach (plenty of sifting of facts and staring at blackboards) which leads them to a suspect, Edward Harrison (Willie Jonah).  Adler will return in most of the remaining episodes on the third and final Pidax DVD set and I’m looking forward to seeing how his character develops.

There’s an intriguing relationship teased out here between him and Watt, which bodes well for the future.  Adler desperately wants to get back to being a detective, but Watt is content to keep him where he is for now (Adler offers to take a crack at Harrison, but Watt delegates Hawkins instead, much to Adler’s obvious disappointment).

If the majority of New Broom is interesting without being especially gripping, then the late interview between Hawkins and Harrison raises the temperature somewhat.  A good two-hander, it’s one of the highlights of the episode (the development of Adler’s character being another).

Elsewhere, Frank Windsor effortlessly slips into place as the new focus point of the series.  John Watt’s plain, no-nonsense style hasn’t really changed since he first appeared in Z Cars and New Broom makes it plain that business will carry on as usual.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Run For Your Money (1st November 1972)

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And so we have to bid farewell to Charlie Barlow.  The first run of Barlow At Large had preceded series three of Softly Softly: Task Force, but the remainder (three seasons from 1973 onwards) aired after he’d left Thamesford for good.

Poached by the mysterious Fenton (Neil Stacey) from the Home Office, Barlow faces an unknown future.  Back then, the viewers wouldn’t have had long to wait to find out what he’d let himself in for (the first episode of the new series was broadcast in February 1973). Today I’ve a feeling we’re in for a far longer wait (Barlow At Large may eventually surface on DVD, but I’m not holding my breath).  Fenton would be a regular in the series and thanks to his brief appearance with Cullen here, it’s possible to imagine the sort of combative relationship he and Barlow would later enjoy ….

Run For Your Money is a low-key departure for such an important character. His meeting with Cullen (who buys him lunch at the swanky Stag At Bay restaurant) is delightfully awkward. Barlow then treats Watt and Hawkins to a meal at the same venue later on (if you’ve got the set in the studio then it’s sensible to make the most of it). After he’s broken the news, it’s fair to say there’s conflicted feelings – John Watt has his eye on Barlow’s seat but feels uneasy drinking a toast to celebrate his departure.

Hawkins, as befits his cheery, breezy persona, seems less concerned. It’s an interesting touch that Sara is more ambitious than he is, deciding that Barlow’s departure would mean promotion for everyone.

If the lunchtime meeting between Barlow and Cullen wasn’t awkward enough, the fact that Sara and Hawkins just happened to be noshing in there at the same time added an additional frisson of social embarrassment. Although Sara, as befits her upper-crust breeding, wasn’t at all perturbed. She treats Cullen with amused disrespect and decides that Barlow (out of his earshot) is something of a sad case.

Possibly the most notable thing about The Stag At Bay is that all the waitresses have very low cut tops. Since they’re always bending over the tables this is very noticeable ….

Run For Your Money does have a spot of crime too though. Austin (Ronald Radd) has embezzled twenty thousand pounds from the company he used to work for.  A well-spoken, intelligent, middle-aged man, he’s reluctant to reveal where the money is, much to Barlow’s frustration.

Radd’s second and final SS:TF appearance adds a touch of class to the episode.  He only appears in a few scenes, but they’re incredibly watchable. The first is a three-hander between Barlow, Evans and Austin.  Taking place in the interview room, the sense of claustrophobia is ramped up by the way that the camera keeps tight focus on each of the three in turn. To be honest, I wouldn’t have minded an entire episode just featuring Johns and Radd in the interview room ….

It’s a curious thing, but so many actors back in the sixties and seventies looked a good deal older than they actually were.  Radd, for example, was only forty three when he made this episode, but could easily have passed for a man in his late fifties (indeed, Austin states that he’s fifty seven).  It would have been interesting to see Barlow break Austin in the interview room, but the mystery of the missing money (there’s a connection to the Vietnam War, which was unexpected) is solved by a spot of good old detective work.

The final shot we have of Barlow is a slow and silent zoom in the interview room (he’d gone back to confront Austin).  It’s an unshowy exit for someone who has dominated the series. He’ll be missed.

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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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Softly Softly: Task Force – On The Third Day (18th October 1972)

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On The Third Day juggles two separate Barlow plotlines. In the first, he’s targeted by Timothy Redway (Anthony Heaton) a violent criminal with a grudge and in the second he undergoes a grilling at an intensive promotion board.

The former could easily have been the major theme, but instead it’s very much secondary – even though the resolution of this storyline provides the episode with its climax.  It does serve to place Barlow under pressure though (something which maybe later has a knock on effect at the board).

What’s especially interesting is that in the previous episode Mrs Barlow was killed off-screen in a road accident, so if a pretext had been required to explain why Barlow was even more prickly than usual, surely that would have sufficed.  As it is, the death of Mrs Barlow seems slightly puzzling in plot terms – it does allow us to see a brief softening of Barlow’s character, but that’s about all (although maybe its function was to highlight just how career driven Barlow is – the widowed man seems hardly different from the married one).

Still, we get to see Barlow at home, pottering about in the kitchen (it’s rather orange). Given that his kitchen décor is rather horrid in places, possibly Redway did him a favour by attempting to burn the house down ….

No surprises that the fire largely occurs off-screen. Big action set pieces were outside of the series’ budget.

By far the most interesting part of the episode occurs when Barlow travels down to Eastbourne. There, along with a group of brother officers, he undergoes a series of tests, exams and interviews. Three heavyweight actors – Richard Vernon, Patrick O’Connell and John Arnatt – are the ones in charge, which helps to make these scenes fly.

The three-hander between Barlow, Asst. Chief Constable Morton (O’Connell) and Chief Constable Daniels (Arnatt) is a cracking scene.  With Morton playing bad cop and Daniels good, Barlow’s character is slowly unpicked.  But Barlow more than holds his own, even if his distaste for the some parts of this procedure is made clear.

Barlow’s one-on-one meeting with Sir Ralph Townley (Vernon) looks set to develop along similarly entertaining lines, but alas it’s cut short by a gun-toting Redway. All those police around the place and Redway was still able to get close enough to the window in order to loose off a few shots. Somebody should be for the high jump.

Knowing that Barlow’s time with the series was drawing to a close, I wondered at first if On The Third Day was designed as an exit point. But no, Barlow’s promotion attempt is unsuccessful and so he seems fated to remain at Thamesford for the foreseeable future.  But that’s not the case, the clock is definitely ticking ….

A Barlow-heavy episode is always going to get a thumbs up from me (Stratford Johns doesn’t disappoint of course).  And with Vernon, O’Connell and Arnatt plus Donald Burton as one of Barlow’s fellow interviewees it’s plain this isn’t an episode short on decent guest stars. 

The featured regulars are also gifted some good scenes – Walter Gotell never has that much to do, but he always maximises every line (even when he’s being pleasant, there’s something rather unsettling about Chief Constable Cullen).  Meanwhile, Evans and Knowles are turning into a very decent double-act.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Bank Rate (11th October 1972)

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There’s an incredibly high level of coincidence to be found in Bank Rate, but since it’s a pretty decent episode I’m prepared to cut it some slack.

Harry Hawkins’ relationship with Sara (Jenny Hanley) continues. They’ve bonded over a mutual love of horses, something which Sara’s cousin, Peter Warner (Jonathan Newth), also shares.  Warner is a bank manager whose establishment is due to be targeted by Tom Rattery (Carl Rigg), a robber who both Hawkins and Warner have met in passing. Oh, and Sara’s stable-hand, Danny Fitch (Angus Lennie), knows more than he’s telling about these bank raids ….

Newth’s an instantly recognisable actor, someone with a score of interesting credits to his name. He’s perfect casting as the superior Warner, a man keen to cultivate Hawkins for his own profitable ends. Hawkins is having none of it though – he reports the approach to Watt with horror (according to Hawkins, Warner’s offer of sharing his prize horse is akin to loaning out a woman!)

Angus Lennie could always be called upon to play the downtrodden type very well, as he does here. Mind you, it’s a slight pity that Danny’s shifty nature is so obviously signposted right from the start – the first time Danny spies Hawkins he reacts with a very guilty look (which rather gives the game away). And anyway, why would any decent criminal confide their plans to the garrulous Danny? That’s a part of the plot which doesn’t make sense.

I’m used to Havoc providing the action in early seventies drama, but today it was Action Unique (who mustered a very athletic bunch of criminals it has to be said). The final scene, which sees the robbers confronted in Warner’s bank by Hawkins and co, is priceless – especially the part where a dapper John Watt grabs a Bobby Ball look-a-like and slams his head against the desk several times!

The other moment which caught my eye was an earlier meeting between Watt, Snow, Knowles and three CID officers. It became clear very quickly that the CID men were unspeaking extras, so whilst Watt expounded at great length, they were forced to remain mute. Nodding their heads vigorously and checking their notebooks with a faint air of embarrassment were the only options left open to them ….

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