Softly Softly: Task Force – Once Bitten (6th October 1971)

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With Simply’s Softly Softly: Task Force releases seemingly stalled at series two, I’ve finally taken the plunge and picked up the German releases from Pidax.  Each of the three DVD sets contains eight episodes – all with dual German/English language tracks – although some episodes from this period are skipped (presumably because German language tracks weren’t available).

As ever, the dynamic between Barlow and Watt is fascinating. Barlow, having been away for a while, returns to find that Watt’s been efficiently minding the shop in his absence (although Watt hasn’t been averse to rifling through Barlow’s mail). Has Barlow really been romantically involved with a female informer young enough to be his daughter? The evidence of his mail suggests so but he’s not letting on.

Barlow’s keen to keep the others on their toes, intending to come down hard on any tawdry response times. But Watt rather spoils this plan by tipping the others off ….

WDC Donald has sadly departed, with WDC Forest (Julie Hallam) swiftly slotted in as her replacement. Watt’s assessment of her (“a cracker”) is an eye-opener. A professional or personal opinion? First impressions are that she’s a jolly sort as well as being practical (removing her skirt as she dives into the canal to rescue one of the villains).

A hairy Tom Chadbon (playing Andrews, one of three textile warehouse robbers) and a cravat wearing Michael Sheard (as Dickenson, the keyholder of the warehouse) are the most familiar faces guesting.

Andrews’ main skill is handling dogs (he’s able to deal with the rather vicious guard dogs on site). A tense dog-related stand off then develops when the Task Force turn up.  Andrews and the others are trapped inside the warehouse (the dogs are now released and roaming the yard) with only Harry Hawkins brave enough to chance his arm.

He loses his trousers and his dignity to the vicious canines, but I suppose it could have been worse.

A low-key sort of crime then, but Chadbon’s excellent value and the byplay between the regulars (a nice scene between Snow and Evans, for example) is typically solid.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Hostage (13th October 1971)

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Hostage opens with the most sedate bank robbery I’ve ever seen. It’s true that the villains are vaguely dressed as guards – meaning that from a distance they look official – but even when the truth becomes known (they’re taking money out of the bank with guns rather than delivering it) none of the bystanders – ladies with prams, etc – seem terribly concerned.  The Sweeney this isn’t.

With six hundred banks in the area, Watt is faced with a nightmare (especially since the firm doesn’t appear to be local). And since the Task Force can’t identify them, how on earth will they be able to predict where they’ll strike next?  It’s therefore something of a cop-out that in the very next scene Watt, Hawkins and co just happen to stumble across them. Not the tightest bit of plotting I’ve ever seen.

With the four villains – Frank (Leslie Schofield), Eddie (George Sweeney), Dick (Derek Martin) and Steve (John Hartley) – now holed up inside a bank with multiple hostages, another staggering plot development occurs.  Evans and PC Drake (Brian Hall) wander into the bank via the back entrance and offer themselves up as hostages. Since they have no idea just how dangerous the men are, this rather beggars belief.

Leslie Schofield is the sort of actor who plays unstable types very well but it’s a pity that the other three villains don’t get to do much (George Sweeney was a very dependable criminal sort, but he remains largely mute throughout). The bank-based stand off in the second part of the episode is the definite highlight of this one, as Evans – his usual stolid self – faces off against the cocky Frank.

Those expecting an all-guns blazing finale will probably be disappointed, but the sting in the tale orchestrated by wily old Cullen is quite neat.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – The Floater (20th October 1971)

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Since it’s primarily a water-based story, it’s apt that The Floater has a lazy, meandering feel.  This isn’t a criticism, but it’s certainly an episode that takes its time to get up and running. For example, the first fifteen minutes are concerned with Hawkins and Snow who – thanks to a tip-off from Snow’s informer – are targeting Ian Yellop (Roger Tallon).

They believe he uses the river to ferry drugs (low level stuff like hash) but both he and his girlfriend Rae (Vicki Michelle) appear to be clean.  It takes a third of the episode to establish this fact though (no doubt other series would have dealt with the set up much quicker).

Tallon impresses as the shifty Yellop (his television debut) with Michelle (her second television credit – the first had also been in SS:TF) also catching the eye. At this early stage of her career she was getting typecast playing girls on the wrong side of the law.  With a strong cockney accent, Michelle is delightfully twitchy as someone who may know more than she’s letting on.

With a small guest cast, Neil Wilson (an actor who’ll always be Sam Seeley from the Doctor Who story Spearhead from Space to me) is excellent value as the river copper Inspector Daley.

But it’s really Barlow’s episode. He might enter it late, but as soon as he does the tempo instantly picks up. As ever, Stratford Johns is ridiculously good.  Barlow’s implacable interrogation of Yellop carries a real punch – Barlow’s sudden angry outbursts and his quieter reflective moments are equally riveting.  Tallon – an actor whose later credits seem a little thin – more than holds his own against Johns’ onslaught.

I love the way that the second half of the episode veers off in a different direction from the first.  First rate.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Aberration (27th October 1971)

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There’s a lovely opening scene with Barlow and Watt. Watt’s home alone (his wife – a GP – is away for the week) and has invited Barlow around for a slap up meal (prepared before she left by Mrs Watt – this was the 1970’s after all).

There’s some nice character building here (we see Watt’s vulnerable side for a fleeting moment) but the scene does have a plot purpose – a locum doctor calls round asking for the surgery keys. Watt hands them over, but the next day we learn that the man wasn’t a doctor after all …

We can put this terrible lapse down to the fact that both had clearly imbibed a substantial amount of alcohol. In the cold light of day Barlow is forced to eat humble pie in front of Dr Mancroft (Raymond Huntley). Johns and Huntley share several excellent scenes – there’s nothing more enjoyable than watching two old timers squaring off against each other.

Aberration is the first episode to feature a major role for DC Forest (Julie Hallam). Forest is remarkably cheeky (talking back to both Barlow and Watt) and Hallam’s performance is quite broad. Because the other regulars are all pretty naturalistic, Hallam’s overexuberance is more noticeable.

Apart from the stolen prescription pads, the villain – James (Gary Waldhorn) – has also pinched several patient’s files. That we’re in less enlightened times is demonstrated when homosexuality is classed alongside child molesting as the sort of aberration which would be ideal fodder for a blackmailer. The inoffensive-looking Norman Bird (as Tomkins) is wheeled on as a bondage fetishist (he’s one of the unlucky people being blackmailed by James).

Although Barlow and Watt are clearly having an off-day (plucky young Forest tracks down James all by herself) Aberration is an interesting time capsule of the period.

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Softly Softly Task Force: An Inside Job (10th November 1971)

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As the episode title suggests, Barlow is convinced that a supermarket manager called Dent (Ray Mort) was involved in a robbery from his store (four thousand pounds was taken from the safe). Harry Hawkins is less sure though ….

One of those episodes with a small supporting cast, An Inside Job features a memorable performance from the always-dependable Mort. Dent is obviously a weak man (capable of sudden outbursts of bluster, but easily bested by both his wife and teenage son) which makes it easy to believe that he could have given the keys to a criminal type.

Barlow’s convinced this is so and delights in putting the squeeze on the increasingly twitchy Dent. When Hawkins later queries whether he’s been too hard, Barlow responds with the flicker of a wolfish smile. You really never, ever want to get on Charlie Barlow’s bad side ….

Dent seems to have few allies. His wife – Alice (Eve Pearce) – wants to be supportive but finds it easy to believe the worst of him whilst his teenage son, Philip (Spencer Banks), delights in spilling the beans about his father’s past misdemeanours. Or was Philip simply being naïve? It’s possible to interpret his actions either way.

DC Forest has another fairly substantial role – initially teemed up with the always droll Evans – and I’m pleased to report that her performance has picked up somewhat from the previous episode.

There’s a late visit by Hawkins to a criminal hidey-hole, which is decked out in a breath-taking example of gloriously bad-taste seventies décor. The clothes, sported by Brabham (Roy Macready) and the other villains are also very entertaining.

An Inside Job, thanks to Mort, is a vaguely uncomfortable watch. Although the crime is solved, it’s plain that the repercussions will linger on (the final scene between Barlow and Dent is very compelling).

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Man of Peace (8th December 1971)

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Even compared to other series of this era, Softly Softly: Task Force often had a very leisurely approach to storytelling. Man of Peace is a good example of this.  Watt is visited by a petty criminal and informer from his distant past (Tim Patrick, played by Allan McClelland) who has some interesting information to pass on.

But nearly ten minutes elapse before we learn what it is (Patrick claims to know where a large number of revolvers can be bought). As so often, this crime isn’t the focus of the episode.  Instead Allan Prior is much more concerned with developing character – in this case, Patrick’s.

Patrick is endlessly slippery, which helps to generate interest, as does the reactions of those he encounters. John Watt for one, who initially treats him with barely concealed contempt before kicking him out. The fact that Watt is then forced to track him down (when it becomes clear Patrick does know something) is a humiliation – made worse by the fact that Barlow is on hand to twist the knife.

An episode very much powered by a guest performance – the experienced McClennad is excellent value – Man of Peace has a faint comic air (although I don’t know whether PC Snow’s Irish accent was supposed to be that bad).

An appearance by Anthony Booth is another plus of an typically dialogue-heavy story which in the last ten minutes or so begins to generate a faint feeling of suspense.  Booth (playing Smith) was always an imposing actor and he’s well matched by Terence Rigby’s Snow.

It’s true that Snow, posing as an Irish terrorist, does infiltrate Smith’s gang rather easily (which turns out to be a rather feeble one) but as previously stated, SS:TF wasn’t a wham-bam series. Character development was always more important than simply nicking villains.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – The Removal (29th December 1971)

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The Removal opens with Garbutt and Turner (Graham Weston and Johnny Briggs) arriving at a substantial house (it stands in its own grounds). We can instantly tell that they’re wrong ‘uns because it’s night-time and they’re wearing dark glasses. This faint comic air is reinforced when the rest of the gang turn up, all wearing dark glasses too ….

I can’t decide whether this is supposed to be amusing or not though. It’s hard to take Weston and Briggs seriously as a couple of hardmen, but that may be to do with the fact that they’re both familiar actors.

The gang have arrived to strip the house bare (pictures, carpets, furniture, etc) much to the dismay of Sybil Albert (Stephanie Bidmead) and her son Tom (Paul Aston).

The gradual denuding of the house which occurs throughout the episode is fairly low in dramatic tension. Mainly this is because Garbutt and Turner – save for one brief spat – remain supremely confident throughout. Bidmead was a quality actress who died far too young (this was one of her final credits) but she doesn’t have much to work with here – Mrs Albert is little more than a fairly weepy and passive character.

There’s more interest elsewhere, with the stroppy Liz Carr (Lois Dane) proving to be a handful. The common-law wife of one of the gang, she’s very outspoken but is quietened down by the efficient DS Green (Heather Stoney). It’s the first SS:TF credit for Stoney, who instantly impresses.

Any time Snow and Evans are put in a car together you can be guaranteed some amusing dialogue (and so it proves here). Watt and Hawkins also have some good scenes, so there’s plenty going on – even if the main plot is quite linear.  The bleak-ish ending is effective too.

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