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 – 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 – 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 – 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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