Softly Softly: Task Force – Conversion (6th December 1972)

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An ingenious bank raid – carried out at the same time that the street is undergoing a gas conversion – is today’s crime. But as so often, character dynamics are pushed to the fore whilst the crime sits in the background.

Adler’s continuing mission to refer to all the regulars as “son” continues (today it’s Snow who receives that honour). Having not featured too heavily for a while, it’s nice that Terence Rigby is given more to do (although the reason becomes clear at the end of the episode).

Pete Ryan (Billy Hamon) is befriended by Snow. Something of an innocent, the early part of Conversion leaves us in no doubt that he’s very slow on the uptake (two experienced villains plan to use him when they rob the bank).

Pete, one the army of gas fitters, agrees to block the road at the appointed time (thereby allowing the getaway car to escape). This he does, but it means that he becomes a person of interest to the police – although not as you might expect.  He isn’t lifted for a grilling, instead Snow buys him drinks and listens to his story.

This all the more remarkable since Pete is aware that Snow’s a copper.  Although Snow could never be called soft, something about Pete (who’s barely more than a lad) clearly engages his sympathy.  So when Pete is killed in a road accident, Snow (who was observing him at the time) blames himself.

Spike Harran (Frank Barrie) and Tom Bishop (Graham Weston) are the two members of the gang granted speaking roles.  Many more are seen when the bank raid is carried out, but they were clearly stuntmen and non-speaking extras.  Indeed, the robbery is something of a jolting moment – up until this point the episode has proceeded in a typical fashion for SS:TF (high on character detail, low on visual excitement) so the sight of a gaggle of stuntmen throwing themselves about with wild abandon certainly catches the eye.

The early scenes between Pete, Spike and Tom have something of a comic air. Partly this is down to Tom’s tie, but the dialogue (the way that Spike and Tom have to repeat things again and again to Pete) also reinforces the feeling that the whole escapade is a bit of a lark.  But the brief violence seen during the raid, Pete’s death and Snow’s cold fury at Pete’s wasted life all help to darken the mood.

Adler once again is placed at the centre of the story. His interactions with both Snow and Evans are fascinating.  Snow is happy to give the new Task Force boss a little time to settle in (his attitude reflects his phlegmatic nature). The voluble Evans is a totally different type of person, he’s never slow to reveal his feelings ….

Adler and Snow later bring Spike back to the area.  Their train journey allows Snow to vent his feelings towards Spike, whom he feels had a part to play in Pete’s death. “If this was an old-fashioned compartment with a door there, I’d open it and shove you out”.  Snow’s impassioned tirade, which runs for several minutes, is easily the highlight of the episode.

Terence Rigby once again is excellent value, which makes it a pity that he then took something of a break from the series (sitting out the second half of series four and not returning until the fifth series).  Presumably Rigby had commitments elsewhere.

Grahame Mallard is drafted in as PC Nesbitt (he’d previously appeared in two previous episodes as two different PCs).  His introduction is typical of the series as it couldn’t really be any lower-key (he just appears out of nowhere).

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Needle (13th December 1972)

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SS:TF, certainly during this era, used a very small pool of writers. There are pros and cons to this approach – a plus is the way it guarantees a constant tone, but on the negative side it can mean that the stories tend to feel somewhat similar.

Tony Hoare would later become a key writer on Minder, but his early work, such as his handful of SS:TF scripts and contributions to Crown Courtdemonstrates that his distinctive scripting style was already in place.

Hoare, a former inmate himself, is easily able to ensure that this prison-based story feels vivid and real.  As good as the series was, it’s sometimes noticeable that the villains can be unthreatening and lightly sketched.  Needle is quite different – there’s a sharp streak of cynicism which runs throughout.  This is unusual but not unwelcome.

After an unpopular prison officer, Watson (Edwin Brown), is brutally run down outside the prison gates, Watt and the others swiftly decamp to the prison in order to investigate. That we don’t have the usual preamble scenes at Task Force HQ is an interesting touch – no doubt this was partly logistical (saving studio space for the prison sets) but it also works in narrative terms. No sooner have we left Watson dying in the gutter than the story promptly moves onto the next stage.

As the episode progresses, Hoare’s voice seems to be coming through loud and clear. Prison life is shown to be thoroughly dehumanising – both for inmates and warders.  The crumbling Victorian structure, the indifferent diet and the constant threat of casual violence all helps to make it a hellish place.

One inmate, Bernie Bryson (Peter Armitage), later articulates why the warders are worse off than the prisoners. “They figure if they wear big boots and bark like dogs it makes them hard cases. They come straight off the dole queue, see. They ‘aint got the guts to thieve or the brains to work, but this way they can kid themselves that they’re something special. I’m here against my will and only temporary, they’re here permanently and because they need to be”.

Armitage is excellent as the cocky, unrepentant Bryson – comfortable in the knowledge that nothing can touch him. Nothing that is, except his marital problems ….

On the outside, his wife Jane (Janet Lees-Price) lives a comfortable existence in a remarkably decorated flat. Presumably Bernie chose the décor – the massive mural of classic Hollywood gangsters is certainly a talking point.

If Bernie feels a lot more real and dangerous than the series’ usual crop of villains, then so does Jimmy Cass (James Beckett). A friend of Bernie’s on the inside, Cass (one of the men who ran Watson down) finds himself becoming very friendly with the man-eating Jane on the outside.

Full of memorable touches (such as Adler keeping a close vigil on Watson, desperate to hear the dying man’s last, gasped words) Needle is certainly a cut above the norm.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Time-Table (3rd January 1973)

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Jack Rogers (Peter Whitbread) was a notable safebreaker in his day, but now seems to have gone straight.  But that doesn’t prevent him from being a person of interest to the Task Force whenever a job with his signature is pulled.

The first meeting between Hawkins and Rogers is an interesting one. Rogers is polite and helpful whilst Hawkins is antagonistic and confrontational. Given that this bank raid occurred up North (in Manchester) it seems barely credible that out of all the potential suspects up and down the country we zero in on Rogers.  Are we being set up for a story in which an innocent man is pursued?

We don’t have long to wait for the answer, indeed in the very next scene it’s revealed that Rogers was responsible.  Surprising that the mystery wasn’t eked out – there would have been dramatic capital in leaving it unclear for a while as to whether Rogers was guilty or innocent.  Watt later confides to his senior staff that in the past his mantra has been “concentrate on the criminal, not the crime”.  He has absolutely no evidence that Rogers was involved (in fact he has a water-tight alibi) but Watt is still content to keep chipping away at him.  That’s a slightly disturbing modus operandi, it has to be said.

Rogers has a powerful ally. His employer, Simmonds (Bryan Pringle), is someone who, according to Rogers, was prepared to take a chance on an ex-con.  The truth is once again revealed quickly – the older Simmonds has been corrupted by the younger Rogers and the pair have now formed a criminal partnership (Simmonds acting as a decoy whilst Rogers carries out the crimes).

What has made the previously law-abiding Simmonds suddenly turn crooked? It’s teased out subtly to begin with, but by the way the pair talk to each other it’s plain that there’s a mutual attraction.  This is handled in a far more restrained way than James Bree’s screamingly camp antiques dealer a few episodes back.  Their relationship is an intriguing part of the episode and Pringle’s self-important and wounded air as Simmonds easily bests Adler to begin with (even forcing the policeman to cough up some pennies for using his phone!) is nicely played too.

The precise mechanics of exactly how Simmonds covers for Rogers during the first two crimes is a bit of a puzzle. And a lengthy film sequence in which the pair drive identical vans around and around does tend to drag.

This apart, Time-Table contains plenty of interest. Whitbread and Pringle are both very solid, Watt’s clash with a budget-conscious Cullen catches the eye, whilst wedding bells contain to ring for Hawkins and Sara.  Evans views the forthcoming nuptials with a jaundiced eye – how will the upwardly mobile Sara survive on Hawkins’ relatively modest salary? The notion of her getting a job never seems to have been considered.

I also like the way that Watt (a man who clearly leads from the front) takes it upon himself to visit Sara in order to enquire what wedding present she’d like the force to give them.  An old-fashioned barometer, in case you were wondering.  And the way that Watt turns the screws on an increasingly frantic Rogers and Simmonds concludes the episode in a satisfactory fashion.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Money for Sale (17th January 1973)

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The Task Force are on the trail of Alfred Felton. A distinguished-looking criminal in his fifties, Felton has disappeared (the fact he was carrying a great deal of stolen money when he vanished piques Watt’s interest).

In the past John Watt has berated Harry Hawkins for his willingness to dash about. Senior staff, says Watt, should be more office bound. Today he seems to have forgotten that maxim – Watt spends the early part of the episode out and about and in full investigation mode.  It’s quite a rarity these days to see him playing detective, and even rarer that he’s digging around all by himself.

Felton’s car – a Wolseley – seems to be key. Find that and they might have a good chance of locating Felton. Watt tracks the car down to a scrapyard run by Paddy Reilly (Paddy Joyce).  One of those instantly recognisable actors, Joyce is highly entertaining as the endlessly slippery Reilly – a man who breezily breaks the law without a second thought.

Reilly doesn’t get the third degree from Watt though, that’s reserved for Powers (John White) – the man who sold the car to Reilly.  Powers, a man with a taste in flamboyant shirts, is eventually worn down by Watt.  Since Stratford Johns’ departure, there hasn’t been quite so many pulsating interview scenes, but Frank Windsor handles this one pretty well.

As the episode rumbles on, the main question remains unanswered – is Felton dead or alive? And if he is dead, who killed him? That the resolution of the mystery only occurs towards the tail end of the episode helps to explain why Money for Sale feels somewhat static. It doesn’t help that Felton’s criminal associates don’t appear until the last ten minutes or so – as when they do they help to give the story a little extra push.

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