Softly Softly: Task Force – Cash and Carry

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Stock is being pilfered from a local Cash and Carry.  The two men responsible – James (David Spenser) and Fox (Roland Curram) – are quickly identified but Barlow is concerned that this relatively small-scale affair might only be the prelude to a larger crime.

Cash and Carry is one of those stories which is more than content to take its time.  We initially see Snow and Radar, passing the Cash and Carry at night, become suspicious after they spy a light inside the building.  Officers are then called out in force along with the keyholder Mr Lodge (Peter Sallis).  None of them find anything so they leave empty-handed.  By this time a good ten minutes has elapsed without the plot advancing a great deal.

The next day it’s quickly worked out how such a large amount of stock could have gone missing – James and Fox work at the Cash and Carry, driving the delivery van, and they simply pile it up with stolen stock and sleep in the building overnight, leaving the next morning as if nothing has happened.  Donald likens it to the Trojan Horse, which is a neat description.

But this crime is so humdrum that there has to be more to the story.  Barlow seems to think that an attempt will be made to rob the cashiers department on its busiest day (when there could be as much as twenty thousand pounds for the taking).  If that’s the case (and Fox and James were the gang’s inside men) then it seems very foolish for them to have jeopardised the whole operation in order to make a little profit on the side.

Possibly the weakest part of Elwyn Jones’ script is Barlow’s sixth-sense which decides that an armed robbery is the real endgame.  Just how did he work this out? The story would have probably been more satisfying if the information about the intended robbery had come from an informer and the stock pilfering section had been excised (the time spent on this dead-end part of the plot could have been used to develop the individual characters of the gang).

Barlow and Cullen clash over the potential operation.  Barlow believes that the gang stand their best chance of succeeding if they make their attempt before the security guards arrive to take the money away, i.e. when the store is still open. Cullen argues that if they let things play out then innocent members of the public could get hurt.  Barlow agrees, but he wants to catch them in the act and not just arrest them for conspiracy.  Given that Cullen has always been portrayed as strong-willed and single-minded it seems a little uncharacteristic that he reverses his opinion so quickly and allows the covert operation to go ahead.

When Donald replaces one of the cashiers it’s easy to believe this is something of a sexist move (seemingly the only woman on the Task Force working at the till).  But amusingly this is undercut just a few seconds later when Barlow tells Lodge that he plans to replace another of his cashiers with Armstrong, who he says even looks like an accountant.  And with Watt dressed in overalls, shifting boxes into the back of a lorry, there’s another brief moment of humour to be enjoyed.

Will there be an attempt to steal the cash?  Looking down the cast list, names such as Alan Chuntz, Dinny Powell and Terry Walsh should provide you with the answer. Although it’s fair to say that it’s a very long build-up for such a brief moment of mayhem (nobody’s ever going to mistake Softly Softly: Task Force for The Sweeeny).  Evans gets shot, but only in the leg, so I’ve a feeling he’s going to live.

Even allowing for a few fisticuffs, Cash and Carry concludes the second series in a pretty low-key way.  It lacks the character drama that characterised most of the other stories, so has to go down as one of the lesser entries.  But generally the standard across the twenty six episodes was very consistent and I hope that it won’t be too long before series three is available.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Black Equals White

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A group of protesters have barricaded themselves on the first floor of a local hotel – their target being a group of businessmen and their wives.  The leader of the protest group, Leroy (Neville Aurelius), wants the businessmen to sign a letter admitting that their company discriminates against hiring black people in all but the most menial of positions. Barlow is keen to ensure that a peaceful solution is found, but this may not be possible ….

The colour problem was a topic that regularly turned up during this era of television.  Sometimes it was handled in a rather ham-fisted manner (the Callan episode Amos Green Must Live springs to mind) but on other occasions, as here, it provided some genuine food for thought.  Although that’s not to say that Black Equals White doesn’t have a few cringeworthy moments.

The protestors are a mixed group, male and female, black and white.  To begin with, Leroy is seen to be the obvious leader and he appears to advocate a policy of non-violence. This concept of a peaceful protest is shared by most of the others (there are quite a few “hey mans” bandied about and this, together with the endless protest songs. are a couple of reasons why this part of the story hasn’t aged terribly well).

But after a while it becomes clear that there’s another strong character upstairs, Mac (James Copeland).  Unlike Leroy, Mac is white and he also advocates more direct and threatening action.  Barlow later succulently sums Mac up.  “Party member I reckon. Closed mind, bitter.  Wherever there’s trouble that’s where you’ll find him.”  Given that Mac’s aims and ideals seem to be diametrically opposed to Leroy’s, it’s strange that they’ve joined forces, but an answer is provided at the end.

The hotel manager, Mr Henry (Angus MacKay), wants them out and he wants them out now.  MacKay’s ever increasing exasperation at the way that Barlow and Watt seems to be dragging their heels provides the episode with a rare shaft of humour.

A successful raid manages to extricate Leroy and he’s brought downstairs.  This only inflames Mac, who brings out a petrol bomb and tells the others that they may just have to use it.  Given that the rest are long-haired student types it seems clear this isn’t what they signed up for, although as most of them are non-speaking extras there’s not a great deal of debate.

Barlow and Leroy cross swords.  Neville Aurelius continues to play his part broadly whilst Stratford Johns is quite subdued and restrained.  This isn’t a bad choice from Johns as it allows Barlow to soak up Leroy’s various barbs without displaying the anger that Leroy was no doubt hoping to see.  Some of Leroy’s points might have struck home but there’s counter-arguments too – Snow mentions that unemployment isn’t just a problem for blacks.  In the end Barlow tells Leroy that the law isn’t perfect but it’s what they have and it’s what everybody has to live by.  Leroy sneers that white man’s laws don’t apply to him.

Barlow pleads with Leroy to ask the others to leave peacefully but he refuses which leaves Barlow no alternative but to send officers up in force.  It’s an interesting choice that we don’t see what happens to the protestors, instead we hear their screams whilst the camera focusses on both Barlow and Leroy.  Barlow’s faintly disgusted whilst Leroy seems satisfied.  He might not have openly advocated violence like Mac but he’s pleased enough that it’s happened, admitting to Barlow that it helps the cause.

Mr Henry pops up to express his feelings as the screams continue (“good god”).  But any fleeting thoughts that he’d suddenly gained a conscience are negated when his next words are “I’m losing business”.  Black Equals White may be content to paint its characters in fairly broad brush strokes but that doesn’t mean that it’s completely without merit.  Stratford Johns once again commands the screen as Barlow

All this plus Pat Gorman gets a couple of lines as well.  He may be one of the most familiar extras from this era of British television, but I can’t recall him speaking that often.   Which makes this appearance a notable one for Gorman watchers (I suspect we’re a small, but dedicated, group).

Softly Softly: Task Force – Held for Questioning

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The Task Force are out in numbers, looking for safebreaker Tommy Lee (Norman Jones).  Watt suspects that Lee was responsible for three recent robberies (in the latest, a security guard was shot and injured).  Hawkins brings in Jack Taylor (Denis Quilley), a known associate of Lee – although unlike Lee, Taylor has never been convicted of any crime.  Hawkins is convinced that Taylor knows where Tommy Lee is, but he proves to be a tough nut to crack ….

After a run of indifferent episodes, Robert Barr finally comes up with something very decent.  The clash between Hawkins and Taylor (and later Watt and Taylor) is most watchable, although the story does have one major plot flaw.   Watt strongly suspects that Lee and Taylor are partners and also that Lee will attempt to contact Taylor at the filling station he owns.  If that’s the case, then why bother to arrest Taylor?  They could have simply posted a few men in the vicinity, well hidden, and nabbed Lee when he turned up (which is pretty much what they do in the end anyway).  And since neither Hawkins or Watt manage to get Taylor to talk, the whole evening at the station has to be written off as a complete waste.

Denis Quilley was a heavyweight actor (he enjoyed lengthy spells at the National Theatre aappearing opposite the likes of Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud) which means that his casting helps to give Held for Questioning an extra lift.  To begin with, Taylor claims he hasn’t seen Lee for five years.  Later he admits that they have met a few times recently, but that he’s not involved with Lee’s criminal activities.

Taylor maintains an air of amused indifference during his interview with Hawkins.  He rarely seems flustered, meaning that any progress Hawkins makes is agonisingly slow.  There are a few flashpoints but it’s not until Watt turns up that the sparks really start to fly.  Watt asks exactly the same questions, but does so in a highly aggressive manner, causing the first signs of real anger from Taylor.  Windsor and Quilley – facing each other eyeball to eyeball – are both mesmerising in this scene.

There’s also a fascinating clash between Taylor and the duty officer, Chief Inspector Rankin (Michael Griffiths).  Taylor is well-known to the officers at the station, especially Rankin.  When the Chief Inspector pops his head around the interview room door, Taylor takes the opportunity to aim a few will-timed jibes in his direction.  His claim that he was attacked by several officers the last time he was there could be dismissed as simple troublemaking, but Cullen’s arrival confirms that it did actually happen (and officers were suspended).

Given that Taylor’s never been convicted of any crime (up until now) this moment shines a little light on police methods at the time.  Barr’s script doesn’t condone or condemn, but the inference is plain – it’s also spelled out earlier by Hawkins – you may be innocent in the eyes of the law but that doesn’t stop you from being regarded as guilty by the police.  It’s a brief, but disquieting, moment.

Norman Jones, as Lee, doesn’t have a great deal to do as he’s holed up for most of the episode, vainly attempting to contact Taylor.  In fact it’s easy to see how the story could have dispensed with his on-screen appearances completely (a quick message to say that he’d been captured would have sufficed).  Indeed, if the story really wanted to do something a little different then it could have taken place entirely within the confines of the interview room (at first I thought that was the way the episode would go).  A bit of a shame they didn’t go down this route, as all the best scenes do take place within the interview room, everything outside is of secondary importance.

A few minor quibbles apart, this is a fine showcase for Windsor, Bowler and Quilley.

Softly Softly: Task Force – In The Public Gaze

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Returning home after a less than enjoyable social function, Cullen spies a young officer, PC Pugh (Martin C. Thursley), being attacked by two men – Dawson (Michael Finbar) and Wilson (Gawn Grainger).  Without a seconds hesitation Cullen steams in, pulls both men off the stricken officer and bangs their heads together.  Although Cullen obviously saved Pugh from further punishment he’s laid himself open to an assault charge, which is further complicated after Dawson drops dead the next day ….

Episodes where Cullen is central to proceedings are rather rare, so In The Public Gaze is something of a treat.  Gotell’s firing on all cylinders right from the start as he subdues PC Pugh’s two attackers.  Snow, next on the scene, reacts with barely disguised admiration at the way the Chief Constable handled himself and it’s impossible not to agree with him.  Prior to the attack we have an opportunity to observe Cullen’s wry sense of humour as he tells his driver they might as well listen to the light programme on the way home and then proceeds to switch the radio over to the police frequency!

Walter Gotell and Stratford Johns share some sharply-written two-handed scenes as Cullen and Barlow mull over the possibilities.  Cullen declares that he’s not a man of violence whilst Barlow reflects on the way he’s trying to conserve his energies.   For example, Chief Superintendent Leach (Reginald Marsh), is a capable enough officer, but not when he’s worried or flustered.  And the arrival of the Chief Constable at his station is just the sort of thing to drive Leach to distraction so Barlow is careful to treat him with kid gloves, rather than lose his temper with him.  Marsh doesn’t have a great deal to do but he’s quite effective at looming in the background looking anxious.

It’s stated several times that Wilson is a troublemaker who will delight in laying the blame for his injuries at Cullen’s door.  What’s interesting is that we don’t see Wilson or Dawson during the period that they’re in custody – either whilst they’re being interviewed or later when they’re charged.  The first time we hear either of them speak is the following day, when the pair are presented at the magistrates court, prior to a possible trial.

Most other police series would have chosen to display them as cocky, arrogant types, but that isn’t the case here.  Both are hesitant and stumbling in the way that they question Pugh about the attack, which is an unexpected touch.  Armstrong conducts the police case, but he’s unsuccessful in keeping Cullen out of the witness box .  This infuriates Barlow, who maintains that a word in the right ear could have saved them all this hassle.  Cullen ironically jibes him about the old boy network, but Barlow doesn’t see anything wrong in bending the law in a good cause.

After Dawson’s death, the story moves to the coroner’s court.  It’s established that Dawson had an aneurism and so could have died at any time, but was there a reason why it happened now?  The Chief Constable is called to give evidence and Gotell once again commands the screen as Cullen gives a clear, concise statement about the events in question.  When questioned about whether he’s set any guidelines concerning the amount of force which should be used by his officers, he answers in the negative but adds “I do not want my men to get involved in a fight. But if they do, I expect them to win.”

A verdict of death by natural causes is recorded, but Wilson continues to harangue Cullen. The coroner makes the good point (he’s the first to do so) that Wilson has to share some of the blame since he involved Dawson in the attack on Pugh, but this falls on deaf ears.  And Wilson doesn’t let up – bombarding the press and members of the police committee with letters.  Barlow muses to Armstrong that something has to be done about him ….

In The Public Gaze is another excellent script by Elwyn Jones.  As touched upon, Gotell excels throughout whilst the solution to neutralising Wilson is a neat one.  PC Snow is responsible for delivering the metaphorical knock-out punch, with Terence Rigby on typically good and intimidating form.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Games

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A thirteen-year old girl called Emma Jones (Jane Sharkey) is brought into one of the local stations by Donald.  Emma has cuts and bruises to her face and tells Donald that she was attacked by an unknown man.  One of Emma’s school friends, David Ransom (Andrew Benson), provides a statement which gives a clear description of her attacker – a tramp with a flapping shoe.  Watt, passing through all the stations in the area whilst investigating their security procedures, becomes intrigued with the case and begins to dig ….

One aspect of the series which is sometimes overlooked is that the Task Force is a mobile unit which can be deployed to assist officers and stations in the force area.  That theme is sort of touched upon here, as the entire story takes place within an unfamiliar police station.  But there is a touch of contrivance about this since Watt and Armstrong aren’t there because of this case, they’re simply in the right place at the right time to lend their assistance to Hawkins and Donald (although it’s clear that Hawkins begins to rue Watt’s presence just a little).

Watt’s first appearance is memorable.  Striding through the station door with Armstrong and another officer either side, Watt tells the desk sergeant (played by Colin Rix) that he’s “a militant Black Panther.”  Pointing to the two officers with him he then tells the befuddled sergeant that “he’s got a petrol bomb in his hands, and he’s a skinhead under detention. With over a hundred mates outside threatening blue murder if you don’t let him go, what would you do?”  The sergeant manages to provide a suitable reply to this hypothetical question, which pleases Watt slightly, although he’s not too impressed with the fairly flimsy security procedures currently in place.

If Stratford Johns (sitting this episode out) is never less than first-class, then the same must be said of Frank Windsor.  This is an excellent script for Watt, allowing him to take centre-stage (even if it’s really Hawkins’ investigation not his).

Donald takes a statement from the girl and is as sensitive as you’d expect.  Emma seems a little shell-shocked at first but then slowly springs into life.  But there’s a lingering sense that something isn’t quite right and many might have guessed the answer before Watt spells it out.  Emma wasn’t attacked – she threw herself down the embankment deliberately, causing her injuries.  David’s statement is false as well, meaning that both children have deliberately told a pack of lies.  This then explains the episode title  …..

We don’t find out what David’s reasons were (although the probability is that he agreed to help Emma because he’s fond of her).  Emma’s motivation is much clearer – after her father remarried (and with someone not much older than herself, she says with vague disgust) she admits to feeling neglected.  And although she still lives with her mother, Mrs Jones is more interested in her new boyfriend than she is with her daughter, so there’s neglect on that side as well.

It’s telling that we never see either of Emma’s parents in the flesh, which helps to reinforce Emma’s sense of isolation.  Instead, a neighbour called Mrs Lacey (Jean Boht) is on hand to explain to Watt why Mrs Jones can’t be contacted.  She’s spending the day with her boyfriend, who happens to be married, and so the pair don’t want to be bothered.  Watt is aghast at this, surely she would want to know that her daughter was attacked?  But Mrs Lacey (maybe speaking for Mrs Jones as well) tells Watt that the girl’s only got cuts and bruises, so why make a fuss?

The lack of parental interest is reinforced later – Watt sends a car round for Mrs Jones and we’re told how her boyfriend was less than pleased to be disturbed by the police.  But it’s interesting that since Emma’s parents are denied a voice of their own we’re clearly not seeing the full picture – only the one that Emma wants us to see.  And it’s open to debate exactly how truthful that is.

Hawkins and Watt regard the two children very differently.  Hawkins wants to throw the book at them and their parents, but Watt elects to let them go with the minimum of fuss.  Since they want to be the centre of attention he’s simply denying them this chance.

This is a tight studio-bound story by Arnold Yarrow.  Jane Sharkey only had two further television credits following this (both were on The Bill some two decades later) which is slightly surprising as she’s got a decent screen presence.  The sub-plot of the hunt for a suspect tramp means that the station is overrun by them, most notably Terence de Marney as Timothy Lee.  A very experienced theatre, film and television actor, this was his penultimate credit before his death in 1971.

After a few fairly indifferent episodes, Games is a return to form.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Something Big

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Detective Chief Superintendent Alan (John Woodvine) of the Regional Crime Squad asks for Barlow’s help.  He’s interested in two known criminals, Hulton (William Abney) and McBride (Godfrey Quigley), whom he believes are in the Task Force’s area.

Watt discovers they’ve been seen in the company of Peter Thornley (Jeremy Wilkin).  Thornley owns a substantial house which is packed with valuable works of art.  But Hulton and McBride aren’t interested in burglary – they want to use Thornley’s house for a high-stakes evening of gambling.  It isn’t the gambling that interests Alan though, he’s hopeful that the evening will entice a much wanted criminal, Rendell (David Morrell), into making a rare public appearance ….

I’ve not been the greatest admirer of Robert Barr’s contributions to series two and although Something Big is solid enough, there’s still something lacking.  Peter Thornley remains a rather nebulous character, since it’s never established exactly why he should decide to throw in his hand with Hulton and McBride.  It can’t be money, since Thornley inherited numerous valuable pieces (paintings by Constable, etc) from his father.  He does seem mildly besotted with Pat Anderson (Vicki Woolf), a hostess introduced to him by Hulton and McBride, but since, like Thornley, she has very little dialogue it’s a relationship that’s never established with any substance.

Thankfully John Woodvine is on hand to bring a touch of class to the story.  There’s a vague sense of combative one-upmanship between Barlow and Alan, but although Alan plays his cards close to his chest to begin with, he doesn’t leave Barlow in the dark for too long.  In truth, Alan’s dialogue is nothing special, but Woodvine has the sort of natural gravitas which is able to give light and shade to even fairly undistinguished material.

A brief appearance by Desmond Llewellyn proves to be another highlight in a fairly average story that rather splutters to a conclusion.  We’re told that Rendell could be armed and is certainly dangerous, but everything passes off without a hitch when he’s taken into custody.  Rendell is another character who barely utters a handful of words, meaning that it’s hard to feel at all invested in his fate.  A shame that they couldn’t have featured the same character in an earlier story, that way his appearance here would have had a certain impact.

As it is, his capture stirs no emotions.  We’ve been told he’s a bad ‘un, but we’ve never had the chance to witness it for ourselves.  Show not tell is a basic rule of storytelling, but unfortunately it’s not adhered to here.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Final Score

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Final Score offers a good opportunity to see Barlow in action.  He begins by questioning Mrs Young (Avis Bunnage).  She works for Khan as a cleaner and had assisted Tommy Nunn in the recent robbery from Khan’s jewellers (Tommy did the robbery, Mrs Young took possession of the stones).

She’s taciturn during Barlow’s interview with her, offering little more than non-committal answers.  The director, Paul Ciappessoni, favours close-ups of Barlow and Mrs Nunn during this scene, quickly cutting between the two.  This helps to create a sense of anxiety and claustrophobia.

Although he doesn’t make much headway with Mrs Nunn, he has rather more fun with Khan.  Having recovered the stolen stones from Mrs Young, Barlow’s interested to see if Khan will claim them (unlikely, since they were already stolen before he received them).  Stratford Johns, Norman Bowler and George Pravda all sparkle in this scene – Khan has the persona of a slightly confused foreigner, whilst Barlow alternates between charming and threatening at will.  Hawkins chips in to increase the pressure a little more.

Watt wants to turn the screw on Tommy Nunn by telling him that Mrs Young will be charged with both robbery and possession of the stones.  He asks Evans to do it and also to apologise for suspecting him, but Evans is hesitant – it’s a lie and he doesn’t like telling lies.  Watt’s reaction is swift – he tells him to go back to normal duties, as he’s too delicate for this type of work.  After Evans exits Watt’s office he’s clearly kicking himself about his offhand comment.  We’ve seen before that Evans seems to have had a certain leeway in the way he interacts with his superiors, so it’s possibly not surprising that eventually his off-hand conduct would catch up with him.

If it hadn’t been for the playing of George Pravda and Roddy McMillan the crime part of the story probably wouldn’t have been as interesting as it turned out.  Given this, it’s a little debatable whether it should have been spread out across two episodes.

There are some character moments between the regulars which help to keep the interest level up during the second half of this episode.  Snow pops up with a present for Barlow from Watt – a bottle of whisky.  Barlow then asks Snow if he’s passed his sergeant’s exam.  Snow says he has, but doesn’t want to apply just at the moment, due to his attachment to Radar.  He’s not interested in continuing as a dog-handler when he’s made up to sergeant, but he’ll stick with Radar as long as he’s able to do the job.  And after Radar retires he’ll then move up the ranks.

But just as the story seems to be rather meandering to a halt, there’s shocking news – Mrs Young is dead (she committed suicide in her cell).  Unsurprisingly we don’t witness the aftermath of Mrs Young’s death – it’s only reported – and neither is any concern expressed that her death might trigger an investigation.  Madeline Mills made her only SS:TF appearance as WPC Berry, who’d been assigned to watch Mrs Young.  Given the paucity of female characters in the series it’s a pity her character (or someone similar) wasn’t retained.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Kick Off

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Barlow and Watt are at the big match.  Whilst Watt is enjoying the luxury of the director’s box, Barlow is in much less salubrious surroundings, intently watching the crowd from a private vantage point, high up.   Inspector Armstrong (Terrence Hardiman) is also there – directing the officers towards potential trouble-spots.  Armstrong, a martinet by-the-book character, and Barlow, free and easy on the surface but with a core of steel underneath, don’t hit it off.

This isn’t surprising as Armstrong is a graduate policeman – a lawyer with a first-class degree – and therefore just the sort of copper that Barlow has little regard for.  So he amuses himself by gently needling the man, which passes the time as he searches the crowd.  Armstrong doesn’t enjoy football, rugby’s his game.  Barlow correctly guesses that he means rugby union, whereas Barlow prefers “rugby league, faster professional.”

At the start of the episode Armstrong isn’t a member of the Task Force, but it’ll possibly come as no surprise to learn that Cullen, deciding that the Inspector should have some hard practical experience, decides to deploy him there.  Armstrong’s not pleased, enquiring if he has to report directly to Barlow.  Cullen says not, but tells him that if he has a problem with Barlow then he needs to sort it out.  “You fit in with him, not the other way around. Charlie Barlow is the best head of CID that this constabulary has ever had.”

Armstrong is going places.  He’s the youngest uniformed Inspector in the division, in two years time he’ll be a Chief Inspector and his progress ever upwards to Chief Constable seems to be predestined.  Older hands, such as Watt, have a distinct lack of enthusiasm for him.  “Men a lot younger than me making Chief Constable.”  Watt’s therefore less than overjoyed when Cullen tells him Armstrong will be seconded to the Task Force, but before Cullen leaves he has this to say. “Things are moving pretty fast in this service, the old order changes, yielding place to new. Armstrong might be made Chief Constable in a force you want to serve in. It’s worth bearing that in mind in your treatment of him, I mean.”

Watt calls Armstrong in.  He enters the office ramrod straight, swagger stick under his arm, standing to attention as if he’s on parade.  This is just the sort of thing that’s guaranteed to irritate Watt and it’s plan that if Armstrong’s going to fit in he’s going to have to unbend a little.  His later encounter with Evans is a case in point.  We’ve seen how Evans has amused himself by baiting Jackson in the past, and he carries on in much the same vein with Armstrong.  When the Inspector asks him if he always dresses so sloppily, Evans’ rejoinder is unabashed.  “Yes sir. As a rule, it’s my bulk you see. Everything wrinkles on me. Oh, and I’ve got messy eating habits, too.”

Jackson has gained his promotion to Inspector and is departing for a six-month fact-finding course overseas.  And that, I believe, is the last we see of him as this appears to be David Allister’s last SS:TF credit.  Susan Tebbs also bows out at the end of the year, which is also a shame – both will be missed.

Although Jackson’s never been the most popular officer, there does seem to be genuine pleasure from the others at his promotion – Barlow’s handshake for example.  It’s a pity that the possibility of his promotion couldn’t have been touched upon in earlier episodes, as it comes totally out of the blue.  His yell of “yippee” as he hears the news is a nice touch and is also something which is completely in character (a brief display of emotion before returning to his usual business-like state).  Also, everybody seems to have recently got into the habit of calling him Jacko, something which I don’t recall hearing very often before.

Apart from these comings and goings there is a spot of crime as well.  Barlow was at the match since he was concerned that somebody might be interested in stealing the gate takings.  This didn’t happen, but as Kick Off is the first of a two-parter there’s a sense that this story isn’t over yet.

Another plot-line that’s still running concerns a thief called Tommy Nunn (Roddy McMillan).  Barlow spotted Tommy in the crowd and asked Hawkins to tail him, although Hawkins lost him in the general melee.  This is unfortunate as Tommy robbed a local jewellers just before the end of the match.  The owner, Kahn (George Pravda), seems philosophical about his loss, but things aren’t quite as they seem.  Kahn is a fence and the items Tommy stole had already been stolen – so he takes great pleasure in blackmailing Kahn (if he doesn’t pay up then the items go to the police, with a note to say where they came from).

McMillan (later to play ‘Choc’ Minty in Hazell) and Pravda (an instantly recognisable face from a score of different television series of this era) are both solid actors and help to keep the interest of this sub-plot bubbling along.  The football scenes might be a mish-mash of stock footage, brief clips of a real match (which since it’s recorded on videotape rather jars with the film shots) and studio material (which also jars with the film-work) but it creates a reasonable impression.

And as we see Hawkins tail Tommy, either the series had employed an impressive number of extras or they took the opportunity to slip their actors into the departing crowd of a real match.  There’s also the opportunity to witness how Evans deals with troublemakers at the match – give them a quick clip on the ear and send one of them off to stand somewhere else!  Since the squabbling pair were teenage girls this has the potential for being a little dodgy, but it’s never a serious plot point, it’s just there to add a bit of colour.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Company Business

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Three batches of platinum, worth thousands, have been stolen from Nitrosyn Chemicals over the past ten months. Watt decides to send a man in undercover to root through their paperwork, and his unexpected choice is Jackson ….

Since he’s desk-bound and decidedly non-operational most of the time, there’s considerable novelty value in witnessing a plain-clothes Jackson working a case from the sharp end.  And John Elliot’s script certainly gives David Allister much more scope than usual.

Jackson tends to be presented as a humourless, cold and logical man.  But with Company Business we see quite a different character – one who’s able to interact with others by displaying humour and charm.  He catches the eye of a secretary at the factory, Ruth Kemp (Wendy Gifford), and it’s plain that she’s keen to get to know him better.  Jackson demurs though – is this because he’s afraid of an emotional attachment or is he simply concentrating on the job in hand?

Only the managing director, Fisher (Donald Douglas), knows the real reason for Jackson’s presence (everybody else thinks he’s a time and motion expert).  Jackson expresses a wish to meet the senior staff in an informal setting and Fisher tells him that it couldn’t be easier – one of Nitrosyn’s key personnel, Calwell (William Dexter) is throwing a party and he adds Jackson to the invite list.

Calwell immediately catches Jackson’s attention.  Both he and his wife Linda (Penelope Lee) are charming, but Jackson immediately senses something slightly off about him.  And after he visits Calwell’s boat, his suspicions harden into certainty.  The boat has had a considerable amount of work undertaken recently – where has the money come from?

For Jackson it’s obvious, Calwell is the thief. He tells this to Donald, who’s acting as his contact.  And he also explains the reason why his colleagues don’t suspect him.  “Oh, they’re all on the old boy net, the old school club, it wouldn’t be cricket. They make me a bit sick.”

Donald is posing as Jackson’s girlfriend, something which she’s not terribly keen about at all!  This is made obvious when they meet in the hotel bar for a debrief.  She’s slightly miffed at being kept waiting and rather flinches when Jackson, playing the part of the dutiful boyfriend with gusto, attempts to kiss her.  But they manage to get a good meal (on expenses) so it’s not all bad.

If Donald’s a little exasperated with Jackson then so is Watt.  Jackson’s theory is interesting, but it’s just that – a theory.  Watt’s irritated that Jackson’s not checking the paper trail like he was supposed to, instead he’s off playing detective.  It’s been hammered home time and again across numerous stories that Jackson’s not a detective – we’ve seen how others, especially Evans and Barlow, tend to treat him with veiled (and not so veiled) contempt.  To them he’s a penpusher, plain and simple.

Watt isn’t quite so prejudiced, but he’s not best pleased that Jackson seems to be stringing this job out.  He’s especially horrified at the thought that Jackson and Donald might be enjoying a slap-up meal at the taxpayers expense every week!  So next time, Watt takes Donald’s place and can’t help but start with a dig about food.  “I surprised you didn’t choose the Chinese joint up the road. That’s very plushy.”

There’s further wonderfully deadpan lines delivered so well by Frank Windsor after Jackson tells Watt that he’s stood up a beautiful girl, Ruth, in order to be here.  Watt’s sympathy is in rather short supply.  “And I’m missing me hot dinner, so let’s get on.”

The thefts are, of course, not the point of the story.  Company Business is concerned with Sergeant Jackson’s skills, or otherwise, as an investigating policeman.  His abilities as an administrator and organiser are second to none, but does he have the instinct to be able to tell the guilty from the innocent?

The group of regulars in this one is quite small.  Hawkins doesn’t have a great deal to do, except react to Watt, leaving Jackson, Donald and Watt as the main players.  As I’ve said, the chance to see Jackson as a more rounded character is a welcome rarity and Donald and Watt are both well served with some of the sharper lines in the script.  Things work out well in the end, although it’ll come as no surprise to learn that the dour Watt is quick to tell Jackson that one job doesn’t make him a detective.

 

Softly Softly: Task Force – Ground Level

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Reports reach the Task Force that bricks have been pilfered from a building site.  It’s a pretty trivial sort of crime but it still catches Barlow’s attention, especially when Jean Watt tells him that one of the builders, Wheeler (John Hammill), has been visiting houses in the area, touting for business.  Is Wheeler using pilfered materials in order to do a spot of moonlighting?  Snow, Evans and Barlow all examine the ins ands outs of the building trade.

Like Alan Plater’s other series two scripts, Ground Level doesn’t feature any serious crime, but then a great deal of police work is concerned with the mundane and routine, so this isn’t a problem.  But if it’s an Alan Plater script you should expect some very decent dialogue, and he doesn’t disappoint here.

He writes particularly well for Jackson, Evans and Snow.  The barbed relationship between Evans and Jackson is maintained (Evans asks Jackson if he’s aware that it’s a lovely day.  Jackson answers in the negative and with mock surprise Evans tells him that he would have expected this important information would have been filed away already).

Terence Rigby is also well treated, especially during the scene where Snow interviews Mrs Arnold (Mary Hignett).  Mrs Arnold, a well-spoken elderly lady, reported the theft of the bricks but is somewhat vague with details, meaning that the long-suffering Snow has to use every ounce of his self control to stay polite.  A decade or so later Plater would again write for Rigby, this time in The Beiderbecke Affair and The Beiderbecke Connection.   Was Rigby cast because Plater remembered him from his Softly Softly days I wonder?  And since I tend to connect Mary Hignett with the very Yorkshire Mrs Hall she played in All Creatures Great and Small, her cut-glass accent here came as a little surprise.

Laker (Alec Ross) is in charge of the building site, but isn’t at all bothered when Evans tells him that some of his supplies might have been stolen.  In a job this size it’s mere pinpricks and not something he’s prepared to get worked up about.  This sticks in Evans’ craw a little – for him, theft is theft – but if Laker isn’t concerned, what can he do?

Although Barlow does suggest that everything – even trivial affairs like this – should be checked because they might lead to bigger things, it’s probably best not to expect any shattering revelations from this episode.  Barlow does get the chance to get out and about though – visiting the building site, posing as a prospective buyer – where he talks to the foreman Logan (Glyn Owen).

Ground Level is inconsequential in plot terms, but there are far worse ways to spend fifty minutes.

Softly Softly: Task Force – The Lie Direct

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PC Snow and Radar discover the dead body of a woman, later identified as Alice Forrester, in a parked car.  Barlow decides that Watt should lead the investigation and it doesn’t take long before a prime suspect – Jim Colley (Tony Calvin) – is found.  He even confesses, but something nags at both Barlow and Watt.  Colley is proven to be a born liar, so could his confession be false as well?

The Lie Direct opens with Snow and Radar on night duty.  A parked car in a lonely wood catches Snow’s attention and he decides to take a closer look.  It takes a few minutes before he makes his grisly discovery, but before that happens we cut to the bedroom of Watt and his wife (Jean, a doctor).  The camera lingers over their two bedside phones – one either side – so it’s clear that one or more are going to be ringing soon.  There’s a similar shot of Barlow’s bedroom, which again informs us about what is shortly going to happen.

Jean is called out to pronounce that life is extinct, whilst her husband sleeps on.  Barlow is informed of the murder – as is routine – and we then have a good example of his devilish sense of humour.  He tells the duty office that he’d be happy to come down to the scene, but they might like to contact Mr Watt to see if he’d prefer to go instead.  As soon as he puts the phone down, there’s a wolfish grin on Barlow’s face as he gets up and starts to get dressed.  He’s interrupted Watt’s peaceful night, which no doubt is the reason for his jubilation!

From the moment we first meet Colley there’s something unsettling about him.  He tells Donald that he’s Mrs Forrester’s lodger (but that’s all, she’s far too old for him).  When he’s told of her death his reaction is remarkably casual, there’s not a trace of shock or surprise.  We later learn that Colley and Mrs Forrester were married a month ago and they had a row on the day she disappeared – over money – which gives him a powerful motive for murder.

He obligingly confesses, but since this doesn’t happen at the end of the story there’s a sense that we’re not seeing the full picture.  Tony Calvin is mesmerising as Colley.  Is Colley the coolest murderer ever, is he mad, or is he simply an innocent who’s unaware of the hole he’s digging himself into?  As the episode progresses, this is the question that all the officers have to ask themselves.

Donald was convinced of his guilt from the moment she first spoke to him, whilst Watt is much more cautious.  He makes his position clear – they have to examine all the possibilities, since approaching any potential suspect with a closed mind is dangerous.  Colley later tells them that Mrs Forrester had a boyfriend (albeit a rather old “boy” – he’s in his sixties) which is another avenue to be explored.

Allan Prior delivers another decent script that serves the selected regulars – Barlow, Watt, Hawkins, Donald, Snow – incredibly well.  After leaving the investigation in Watt’s capable hands, Barlow returns later to question Colley.  We might expect Barlow to be in full intimidating mode, but that’s not the case – unexpectedly he also demonstrates compassion.  When the case is over, he mulls events over with Jean.  Even after all he’s seen over the years he still manages a certain amount of disconnection, as he tells her it’s the court who decide innocence or guilt, not him.  He just has to deliver them up.  Whether he’s being truthful here is debatable, as we’ve seen him get personally involved on many, many occasions ….

Watt is irritated throughout.  He’s irritated at being woken up and his irritation remains after Barlow leaves him in charge.  Watt succinctly sums his superior officer up (“bastard!”) but unsurprisingly does so when he’s not in earshot.  Hawkins is cheerful, positive and keen to tackle the enquiry without Barlow breathing down their necks.  Donald does a fair amount of questioning of suspects and witnesses (notably Colley and Mrs Forrester’s sister) and whilst Snow doesn’t say much, it’s always worth listening whenever he does speak.

Thanks to Colley’s unusual behaviour – he never responds in the way you’d expect – this is an above average effort.

Softly Softly: Task Force – A World Full of Rooms

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A prostitute called Sylvie Ashford (Jennifer Wilson) is knifed in her room.  Watt wants the culprit found and convicted, but he comes up against a wall of silence which is hard to break down ….

A World Full of Rooms opens with Sylvie entertaining what appears to be a client.  We later learn that Charley Smith (Milton Johns) is generally referred to as Mad Charley Smith, which given his actions and demeanour comes as no surprise.  Over the decades Johns has carved out a nice niche playing sadistic characters, of which Mad Charley is a prime example.

Sylvie’s slowing spiralling unease as she realises that the still, sinister man has an agenda of his own is nicely played by Wilson.  To emphasise the way she begins to feel trapped, the camera closes in on her face. An obvious move, but still effective.

Charley’s looking for Sylvie’s ponce, Tommy Bartrum, who’s disappeared.  Tommy works for Jackie Frankitt (Alex Scott) as does Charley.  Jackie’s currently inside, so his business interests (prostitution, naturally) are being looked after by his sister Mollie (Elizabeth Seal).  It appears that Tommy’s absconded with some of Jackie’s money, hence the interest.

The attack on Sylvie has disrupted the smooth running of the neighbourhood, which concerns Detective Sergeant Foster (Aubrey Richards).  Foster has been a vice detective for thirty years and it’s plain that he operates in a very hands-off mode.  He regards the vice scene in the area as disorganised and low-key, so sees no reason why everything should be stirred up by Watt’s aggressive questioning.  Rarely seen without a fag dangling from his mouth, Foster is the antithesis of a policeman like Watt.

As the Task Force’s token woman, it falls to Donald to go to the hospital to try and make Sylvie talk.  Considering that it wasn’t a life-threatening attack, it seems a little strange that Donald spends so much time with her.  It’s also slightly odd that Sylvie seems to have a private room complete with a television set.  Clearly prostitution pays ….

Sylvie tells Donald that “you’re a different animal to me. You live in the fresh air, see. I live in a room, with little rodents. Ever since I was 16, I’ve lived in rooms, whole world full of little rodents.”  Donald tries to get her to name her attacker, but Sylvie knows what her fate would be.  She’s offered protection, but Donald’s offer is an empty one (which presumably she realises – after all, how long could they really protect her?).

Jake Rollins (Keith Marsh) and John Johnson (John Bown) are also reluctant to talk to the police.  They live in the flat below Sylvie and Jake is able to identity Charley as Sylvie’s attacker.  But Jake also knows what would happen if he was to give evidence.  Jake and John are clearly a couple, although it’s not stated outright.  After Watt and Snow leave their room, Snow remarks that they were quite helpful, considering.  Watt looks at him but doesn’t say anything.  Later Watt uses the same remark to Snow in an ironic way, although Snow doesn’t respond either.  Snow’s prejudices are therefore made clear, but not in an overt way.

Watt is able to persuade both Jake and Sylvie to name Mad Charley.  His bullying of Sylvie is something of an eye-opener (the episode closes with a shot of Sylvie’s weary face lying in her hospital bed).  She might have agreed to give a statement, but at what cost to her?  And what cost to Jake and John?  Watt may have got the result he wanted – enough evidence to charge Charley – but there’s an uncomfortable sense that the witnesses may be looking over their shoulders for the rest of their lives.  Does Watt appreciate this, or is the “result” the only thing that matters?

Another taut script from Allan Prior, A World Full of Rooms is enlivened by several of the guest players, notably Milton Johns and Jennifer Wilson.  At the start of the story, Charley is totally in control, but when we see him again (towards the end) this control is starting to crack.  If Johns has always been good at playing sadists, then he’s even better at playing sadists who have some sort of character flaw, like Mad Charley.  The scenes between Wilson and Tebbs, as Sylvie recounts her life, don’t advance the plot a great deal, but they help to make her seem like a real person, rather than the cliché figure of the middle-aged prostitute she otherwise might have been.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Bearings

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News of a collision between a goods and a passenger train shatters the early morning Monday routine.  It’s a bad business – some six people are dead and numerous others are injured – but it was no accident (wheel bearings were stripped from the goods train prior to it setting out).  These bearings have long been the target of thieves, who can make a tidy sum selling them to scrap metal merchants.  Barlow is incensed, he considers the culprits are guilty of murder.  But Watt, whilst sympathetic, knows it’ll be almost impossible to prove …..

Bearings has a quiet opening.  Barlow pops into Watt’s office and they exchange notes about how their respective weekends went.  Watt’s was restful, a few jars and a doze in his armchair whilst Barlow still seems to be suffering from the efforts of a round of golf.  Barlow wonders if maybe he should take up drinking as a hobby, like Watt, to which Watt counters that since Barlow does so much drinking when he’s working he’d have no time to fit it in during his off duty time!

There’s also a chance to witness the workings of the operations room, as men and women quietly and efficiently deal with the public’s emergency calls.  The operations room is the location where it’s established exactly how serious the train incident is.  This isn’t surprising, as all the train footage we see is stock material of real accidents.  Given SS:TF’s limited budget, mounting a crash was never going to happen, although it’s a pity that due to the inferior picture quality of the stock footage it’s rather a jarring moment.  But Evans’ radio report about what he can observe, together with the brief stock shots, help to create a reasonable impression.

Barlow might regard the theft of the wheel bearings as murder, but Watt isn’t so sure.  He believes the best they can hope for is to charge the culprits with dishonest handling, how can you prove that somebody actually removed the bearings, unless you have a witness?  Once it’s been established what caused the derailment, the officers click into action and proceed to question all the local scrap metal merchants

There’s a nice clash between Evans and Jackson.  They might both be Sergeants, but Evans has a certain amount of disdain for the desk-bound Jackson.  Although Jackson says that without paperwork and planning they’d never catch any criminals, Evans counters that it doesn’t catch thieves.  “You can’t plan that look in a man’s face that says all you’ve got to do is lean on him and you’ve got him”.  And Evans’ nose comes up trumps as he finds the bearings in the possession of Matthew Riley (Desmond Perry). So score one to Evans then.

Barlow conducts the interview with Riley, which means we’re guaranteed some fireworks.  It’s a memorable encounter – even after learning that the loss of the bearings caused a substantial loss of life, Riley is unmoved.  Barlow slightly loses his cool and afterwards concedes that he rather bodged the interview   “That’s the trouble with shock tactics, once you’ve used them you’ve got nothing left.”

The transport police believe that Wiley (Paul Thompson) and Dawes (Jack Carr) might have been responsible for stealing the bearings, but Watt doesn’t make any headway questioning them.  Evans (who seems to spend just as much time these days in plain clothes as he does in uniform) is tasked to keep them under observation.  This he does and he also runs down a couple more suspects who might provide them with the break they need to gain a conviction.

Bearings is another story which finds Stratford Johns on top form.  Barlow is at his intimidating best, but is still unable to make any of the suspects talk – even Johnstone (Adrian Shergold) the youngest and most inexperienced of them won’t admit anything.

The human tragedy of the crash is brought starkly into focus when a mother tearfully identities a shoe which belonged to her missing eleven-year old daughter.  Barlow brandishes the shoe to Johnstone and the others, which is finally enough to make the younger man come clean.  Whether Barlow will be able to gain a conviction for murder or manslaughter is outside the parameters of the story, but he’s at least got somebody to admit what happened, which is a victory of sorts.

Bearings makes a virtue out of its lack of budget.  We don’t see the train crash or its aftermath, nor do we see the police traipse around all the local scrap metal merchants (we’re told there’s quite a few in the area).  Instead, the story focuses on the police’s efforts to gather evidence.  The breakthrough – a distressed mother and her child’s shoe – is a rather random event, but it doesn’t feel too contrived.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Sweet are the Uses of Adversity

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A prostitute called Vera (Maggy Maxwell) is beaten up.  This irritates Hawkins, in charge of the Task Force during Watt’s absence, as Snow was keeping her under surveillance at the time ….

Sweet are the Uses of Adversity is a story that allows Hawkins to demonstrate his skills as a leader.  He’s clearly somewhat hesitant about taking command – demonstrated by his reluctance to use Watt’s office.  This was a suggestion made by Sergeant Jackson, a man who’s plainly very ambitious (much more ambitious than the easy-going Hawkins that’s for sure).  An interesting character-beat is developed when Jackson admits that he’s always fancied being either a butler or a valet and we see him put those skills in operation later in the episode.  Hawkins, the worse for wear after a night’s surveillance, is greeted by a chirpy Jackson who presents him with a fresh shirt and a razor.  Hawkins is irritated.  “Look, valet, am I going on parade or something?”  But Jackson’s response that Cullen wants to see him in half an hour is more than enough to make him spring into action!

In previous episodes we’ve seen Watt and Barlow gently (and not so gently) restrain some of Jackson’s impulses.  He’s a man who wants to get on in the force and is happy to ally himself to anybody – such as Hawkins – who might smooth his passage.  But it’s undeniable that Jackson makes a good point with his suggestion that Hawkins uses Watt’s office.  Hawkins must be seen to be in charge if he’s to command the respect of those below him.   Which raises the concept that command is – in part – little more than an acting job.

Jackson continues to operate as the power behind the throne by providing various avenues for Hawkins to investigate.  Whether Hawkins would have achieved so much without Jackson’s input is debatable – we’ve seen the Sergeant provide Watt with invaluable advice previously, but here he seems even more proactive.  That he desires to be the one in command has been a running thread since his earliest appearances.

Snow is mildly roasted by Hawkins, but Snow argues he was detailed to keep a watch on the house (he wouldn’t have been able to observe what was happening inside).  Evans, who’d taken over from Snow on watch, is first on the scene following the arrival of the ambulance for Vera.  This is a much more harder-edged Evans, somewhat removed from his more relaxed and jovial persona.

A woman’s touch is required, so Donald interviews Vera in the hospital.  She can’t tell the detective a great deal – names are not used in her business – but does reveal that the man was probably a Geordie.  The sight of Vera, middle-aged and careworn even without the bruises, makes a change from the more usual depiction of prostitutes as young and attractive.  Jennifer (Irene Bradshaw), the other prostitute in the house, fits the more stereotypical profile of the young and glamorous working girl.

Geordie (credited as such on the end titles, since we never learn his name) seems to be responsible for a number of other break-ins and assaults in the area, although the speed at which the Task Force jump to this conclusion feels a little contrived.  At one house, Evans radios in to say that he’s found some fingerprints which look very similar to the ones they’d taken from other recent crime scenes.  That Evans could zero in to suspect fingerprints is impressive enough, but to be able to match them with his naked eye to previously taken dabs is a step too far!

We then start to follow Geordie (Alan Tucker).  He’s very much a loner, and this lack of interaction with others allows Tucker the chance to show the character’s instability in a variety of non-verbal ways.  Using a knife to deface a table in one of the houses which he’s burgled is an obvious example.  Later he buys a bottle of milk from a milkman and then proceeds to smash it over the unfortunate milkman’s head.  This flash of violence – albeit mostly achieved offscreen – is unsettling.  Alan Tucker, as Geordie, doesn’t utter a word until the forty sixth minute.  His lack of speech works very well in maintaining an aura of menace and unpredictability around the character. His motivations remain a mystery though. We discover he has a job, so he’s not stealing money for need – presumably he just enjoys robbery with violence.

Hawkins’ inexperience sees him make decisions which possibly aren’t the best.  He later rallies the troops with a pep talk, although it’s slightly frustrating that this happens off-screen (we only hear about it from Donald and Evans).  Evans is impressed, calling it a beautiful speech.  Donald is slightly more cautious, for her it was a shrewd but cagey talk.

Sweet are the Uses of Adversity is an archetypical episode of SS:TF, with Elwyn Jones’ script concentrating on the character interactions of the regulars.  Norman Bowler and David Allister, as Hawkins and Jackson, get the lion’s share of the action, but Snow, Evans, Donald and Cullen all have a chance to shine as well.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Do Me A Favour

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The Task Force officers are investigating a spate of lorry thefts.  This leads them to a farm owned by a Mr and Mrs Kerr (Jon Rollason and Chloe Ashcroft).  The Kerrs have recently made the acquaintance of a man called Mott (Victor Maddern) who told them that he works at the local market and is looking for somewhere to store his stock.  It turns out that Mott is planning to stash the stolen gear at the farm, which means that a stake out is set up ….

Those hardy souls who have been reading all these reviews will know that I haven’t been terribly impressed with Robert Barr’s scripts so far, and this one – his third for the second series – is sadly on pretty much the same level as his others.  If one were being generous then you could say that the opening (focusing on Snow and Evans tailing a lorry that may or may not be hijacked any minute) is an accurate reflection of the routine and humdrum nature of the majority of police work (nothing happens).  But it doesn’t make for very entertaining viewing of course.

There are consolations to be found with the guest cast however.  Victor Maddern had a wonderfully long career playing twitchy underachievers and is perfect casting as Mott.  Mott is the acceptable face of the gang (which makes sense, since he has to be the one to sweetalk the Kerrs into letting him use their shed).  Whenever I see Victor Maddern I find it impossible not to think of this Dixon of Dock Green outtake.  I’m probably not alone in this ….

Jon Rollason (who was one of The Avengers for a very short time – about three episodes in fact) and Chloe Ashcroft (forever remembered for Play School) are both rather good.  Mr Kerr is keen to assist the police and possibly grab a substantial reward whilst Mrs Kerr is much more concerned for their personal safety.  Ashcroft is slightly off-key throughout, although this may have been a performance choice rather than a case of bad acting.  Ken Hutchison, another familiar television face, is amongst the heavies in the gang.

Do Me A Favour was the second of the all-film episodes and, like the first, it does rather look as if it’s been dragged through several hedges backwards.  But once you get over the shock of the faded film quality, it’s interesting to compare the story with the more typical SS:TF fare.  It’s obviously more “filmic” and is also less reliant on dialogue and character-byplay, which for me is quite detrimental (there’s little of the usual interaction between the regulars for example).  Although whether this is because of the nature of film compared to videotape or just because Barr’s script didn’t concentrate on this aspect of the series is a moot point.

So overall this is passable but a little uninvolving.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Collation

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Sergeant Jackson has been studying a number of recent high-profile burglaries and has found a curious pattern.  Every night that a major break-in occurred, in roughly the same area there were several smaller ones.  These were trivial affairs though, a bottle of wine in one house, a lighter taken from a corner shop, etc.  It’s a curious state of affairs – why go to all that bother just to steal trinkets?  But John Watt doesn’t have a great deal of time to ponder, as his wife Jean (Gay Hamilton) is unable to find her watch and then discovers that their home-made pâté has vanished from the fridge.  The evidence is unmistakable, Watt is the latest victim ….

At the start of the story, Evans (after hearing about the lighter stolen from the corner shop) tells the proprietor that whilst it appears to be a trivial matter, it’ll be stored away and collated for future reference.  And it doesn’t take long before we see his words come true – on its own the theft of a lighter is meaningless, but when it’s plotted with the other robberies it becomes of great significance.

The burglary at Watt’s house is an interesting development.  Because this is a story centred around the police investigation (we don’t see the criminals until we’re well into the episode) it poses several questions.  Is it simply a coincidence that Watt was targeted or does our burglar have a sense of humour?  The drip, drip of information continues when it’s revealed that several witnesses reported seeing a police officer outside various properties, including Watt’s house, in the early hours of the morning.  Barlow reacts with a spasm of anger at the thought that one of their own might be responsible.

He’s also angry – although it’s done slightly tongue in cheek – when he learns that the Watt’s pâté has been stolen.  They had been planning to dish it up for Barlow that evening!  Their dinner party goes ahead, although Watt grumbles that the shop-bought pâté just isn’t the same.  The sight of Jean Watt, as well as their slightly awkward dinner party, gives us a few nice off-duty moments of colour.  All of the Task Force officers, but especially Barlow and Watt, are so focussed and driven that it’s often hard to imagine they have any home life at all.

One of the witnesses who saw what appeared to be a police officer acting suspiciously was young Timothy (David Arnold).  Arnold gives an extraordinary performance.  Timothy (he doesn’t like being called Tim and tells Evans and Barlow so on different occasions) might be the son of a greengrocer, but he’s remarkably well-spoken, polite and logical.  It’s hard to imagine children like him ever existed and it’s a little curious why a more naturalistic performance wasn’t sought, but the dialogue suggests Arnold was playing the role the way it was written.

His interview with Evans is a bit of a treat and Evans also has a memorable encounter with one of Watt’s neighbours.  She was burgled six months ago and cynically tells him that she never had all this fuss made (but since John Watt is a policeman he has the red-carpet treatment).  Evans protests that that’s not the case, but she’s not in a listening mood.  She is of value, as she’s the first to link a policeman to the crimes.  When Evans presses her to describe the man, she tactlessly states that the man wasn’t as stout as Evans!   Timothy’s evidence also comes up trumps when he begins to have second thoughts about whether it was a policeman he saw after all.

The Task Force manage to track down a suspect suspiciously easy, which begs a rather obvious question – why haven’t they done so before?  It surely can’t be just because John Watt has now become a victim?  And the reveal that the villains were only pretending to be police officers is maybe not too great a shock – bent coppers existed at the time, but they didn’t turn up very often in SS:TF.

One story weakness is that it’s never explained why they carried out the small burglaries which netted nothing of value.  It seems an unnecessary risk for no gain, unless they were simply doing it for kicks.  But they were hardly kids, so this suggestion is slightly difficult to swallow.

Collation is decent rather than outstanding, but there are several areas of interest, not least John Watt’s undercover work (complete with a rather clumsy looking instamatic camera).  David Lloyd Meredith is another who’s on good form, whether it’s tangling with young Timothy or sharing an observation car with Barlow.  For example, Evans can’t resist a chuckle when he learns that the codeword for the operation is pâté!  And when Timothy’s attached by the fake copper, watch the way that Barlow deals with him.  It’s certainly not gentle ….

Softly Softly: Task Force – Who Wants Pride …?

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An empty security van – with a very neat hole in its side – is discovered in a secluded wood.  Three men (one of them with a military bearing) were seen running away from it after a loud explosion.  All the evidence suggests it was a test for the military man to demonstrate his skills with explosives.  The question is will they try again, but the next time with a loaded van?

It’s a little while into the story, about ten minutes or so, before we meet the criminals.  This means that the police, especially Barlow, have time to consider who they might be.  The man with a military bearing is of particular interest – is he army, or ex-army?   It concerns Barlow that he might be an soldier, as they – like the police – should have a strong devotion to duty.  Barlow then muses to Watt that this man will have pride in his service, like themselves, which wouldn’t be easy to break.  The cynical Watt counters that for “the money they can take knocking off security vans, who wants pride?”

Shortly after we discover that the soldier is called Jim O’Donnell (Ray Lonnen).  He’s an army regular who wants a little extra money so that he and his girlfriend, Betty Patterson (Jeannette Wild), can buy a flat and settle down.  Betty’s brother Tom (Bill Wilde) and David Marks (Jess Conrad) are the villains keen to use Jim’s expertise.  Jim agrees – but only one job.

Ray Lonnen would later become identified with military/espionage roles (The Sandbaggers and Harry’s Game, for example) which makes this neat casting in retrospect, although at the time he was probably best known for the fruit and veg soap opera Market in Honey Lane.  He’s always an actor that I enjoyed watching, even if his Irish accent does take a little bit of getting used to.

The first meeting we see between Jim, Tom and David is a bit of a nightmare for the cameramen.  There clearly wasn’t a great deal of manoeuvrability around Betty’s flat, as twice there’s a very pronounced camera wobble after it collides with the furniture.

A successful robbery is carried out, although Jim is disappointed that he didn’t get as much money as he’d hoped, so he decides to do one more.  Watt is distressed at the fate of the guards inside the van – dazed and deafened by the blast.  “Beat them stupid with pick handles, throw ammonia at them and now this.”

Presumably Jim would have known this would have happened, although earlier he airily stated that they’d hardly be scratched.  Is this a case of self delusion or is he not quite the expert he appears to be?  Things start to unravel for him after the Special Investigation Branch (SIB) starts to poke around his camp.  Knowing that he’s sure to be found out, he decides to go over the wall – taking more explosives as well as a machine gun.  Jim’s character – a man who lives for danger – is now brought sharply into focus.  His plan is to return to Ireland, along with Betty, where he’s convinced he’ll be safe.

Who Wants Pride …? is a better story than Robert Barr’s previous series two script, Time Expired, but it’s still a little sub-par.  Ray Lonnen’s always worth watching, even if he’s not the most convincing Irishman ever, but the focus on Jim does mean that there’s not a great deal of time to concentrate on the regulars.

But even though Jim gets a decent amount of screentime, he remains a rather nebulous character. The main problem is that it’s hard to understand why he would jeopardise his army career in this way. That he’s possibly a little unstable is suggested on several occasions, most notably when he tells the others that he’s taken the gun in order to ensure he’ll be able to return to Ireland safely. How exactly? It’s also inferred that once he’s back home he’ll be fighting again, although it’s not clear whether it’ll be on the side of the Catholics or the Protestants. There’s plenty of dramatic potential in the concept of an Irishman fighting in the English army (divided loyalties) but it’s not something that’s developed.

It’s also an issue that Jim, Tom and David are placed under very close surveillance towards the end of the story – ensuring that the tension is sapped a little.  They may be planning another job, but since they’re being shadowed every step of the way the story ends with a whimper rather than a bang.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Its Ugly Head

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A student called Bernard Pinks (Ian Sharp) is arrested at a demonstration after throwing pepper at Snow’s dog, Radar.  His solicitor, Grenville (Michael Goodliffe), later alleges that Pinks, whilst he was in custody, was subjected to a homosexual assault by Harry Hawkins ….

Its Ugly Head opens with Barlow and Watt hauled over the coals by Cullen.  They both look rather like naughty schoolchildren summoned to the Headmaster’s office for a dressing down.  The reason for Cullen’s displeasure isn’t particularly important in plot terms, but it helps to reinforce the notion that he’s an implacable individual, well versed in getting his own way.

He also has a chat to Donald about the conduct of Inspector Reynolds.  During the course of the conversation it becomes clear that Inspector Reynolds made advances to Donald when she was a uniformed officer (which was one of the reasons why Donald was glad to move to plain-clothes).  That the unseen Reynolds is later revealed to be a woman is an unexpected development.  It seems that rumours of her conduct have been fairly widespread (although Cullen knew nothing about it until recently).  Now that he does, he wants action – but without hard evidence, what can be done?

It can hardly be a coincidence that the main plot thread is also concerned with an allegation of misconduct against an officer.  Cullen and Barlow are visited by the smooth-talking Grenville, who tells Barlow that his client, Pinks, might make a counter-claim of assault against Hawkins when he appears in court the following day.  Nothing’s put down officially on paper though and it becomes obvious that this is a fishing exercise – if the police drop their charges then Pink will drop his.  It’s blackmail, pure and simple, and neither Barlow or Cullen can possibly agree to Grenville’s veiled offer, but Hawkins still has to be questioned.

A completely studio-bound episode (we hear about the demonstration, but never see it) Its Ugly Head works best as an exercise in seeing how the various member of the Task Force operate under stress.  Barlow is quick to rise to anger when Grenville makes his allegations, whilst Watt is irritated to find he’s been kept out of the loop.  Frank Windsor’s very good in this one, a particular highlight being Watt’s rather awkward chat with Donald, after he stumbles across her problems with Inspector Reynolds.

Evans is initially sanguine about being called back to the station (it puts off a wall-papering job) but his anger slowly rises when he understands where Barlow’s questioning is leading.  Evans’ self-declared awe at Barlow (he feels more comfortable standing up when being questioned by him, rather than sitting down) slowly dissipates as incredulity takes hold.  Norman Bowler, as the unfortunate Hawkins, also has his moment to shine, although it’s relatively brief – he might be the man in the spotlight, but the likes of Cullen and Donald have more screentime.

The way Donald’s colleagues feel about her, also a feature of the previous story, is touched upon again.  Some, like Snow, are almost paternalistic – he feels she’s too nice a girl to be in a job like this.  Others, such as Watt, can’t help but make mildly sexist remarks, although he’s later given a chance to make his position clearer.

Donald – the object of unwanted attention from both males and females –  clearly has a lot to put up with. That she struggles to be treated as an equal with her male colleagues can be seen during her interview with Cullen. He speaks to her in an avuncular way that just wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t been a women (imagining a similarly cosy chat with the likes of Snow or Evans makes the mind boggle!) Is this another example of the sexist nature of the series or is it simply reflecting the way the police force was at the time? Or maybe a little of both?

Michael Goodliffe was an impeccable actor with a long and impressive list of credits.  As Grenville, he’s controlled and calm until the closing minutes, when it becomes clear that the police hold the upper hand, meaning that his composure ever so slightly wavers.  Ian Sharp, the other guest artist, has less to work with, but is able to capture well the contradictions in Pinks’ character.  He might be scruffy and dirty, but he’s not ill-educated – so it’s possible to believe that he comes from an affluent background and is simply playing at being a revolutionary.

As ever, Elwyn Jones delivers a sharply-written script, full of decent character conflict.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Never Hit a Lady

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PC Snow and WDC Donald go undercover.  For Donald, posing as a prostitute, it means putting herself at considerable personal risk ….

Never Hit A Lady has an effective cold opening – the setting is a greasy spoon transport café.  Our initial sight of Donald – plastered in makeup – makes it obvious that she’s working undercover.  When Mick Harrigan (Neil McCallum) enters, we see her keen to strike up a conversation.

Harrigan drives lorries full of whisky from Scotland to London.  He’s been robbed in the past and there’s a suspicion it might happen again soon.  But is Harrigan a victim or part of the criminal conspiracy?  If Donald can persuade him to take her to London, there’s a chance she’ll be able to find out.  But Harrigan refuses – he doesn’t travel with anybody that he doesn’t know.

Donald makes a friend – Peg (Margaret Brady).  Peg has plied her trade up and down the lorry routes for a while and now cuts a somewhat tragic figure.  But there’s still a spark of defiance and bite there (which she obviously needs, otherwise the life she leads would have worn her down a long time ago).  Peg is the sort of person that Donald, if she really was a prostitute, might eventually become – Peg knows that she’s doomed, but can’t see any way out.  Brady essays a confident performance.

Barlow, Hawkins and especially Snow (who’s been detailed to watch her every step of the way) are concerned about Donald.  At this point there’s no evidence that Harrigan is particularly violent, so it’s hard not to interpret their concern in a sexist light.  The unspoken inference is that Donald, since she’s a woman, will be unable to cope if things turn ugly.

But then it turns out that Harrigan might be dangerous after all, as it seems he brutally beat up Peg after giving her a lift.  After hearing the news, Donald rushes to the hospital to speak to her (which is a little bit of a story loophole – just how did the Task Force learn so quickly that Peg had been hospitalised?)  Still posing as a fellow prostitute, Donald gives her some money to tide her over – a gift which Peg gratefully (and somewhat pathetically) accepts.

It’s third time lucky, as Harrigan agrees to give Donald a lift to London and also suggests they might have a meal later on.  He’s something of an old smoothie, telling her that – unlike most of the girls who work this route – she doesn’t smell.  I have to confess that it’s slightly hard to see what Donald’s undercover operation is now supposed to achieve.  A confession from Harrigan that he hit Peg?  Even if he did so, it wouldn’t be admissible as evidence.

It’s a pity there wasn’t a closer guard on his parked lorry, as whilst Snow and Hawkins were tailing Donald and Harrigan, a group of armed men drove it away from the lorry park.  Since the whisky thefts were supposed to be the object of the exercise, why didn’t the Task Force have somebody on a constant watch?

Now that Donald’s gone back to Harrigan’s room it’s painfully obvious what he expects to happen next, and he’s not going to take no for an answer.  Given there’s a suspicion he could be violent, Donald seems to have been placed in danger for no good reason.  He does attack her, but she’s able to signal to Snow and Hawkins (waiting anxiously outside).

The sight of an unconscious Donald – blood on her face – incenses Snow.  He proceeds to choke the life out of Harrigan before Hawkins pulls him off.  Terence Rigby was good at playing affable, but – as here – could do implacable just as well.  Feelings are running high as Barlow (after Harrigan dismisses Donald as “a bloody teaser”) also looks as if he’d like to choke Harrigan.  But luckily Hawkins is there once again to keep the peace.

Never Hit A Lady is a cracking showcase for Susan Tebbs.  What’s especially interesting about Allan Prior’s script is how it doesn’t shy away from showing just how inept and flawed the operation was right from the start.  There’s not a great deal of Stratford Johns, but the final five minutes or so are centered around Barlow’s questioning of Harrigan, which is electrifying.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Without Favour

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Evans pays Mrs Marlowe (Colette O’Neil) a visit.  He’s looking for her husband Jack, but is told that he’s working up North (“building a motorway so that the crime cars can get around a bit faster”).  This comes a something of a relief to Evans – there’s been a spate of robberies in the area and Jack (as an ex-convict) is an obvious suspect.

He’s been going straight for two years but is still likely to be of interest to the police after any suspicious activity in the area.  Evans blames the system for this, but it’s a moment that provides a sharp insight into policing methods – when you have no evidence, give some likely suspects a tug.  There’s no vindictiveness on Evans’ part though.  He claims part of the credit for helping Jack to go straight and therefore has something of a vested interest in seeing him keep out of trouble.

If crime doesn’t pay, then it appears going straight doesn’t either.  The Marlowes live in a grimy room in a grimy part of town.  With a background of barking dogs and screaming children, it’s a desperate sort of place.  On entering their room, Evans lights up a cigarette  and offers Mrs Marlowe one.  After a brief pause – presumably because nobody ever offers her anything for free – she accepts.  It’s odd to see an officer smoking on duty, but we can interpret it as Evans’ attempt to put her at her ease.

An off-hand remark about her poor accommodation catches Evans’ interest.  She tells him that there’s no point in complaining  to her landlord, Spence (Donal McCann), as he’d only send some of his boys around to “persuade” her to keep quiet.  Evans files this away for later.

We then switch to the Chief Constable’s office, where he’s delighted to let John Watt know he’s delegated him a very important job – speaking to the Kingley Rotary Club on crime prevention.  The juxtaposition between two very different sections of society was no doubt intentional on Alan Plater’s part and we return to this theme at the episode’s close.  Watt’s far from delighted with this important mission but begins to plan his speech anyway.  A few jokes will be essential to ensuring that everything goes off smoothly, and he’s informed that PC Snow is the man to see.  “Probably tries them on his dog” mutters Watt.  This is a lovely moment, but there’s even better to come after Snow tells him one of his best jokes.  Watt’s unimpressed expression is a joy to behold!

Evans decides to pay Spence a visit.  He’s also the boss of a local amusement arcade, which provides us with a brief nostalgic glimpse of a number of old-fashioned one-armed bandits and the like.  Spence isn’t impressed with Evans’ comment that the properties he owns are dirty and rundown.  “Dirt’s the responsibility for the people who make the dirt. Well, look at me. Look at this office. Am I dirty?”  He denies sending heavies to harass his tenants and since Evans can’t prove that he does, there’s something of a stalemate.

Since there’s no evidence of wrongdoing, it’s easy to see how Spence can later complain to Watt about Evans’ visit.  When he claims that Evans’ actions are motivated by personal enmity, it’s not an outrageous statement.  Evans clearly dislikes Spence – a slum landlord who also runs an arcade that takes money off the poor and vulnerable – but Spence counters that he’s simply offering people a service.  In many ways, this smoothly-dressed, fast-talking man looks ahead to the Thatcherite 1980’s.

The two-handed scene with Lloyd Meredith and McCann is the heart of the story.  Evans is convinced that Spence is a villain, it’s simply that the police haven’t found any evidence yet that’ll stand up in court.  In Evans’ view (and it’s no doubt one shared by many of his colleagues) Spence is a lower form of criminal life, because he doesn’t accept that he’s a villain.  Career-criminals – those who come quietly after being caught – garner a certain amount of respect from the police.  But Spence is quite different.  “You steal off other people just as much as a bank robber. You steal off their weakness. And all the time you try to justify it by garbage about providing a public service.”

Evans is later hauled over the coals by Cullen and Watt.  He admits that he wouldn’t have spoken to Spence in the way he did if it had been a formal interview or if there had been anybody else present.  It was simply a speculative interview that was intended to rattle Spence’s cage.  Cullen concedes that Evans hasn’t broken any rules and so there’s no question of a disciplinary charge but Watt has a few comments to make.

Watt starts by admitting that they all bend the law from time to time(!) but goes on to label Evans a “bloody bad policeman” and spells out the reason why.  Evans loathes Spence, which is wrong.  “Feelings get in the way of judgement. Feelings make coppers start thumping when they should be talking, asking questions, getting information. Forget about feelings, you can’t afford them.”  All Evans has done is to warn Spence to be on his guard.  But Watt agrees with Evans that he’s probably a crook and will keep an eye on him.

The story closes with the juxtaposition of Watt’s speech to the Rotary Club and Evans’ return to speak to Mrs Marlowe.  Watt’s speech is a plea for public co-operation, mirrored by Evans’ attempt to persuade Mrs Marlowe to provide evidence against Spence.

The contrast between the well-heeled Rotarians and the shabby environment inhabited by Mrs Marlowe is striking.  Mrs Marlowe is non-committal when Evans asks for her help, although she doesn’t dismiss it out of hand.  If she does co-operate, it may be because Evans has treated her and her husband with respect in the past – which can be seen as a victory for a non-confrontational type of policing.  Whilst Watt appeals to the Rotarians sense of public duty, Evans admits to Mrs Marlowe that he dislikes Spence and wants to put him behind bars.  It’s plain that Evans has pitched his appeal at her level – if he, like Watt, had played the public duty card he probably wouldn’t have got very far at all.

Remarkably, although there’s no actual crime in Without Favour, it’s still an absorbing fifty minutes.  Both the unseen Jack Marlowe and the very visible Spence may feel aggrieved at being questioned by the police when there’s no evidence connecting them to crimes, but if you’re an ex-criminal (like Jack) or someone operating on the fringes (like Spence) then it appears that’s just a price you have to pay.  Alan Plater is skilful enough to keep his voice neutral throughout, so it’s left to the viewers to decide whether he condemns or condones this practice.