Softly Softly: Task Force – The Easy Job

S03E25 (22nd March 1972). Written by Robert Barr, directed by Keith Williams

A three man team – Johnny Hicks (Edward Petherbridge), Frank Mason (Barry Jackson) and Eddie Smith (Ron Pember) – carry out a safeblowing. The robbery is successful, but their evening goes sour after Mason is attacked and seriously injured by a security guard …

The interlocking relationships between Hicks, Mason and Smith are intriguing (as well as being the glue that binds the episode together). At the top of the tree is Hicks – he lives in a luxurious flat (check out his plush sofa and mini tv) and is clearly used to being obeyed. Mason operates as his loyal number two, although his home surroundings (he lodges in a fairly rundown house) are a non-verbal signifier confirming his lower status (Hicks hands out orders, Mason obeys them).

Smith – a friend of Mason’s – is a specialist. As a safe-breaker, he’s someone that Hicks can’t do without but (fatally) Hicks is somewhat dismissive towards him – not deigning to speak to Smith directly means that their relationship begins awkwardly and only goes downhill from there.

A series of house break-ins are an episode sub plot. Hicks – despite apparently now being on the straight and narrow – is visited by Hawkins who wonders if he has any information about them. The pair indulge in a game of bluff and double bluff which is done nicely enough but when Hicks (virtually as soon as Hawkins leaves) starts planning his next crime it’s difficult not to feel that this part of the episode has been rather clumsily plotted. We have to see Hicks of course, but having Hawkins decide (seemingly on a whim) to visit him and then for Hicks to turn out to be the villain of the episode is a little hard to take.

Last time, I pondered about how the series possibly balanced its budget by offsetting episodes with major location shoots against ones which were mainly studio bound. The Easy Job does have the feel of a cheapie. I felt this most notably after the house-breaking gang – led by Jimmy Davies (John J. Carney) – were arrested. We’re told that the police pursued the gang in a hectic car chase but this isn’t seen, only described. A cost cutting exercise? Maybe. There are a few brief location shots (showing Hicks, Mason and Smith exiting the factory) but most of the episode remains in the studio.

And with only one major set required from scratch – the factory (which contains a staircase for Mason to fall down) – presumably not too much money had to be expended there.

While Hicks and Smith work on the safe, Mason – holding a gun (albeit unloaded) – deals with the security guard, Morris (Maurice O’Connell). But Morris overpowers him and after a couple of blows, Mason tumbles down the stairs. No stuntman is credited, so maybe Barry Jackson took the fall himself (during the early part of his career he worked as a stuntman under the name Jack Barry). It’s an impressive stunt, although right at the end there’s a rather obvious forward roll to get him off the foot of the stairs.

Still in nit-picking mode, it’s rare for an episode to go by without someone coughing off camera. But rather like microphone booms wobbling into shot, you just have to accept that sort of thing.

Morris isn’t hailed by either Hawkins or Watt as a have-a-go-hero. Hawkins is dismissive because the gun wasn’t loaded (although Morris couldn’t have known that) and when Mason later dies of his injuries, Watt is even harsher – telling a shaken Morris that he could face a charge of manslaughter. After frightening him for a few minutes, Watt does unbend a little and tells him that he’ll probably be okay ….

This brutal treatment of Morris seems all the odder since in every respect he’s a model witness – for example, giving a very accurate description of the clothes Mason was wearing. This eye for detail suggests that Morris is either an ex-copper or wishes to be one. It’s never mentioned openly, but the unspoken inference seems plain.

When Hicks and Smith are caught, it’s slightly surprising that we focus on Smith (no hardship though, as Ron Pember was always a very watchable actor). Presumably this is because he’s the easier nut to crack – bitter at the way Hicks promised to get medical help for Morris, but instead left him to die, it doesn’t take much prompting from Watt to get a full statement out of him.

Given that my heart still sinks whenever Robert Barr’s name appears, it’s pleasing to note that this is another strong episode from him. There’s less focus on the regulars for once, but the characters played by Petherbridge, Jackson and Pember are all delineated so well that the 50 minutes click by very agreeably.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Set Us Alight

S03E24 (15th March 1972). Written by Elwyn Jones, directed by Geraint Morris

A house fire quickly becomes complicated after Barlow discovers that it was the headquarters for a political group called F-FOP (Freedom for Oppressed Peoples) …

As I make my way through the series again, I can’t help but continue to marvel at the number of stories which featured night filming. Due to the unsociable hours, it obviously would have been more expensive than filming during the day, so either SS:TF had a very decent budget or an ability to balance the books with cheaper, studio-bound stories.

It’s fair to assume that Set Us Alight – with night filming, a practical fire and several fire engines pressed into service – was one of the more expensive stories of this series. Although maybe the relatively small cast – four regulars and five speaking guest actors – helped to keep the costs down.

The story begins with PC Snow and Radar bumping into a breathless Leslie Wilson (Mark Griffith). Wilson tells Snow that there’s a fire blazing in a nearby street. Snow, with his trademark slowness, meticulously takes down all the details before checking the truth of Wilson’s statement. This is a good episode for Terence Rigby, who’s teamed up with Mark Griffith for most of it. As has happened before, there are some who disregard Snow, because of his stolid exterior, but it doesn’t pay to underestimate him (eventually he’s able to breach Wilson’s defences and discover the whole story).

Evans is more in the background, although he’s given the opportunity to politely bait Barlow several times (this is always good to see) and strikes up some sort of connection with the prickly Johnson. As for Barlow, he’s right in the thick of the action – running into Jake Johnson (Calvin Lockheart). one of F-FOP’s leaders. Johnson is a blazing radical (or so it appears on the surface) who’s always ready with a catchy slogan or a dismissive word for the police (who, of course, are “pigs”). It’s an extravagant performance, to put it mildly, but when Johnson calms down a little it’s possible to see there might be more to the man than meets the eye.

Also in the guest cast is the very familiar Leon Lissek as Aaron Brook. Brook operates – a little unwillingly – as Johnson’s solicitor.

We’re given the rare opportunity to see Cullen at home. It’s a fairly tight shot though (clearly the budget wasn’t there to dress a large room) so we can’t admire many of his fixtures and fittings. He turns up at the station to lecture Barlow, which is fine by me as there hasn’t been a good Cullen/Barlow confrontation for a while.

The identity of the arsonist takes rather a back seat since the story is more concerned with examining the characters of both Johnson and Wilson. Either might be the guilty party, although it turns out that both are innocent.

It’s Johnson’s ex girlfriend – the upper crust Dorothy Anderson (Sally Faulkner) – who’s revealed as the culprit. Given that she only appears right at the end, I was beginning to wonder if the question would go unanswered (or if maybe the perpetrator would remain off screen). Faulkner makes the most of her three minute scene, spitting venom at Barlow (plus we get to see an uncredited Bella Emberg as a most intimidating police woman).

Although Set Us Alight begins with a location shoot, the heart of the story takes place in the studio, with a fairly small group of actors. I never say no to an episode that foregrounds Barlow (especially when he’s riled) so this one held my interest throughout.

Softly Softly: Task Force – A Policeman’s Lot. Story Three – It Depends Where You’re Standing

S03E23 (8th March 1972). Written by Alan Plater, directed by Peter Cregeen

John Watt discreetly investigates the circumstances of Jarman’s suicide whilst Barlow assists a prominent local citizen, Huntley (Peter Howell), after he receives a blackmail note …

At first glance, it seems that the main story thread of this three-parter has virtually concluded. Although John Watt – prompted by a plea from a tearful Mrs Jarman – does agree (in his spare time) to try and find out why her husband committed suicide, it’s a plotline that’s subordinate to the Huntley blackmail case.

Via a not terribly subtle form of info-dumping (Watt tells Snow and Drake – as well as the audience – that Huntley is a member of the police board and a prominent local businessman) the audience quickly understands why Barlow seems so keen to drop everything to help him.

Quaffing a drink together, Barlow and Huntley seem very chummy. Watt cynically wonders later if everyone would receive a similar level of police attention and it’s a fair point – especially as the blackmail note is only asking for £100. In many ways, this is a key part of the episode (and one that’s repeated right at the end). We’d like to assume that the same sort of police manpower would be available for all, but it seems unlikely. This appears to trouble Watt, but Barlow – who’s blithely detached throughout the episode – just accepts that the world’s unfair and seemingly has no interest in trying to change it.

The blackmailer – who’s a somewhat pathetic character – is easily run to ground and just as this plotline is wrapped up, we’re told that it has a vague connection to Jarman (which feels a little contrived and unnecessary).

It’s always nice to see the velvety-voiced Peter Howell and Brendan Price (later on the right side of the law in Target) spars well with Barlow (Price plays Huntley’s son, Paul). The most striking guest performance comes from Frederick Treves as Commander Beevers though. Beevers’ plot function (as a senior police officer) is to warn Watt off any further investigations into Jarman’s death. Jarman was connected to the security services in some way (although on whose side and in what capacity is never made clear).

As I said, that’s Beevers’ plot function but in story terms he’s there to intimidate Watt. Treves underplays throughout his scene, which makes it all the more chilling – when authority doesn’t feel the need to rant or rave, you really have to sit up and pay attention. But Watt remains unfazed. “If you have a complaint to make, write to my Chief Constable about it. Don’t come banging on my back door in the middle of the night, even the dustman don’t do that”.

Elsewhere, Plater still seems to enjoy writing for Snow and Drake, who – sharing a car on an evening obbo – are gifted some amusing lines.

After three episodes, if you’re looking for all the story threads to be neatly wrapped up, then you may come away disappointed.  Only Beevers knows exactly what Jarman was doing and he’s not telling (either to John Watt or us). This isn’t really a problem though and is certainly not a story weakness. Real life is often unfair and messy and Alan Plater’s scripts simply reflect that.

Softly Softly: Task Force – A Policeman’s Lot. Story Two – You Pays Your Money

S03E22 (1st March 1972). Written by Alan Plater, directed by Peter Cregeen

John Watt decides that Jarman (James Grout) should be targeted. He doesn’t have any specific evidence of wrongdoing, just a sense that Jarman is a bad ‘un (as Watt admits, he dislikes anyone who owns a bigger house than he does but isn’t as clever).

Jarman, despite being absent from the previous episode, still managed to cast quite a shadow. And before he finally appears in this one, Watt pops round to his palatial house (decked out in the latest early seventies fashions) to have a friendly chat with his wife (played by Patricia Heneghan).

Heneghan gives Mrs Jarman a brittle and slightly distracted air that’s very effective. She might be surrounded by all the trappings of success (a silver ball that opens out into a cigarette holder, plush furnishings, etc) but there’s plainly something awry.

When Jarman eventually returns and invites Watt over for a drink, the fault lines in the relationship between Mr and Mrs Jarman (not to mention Jarman’s own increasing levels of tension) are laid bare. The sparring between Windsor and Grout is the clear highlight of the episode – Watt’s affable and polite, but nevertheless he manages in getting Jarman riled to the point of fury. The pair exchange punches, but John Watt’s (of course) is the harder one.

Like most dramas of this period, SS:TF wasn’t afraid of lengthy scenes. In this episode though, I had a feeling that there was a little too much cutting away from the Watt/Jarman confrontation (a pity it wasn’t allowed to play out from beginning to end).

Most of the regulars (apart from Barlow and Snow) are present today. Alan Plater gives them all something to do – for example, Cullen is allowed to be his usual sardonic self and Green gets the chance to speak to Mrs Granger, established in the previous episode as the owner of the mucky bookshop. Heather Stoney (as WDS Green) deadpans nicely when the affronted Mrs Granger complains that Jarman attempted to sell her hard-core pornography (far removed from the stuff she peddles).

And given what happens in the final episode of series three, the conversations between Evans and Drake about police corruption are interesting (especially the way that Drake’s eyes nervously flit about when Evans brings the subject up).

As with The Row on the Stairs, the plot is a little opaque. Jarman might be running a protection racket or he could be importing pornography into the country. But it’s never made clear exactly what he’s been up to and his off-screen death (suicide?) at the end of the episode seems to have closed the case. But the fact there’s a next episode caption tells us that isn’t so ….

You Pays Your Money is another typically strong Alan Plater script. As you’d expect, the dialogue is strong throughout (there’s some nice Drake/Green/Evans banter at the start) and the story has good momentum (the interrogation of Nicholson does feel like padding, but that apart the other scenes serve the story well).

Softly Softly: Task Force – A Policeman’s Lot. Story One – The Row on the Stairs

S03E21 (23rd February 1972). Written by Alan Plater, directed by Peter Cregeen

A private detective’s office, belonging to a man called Jarman, is ransacked. It seems that Nicholson (Roy Sone) – a man who freelances for Jarman – is responsible. When the Task Force learn that Nicholson might be armed, they initiate an urgent search for him …

Multi episode stories were unusual for SS:TF (although we’ve seen one previously – a two-parter which aired during the second series). Because Alan Plater’s got three episodes to play with, there’s no need for him to rush through the plot (and indeed, we’ll see that during the next two episodes the story will take some twists and turns).

As you’d expect with Plater, there’s some sharp dialogue throughout and this means that The Row on the Stairs is chiefly memorable for a series of character vignettes. We kick off with Mrs Granger (Marjorie Rhodes) who owns a seedy bookshop immediately below Jarman’s office.

Everything about this episode has a rather grey feel (it always seems to be raining in the location shots, for example) and this is reflected in the rundown locations we visit – such as a billiard hall and Mrs Granger’s mucky bookshop. In another episode no doubt Rhodes could have played a comfortable, elderly shopkeeper – but here she’s called upon to be cynical and secretive (possibly she knows more about Jarman than she’s saying).

Plater elects to team Snow up with Drake as well as partnering Evans with Green. He’s not the first writer to see that the odd couple relationship between Snow and Drake has some mileage and he crafts some good banter for them (Terence Rigby especially). Evans and Green also click nicely – to date WDS Green hasn’t been gifted with a great many light hearted scenes (possibly due to the types of stories she’s been involved in) but here, forced to share a car with the irrepressible Bob Evans, we see her unbend a little.

As we wend our way through the episode, there are several more encounters that may lead the Task Force to Nicholson – beginning with his wife (an early television role for Sharon Duce). Duce’s cameo as the placid, but weary Mrs Nicholson is nicely played as are Stephen Hancock’s scenes as the far more slippery Meadows. Also excellent value is Arthur Cox as a genial publican who – attempting to be helpful – overloads the exasperated Drake with useless information.

That’s one of the plusses of this episode – spotting one familiar face after another. Phil McCall (possibly best known as Scotch Harry in Minder or maybe Jock in Bottle Boys, if you’re an aficionado of 1980’s ITV sitcoms) is another. McCall plays Roper, a contact of Evans who supplies some vital information (but still manages to rub Evans up the wrong way). All this and Barbara New too.

With all these different informers, some useful others not so, it’s not surprising that eventually Nicholson is cornered. Although Barlow is flitting around the perimeters of the episode, it’s Hawkins who takes charge of Nicholson’s interrogation. He’s pretty unyielding, even though in private he turns out to be more understanding (unlike Barlow, who’s content to see Nicholson punished heavily).

The Row on the Stairs is an effective tale in its own right, but it also feels like an extended prologue. When Jarman (James Grout) makes his first appearance next time, I suspect the story will really begin to motor.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Woman’s World

S03E20 (16th February 1972). Written by Allan Prior, directed by Frank Cox

Woman’s World is another bleak episode. It opens with the news that a ten-year old boy called Norman Gordon has been stabbed to death.  We never actually see the body (when his mother is called to identify him, the camera lingers on Sergeant Evans instead) but this doesn’t lessen the impact.

As the episode title suggests, female characters play central roles. Two – both very different – feature. The first is Carol James (Lois Hantz). A cub reporter who gets wind of the murder, she’s desperate for a scoop. Initially treated with indulgence by Evans, his good-natured feeling doesn’t last long ….

Indeed, Carol doesn’t make many friends amongst the rest of the Task Force either. Both Hawkins and Barlow separately wonder if her parents know that she’s out so late (Hawkins calls her a chit of a girl, whilst Barlow’s comment of “jailbait” is even less complimentary).

This was the first of only a handful of credits for Hantz. She’s very impressive, which makes it all the more surprising that her career in television wasn’t longer.

Cherry Morris plays Anthea Gordon, the mother of the murdered boy.  She’s outwardly harsh and domineering (she has to be, she says, because her husband is so weak). As with Hanz, it’s a very well judged performance.  Clifford Rose, playing the weak husband in question, is his usual immaculate self.

Stratford Johns once again mesmerises.  Barlow’s confrontation with Carol and the way he can switch between cold fury and geniality when interacting with his subordinates are two examples as to why there’s never a dull moment when Johns is on screen.

If Barlow’s scene with Carol (she’s sneaked into the police station in the middle of the night, still desperate for a scoop) is an episode highlight, then so is an earlier Barlow scene – this one played opposite Dr Pusey (Sam Dastor). Pusey, the young pathologist who’s carried out the post-mortem on the murdered boy, is reluctant to be too specific about his findings (but eventually Barlow – alternating between hectoring and sympathetic – eventually gets the answers he needs).

After this is done, Barlow displays an air of patient understanding (having identified that the inexperienced Pusey is suffering from shock). Later, when speaking to Carol, his character remains on a similar knife-edge – at one moment he can be insightful, the next he’ll switch to cold, business-like fury.

These two standout scenes suggest that Barlow will have a key role in solving the mystery. But that’s not the case, as it’s John Watt who gently forces the murderer to confess. Given that Watt’s mostly been in the background today, that’s a good wrong-footing move (as if the fact that the episode leads us to believe that a great deal of dogged, procedural work will be required – which doesn’t happen).

The revelations, which come tumbling out during the last ten minutes, are very well played. This is a top-tier episode.

Softly Softly: Task Force – The Big Tip Off

S03E19 (9th February 1972). Written by Allan Prior, directed by Eric Hills

Dot Melling (Clare Kelly), an old contact of Watt’s, proffers an intriguing tip off – a van containing two hundred thousand pounds worth of gold bullion has been targeted. She reveals where and when the robbery will take place, but refuses point blank to say who …

This is a really interesting story. Up until now, pretty much all of the villains we’ve encountered in the series have been male. There have been a few complicit female hangers-on, but that’s been about it.

Dot and Mickey (Jenny Twigge) are the dominant characters in this episode although for very different reasons. The ageing Dot is motivated by bitterness after Tommy (Alex Scott) elects to leave her for the youthful Mickey. That Tommy isn’t exactly the brightest crook we’ve ever met is made clear by the fact he obviously blabbed to Dot about his plans to hit the van.

Towards the end of the story, Dot – suffering from a pang of regret about the way she’d shopped her former lover to the police – pops round to see him. Presumably she planned to tell him all, but the mocking presence of Mickey, not to mention Tommy’s heavy-handed attempt to get rid of her (passing over a clutch of grimy banknotes as a peace offering), sealed their fates. Dot leaves without saying another word, meaning that the final act has to play out to its bitter conclusion.

If Dot’s character is a recognisable one, then Mickey is more unusual. She’s part of the gang and although Tommy (with his well-cut suit) is positioned as the boss, Mickey remains outspoken throughout. Tommy, and his chief lieutenant Chuck (Del Henney), are old school villains –  they hope for the best but have already begun to accept that they might get caught. This sort of defeatist attitude infuriates Mickey, who’s smart enough to know that this sort of caper is a mugs game (but isn’t quite smart enough to walk away).

Jenny Twigge’s performance is a striking one and helps to enliven what otherwise could have been a rather static and talky episode (the attempted raid doesn’t occur until the final few minutes). Her sparky energy contrasts nicely with both Scott and Henney. In this episode, the Australian born Scott is attempting more of a harsh London accent than usual whilst Henney (who I’ve just noticed passed away in 2019, RIP) favours a Scottish burr.

Tommy, Mickey and Chuck are all hapless rather than hardened criminals, so it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for them (although only a little, since both Tommy and Chuck take guns along for the ride).  If there’s one slight disappointment with the story, then it’s the fact that although Mickey’s role as the getaway driver has been talked up, in the end she doesn’t take part in the raid (she’s close by but isn’t directly involved).

Although Allan Prior favours the guest artists, he doesn’t forget the regulars. I like Watt’s waspish irritation when WDC Green fails to get Dot to name names. Funnily enough, when Watt later paid Dot a visit and was equally unsuccessful, he kept quiet about it …

Earlier, Snow went undercover to follow Dot (surely there couldn’t be a more conspicuous character than PC Snow) and towards the end of the story Watt and Hawkins have a disagreement about whether they should be armed on the stake-out. Touching on the events of Marksman, Hawkins (although he admits to not being keen) says yes but Watt (by his own admission, an old-fashioned copper) disagrees.

Given that the baddies were armed, this could have gone badly wrong – but luckily our heroes only sustain minor cuts and bruises. Alas, the make-up used isn’t that convincing – especially the trickles of fake blood on the faces of both Watt and Hawkins. Ah well, you can’t win them all.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Flight

S03E18 (2nd February 1972). Written by Arnold Yarrow, directed by Geraint Morris

After three months patient work, Barlow is now in a position to crush a major pilfering operation that’s been operating at Kingley Airport. But a potential riot from a group of disgruntled football fans threatens everything …

Hand on heart, I can’t confess to finding either of these plot threads that enthralling. The football fans (who are more than a little irked after their flight operator – Jason Travel – goes bust) shout and wave their rattles a lot, but they’re not really that threatening. Although maybe that’s intentional – instead of being portrayed as psychopaths, maybe we should just take them as decent enough types who after one drink too many decided to barricade themselves into the airport bar and create a bit of a disturbance.

Jean Watt (indeed, she’s now credited as Watt once more) finds herself caught up the melee. By a remarkable coincidence, Watt and Jean are at the airport waiting for another flight (also from Jason Travel) which should have taken them off on a well earned holiday. Watt could have just been present on duty – but having Jean along isn’t a bad move as it develops and broadens his character a little. It’s always good to see the way he moderates his behaviour when she’s present.

Later, a highly indignant Watt confronts Christopher Jones (John White) the smooth-talking businessman who used to own Jason Travel (but sold it in order not to be liable for its debts). Their scenes together are the definite highlight of the episode – Jones attempts to bribe Watt by writing him out a cheque to cover his losses (something Jones refuses to do for the football fans). After a beat, Watt rips up the cheque, but pockets it (as potential evidence?)

The other plot thread finds Snow working undercover as a baggage handler. Terence Rigby always did intimidating very well – so he’s perfect here as a potential new recruit for the airport’s pilfering ring (which not only consists of rifling through suitcases for trinkets but also knocking off boxes of food and booze, etc).

Ken Priest (Nicholas McArdle) is the Mr Big of this operation. McArdle (a recognisable television face of the period) attempts to exude a little menace, as do Priest’s underlings, but you never feel that Snow is in over his head – indeed, at any time I get the sense that Snow could take them all on …

Flight trundles along quite reasonably then (a spot of location filming at a real airport helps) but it’s pretty average fare.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Anywhere in the Wide World

S03E17 (26th January 1972). Written by Allan Prior, directed by Paul Ciappessoni

All the resources of the Task Force are swiftly pressed into service after fifteen-year old schoolgirl Alison Fordham goes missing …

Given she’s only been away from home a handful of hours, the amount of effort expended – house to house, dogs, helicopters – is impressive. Do they do this every time someone goes missing or might it have something to do with the fact that Alison’s father, James Fordham (David Bauer), is a man of substantial means?

Like the Task Force, we have to build up a picture of Alison from the testimonies of those who know her. It’s slim stuff – her one schoolfriend Judith Oram (Lynne Frederick) regards her with amused contempt whilst local lad Ken Buckley (Kenneth Cranham) seems to know more than he’s letting on.

With most of the episode revolving around methodical procedure, these brief interviews are welcome character moments. Both Frederick and Cranham impress – Frederick as a precocious teen and Cranham as someone with an eye for the ladies (the younger the better). Cranham’s carrot crunching accent is memorable too.

As Anywhere In The Wide World progresses, Alison’s sad and isolated life becomes even clearer. Bauer – an actor who rarely disappointed – has a key scene where the distance between Alison and her parents is made painfully obvious. To her credit, it seems that Alison’s stepmother Joan (Beth Harris) has made efforts to connect but to no avail.

But when we learn that Fordham packed his young daughter off to stay with her natural mother (an alcoholic) in America, alarm bells really began to ring. His displeasure that Alison left early (she was supposed to stay a month) is palpable. Also, when he returns home at the start of the story, it feels like his chief emotion is irritation (irritation that Alison’s disappearance might cost him a top job).

David Bauer made a habit of playing aggressive types, so he’s perfectly cast here. Fordham’s first words to Barlow (“hey, you!”) is a good example of the way that Fordham attempts to bulldoze everyone and anyone who might stand in his way. Although I doubt many have ever spoken to Barlow like that, he resists the temptation to bite back and maybe, just maybe, underneath Fordham’s brusque exterior there’s a decent man hiding. He certainly seems to love Joan (his second wife) but his feelings for Alison are harsher and more dismissive.

Paul Ciappessoni begins the episode with a memorable directorial flourish – we open on John Watt, with the camera pulling out to reveal that his image was reflected in a picture of the missing girl. Because of this, I’m happy to cut Ciappessoni some slack for a clumsy later shot. Buckley handles a packet of cigarettes that may, or may not, be significant – but does so in a very unnatural way (he doesn’t quite hold them up in front of the camera, but it’s almost as bad).

John Watt returns to duty for the first time since sustaining his injuries at the end of Priorities. The events of that episode are briefly touched upon (Barlow asks Hawkins how he is and it’s noticeable that Watt keeps his gloves on throughout) but the point isn’t laboured – it’s simply a nice callback for the regular viewers.

As with the debut episode of SS:TF (which also featured a hunt for a missing child) there’s no happy ending. Indeed, I can’t recall another story to date which has quite as bleak a conclusion as this one (the scenes aren’t graphic, but for a pre-watershed slot it carries quite an emotional punch). Barlow is given the last word, but all the featured regulars are given chances to shine in another memorable story.

Softly Softly: Task Force – The Amateur

S03E16 (19th January 1972). Written by Robert Barr, directed by Frank Cox

The district has been hit with a series of break-ins targeting opulent houses (the likes of silver and precious paintings have been stolen). Several victims had used a car hire firm run by an ex-criminal called Joe Maitland (John Stratton) so it’s no surprise when Harry Hawkins pays him a visit ….

It’s always slightly difficult to reconcile the image I have of Stratton circa Quatermass and the Pit (1958/59) with his more familiar seventies/eighties television persona. Back in the Quatermass days Stratton was a dashing heroic type, but later (as here) he’s usually called upon to play balding, slightly gone-to-seed underachievers.

He’s jolly good in The Amateur though, and is the main reason why the story held my interest throughout. Hawkins begins by leaning heavily on Joe (leading him to declare that he’s harder than Barlow). The question as to whether Joe is complicit in the robberies isn’t settled until relatively late on – it turns out he’s not (and indeed, he points Barlow and Hawkins in the right direction).

Having received a later verbal assault from Barlow (which causes Joe to change his opinion about who’s worse – Hawkins or Barlow!) the episode ends with a grateful Barlow offering Joe a cash payment for his information. This he angrily refuses (Barlow is more amused than offended by his rebuttal). Joe’s journey through the episode and his interaction with Hawkins and Barlow is the clear highlight of The Amateur.

It’s fascinating that the real baddy – Julian Brent (Stephen Chase) – remains on the outskirts of the story. We see him skulking around a telephone box several times, but he’s always a peripheral figure.

Guest-cast wise, the other person of interest is Lennard Pearce as Mr Pearson. Best known, of course, for playing Grandad in Only Fools & Horses, the upper crust Pearson bears no relation to his signature role.

As for the regulars, today we have to bid farewell to WDC Forest (Julie Hallam). Sadly she doesn’t get a great deal to do and there’s no acknowledgment that she’s leaving (so either her departure was somewhat last minute or it wasn’t felt worth acknowledging. Hopefully it was the former rather than the latter).

DC Drake’s hero-worship of Barlow is touched upon again. After dropping off a sheaf of reports, Drake is delighted to receive a crumb of praise from Barlow (and as Drake exits his office, Barlow gives him an indulgent smile – rather like a father would to an overachieving child). It’s only a small story beat, but it’s nice to see a previous thread developed.

The Amateur doesn’t place too much stress on the robberies, the items stolen or the victims. Instead, the script is more concerned about Joe Maitland and his involvement (or not) in the criminal events. This works well overall, and although I’ve had my issues with some of Robert Barr’s previous scripts, there’s not too much to complain about in this one.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Resolution

S03E15 (12th January 1972). Written by Arnold Yarrow, directed by Peter Cregeen

An armed smash and grab raid on a jewellers shop nets the villains a substantial haul. This irritates both Barlow and Cullen as DS Kershaw (Bruce Purchase) had received a tip off and was lying in wait …

Given that the Task Force is somewhat limited in terms of plain clothes officers (just Harry Hawkins) it’s understandable that Kershaw hails from the ordinary CID ranks. His presence in the story allows a little bit of tension to be teased out between him and his Task Force colleagues (“the glamour boys” as Barlow ironically calls them).  This has never been developed before, as every episode to date has revolved around the same small pool of regulars.

In terms of the regulars, PC Snow acquits himself well – stumbling across Kershaw’s stake-out (the ambitious DS hadn’t thought to tell any of his superiors about it) Snow reacts swiftly and Radar is able to snag one of the gang.

Meanwhile back at base, there’s some interesting character development going on with PC Drake. In retrospect, when you know Drake’s ultimate fate, it seems a little odd but possibly Yarrow (no longer the script editor, remember) wasn’t privy to how Drake’s story would play out.

Drake has brought an autograph book into work as he’s keen to get Barlow’s signature for his kid brother. And just like his younger sibling, Drake also seems to hero-worship his superior officer – at one point telling Snow that Barlow’s the sort of straight-ahead copper who would never pull a stroke (unlike, as we later learn, Drake). Snow reacts incredulously to this – muttering that he has respect for the Queen Mum (then leaving the obvious “but” unsaid!)

There are four key scenes in this episode – Cullen/Barlow, Barlow/Kershaw, Barlow/Jean and Barlow/Mrs Sheldon (Wendy Gifford).

Cullen is furious about the raid and doesn’t mince his words when speaking to Barlow. Barlow bristles at this (at one point offering his resignation). Cullen responds that “you don’t shoot the General just because one of his sentries fell asleep”. This is a cracking scene for Walter Gotell and if Stratford Johns is required to be somewhat passive, his time to shine will come.

Down the chain of command we go as Barlow then eviscerates Kershaw. Barlow’s at his hardest and most implacable here (so much so that Kershaw later hands in his resignation). After the dust has settled, it’s intriguing to see that Barlow almost seems inclined to give him a second chance, but Cullen is less forgiving and so out he goes (in retrospect, the final words of the episode – “No room for pity” – would have been a better episode title than Resolution, especially since those words could equally apply to Barlow’s later interview with Mrs Sheldon).

Bruce Purchase may possibly be best remembered today for several late seventies SF appearances (in Doctor Who and Blakes 7) where he was called upon to channel his inner Brian Blessed, but there was more to him than that (in Resolution he has a complete lack of bluster).

You wait ages for a Jean Watt/Morrow episode and then two come along one after another. Her screentime time today is limited to a single scene, but it’s another fascinating one. Barlow has attempted (off-screen) to speak to John Watt, who’s still recovering in hospital. Watt’s clearly not able to give Barlow what he needs, so he pays a  visit to his wife instead.

It speaks volumes about Barlow’s professional isolation that – apart from John Watt – there appears to be no-one else in the police force he feels comfortable talking to. Jean – as a dispassionate outsider – is a font of calm common sense as Barlow (convinced that Mrs Sheldon knows more about the robbery than she’s letting on) wonders how hard he should question her.

All of Mrs Sheldon’s scenes take place at her home. It’s an opulent place filled with signifiers of early seventies luxury (a baby grand piano, fishtank, etc) which tells us that Mrs Sheldon and her now absent husband (who had masterminded the raid) don’t conform to the usual criminal stereotype.

Time and time again we’ve seen the hard side of Barlow (even in this episode, when intimidating Kershaw) but he’s deceptively gentle when questioning Mrs Sheldon – which turns out to be exactly the right approach, especially when it’s allied to the remorseless way he produces a raft of damning evidence.

SS:TF was never the sort of series that favoured directorial flourishes (most of the direction was plain and serviceable, although often quite effective). There’s a few nice touches in this one from Peter Cregeen which caught my eye though – for example, the camera zooms in on a mug shot of Sheldon only for the camera to then zoom out from a picture of Sheldon and his family at his house.

Another strong effort from Arnold Yarrow.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Priorities

S03E14 (15th January 1972). Written by Elwyn Jones, directed by Gilchrist Calder

The Task Force are targeting a group of forgers who have set up shop in a dockland warehouse. But their dogged surveillance is complicated by the arrival of John Watt’s wife, Jean, who’s concerned that the creek running round the dock area is dangerously polluted ….

I’m happy to see the return of Gay Hamilton as Jean (now credited as Jean Morrow, rather than Jean Watt, for no specific reason I’m aware of).  The fact that Jean crashes into a Task Force surveillance is pure coincidence – and the potential conflict between her and her husband (she’s interested about potential health issues, he’s concerned about catching villains) is swiftly negated by Watt, who tells her that his officers will continue to take water samples (it’ll give them something to do as they watch the warehouse).

WDC Forest is keenest. Later, when she chats to Jean, Forest’s girlish enthusiasm makes her seem even younger than she is (and is in marked contrast to the more cynical older hands like Snow and Evans).

For the first forty minutes or so, the episode trundles on in a rather low-key way. The printing press doesn’t arrive until we’re about thirty minutes in, so the subplot of the polluted river turns out to be the more engaging story-thread. It’s quickly discovered who’s responsible for dumping chemicals in the water, but Cullen decides to take no further action (a decision that sparks a heated debate between Watt and Jean).

As for the criminals (played by Christopher Burgess, Harry Meacher and Colin Fisher) they don’t do anything terribly exciting and the surveillance (which largely consists of various Task Force personnel reporting that nothing is happening) does rather drag on.

But just when you think that the story’s going to grind to a halt, we’re treated to the slightly hard to swallow spectacle of John Watt rowing over to the warehouse and clambering up a wall in order to break into the warehouse. Although it’s painfully obvious than an (uncredited) stuntman was doing the honours.

Barlow and Watt wants to catch the criminals in possession of the printing plates as without them, they won’t have a case. Quite how this illegal entry and search would have stood up in court is anyone’s guess (presumably they just planned to keep quiet about it). Suddenly the whole tempo of the episode is raised several notches. Watt continues to root about whilst Hawkins – keeping an eye on the front of the warehouse – reports a car approaching. Will Watt be able to get back to the boat and row to safety before the baddies enter?

The answer is yes, but then the creek ignites in a sheet of flame (something that Jean was concerned could happen at any time). Watt (or rather, the uncredited stuntman) becomes a mild human torch whilst Barlow and Evans attempt to douse the flames and look on in concern.

Jean, of course, is rather exasperated that her husband has ended up slightly singed in hospital, but their marriage is clearly built on firm foundations and both seem happy to chalk it down to experience (slightly hard to take, but there you are). That Jean earlier lectured her husband about the dangers, only for him – of all people – to fall victim is something that could happen in real life but tends to occur more often in fiction.

Priorities is an odd one. It takes an awfully long time to get out of second gear but eventually does blaze (sorry) into life. I still find it hard to picture John Watt as a man of action though, even though I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

It’s one of those rare episodes that features all of the main cast, although in the case of PC Drake I’m not entirely sure why they bothered (he appears both in the studio and on film, although in total he’s only given three or four lines).

Softly Softly: Task Force – The Removal

S03E13 (29th December 1971). Written by Allan Prior, directed by Philip Dudley

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a slight shame that the Task Force stumble over the crime in a rather clumsy fashion. Snow and Evans meet Silvana (Lydia Lisle), the attractive foreign maid who works for Mr and Mrs Albert. Snow seems to be a little smitten and offers to walk her home. Eventually (after some head-scratching outside) Evans and Snow realise that something is up and enter the house to find it empty and Mrs Albert and Tom tied up. Lisle’s strong accent (like the dark glasses worn by the gang) veers on the comic side ….

I do like the bleak ending though. Snow attempts to comfort Mrs Albert, telling her that she’ll be able to replace everything that’s been stolen. She gently and bleakly tells him that things can never be the same again – she and her husband might have the money to replace all the material goods but the aggressive violation of their house (something that Snow reacts to) is a wound that will never heal.

A solid enough episode then, with good guest performances, even if the plot is never that gripping.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Better Than Doing Porridge

S0312 (22nd December 1971). Written by Tony Hoare, directed by Keith Williams

Ernie Johnson (Patrick Troughton) is an experienced career criminal and therefore seemingly the last person to volunteer a confession to Barlow. But with Ernie’s trial just hours away, Barlow has a plan …

Better Than Doing Porridge was the first Softly Softly: Task Force script written by Tony Hoare (and one of his earliest television credits). Doing porridge was something that Hoare was more than familiar with – having spent the best part of ten years in one prison or another. Eventually deciding that writing was “better than going to a factory in the morning or doing bird” he started to turn his life around. This began during his final prison stretch where he wrote a book, called The Chaps, which was later turned into a radio play.

Hoare’s background was something that, for obvious reasons, informed most of his television work. Later he became a key writer on Minder, but before that – during the early to mid seventies – he plied his trade on a number of series (Crown Court, Villains, Within These Walls, The Sweeney) which all benefited from his previous criminal background.

This can also been seen in his work for SS:TF. The main settings of today’s episode – a holding cell and interview room beneath a crown court – and the interaction between the prisoners and warders all has an unmistakable air of authenticity.

Barlow professes to understand the way Ernie’s mind works. It’s not quite admiration – although Ernie is portrayed as an older, more honourable villain (compared to his younger and more vicious colleagues) – but rather Barlow is confident that he knows which of Ernie’s buttons to press in order to get the result he wants. Watt is a little less sure but Barlow’s desire for a result overrides any other consideration.

Apart from a few brief location shots, the episode remains underground. So the lack of natural light and an obvious feeling of claustrophobia begins to seep through the screen after a while.

After Ernie goes off to speak to Barlow and Watt, his associates – Georgie Benson (Billy Murray), Harry Grant (Ralph Watson) and David Morgan (Frank Jarvis) – remain behind. Initially, Ernie seemed to be the leader – the one that the others deferred to (because of his age and the amount of prison time he’d done?). But as the time ticks away and still Ernie doesn’t return, a palpable sense of unease begins to haunt the other three. Could Ernie, despite his strong adherence to the criminal code, be considering grassing them up?

Murray, Watson (yay, Web of Fear reunion) and Jarvis are all perfectly cast. Billy Murray makes the strongest impression out of the three and their holding cell conversations are given a little extra spice thanks to the presence of Desmond Wetherby-Jones (Michael Lees). He’s an immaculately spoken conman, due to appear in a separate trial, and though he appears to have little in common with them, he still manages to rub along quite agreeably. Glynn Edwards, as the senior prison officer, offers another solid performance.

The bulk of the episode revolves around Ernie’s increasingly fraught conversations with Barlow and Watt. They take turns playing bad cop and worse cop, although there aren’t that many threats – Barlow is content to slowly chip away at Ernie’s self image. That Ernie’s façade only shatters after his wife (Gabrielle Hamilton) convinces him to cooperate with Barlow does slightly negate the lengthy Barlow/Watt/Ernie scenes. Dramatically it would have been good to see Barlow finally break his man, but it feels more realistic this way. It goes without saying that Troughton is immaculate throughout.

Ernie’s future (a reduced sentence and then release into a criminal world that will know he’s grassed) seems bleak. Especially since the criminal code was the most important thing in Ernie’s life (until, at the last minute, he was persuaded to put his family first). Better Than Doing Porridge concludes with a satisfied Barlow and Watt leaving the cells, but Tony Hoare’s script suggests that the cost to Ernie and his family is a substantial one. Definitely an unusual episode, which makes it all the more fascinating.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Good Touches

S03E11 (15th December 1971). Written by Arnold Yarrow, directed by Frank Cox

PC Drake is concerned about a recent crimewave which has seen the same people burgled on multiple occasions. One victim especially – Helen Morris (Elaine Mitchell) – is now so traumatised that she’s become a virtual prisoner in her own flat …

Good Touches pleasingly brings the character of PC Drake to the fore. This was Brian Hall’s seventh appearance, and it’s really the first to find out what makes Drake tick. We also discover his first name (Ted) which the others start calling him on a regular basis. This takes a little getting used to.

Drake kicks off the story by visiting Miss Morris. Several years before he’d been part of the team who investigated her first burglary and decided to investigate when he saw her name on a recent crime sheet. That he rushed out of the office without telling anyone where he’d gone doesn’t please Hawkins (not one little bit). Barlow and Watt are both mentioned, but never seen, so it’s Hawkins running the show today – and he’s content to give Drake a hard time.

Later on, there’s a few more nuggets of information about Drake dished out. We learn that he used to be a plain clothes CID officer – so why is he now a uniformed constable? That remains a mystery, but it suggests that his career has been a checkered one. His lackadaisical approach to paperwork (allied to a photographic memory which gets him out of trouble at the last minute) is a character beat that’s been established before, and is repeated here.

Drake and Forest team up today as they toil to work out a statistical model to predict which previously burgled victims might be vulnerable again. Having not had much to do for a while (Julie Hallam last appeared in Marksman, but didn’t feature heavily) this is also a decent episode for Forest, whose ability to crack jokes at the most inappropriate times remains a key character trait.

That the cocky and streeetwise Drake isn’t half as clever as he thinks is made plain after he pumps an old snout, Sam Lester (Anthony Collin), for information. Lester’s unreliability is known to both Hawkins and Snow (and by this point in the episode also by the audience, who will have worked out that Lester is passing information onto today’s villains – Dave and Allen Venner).

Apart from Miss Morris, the episode also sketches out several other multiple burglary victims – the affluent Mr and Mrs Spender (Kenneth Watson and Libby Glenn) and the far from affluent (but remarkably cheery) John Tyler (Donald Eccles). So with several potential victims, Arnold Yarrow is able to leave the audience in suspense for a while about who will suffer again.

That Miss Morris is chosen works well from a dramatic viewpoint (her utter collapse as the Venners drill through her door is well played) although it does seem a little illogical. The only item of value she appears to have now is a new colour television set – I know they were relatively rare in the early seventies but it seems a poor reward for an aggravated burglary.

A good episode from a character viewpoint, even if the plotting isn’t always watertight.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Man of Peace

S03E10 (8th December 1971). Written by Elwyn Jones, directed by Philip Dudley

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

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

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

It’s interesting that the previous episode revolved around Barlow’s interaction with a face from his past and Man of Peace does the same with John Watt. And like the previous episode, Tim Patrick is a character who’s never actually appeared in Z Cars or Softly Softly (although Allan McClelland did have several Z Cars credits to his name and would also turn up later in the Barlow/Watt Jack The Ripper).

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

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

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

Softly Softly: Task Force – Copper Wire

S03E09 (1st December 1971). Written by Keith Dewhurst, directed by Peter Cregeen

The district has recently been hit by a wave of metal thefts. When a lorry carrying copper wire is stopped and the passenger turns out to be Tiger Mulholland (Peter Kerrigan), an old adversary of Barlow from his Newtown days, he can’t resist stepping in to see if he can break him once more …

Copper Wire only features two regulars – Evans and Barlow – which means that there’s plenty of time to develop the character of Tiger. For example, an early scene where he’s enjoying breakfast in the company of Alice West (Barbara Keogh) and her daughters Marie (June Page) and Janice (Pauline Quirke).

The episode could have excised this scene and it wouldn’t have hurt the story that much, but I’m glad it was kept in as it reveals a great deal that Tiger later verbally confirms to Barlow. Tiger’s estranged from his wife and is living (uneasily) with Alice, but has his eye on her underage daughter, Marie. This is a tad unsettling, although it doesn’t become a major story beat – it’s just a detail that helps to flesh out Tiger’s character.

June Page gets a few lines, but Pauline Quirke doesn’t (although she did earn a credit). Given this, it’s surprising that Linda Regan went uncredited, as though she also didn’t have any lines, she was on the screen for about the same length of time as Quirke. Regan’s role wasn’t a taxing one – she played a dollybird in a very short skirt who is pawed by Tiger’s colleague, Jeff (James Marcus).

I wonder if Quirke had some dialogue which was later cut? There are certainly a few abrupt scene transitions early on which suggests that some material might have been trimmed in order to bring the episode down to its required length.

The episode veers from comic to dark. Touring yards where metal thefts might occur, Evans speaks to Cosway (Wally Thomas) about the need to tighten up security. But Cosway spends most of his time lecturing Evans about his excessive weight (the Sergeant then reveals the fascinating nugget that he’s learning ju-jitsu at evening classes!)

Barlow’s usual driver is unavailable, so Evans – in the early hours of the morning – is given the job of picking up his very refreshed superior and delivering him safely home. Of course, things don’t work out like that, after Barlow learns that Tiger is in custody …

Once at the station, Barlow begins by demanding plenty of coffee and then runs roughshod over the unfortunate Inspector Lipton (Victor Brooks). Later on he proceeds to criticise the nightwear of Osbaldeston (Allan Surtees) – the man dragged out of bed to examine Jeff’s lorry.

At this point it almost feels like the episode could descend into farce thanks to a tipsy Barlow, but then events take an abrupt about turn with a pulsating twelve minute scene between Barlow and Tiger. There’s so much to unpack during this lengthy scene, beginning with Barlow’s nostalgic reminisces about their Newtown days (a pity that Peter Kerrigan hadn’t actually appeared alongside Stratford Johns in an old Z Cars episode, but Copper Wire insists that he did, so I’m sure the audience would have been prepared to take it on trust).

It seems that Barlow’s unlikely to break a wily old-timer like Tiger, and indeed the tables begin to turn as Tiger wonders if Barlow – always an ambitious man – in happy now he’s achieved several promotions. There’s a sense that he’s personally unfulfilled (the oft-mentioned but never seen Mrs Barlow won’t be waiting up for him).

Tiger does eventually confess (because he’s afraid he’s dying). Barlow offers him a fraction of comfort (the gentlest of taps on the shoulder) before leaving. Was he really moved? His conversation immediately afterwards with the Inspector suggests not – so was their entire one-to-one discussion all an act from Barlow? Maybe, maybe not. Keith Dewhurst’s script (his first for the series) lets the viewer make their own minds up.

It’s getting a bit monotonous to keep on saying so, but the series is really going through a purple patch at the moment.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Marksman

S03E08 (24th November 1971). Written by Allan Prior, directed by Brian Parker

After a bungled armed robbery at a betting shop, which leaves a young constable blinded in both eyes, the hunt is on for three men …

Marksman opens with Hawkins and Watt both taking a weapons refresher course. Hawkins throws himself into everything with extreme gusto (and kudos to Norman Bowler, who clearly didn’t mind getting rather muddy). Afterwards, Hawkins is remarkably blasé – declaring that when the time comes, he’ll have no more trouble shooting a live target than the paper ones he’s been blasting away at today. Watt, older and more cynical, isn’t so sure.

From these opening scenes it’s not hard to guess how the story will develop, but although the ending is predictable (based on what’s been established right here) the story still carries a punch. That’s because gunplay in SS:TF was pretty rare – yes, we’ve seen armed robbers before (in Hostage, for example) but guns tend to be waved around, rather than actually fired.

In that respect, SS:TF has little in common with later, more action-based, police series like The Sweeney. That’s not a criticism though – the fact guns are used sparingly gives them much more of an impact whenever they are central to a story (plus, as seen in this episode, weapons aren’t portrayed in a glamourous light).

The unfortunate PC Harris wanders into a rather crowded betting shop. But by the time Watt and Hawkins turn up, many of the customers have mysteriously vanished. In production terms this is easy to understand (most of the actors were non-speaking extras and so couldn’t have contributed anything). Mrs Goldsmith (Dot Temple), one of those left, is able to provide Watt with several important nuggets of information. Most crucially, a lead to one of the robbers – Joey (Oscar James).

That they’re not the most organised of villains is made plain by the fact that, under stress, they shouted out each others names (overheard by the calm in a crisis Mrs Goldsmith). The fact that the shooter – Blakey (William Corderoy) – used his own vehicle as the getaway car is another black mark against them.

Blakey is a loathsome individual – a loud-mouthed, cocky type with no redeeming features at all. The way he treats his poor downtrodden wife, Marion (Sarah Golding), hammers this point home. When the pair first meet on screen he calls her a “silly bitch” and he ends the episode by punching her in the face.

Compared to him, Murray (Tony Caunter), is a knight in shining armour. As an experienced criminal, he knows that Blakey’s exuberance with the shotgun spells disaster for them all. Quite why Murray remains holed up with Blakey and Marion in their farmhouse is a little hard to fathom – yes, it’s isolated but surely Murray would have been sensible enough to put some distance between them?

I can understand in story terms why it didn’t happen – Blakey and Murray need to remain together so they can talk through the implications of their situation – but it does slightly jar.

Cullen has a few brief, but very telling scenes. Firstly, bristling with anger at the thought of PC Harris’ condition and then electing to lead from the front as he tells Mrs Harris (Julie Neubert) the bad news about her husband. We’re not privy to that conversation, but it’s easy to imagine just how painful and awkward it must have been.

Joey, who decided not to remain with the others, is swiftly tracked down by Watt, Hawkins, Snow and Forest. His rooms are given a violent once-over and Watt is pretty rough (verbally, not physically) when questioning him. Excellent work from both Frank Windsor and Oscar James here.

Thanks to Joey, the Task Force now know where the others are hiding and Hawkins, Snow and Watt arm themselves in preparation. Again, the difference between Hawkins and the others is marked – he receives his gun and ammo casually, whilst Snow and Watt are far more sober. In this scene Snow seems to suggest that Radar won’t be present during the operation (for him, as for the audience, the death of his previous dog – Inky – still resonates).

That moment is somewhat negated later though, as Snow sets Radar on the fleeing Murray. For one terrible moment it looks like another police dog might bite the dust – but good old Radar was more than a match for Murray (played in this scene by a stuntman – Murray’s sudden increase of hair is a bit of a giveaway).

That just leaves Blakey, who’s shot (dead, I assume) by Hawkins. And of course, after Hawkins has seen the reality of his actions, all his earlier self assurance rather crumbles away …

There’s little to fault in Marksman. Frank Windsor leads from the front, with Norman Bowler providing solid support (which suggests how the series will feel once Stratford Johns has departed for his own series).

Softly Softly: Task Force – The Bounty Hunter

S03E07 (17th November 1971). Written by Robert Barr, directed by Gilchrist Calder

The series has been on a bit of a roll recently. I wonder if this good run will continue? (Spies Robert Barr’s name in the opening credits). Oh dear ….

That’s possibly a little unfair, as although Barr’s scripts haven’t always been the strongest, The Bounty Hunter isn’t that bad, even though the first twenty minutes moves at a glacial pace.

The episode opens with the arrival of a man called James Langley (David Sinclair). He wanders around the town, taking in the sights, but it becomes clear that he’s searching for something (Langley’s taking his time about it though). The film work during these scenes are nice enough, but it just feels like padding (or maybe the series had a certain film allocation for the episode and was determined to use it – whether it benefited the story or not).

We learn that Langley is looking for William Ross (Prentis Hancock). Ross is an associate of Jimmy Price (Hugh Murray), who’s currently serving time for bank robbery. Langley speaks to Price’s father (played by Jimmy Gardner), his wife Betty (Bonnie Hurren) and a friend – Lawrence Morgan (David Hargreaves). All claim not to know where Ross can be found, but eventually (about twenty minutes in) Langley and his fellow strong-arm colleague, Harry Dalton (Mark Moss), manage to run him to ground.

By this point you’re probably wishing that Langley had met Ross within the first five minutes or so, it certainly would have saved all this faffing about. Positives from the first half of the episode? Jimmy Gardner provides a nice turn as Price Snr and there’s a few brief, but entertaining, scenes between Barlow and Watt.

But it’s only when Langley meets Ross and can begin to explain today’s plot that the story really gets going. Price Jnr, Ross and Morgan pulled a bank job several years ago – Ross is doing time for it, but the money (never recovered) is still somewhere on the outside. Langley and Dalton want half of it ….

Villains robbing villains is a nice twist on the more traditional type of plot and David Sinclair exudes considerable menace as Langley (he’s not an actor that I’ve ever really noticed before, but I’ll keep an eye out for his performances in the future). More familiar faces from this era of television for me were David Hargreaves and Prentis Hancock.

Ross (Hancock) – modelling a nice moustache – is the unfortunate one who gets beaten up several times by Langley and Dalton. Although it’s very noticeable that it always happens off-screen (Ross simply reappears with a dash of blood about his mouth or a bruise on his cheek). Was the series that squeamish about pre-watershed violence?

The Task Force are less essential to the story than usual. True, they round up all the baddies at the end and retrieve the money, but the guest actors are the ones who get the most to do. Barlow and Watt share a nice (if brief) pub scene early on though and there’s some comic mileage to be mined from the bun-eating Sergeant Evans.

Slow to get going then, but it turns out to be worth it in the end. The Bounty Hunter was the first of twelve SS:TF stories directed by Gilchrist Calder who would later also work on Barlow at Large and the Barlow/Watt spin offs Jack the Ripper and Second Verdict.

Softly Softly: Task Force – An Inside Job

S03E06 (10th November 1971). Written by James Doran, directed by Keith Williams

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

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

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

Dent seems to have few allies. His wife – Alice (Eve Pearce) – wants to be supportive but finds it easy to believe the worst of him whilst his teenage son, Philip (Spencer Banks), delights in spilling the beans about his father’s past misdemeanours.

DC Forest has another fairly substantial role – initially teemed up with the always droll Evans (who’s seemingly fully recovered from the trauma of the previous episode). It’s good to note that Julie Hallam during the last few episodes has been very solid (hopefully her performance in Aberration was just a one-off).

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

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