Currently Watching (6/10/20) – Special Branch and The Mind of Mr J.G. Reeder

Special Branch – A New Face (22nd October 1969)

Today’s episode sees Tom Chadbon and Nicola Pagett play a couple of student revolutionaries. Sean (Chadbon) is the type to crack heads, smash windows and apologise (or not) later whilst Margot (Pagett) is a more peace-loving type, but equally keen that the voice of youth should be heard on the streets.

To begin with, it looks like the episode will revolve around Special Branch’s attempts to keep them under control, but the plot soon changes direction after it’s revealed that a new recruit to the cause, Peter Harris (Andrew Bradford), is the son of a senior Special Branch detective ….

As usual, Det. Supt. Eden (Wensley Pithey) stomps about the office in a thoroughly bad mood whilst Det. Chief Insp. Jordan (Derren Nesbitt) entertains himself by giving the hapless Det. Con. Morrissey (Keith Washington) a hard time. And Morrisey is being particularly hapless today, faffing around with a typewriter much to Jordan’s disdain.

Today Morrisey seems to be mainly used for comic relief, for example later on he gets into a discussion with Eden about pipes and tobacco (ending when Eden pinches some of Morrisey’s tobacco!)

Elsewhere, Morris Perry is his usual polite and deadly self as Charles Moxon, the liaison between Special Branch and the security forces, whilst the likes of John Levene and Frances Tomelty can be seen lurking in the background.

Was Harris genuinely interested in student power or was he simply along for the ride (and a relationship with Margot?). His true motivations aren’t made clear, although by the end of the episode he’s become estranged not only from his parents (decent types, keen to maintain the status quo) but also from his new revolutionary pals (who are convinced that he’s a police informer).

The actions of the Special Branch (raiding Margot’s home and forcing her and her friends to submit to humiliating personal searches) convinces both Margot and Sean that the innocent Harris has sold them out. Since Morrisey and Det. Sgt. Helen Webb (Jennifer Wilson) don’t seem to find anything, was the whole exercise designed simply to create this impression?

If so, it worked – although the unfortunate side-effect is that the students, already convinced that all police are fascist pigs, now have their prejudices confirmed ….

The Mind of Mr J.G. Reeder – The Green Mamba (7th May 1969)

Mr Reeder crosses swords with crime kingpin Mo Liski (Joe Melia) ….

Complete with a flower in his buttonhole and a spiv moustache, Liski attempts to radiate menace, but you know (even though we’re just three episodes in) that the mild-mannered Mr Reeder will be more than a match for him.

Melia, as you might expect, gives an entertaining performance as does Hugh Burden (their sparring relationship is the episode’s highlight). A number of familiar faces pass through – including Harry Towb, Hildegard Neil and Pauline Delaney. Towb has a cough and a spit role as Sullivan, a low friend of Liski, whilst Hildegard Neil has the slightly more substantial part of Marylou Plessy. Neil is delightfully vampy as the wife of a forger sent to prison by Reeder. She vows vengeance, but ends up in the clink herself, once again thanks to Reeder.

Pauline Delaney sports an outrageous French accent as Madame Lemaire, although there’s a reason for this (she’s only a faux Frenchwoman). She attempts – on Liski’s instructions – to lure Reeder into an illegal drinking and gambling den, but Reeder (of course) remains several steps ahead. I do like the fact that the gambling club only seems to play one record  (the theme to The Mind of Mr J.G. Reeder).

All the threads of the convoluted plot tie themselves together in the end, with the result that the unfortunate Liski will be out of action for a considerable amount of time, thanks to the mamba-like Mr Reeder.

One rather odd thing about the episode is that several times a newspaper story (concerning a jewel robbery) is prominently displayed on screen long enough to make it clear that all the words, apart from the headline, are gibberish. Hard to believe it was a genuine mistake, so presumably it was some sort of obscure in-joke.

Special Branch – You Don’t Exist (29th October 1969)

You have to feel sorry for Keith Washington. He might be the lead of this episode but that’s not enough to enable him to have his name on the opening credits (even though Jennifer Wilson – who only has a handful of lines – does).

Anthony Skene’s script is an odd one. His sole contribution to the VT era of SB (he’d pen another episode when the series was rebooted by Euston Films in the mid seventies) it’s pretty much crime free. Det. Con. Morrissey (Washington), working for the week at London Airport, has to tell Barbara Cartwright (Mel Martin) that she’s unable to enter the UK. Her country of origin, Rhodesia, isn’t recognised by the British government and so she’s persona non grata.

At first the pair are snippy towards each other, but Morrissey then takes pity on her and decides to give her a whirlwind tour of London (her return flight to Rhodesia isn’t until the next day). These scenes give us an excellent tourist snapshot of late sixties London – we take in fashionable boutiques, familiar landmarks like the Post Office Tower as well as a trip to Madame Tussauds (Barbara is something of a crime expert and is fascinated by the Chamber of Horrors).

There’s also a visit to a glorious VT nightclub where the dying embers of hippydom continue to burn.

This was Mel Martin’s television debut and she’s terribly watchable as the vulnerable Barbara – shocked that the country she’s always regarded as home has now rejected her. Barbara’s something of a dreamer – most of her knowledge of London comes from books and old films, meaning that Morrisey has to tell her that there’s no trams and no pea-souper fogs any more.

An unlikely romance quickly develops between them and just as quickly has to be extinguished. This episode certainly puts a bit of meat onto the bones of Morrisey’s character, although he still remains somewhat unreadable. Quite why he reacts so violently to Barbara’s wish to visit a hip and happening nightclub isn’t clear, for example.

Oh, and there’s also the chance to see Clive Merrison pop up in an early role (nice helmet, sir).

A little drama is generated by the fact that Morrisey is required to give evidence the following day at an important trial which has been unexpectedly brought forward several days. He, of course, is out and about with Barbara and remains totally oblivious to the fact that everyone is running around like headless chickens in an attempt to find him.

You Don’t Exist is certainly a change of pace for the series, but it has a travelogue charm.

Special Branch – The Children of Delight (5th November 1969)

A cult orgainsation called The Children of Delight pique the interest of Special Branch. Are they simply a group of people who have found a better way to live or is there something sinister lurking beneath their tranquil façade?

Adele Rose’s sole SB script, The Children of Delight declines to answer this question directly – although there’s plenty of evidence to sift through. With Jordan and Eden remaining mostly office bound, it falls to Detective Sergeant Sarah Gifford (Sheila Fearn) to infiltrate the group. It’s a very decent guest role for Fearn (a pity her character didn’t return).

Sarah is welcomed by Mrs Bishop (Georgine Anderson), who seems reassuringly normal – a middle-aged woman who doesn’t look in the least brainwashed. But it’s not long before the first discordant note is struck – poor Mr Turner (Arnold Ridley) has transgressed their rules and is required perform manual work (scrubbing floors, etc) for a week. Anyone who could do such a thing to a nice old man like that must surely be evil.

Two cult members on the lowest of the three rungs – Mr Turner and Jimmy Cole (Wilfred Downing) – are given a chance to speak. Both seem happy and content, although we’re told that Turner has left his home and family whilst Jimmy’s mother, Mrs Cole (Anna Turner), is a constant tearful presence throughout the episode. Desperate to be reunited with her son, he nevertheless rejects her when the pair finally meet again.

The fact that John Abeneri (playing a character called Comber) is one of the Children of Delight’s higher ups doesn’t inspire confidence in their benign aims – he spends most of the episode lurking in corners, acting in a sinister way.

There’s an extraordinary scene just before the second ad break – Comber and Mrs Bishop attempt to initiate Sarah via a remarkably rough series of questions (is she a lesbian, has she committed incest, etc). Under such relentless abusive questioning she can’t help but break down and admit to being a police officer. This leads Moxon to later mutter that he knew it was a mistake to ask a woman to do this job.

For a short while it appears that a subplot – a key American scientist is one of the Children of Delight – will assume prominence, but that doesn’t really go anywhere. However, his suicide does get Jordan out of the office – his impatient conversation with a distinctly unimpressed uniformed sergeant (played by Tony Caunter) is a late highlight of the episode.

As touched upon earlier, there’s no closure to the story of the Children of Delight. They may be breaking up homes but Eden is prepared to let them be. After all, he maintains, they’re entitled to their freedoms just like everyone else. But Moxon – who initiated the investigation – bypasses Eden’s recommendations and gets the result he was looking for anyway. Sometimes you wonder why Moxon bothers to involve Special Branch, since he so often ignores their advice …

Special Branch – Reliable Sources (12th November 1969)

The ninth episode of series one, Reliable Sources is something of a milestone episode as we bid farewell to Det. Supt. Eden. There’s been a serial element running through a number of these episodes, which continues here (and in the episode to follow). Eden – after an intense grilling from the security commission – is told that he’s been cleared of any wrongdoing in respect of his handling of the Troika debacle (as have his fellow Special Branch officers). But any jubilation proves to be short-lived ….

If Reliable Sources shows us anything, then it’s how the bluff, honest Eden is no match for the devious Moxon. Right from the start, when Moxon warns Eden not to poke around in matters which don’t concern him, it’s plain that Eden will come off second best.

A Russian spy called Alexandrov (heavily involved in the Troika affair) has defected to the West. This means little to Eden, who still has a warrant for his arrest and is keen to enforce it, but Moxon firmly warns him off. When the news of Alexandrov’s defection is leaked to the papers, Eden becomes a prime suspect – especially since he’s recently lunched with Clive Bradbury (Tony Britton), an experienced Fleet Street hack who specialises in security stories.

What’s interesting is that Moxon admits to bugging Bradbury’s phone, so the true culprit of the leak would already have been known to him (although he later shrugs this off). Why then did he make Eden feel so uncomfortable? Possibly Moxon, the arch manipulator, simply can’t help himself.

The twist in the tail – the man responsible for leaking the story meets with Moxon – shouldn’t really come as a surprise. But both Eden and Jordan jump to the wrong conclusion (Moxon is corrupt) rather than the right one (Moxon is laying a false trail to confuse the Russians).

Morris Perry is on top form today and it’s nice to see both Tony Britton and David Collings guest-starring. Collings plays Bradbury’s editor, who’s just as keen as he is for a scoop on the Alexandrov affair. Although the story that’s leaked to them via Moxon’s proxy (Alexandrov’s precise whereabouts) doesn’t sound that exciting.

The fact that Eden’s been totally outplayed from beginning to end is highlighted by the way he’s unceremoniously shunted out of Special Branch and into an important-sounding (but no doubt meaningless) job for the next twelve months until his retirement is due. It’s easy to imagine Moxon’s hand in this, although given how easy Eden has been to manipulate, maybe not – after all, the next man in the hot seat might pose more of a challenge.

There’s been whispers throughout the episode that Jordan is in line for the job. He certainly seemed to think so, as when the Deputy Commander breaks the news that Det. Supt. Inman will be taking over, Jordan’s face visibly falls.

The next episode is clearly a key one as George Markstein returns to write it. Plus there’s the fact that the series moves into colour, which – together with the arrival of Fulton Mackay as Inman – helps to give these later S1 episodes the feel of a new series launch.

Special Branch – Short Change (19th November 1969)

The Troika affair rears its head again after Christine Morris (Sandra Bryant) escapes from an open prison. She’s swiftly recaptured, but it seems that she might end up in Russia anyway ….

The move to colour is initially a little jarring (mainly because it allows us to appreciate for the first time just how gaudy many of DCI Jordan’s shirt and tie combinations are). There’s also a rejigged title sequence, which is notable for the way it features the series’ two leading actors, Derren Nesbitt and Fulton Mackay (previously the images were of unknown miscreants).

We’re don’t see the initial meeting between Inman (Mackay) and Jordan (Nesbitt), but their first scene together sets the tone. Inman is clearly throwing his weight around a little by attempting to tighten certain areas of procedure that he feels have got too lax (Jordan, of course, bridles about this).  No doubt over time they’ll find an amicable way to work together, but this initial friction isn’t unpleasing.

An early hot topic of discussion concerns the hapless DC Morrisey, who stands accused of assaulting a protestor at a demonstration. Jordan (despite indulgently regarding Morrisey as a somewhat hopeless case) stands firmly behind him – he has no evidence either way, but is happy to close ranks as he instinctively knows Morrisey would never give way to violence. But since Inman doesn’t know Morrisey he requires something more than blind faith. Mind you, as Inman later establishes his innocence (by studying the film rushes of the alleged attack) he does seem to have the best interests of his officers at heart.

Sandra Bryant returns as the unsettling Christine Morris. Apparently an innocent pawn caught up in a spy web, her coolness under pressure (not even the prospect of being sent to Holloway prison fazes her) begins to set alarm bells ringing for Inman. After a little digging it’s discovered that the real Christine Morris died in infancy, so the woman masquerading as her looks to be a Russian agent.

A pity this wasn’t discovered the first time around, which is a mark against the recently department Eden ….

The irony is that Moxon had long suspected this and is more than happy for her to be sent back to Russia. Partly because she can be swopped for a British student arrested in Moscow for selling two jumpers from Marks & Spencer, but mainly because it’ll enable a British shoe factory to be built over there.  As Moxon discloses to the Deputy Commander (David Garth) not only will the factory net HMG three million pounds, it’ll also be of benefit to the Russians (who have terrible shoes, according to Moxon).

As so often with the series, justice has to take a second seat to political maneuvering (although it’s best not to assume this particular story has concluded).

At one point the Deputy Commander wonders whether Moxon’s air of infallibility is all just a mask. He, of course, demurs – but the episode leaves a few questions unanswered. For example, since it looks like the Russians went to considerable trouble to arrange the swop, why did they attempt to spirit Christine away from prison in a rather amateurish fashion?

Much more vigorous and active than Eden, Mackay makes an instant impression as Inman. Jennifer Wilson, as DS Webb, appears to have vanished without trace. She had a pretty thankless role, but it’s surprising that she didn’t carry over into the colour era of the series.

As often happened with ITV drama from this period, there’s a mix of OB VT and film used for location work. Christine’s escape from prison is shot on film whilst her departure from the UK is captured on videotape (possibly there were logistical reasons for this – maybe it was easier to move the more lightweight VT cameras around the airport).

Short Change isn’t a story with many shocks (for once we know exactly why Moxon does what he does, and it’s difficult to argue against him) but the episode sets up the new dynamic between Inman and Jordan very effectively.

Special Branch – Exit A Diplomat (26th November 1969)

Mira Kobylnova (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), the wife of a Czech diplomat, is arrested on a shoplifting charge. Since she carries diplomatic status, no charges can be brought – so why did she do it? Jordan discovers that she’s seeking asylum for herself and her husband ….

Exit A Diplomat is a slow-burner of a story. To begin with it’s difficult to feel too invested in Mira’s travails, but over time – as Jordan continues to question her – she begins to earn a little more sympathy. Since we don’t meet her husband until more than half way through the episode, we’re wholly dependent on her portrait of him until then. Does he really face censure (albeit not prison) when he returns home? And if so, does he actually want asylum or is Mira the one pushing him?

When Jan Kobylnova finally turns up, he’s played by the always reassuring George Pravda.  Pravda was an actor rarely out of work during the sixties and seventies, due to his ability to play characters from numerous Eastern European countries. He adds a touch of class to the story, despite having considerably less screen-time than Barbara Leigh-Hunt (who also gives a solid performance throughout).

Jordan drives this story, with Inman largely sitting it out (although he does enjoy a decent scene where he gives Jordan a hard time). There’s also a surprising moment towards the end of the episode as we drop in on Inman enjoying a sauna (luckily a towel covers his modesty). Moxon – fully clothed – pays him a visit, advising that any attempt by Special Branch to contact Kobylnova before he boards the plane home should be discouraged.

The reason for this is a neat one – Moxon has already recruited Jan Kobylna as a spy for the British, so any interference by Special Branch could jeopardise months of planning.  This is therefore another of those stories which would have been a lot shorter had Moxon decided to be less stringent about who needs to know what ….

Exit A Diplomat feels pretty low key but there are some definite highlights. For example, Jordan’s interrogation of Mira (despite Derren Nesbitt stumbling over his lines a little). The private meeting between Mira and Jan at the police station (well sort of private, since Jordan’s standing very close by) is nicely played by both Leigh-Hunt and Pravda. Moxon’s meeting with Bilak (Gary Watson) also catches the eye – a big wheel at the Czech embassy, he seems to be one of the few people to ever discomfort Moxon (although by that point, all the pieces of the puzzle hadn’t fallen into place).

There’s also an early screen credit for Cheryl Hall. Despite the fact it’s a blink and you’ll miss it part, she makes an impression as a shrill young shoplifter (who’s afforded far less courtesy than Mira).

Once again the episode ends in a downbeat fashion, with Jordan unaware why the mission to shadow Kobylnova has been aborted. He confides to Morrisey that they’ll probably never know, suggesting that Inman – like Moxon – knows how to keep a secret.

Special Branch – Inside (11th August 1970)

Inside (the first episode of Special Branch‘s second series) features another new title sequence (the series’ third) and a new theme tune. The first title sequence was quite stark and downbeat whilst this one is very different (Inman and Jordan strike heroic poses whilst looking intently through their binoculars).  It never fails to raise a smile, although I’m not sure that was the intention.

The episode has quite a straightforward story to tell – Jordan finds himself banged up in Wormwood Scrubs, placed in the same cell as Gillard (Michael Goodliffe), a spy who’s due shortly to be released. Gillard knows the identity of another traitor high up in the British Establishment, but isn’t talking. So if Jordan can gain his confidence, maybe he’ll be able to learn something.

There’s a certain attraction in seeing the dapper Jordan dressed dowdily for once (although he’s allowed to keep his sideburns intact). Don’t worry, the neckerchiefs make a comeback later this series.

Goodliffe’s presence raises expectations, as he was always an actor who caught the eye. Gillard’s a rather taciturn sort of character though, so Goodliffe doesn’t have a great deal to play with (not until the end, when Gillard’s fears for the safety of his daughter opens up some cracks in his previously iron character).

That’s something of a story weakness. Gillard’s daughter, Sarah (Wendy Gifford), is the only thing in the world he cares about and it’s pressure applied to her which eventually forces him to speak to Inman. So Jordan’s undercover prison stay turns out to be fairly incidental, although it’s good fun seeing him pretending to be an irritating wide-boy.

We don’t get to see much of the prison, although at one point Jordan gets his hand scalded by a pre-Gan David Jackson. Although it’s hard to believe that he received that much of an injury as his hand was only plonked in a basin full of hot water (just how hot is the water in prison?).

And remaining in picky mode, we’re told that Sarah is a rather dowdy, unattractive sort. But as she’s played by Wendy Gifford there’s something not quite right there ….

One of those rare stories where Moxon doesn’t spring a last minute surprise on our SB boys, Inside is competent enough but I’d have expected a little more from a Trevor Preston script.

Special Branch – Dinner Date (18th August 1970)

Jordan and Morrissey travel to Frankfurt. They’ve come to collect Selby (John Rolfe), a British national who went missing in East Germany three years ago and has just resurfaced in the West. It seems like a straightforward job, but appearances can be deceptive ….

The return of George Markstein to scripting duties also heralds the reappearance of Christine Morris (Sandra Bryant). Since all of her six SB episodes were scripted by Markstein he clearly felt that the continuing relationship between Christine (now confirmed as a senior KGB officer) and Jordan was something that had legs.

Her sudden return initiates a sharp story shift – before that it seemed that Morris would be the focal point of the episode. Instead he turns out to be something of a MacGuffin, existing purely as an excuse to bring Jordan and Christine back together.

Their first meeting – in Jordan’s hotel room – is an early sign that she holds the upper hand. Having booked the room next to his, she then orders a slap up meal for two and champagne. Although he’s initially reluctant, he drinks the champagne with her and we’re told later that they enjoyed the meal.

The action deliberately cuts from their champagne sipping to Jordan waking up the next morning, so it’s never make explicit what (if anything) happened during the night. But when he picks up Christine’s cigarette lighter from his bedside table the inference is plain.

Today’s DCI Jordan fashion-watch. He sports a rather natty pink shirt and tie combination. And when Christine breaks into his hotel room to take photos of any interesting documents lying about, she pauses to admire his collection of ties hanging up in the wardrobe.

Since this is a Markstein script, you’re never quite sure who to trust. Are the hotel staff colluding with Christine? And then there’s the West German police authorities, represented by Otto Pohl (Frederick Jaeger) and Bauer (John Bailey). Pohl is relentlessly jolly whilst Bauer is clipped and abrupt. Neither play a central role, but both provide some local colour (and it’s always a pleasure to see both actors).

If this was an ITC series then we’d have started off with some stock footage location shots of Frankfurt. There’s no such window dressing here – we just have to accept that the series of studio sets are real German locations.

With Jordan and Morrissey abroad, Inman complains that he’s somewhat short staffed. And indeed, at present Special Branch does seem to be comprised of just those three (along with the occasional silent, leggy female secretary). Morrissey contributes little to the investigation, but seems to enjoy himself offscreen by spending an agreeable evening with an obliging fräulein.

As for the specifics of the plot, was Christine sent to stop Selby returning to Britain or did she have some other purpose? Jordan’s decision to not tell Inman about her sudden appearance is a telling one, as is his reluctance to confirm whether he saw her again (all he will say is that everything will be in his report).

From a few hard looks Inman gives Jordan, it’s obvious that the friendly relationship between him and Christine is a cause of concern. And as she’s due to return later in the series there’s time for this story-thread to be developed further.

Special Branch – Depart in Peace (25th August 1970)

Edward Kirk (David Langton), an ex-colonial policeman, has been invited to return to Kenya in order to give evidence at the trial of a notable Mau Mau terrorist. Despite the best efforts of both Jordan and Inman he flatly refuses, but Moxon isn’t prepared to let the matter rest there ….

Alun Falconer’s sole script for the series, Depart in Peace is something of a slow burn. We eventually learn the reason for Kirk’s reluctance to leave the country, but the episode is in no rush to get there.

Before that point, there’s several entertaining confrontational scenes between Moxon and Inman to enjoy. The friendly relationship between Kirk and Inman is something that Moxon attempts to use to his advantage – indeed, this is an episode where he’s at his most silkily manipulative.

When even Inman can’t make any headway with Kirk, Moxon speaks to a journalist called Sullivan (Brian Marshall). Whilst not mentioning Kirk by name, Moxon drops enough hints to link him to a massacre in a Kenyan village – old history maybe, but possibly it’s the sort of lever that will galvanise the inactive Kirk.

David Langton plays to type as the patrician Kirk (Pauline Letts compliments him as Mary, Kirk’s wife). It seems that their idyllic life – running an antique shop in Surrey – is due to be disrupted by ghosts from their Kenyan past, but the truth is a little more complex.

Their current surface happiness is something of a sham, as it’s finally revealed that Mary is suffering from leukemia and may only have months to live (hence the reason why Kirk doesn’t want to leave the country). What’s remarkable is that she’s totally unaware there’s anything wrong with her. No doubt Kirk thinks he’s doing the right thing by keeping her in the dark, but it’s hard to sympathise with this point of view.

Although Jordan takes something of a back seat today, he does have a few memorable scenes. My favourite is when he partakes of lunch and drinks at Moxon’s club (Moxon asks him if he has a club, Jordan replies “only ones with bunnies”). Inman doesn’t take the news that his DCI has been chumming it up with Moxon very well, although eventually he calms down.

By the end of the episode everything’s been neatly wrapped up – Kirk agrees to go to Kenya and Moxon tries to plant another story with Sullivan (singing Kirk’s praises).  All in all it’s rather a low-stakes sort of story, but the guest playing of Langton and Letts certainly gives the script a lift.