Softly Softly: Task Force – Run For Your Money (1st November 1972)

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And so we have to bid farewell to Charlie Barlow.  The first run of Barlow At Large had preceded series three of Softly Softly: Task Force, but the remainder (three seasons from 1973 onwards) aired after he’d left Thamesford for good.

Poached by the mysterious Fenton (Neil Stacey) from the Home Office, Barlow faces an unknown future.  Back then, the viewers wouldn’t have had long to wait to find out what he’d let himself in for (the first episode of the new series was broadcast in February 1973). Today I’ve a feeling we’re in for a far longer wait (Barlow At Large may eventually surface on DVD, but I’m not holding my breath).  Fenton would be a regular in the series and thanks to his brief appearance with Cullen here, it’s possible to imagine the sort of combative relationship he and Barlow would later enjoy ….

Run For Your Money is a low-key departure for such an important character. His meeting with Cullen (who buys him lunch at the swanky Stag At Bay restaurant) is delightfully awkward. Barlow then treats Watt and Hawkins to a meal at the same venue later on (if you’ve got the set in the studio then it’s sensible to make the most of it). After he’s broken the news, it’s fair to say there’s conflicted feelings – John Watt has his eye on Barlow’s seat but feels uneasy drinking a toast to celebrate his departure.

Hawkins, as befits his cheery, breezy persona, seems less concerned. It’s an interesting touch that Sara is more ambitious than he is, deciding that Barlow’s departure would mean promotion for everyone.

If the lunchtime meeting between Barlow and Cullen wasn’t awkward enough, the fact that Sara and Hawkins just happened to be noshing in there at the same time added an additional frisson of social embarrassment. Although Sara, as befits her upper-crust breeding, wasn’t at all perturbed. She treats Cullen with amused disrespect and decides that Barlow (out of his earshot) is something of a sad case.

Possibly the most notable thing about The Stag At Bay is that all the waitresses have very low cut tops. Since they’re always bending over the tables this is very noticeable ….

Run For Your Money does have a spot of crime too though. Austin (Ronald Radd) has embezzled twenty thousand pounds from the company he used to work for.  A well-spoken, intelligent, middle-aged man, he’s reluctant to reveal where the money is, much to Barlow’s frustration.

Radd’s second and final SS:TF appearance adds a touch of class to the episode.  He only appears in a few scenes, but they’re incredibly watchable. The first is a three-hander between Barlow, Evans and Austin.  Taking place in the interview room, the sense of claustrophobia is ramped up by the way that the camera keeps tight focus on each of the three in turn. To be honest, I wouldn’t have minded an entire episode just featuring Johns and Radd in the interview room ….

It’s a curious thing, but so many actors back in the sixties and seventies looked a good deal older than they actually were.  Radd, for example, was only forty three when he made this episode, but could easily have passed for a man in his late fifties (indeed, Austin states that he’s fifty seven).  It would have been interesting to see Barlow break Austin in the interview room, but the mystery of the missing money (there’s a connection to the Vietnam War, which was unexpected) is solved by a spot of good old detective work.

The final shot we have of Barlow is a slow and silent zoom in the interview room (he’d gone back to confront Austin).  It’s an unshowy exit for someone who has dominated the series. He’ll be missed.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – The Witness (25th October 1972)

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The Witness was one of two SS:TF directorial credits for David Maloney. Knowing his fondness for using a regular “rep” of actors, I had a quick skim through the cast list to see if I could spot any familiar names.

There’s Tony McEwan, for one. Maloney had already used him in one Doctor Who (The War Games) and would later cast him in another (Planet of Evil) in addition to Hawkeye, The Pathfinder. Given McEwan’s fairly limited list of credits, these performances constitute a fairly sizeable chunk of his television career.

Today he’s playing Carson, a lorry driver whose cargo (scotch whisky worth twenty grand) is hijacked by a gang of gun-toting masked men.  It’s not the best performance you’ll ever see (although there’s a even less convincing one later) but Carson’s interrogation is still highly entertaining, mainly because both Barlow and Watt are in the room.

The pair work well apart, but something special tends to happen whenever they team up. They’d begun the episode in Barlow’s office, enjoying a late-night drink. Barlow, still smarting that his promotion prospects have been dashed, was clearly in need of a shoulder to cry on and Watt fitted the bill nicely.  As for Watt, having done his duty he was looking forward to getting off home, but a last minute phone-call (about the robbery) dashed that.

For Barlow (fretting about his empty house) more work is just the ticket. Watt seems less enthused about rushing straight over to take charge, although the private smile he gave before they both left the office was a nice little moment, letting the audience know that he didn’t mind that much (presumably he’s just relieved that Barlow has something new to occupy him).

The always-reliable Ron Pember turns in another good performance as Wilf Taylor. He’s a member of the gang, albeit a somewhat sickly and insubstantial one.  The power behind the throne seems to be his wife, Betty (Mitzi Rogers).  SS:TF wasn’t renowned for having that many strong female guest roles (crime back in the seventies seemed very much to be a man’s world) so Betty is a notable character, even if she does end up as a victim by the end of the episode.

She runs a corner shop (which bears a passing resemblance to Awkright’s store) and right from the off is very combative.  Dominating the weak Wilf, she then steps up the intensity another couple of notches when the police come calling.

Most of her early ire is directed at DS Green (Heather Stoney). If the series didn’t specialise in decent female guest roles, then it also was struggling at this point with its female regulars.  Stoney, with her handful of appearances across the third and fourth series, always played what she was given very well, but Green was rarely placed in the centre of a story.

Mitzi Rogers has the best guest role of the episode (Betty’s heavy blue eye shadow and leopard skin coat helps to make her stand out) but James Mellor, as Albert Dirman, is also very watchable. Dirman is the Mr Big of the hijackers and reacts with cold fury when he mistakenly believes that Wilf’s talked to the police (he hasn’t, but Betty has).

Dirman’s promise to disfigure Betty with acid is a chilling one, although the threat is slightly negated when the instrument of his retribution – Stan (Gordon Bilboe) – lumbers into view.  Partly it’s because of the haircut, moustache and suit, but there’s no denying that Bilboe’s performance is rather stilted. True, he’s not gifted terribly good dialogue (mostly it’s of the “you got nothing on me, copper” variety) but Bilboe’s delivery doesn’t help ….

The late action scene (Hawkins purses a fleeing Stan) isn’t that convincing, but the main thrust of the episode – the way that Barlow manipulates both Wilf and Betty in order to nail Dirman – is very compelling.  And the final sting in the tail (even after Betty’s been attacked with an iron bar, Wilf is unwilling to talk) is a fascinating wrinkle.  Another strong series four entry.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – On The Third Day (18th October 1972)

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On The Third Day juggles two separate Barlow plotlines. In the first, he’s targeted by Timothy Redway (Anthony Heaton) a violent criminal with a grudge and in the second he undergoes a grilling at an intensive promotion board.

The former could easily have been the major theme, but instead it’s very much secondary – even though the resolution of this storyline provides the episode with its climax.  It does serve to place Barlow under pressure though (something which maybe later has a knock on effect at the board).

What’s especially interesting is that in the previous episode Mrs Barlow was killed off-screen in a road accident, so if a pretext had been required to explain why Barlow was even more prickly than usual, surely that would have sufficed.  As it is, the death of Mrs Barlow seems slightly puzzling in plot terms – it does allow us to see a brief softening of Barlow’s character, but that’s about all (although maybe its function was to highlight just how career driven Barlow is – the widowed man seems hardly different from the married one).

Still, we get to see Barlow at home, pottering about in the kitchen (it’s rather orange). Given that his kitchen décor is rather horrid in places, possibly Redway did him a favour by attempting to burn the house down ….

No surprises that the fire largely occurs off-screen. Big action set pieces were outside of the series’ budget.

By far the most interesting part of the episode occurs when Barlow travels down to Eastbourne. There, along with a group of brother officers, he undergoes a series of tests, exams and interviews. Three heavyweight actors – Richard Vernon, Patrick O’Connell and John Arnatt – are the ones in charge, which helps to make these scenes fly.

The three-hander between Barlow, Asst. Chief Constable Morton (O’Connell) and Chief Constable Daniels (Arnatt) is a cracking scene.  With Morton playing bad cop and Daniels good, Barlow’s character is slowly unpicked.  But Barlow more than holds his own, even if his distaste for the some parts of this procedure is made clear.

Barlow’s one-on-one meeting with Sir Ralph Townley (Vernon) looks set to develop along similarly entertaining lines, but alas it’s cut short by a gun-toting Redway. All those police around the place and Redway was still able to get close enough to the window in order to loose off a few shots. Somebody should be for the high jump.

Knowing that Barlow’s time with the series was drawing to a close, I wondered at first if On The Third Day was designed as an exit point. But no, Barlow’s promotion attempt is unsuccessful and so he seems fated to remain at Thamesford for the foreseeable future.  But that’s not the case, the clock is definitely ticking ….

A Barlow-heavy episode is always going to get a thumbs up from me (Stratford Johns doesn’t disappoint of course).  And with Vernon, O’Connell and Arnatt plus Donald Burton as one of Barlow’s fellow interviewees it’s plain this isn’t an episode short on decent guest stars. 

The featured regulars are also gifted some good scenes – Walter Gotell never has that much to do, but he always maximises every line (even when he’s being pleasant, there’s something rather unsettling about Chief Constable Cullen).  Meanwhile, Evans and Knowles are turning into a very decent double-act.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Surveillance (27th September 1972)

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Surveillance begins slowly (which is hardly unusual for SS:TF) although things hot up when Frank Martin (Frank Wylie), one of three safecrackers, is pursued from the scene of the crime by Snow.

Since Martin’s already loosed off one shot whilst making his escape, it seems a little unwise for Snow to slowly step towards him, especially since he’s still brandishing the gun. This moment seems to be a homage to that scene from The Blue Lamp, but Snow proves to be much more agile than poor old George Dixon (he dodges the bullet).

Martin gets away and later holes up with William Chalmers (Jon Laurimore).  Martin might be physically slighter than Chalmers, but he finds himself in a position of authority (mainly because Martin’s arrest would also implicate Chalmers). Laurimore could play this sort of dodgy role in his sleep, but he’s still more than watchable – especially later on when Chalmers and Barlow come face to face.

Wylie has the best defined guest role though. Martin’s unpredictability and simmering violence is teased out during the episode, even if it’s hard to ever believe in him as a real threat. Possibly this has something to do with the fact that SS:TF generally had a very sedate pace – violence rarely reared its head.

If Barlow loses his rag when briefly questioning another of the gang, Terry Condon (Nigel Humphreys) then he’s sweetness and light when Chalmers is wheeled in later. I’m not sure which is the most dangerous – impulsive Barlow or cold and calculating Barlow ….

Surveillance has a nice spot of night-time location filming at the beginning and the end of the episode. This helps to open up what would otherwise be a fairly static story. Overall it’s not a top-tier instalment, but Wylie and Laurimore help to keep the interest levels up.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Spit and Polish (13th September 1972)

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There’s a lot to process during the opening few minutes of Spit and Polish. A new theme tune, Hawkins in uniform, Evans in plain clothes and PC Snow’s faithful canine friend, Radar, seems to have died ….

Entirely shot on film, it’s certainly in much better nick than the last available all-film episode (Lessons from series two).  The Task Force are on the hunt for an attacker of women. At present he hasn’t done anything worse than tear their clothes, which Barlow – to Evans’ disgust – is disappointed about. A rape or serious assault would provide them with some decent forensic evidence.

Early on the women are just passive victims (mentioned, but not seen). The next target – Sara Jamieson (Jenny Hanley) – is quite different. An upwardly-mobile horsey type, she’s able to beat her assailant off with a riding crop and seems undisturbed by the attack. Later she wonders why the man didn’t target one of the many women who are begging to be raped (a moment which helps to date the story firmly in another era).

Sara is certainly something of a hit with the Task Force. She and Watt have a brief moment of banter (Watt’s a bit of a flirt on the sly) and later Sara has a lengthy chat with Snow (a good character moment for Rigby).  But it’s Harry Hawkins whom she’s got the hots for – they pop out for a spot of dinner and dancing.

Hanley’s excellent value as the pampered (but not unlikeable) rich girl. The always dependable Peter Copley pops up as Brigadier Jamieson, Sara’s father and a local big-wig (hence Barlow’s desire to keep him sweet).

Spit and Polish certainly has an expansive feel, quite different from some of the more enclosed, studio-bound episodes (it concludes with an impressive stunt featuring the attacker jumping off a ship). Whilst the rape comment (especially coming from Sara’s mouth) is very jolting, at least the episode doesn’t present her as a victim (indeed, she’s the key to running the assailant to ground) which is certainly something in its favour.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Conclusion (29th March 1972)

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Having skirted around the periphery of several stories (although it’s possible that he featured more heavily in some of the episodes not currently available on DVD) Conclusion sees PC Drake (Brian Hall) move centre stage.

SS:TF was often content not to rush, but the opening five minutes of this one – Sergeant Evans considers Drake’s solid gold pencil from all angles – takes some beating. This expensive trinket is enough to set alarm bells ringing with Evans (as is the revelation that Drake lends his colleagues money).

One such recipient is PC Snow. It’s hard to imagine two more different characters – the confident and fly Drake lined up against the methodical and painfully honest Snow. Given this, it’s slightly difficult to see them forming much of a friendship.

Drake’s convivial relationship with his local publican (compared to Snow’s refusal to accept a drink from the same landlord) helps to differentiate their characters even more. It suggests that Drake is taking bribes, although it all seems a bit too obvious. As does the fact he flashes a gold pencil about. Surely a corrupt policeman would be a little more subtle?

The crime of the week – local churches are being robbed of their valuables – takes second place to proving Drake’s guilt or innocence, but it does provide an excellent character moment for Terence Rigby. PC Snow returns to the church where his previous police dog was shot and killed.  Rarely placed in the forefront of the action, Rigby is nevertheless always excellent value – there’s something very reassuring about the implacable Snow.

The denouement probably won’t come as too much of a surprise. Brian Hall was often cast on the wrong side of the law, as he was again here when Drake’s true nature is finally brought into the light by Barlow. Once again, Stratford Johns doesn’t disappoint.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Woman’s World (16th February 1972)

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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 also calls her a chit of a girl, whilst Barlow’s comment of “jailbait” is even less complimentary). It’s true that she oversteps the bounds on several occasions, but does this display of male ire have something to do with the fact she’s a young woman?

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, as her husband is so weak). As with Hanz, it’s a very well judged performance.  Clifford Rose, as 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 with his subordinates are two examples why there’s never a dull moment when Johns is on screen.

The last ten minutes, when the truth is revealed, grips like a vice. A top-tier episode.

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