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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Softly Softly: Task Force – Anywhere in the Wide World (26th January 1972)

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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 missing eight hours, the amount of effort expended – house to house, dogs, helicopters – is impressive. Do they do this everytime someone goes missing or does 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 the precocious teen and Cranham as someone with an eye for the ladies (the younger the better). Cranham’s carrot cruncher 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, 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) alarm bells really began to ring. His irritation that Alison left early (she was supposed to stay a month) is palpable.

We’ve had several of these stories before, so the regular viewer would have been primed not to expect a happy ending. Barlow has the last word, but all the featured regulars are given a chance to shine in another memorable story.

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Softly Softly Task Force: An Inside Job (10th November 1971)

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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’s convinced 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. Or was Philip simply being naïve? It’s possible to interpret his actions either way.

DC Forest has another fairly substantial role – initially teemed up with the always droll Evans – and I’m pleased to report that her performance has picked up somewhat from the previous episode.

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).

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Aberration (27th October 1971)

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There’s a lovely opening scene with Barlow and Watt. Watt’s home alone (his wife – a GP – is away for the week) and has invited Barlow around for a slap up meal (prepared before she left by Mrs Watt – this was the 1970’s after all).

There’s some nice character building here (we see Watt’s vulnerable side for a fleeting moment) but the scene does have a plot purpose – a locum doctor calls round asking for the surgery keys. Watt hands them over, but the next day we learn that the man wasn’t a doctor after all …

We can put this terrible lapse down to the fact that both had clearly imbibed a substantial amount of alcohol. In the cold light of day Barlow is forced to eat humble pie in front of Dr Mancroft (Raymond Huntley). Johns and Huntley share several excellent scenes – there’s nothing more enjoyable than watching two old timers squaring off against each other.

Aberration is the first episode to feature a major role for DC Forest (Julie Hallam). Forest is remarkably cheeky (talking back to both Barlow and Watt) and Hallam’s performance is quite broad. Because the other regulars are all pretty naturalistic, Hallam’s overexuberance is more noticeable.

Apart from the stolen prescription pads, the villain – James (Gary Waldhorn) – has also pinched several patient’s files. That we’re in less enlightened times is demonstrated when homosexuality is classed alongside child molesting as the sort of aberration which would be ideal fodder for a blackmailer. The inoffensive-looking Norman Bird (as Tomkins) is wheeled on as a bondage fetishist (he’s one of the unlucky people being blackmailed by James).

Although Barlow and Watt are clearly having an off-day (plucky young Forest tracks down James all by herself) Aberration is an interesting time capsule of the period.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – The Floater (20th October 1971)

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Since it’s primarily a water-based story, it’s apt that The Floater has a lazy, meandering feel.  This isn’t a criticism, but it’s certainly an episode that takes its time to get up and running. For example, the first fifteen minutes are concerned with Hawkins and Snow who – thanks to a tip-off from Snow’s informer – are targeting Ian Yellop (Roger Tallon).

They believe he uses the river to ferry drugs (low level stuff like hash) but both he and his girlfriend Rae (Vicki Michelle) appear to be clean.  It takes a third of the episode to establish this fact though (no doubt other series would have dealt with the set up much quicker).

Tallon impresses as the shifty Yellop (his television debut) with Michelle (her second television credit – the first had also been in SS:TF) also catching the eye. At this early stage of her career she was getting typecast playing girls on the wrong side of the law.  With a strong cockney accent, Michelle is delightfully twitchy as someone who may know more than she’s letting on.

With a small guest cast, Neil Wilson (an actor who’ll always be Sam Seeley from the Doctor Who story Spearhead from Space to me) is excellent value as the river copper Inspector Daley.

But it’s really Barlow’s episode. He might enter it late, but as soon as he does the tempo instantly picks up. As ever, Stratford Johns is ridiculously good.  Barlow’s implacable interrogation of Yellop carries a real punch – Barlow’s sudden angry outbursts and his quieter reflective moments are equally riveting.  Tallon – an actor whose later credits seem a little thin – more than holds his own against Johns’ onslaught.

I love the way that the second half of the episode veers off in a different direction from the first.  First rate.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Once Bitten (6th October 1971)

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With Simply’s Softly Softly: Task Force releases seemingly stalled at series two, I’ve finally taken the plunge and picked up the German releases from Pidax.  Each of the three DVD sets contains eight episodes – all with dual German/English language tracks – although some episodes from this period are skipped (presumably because German language tracks weren’t available).

As ever, the dynamic between Barlow and Watt is fascinating. Barlow, having been away for a while, returns to find that Watt’s been efficiently minding the shop in his absence (although Watt hasn’t been averse to rifling through Barlow’s mail). Has Barlow really been romantically involved with a female informer young enough to be his daughter? The evidence of his mail suggests so but he’s not letting on.

Barlow’s keen to keep the others on their toes, intending to come down hard on any tawdry response times. But Watt rather spoils this plan by tipping the others off ….

WDC Donald has sadly departed, with WDC Forest (Julie Hallam) swiftly slotted in as her replacement. Watt’s assessment of her (“a cracker”) is an eye-opener. A professional or personal opinion? First impressions are that she’s a jolly sort as well as being practical (removing her skirt as she dives into the canal to rescue one of the villains).

A hairy Tom Chadbon (playing Andrews, one of three textile warehouse robbers) and a cravat wearing Michael Sheard (as Dickenson, the keyholder of the warehouse) are the most familiar faces guesting.

Andrews’ main skill is handling dogs (he’s able to deal with the rather vicious guard dogs on site). A tense dog-related stand off then develops when the Task Force turn up.  Andrews and the others are trapped inside the warehouse (the dogs are now released and roaming the yard) with only Harry Hawkins brave enough to chance his arm.

He loses his trousers and his dignity to the vicious canines, but I suppose it could have been worse.

A low-key sort of crime then, but Chadbon’s excellent value and the byplay between the regulars (a nice scene between Snow and Evans, for example) is typically solid.

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Brond – Simply Media DVD Review

Out for an early morning jog, Robert (John Hannah) witnesses a shocking murder. A man later identified as Brond (Stratford Johns) casually pushes a young boy over a bridge. But this sudden act of violence is only the beginning as Robert finds himself embroiled in Brond’s scheme to trap an IRA killer ….

Adapted by Frederic Lindsay from his own novel and broadcast in 1987, Brond is one of those 1980’s thriller serials (along with the likes of Edge of Darkness and Dead Head) which eschew narrative clarity in favour of something much more non-linear. But given that Lindsay’s novel was rather baffling in places, it’s no surprise that his television adaptation was also opaque.

Brond’s first appearance is ridiculously memorable. Pushing the boy over the bridge without a second thought, Brond then casually winks at Robert as he passes by.  What’s especially interesting about this scene is that until the incident is revisited towards the end of the serial it’s possible to believe that Robert was hallucinating and that there actually was no murder.

Brond might have been John Hannah’s television debut (a major role for such a newcomer) but Alan Stratford Johns was an old hand. He’ll always be best remembered for playing Charles Barlow in a string of BBC police series (Z Cars, Softly Softly, Softly Softly: Task Force, Barlow) but he also had a rich and diverse career before and after his time with the police force.

Brond was one of his later signature roles though – it certainly made a considerable impact at the time and it’s not difficult to see why. Brond is a peach of a part and it offers Johns a number of wonderfully constructed monologues and set piece scenes. The first occurs at a university party, where an increasingly disconnected Robert views Brond in a mirror. The framing is so non-naturalistic that the exact reality of the situation seems to be in doubt (as with the boy’s murder).

Satan must be defeated. But never is quite. So we owe red roses and sunsets to Satan’s joy in being master.

Brond’s materialisation by Robert’s hospital bed is another peculiar and jolting moment. Why the whole ward is suddenly bathed in an unearthly red light is a mystery which is never explained. And yet again Brond’s elliptical, gnomic utterances don’t help to make the situation any clearer.

I remember Paris, young men, far from home. The story was written to make a little money, concerning a lady and her victim who was quite willing – eager to suffer and obey. She did terrible things to him, she might have killed him. But it was all innocent daydreams, some wonder drug of science fiction. So when it was over, no blood, no regrets, just a man and woman and a warm summer evening. Wasn’t that a better world to live in?

In the wrong hands this sort of florid material could easily fall flat, but it’s testimony to Johns’ skill that he makes moments such as these utterly compelling.

Aside from Johns and Hannah, there’s a strong supporting cast. James Cosmo, as Primo, looms menacingly throughout. Although connected to Brond, he also latches himself onto Robert. Louise Beatty (Margaret) also impresses whilst it’s always a pleasure to see Christopher Ellison. A number of other familiar faces, such as Russell Hunter, pop up in minor roles.

As we proceed to the second episode, the plot only becomes more labyrinth. Robert’s mysterious landlord, Kennedy (Ian McElhinney), casts a menacing shadow whilst the murder of a fellow lodger, Kilpatrick (Laurie Ventry), and Robert’s discovery of a gun wrapped in a blood-soaked cloth are further pieces of the disorienting puzzle. Robert’s later police cell conversation with a gardner (Phil McCall) is another of those strange Brand moments.

Charged with the murder of Kilpatrick, Robert is interrogated by Frew (Christopher Ellison) a character who could be a close cousin of Frank Burnside. But the murder of Kilpatrick is clearly only a sideshow – the assassination of Sir Colin Fraser seems to be much more key ….

The final episode sees Robert released into Brond’s care. Stratford Johns is on fine form, especially when in interrogation mode. Things then go very strange after the pair pay a visit to high class brothel. Brond has some peculiar ideas about entertainment (and isn’t fussy about who might be looking in). There’s also an intriguing callback to the murder of the boy from episode one and some of the loose ends are tied up. Other aspects of the story (notably why Brond latched onto Robert) remain open to interpretation.

Critical reaction at the time was pretty positive.  The Stage (14th May 1987) reviewing the first episode, declared it to be “a jigsaw thriller, in which you are not expected to see the picture until most of the pieces have slotted into place”.  Johns’ performance (“Brond isn’t the sort of man you would want as a babysitter. He speaks in a calm, measured voice, at once chilling and reassuring”) drew praise as did John Hannah (“a likeable dupe, whose jokes always seemed to fall on deaf ears”).

The three episodes (each approx. 50 minutes) are contained on a single DVD.  The all-film production is unrestored, but for a thirty year old serial is in pretty good shape with no major picture issues.  There’s no special features and, as per Simply’s other recent C4 releases, no subtitles (it appears that Channel 4, unlike the BBC, don’t require subtitles to be added).

Featuring a haunting title theme by Bill Nelson and Daryl Brunswick, Brond lingers long in the memory. The lack of a clear narrative means it won’t appeal to all, but since there’s so much of interest – notably the performances of John Hannah and Stratford Johns – it’s hard not to be drawn into this dark, twisted world.

Brond is released by Simply Media on the 30th of July 2018, RRP £14.99. It can be ordered from Simply here, quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount.

Blakes 7 – Games

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Avon’s hot on the trail of Feldon crystals, one of the most precious minerals in the galaxy, but it’ll come as no surprise to learn that so is Servalan.  Both the Scorpio crew and Servalan end up on the mining planet Mercol 2, which is run by the duplicitous Belkov (Stratford Johns).  Suspiciously low production yields and a tendency for members of the survey team to die in strange and unexplained ways are two reasons why Servalan is interested in Belkov, but he attempts to broker a deal – promising to deliver up the Scorpio crew in exchange for his life.

Games is another B7 tale which boasts a heavyweight guest star – in this case Stratford Johns.  Elsewhere on this blog I’ve waxed lyrical about how good Johns always is in Softly Softly: Task Force and indeed he’s such a fine actor that he even convinces as a frog with a funny hairdo in the Doctor Who story Four To Doomsday.  But he’s got his work cut out here as Belkov isn’t a character of great depth.

The basic concept of the story is sound enough though.  Belkov enjoys a good double or triple cross and he’s also an expert games player, so with the aid of his computer Gambit (voiced by Rosalind Bailey) he’s able to set multiple traps for the unwary.  There’s a similar vibe with Belkov/Gambit as there was between Ensor/Orac, only not as well defined.  Gambit seems to lack Orac’s free will and argumentative nature, but the ending suggests that Gambit was more than the logical machine she appeared to be, although this isn’t something that’s really developed.

Servalan once again does little of note.  Had Jacqueline Pearce been held back for three or four significant appearances per year then I think it would have benefited the character enormously.   There’s still the odd writer – such as Tanith Lee in the upcoming Sand – who are able to do something interesting with her, but that one’s pretty much the exception now rather than the rule. Having said that, Servalan’s first appearance is memorable – striking a pose whilst masked Federation troopers (who we haven’t seen very often recently) mass behind her.  But it’s odd that she never meets Avon or the others, meaning that her role could have been played by any Federation officer.

Vivienne Cozens’ direction is very sure-footed – there’s some nice film work and the odd gruesome death (one of the Federation troopers is reduced to pink dust after falling down a mine-shaft).

Vila gets to be a little more proactive than usual – rescuing Tarrant, Dayna and Gerren (David Neal).  Gerren’s been brought along for the ride by Avon, who’s blackmailing him into helping them (nice chap, Avon). It’s characteristic of Avon that he secretly made contact with Gerren, meaning that the others were none the wiser until he deigned to tell them what was going on. Neal’s a good actor, although he’s hamstrung with a painfully obvious fake beard. But it’s a nothing role, since Gerren doesn’t really bring any knowledge to the table that Avon didn’t already possess.

Games is a bit of a runaround but things pick up towards the end when Avon, Vila, Tarrant and Soolin play Belkov’s endgame.  The prize – should they live – will be the Feldon crystals, but first they all have to win their various challenges.  Conveniently, each game is suited to one of them (Soolin excels at the sharp-shooting challenge whilst Tarrant tackles a flight simulator with ease).  This section of the story reveals that the episode title has something of a double-meaning as eventually Avon realises that there won’t be any crystals at the end of their quest.  “There aren’t any damned crystals. There never were any damned crystals. They’re like everything else on this ship: a game.”

With no crystals and Belkov dead after Gambit initiates a self-destruct sequence, Games is a typically downbeat S4 yarn where everybody loses.  It should be a better story than it actually is, but some parts feel a little perfunctory (especially the games section at the end) which is a problem. And even Stratford Johns’ freewheeling performance can’t hide the fact that the plot is fairly pedestrian (the Scorpio crew get captured, escape, get captured again, etc).

But there are compensations – the location may be a quarry, but it’s a very nice one. And there’s a number of rather impressive explosions which are certainly more substantial than the standard BBC bangs of the time. It’s this sort of visual sheen which helps to make Games an above average S4 entry.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Cash and Carry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Softly Softly: Task Force – Black Equals White

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Softly Softly: Task Force – In The Public Gaze

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Softly Softly: Task Force – Something Big

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Final Score

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Softly Softly: Task Force – Kick Off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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