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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