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 – Ground Level

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Reports reach the Task Force that bricks have been pilfered from a building site.  It’s a pretty trivial sort of crime but it still catches Barlow’s attention, especially when Jean Watt tells him that one of the builders, Wheeler (John Hammill), has been visiting houses in the area, touting for business.  Is Wheeler using pilfered materials in order to do a spot of moonlighting?  Snow, Evans and Barlow all examine the ins ands outs of the building trade.

Like Alan Plater’s other series two scripts, Ground Level doesn’t feature any serious crime, but then a great deal of police work is concerned with the mundane and routine, so this isn’t a problem.  But if it’s an Alan Plater script you should expect some very decent dialogue, and he doesn’t disappoint here.

He writes particularly well for Jackson, Evans and Snow.  The barbed relationship between Evans and Jackson is maintained (Evans asks Jackson if he’s aware that it’s a lovely day.  Jackson answers in the negative and with mock surprise Evans tells him that he would have expected this important information would have been filed away already).

Terence Rigby is also well treated, especially during the scene where Snow interviews Mrs Arnold (Mary Hignett).  Mrs Arnold, a well-spoken elderly lady, reported the theft of the bricks but is somewhat vague with details, meaning that the long-suffering Snow has to use every ounce of his self control to stay polite.  A decade or so later Plater would again write for Rigby, this time in The Beiderbecke Affair and The Beiderbecke Connection.   Was Rigby cast because Plater remembered him from his Softly Softly days I wonder?  And since I tend to connect Mary Hignett with the very Yorkshire Mrs Hall she played in All Creatures Great and Small, her cut-glass accent here came as a little surprise.

Laker (Alec Ross) is in charge of the building site, but isn’t at all bothered when Evans tells him that some of his supplies might have been stolen.  In a job this size it’s mere pinpricks and not something he’s prepared to get worked up about.  This sticks in Evans’ craw a little – for him, theft is theft – but if Laker isn’t concerned, what can he do?

Although Barlow does suggest that everything – even trivial affairs like this – should be checked because they might lead to bigger things, it’s probably best not to expect any shattering revelations from this episode.  Barlow does get the chance to get out and about though – visiting the building site, posing as a prospective buyer – where he talks to the foreman Logan (Glyn Owen).

Ground Level is inconsequential in plot terms, but there are far worse ways to spend fifty minutes.

Softly Softly: Task Force – The Lie Direct

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PC Snow and Radar discover the dead body of a woman, later identified as Alice Forrester, in a parked car.  Barlow decides that Watt should lead the investigation and it doesn’t take long before a prime suspect – Jim Colley (Tony Calvin) – is found.  He even confesses, but something nags at both Barlow and Watt.  Colley is proven to be a born liar, so could his confession be false as well?

The Lie Direct opens with Snow and Radar on night duty.  A parked car in a lonely wood catches Snow’s attention and he decides to take a closer look.  It takes a few minutes before he makes his grisly discovery, but before that happens we cut to the bedroom of Watt and his wife (Jean, a doctor).  The camera lingers over their two bedside phones – one either side – so it’s clear that one or more are going to be ringing soon.  There’s a similar shot of Barlow’s bedroom, which again informs us about what is shortly going to happen.

Jean is called out to pronounce that life is extinct, whilst her husband sleeps on.  Barlow is informed of the murder – as is routine – and we then have a good example of his devilish sense of humour.  He tells the duty office that he’d be happy to come down to the scene, but they might like to contact Mr Watt to see if he’d prefer to go instead.  As soon as he puts the phone down, there’s a wolfish grin on Barlow’s face as he gets up and starts to get dressed.  He’s interrupted Watt’s peaceful night, which no doubt is the reason for his jubilation!

From the moment we first meet Colley there’s something unsettling about him.  He tells Donald that he’s Mrs Forrester’s lodger (but that’s all, she’s far too old for him).  When he’s told of her death his reaction is remarkably casual, there’s not a trace of shock or surprise.  We later learn that Colley and Mrs Forrester were married a month ago and they had a row on the day she disappeared – over money – which gives him a powerful motive for murder.

He obligingly confesses, but since this doesn’t happen at the end of the story there’s a sense that we’re not seeing the full picture.  Tony Calvin is mesmerising as Colley.  Is Colley the coolest murderer ever, is he mad, or is he simply an innocent who’s unaware of the hole he’s digging himself into?  As the episode progresses, this is the question that all the officers have to ask themselves.

Donald was convinced of his guilt from the moment she first spoke to him, whilst Watt is much more cautious.  He makes his position clear – they have to examine all the possibilities, since approaching any potential suspect with a closed mind is dangerous.  Colley later tells them that Mrs Forrester had a boyfriend (albeit a rather old “boy” – he’s in his sixties) which is another avenue to be explored.

Allan Prior delivers another decent script that serves the selected regulars – Barlow, Watt, Hawkins, Donald, Snow – incredibly well.  After leaving the investigation in Watt’s capable hands, Barlow returns later to question Colley.  We might expect Barlow to be in full intimidating mode, but that’s not the case – unexpectedly he also demonstrates compassion.  When the case is over, he mulls events over with Jean.  Even after all he’s seen over the years he still manages a certain amount of disconnection, as he tells her it’s the court who decide innocence or guilt, not him.  He just has to deliver them up.  Whether he’s being truthful here is debatable, as we’ve seen him get personally involved on many, many occasions ….

Watt is irritated throughout.  He’s irritated at being woken up and his irritation remains after Barlow leaves him in charge.  Watt succinctly sums his superior officer up (“bastard!”) but unsurprisingly does so when he’s not in earshot.  Hawkins is cheerful, positive and keen to tackle the enquiry without Barlow breathing down their necks.  Donald does a fair amount of questioning of suspects and witnesses (notably Colley and Mrs Forrester’s sister) and whilst Snow doesn’t say much, it’s always worth listening whenever he does speak.

Thanks to Colley’s unusual behaviour – he never responds in the way you’d expect – this is an above average effort.

Softly Softly: Task Force – A World Full of Rooms

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A prostitute called Sylvie Ashford (Jennifer Wilson) is knifed in her room.  Watt wants the culprit found and convicted, but he comes up against a wall of silence which is hard to break down ….

A World Full of Rooms opens with Sylvie entertaining what appears to be a client.  We later learn that Charley Smith (Milton Johns) is generally referred to as Mad Charley Smith, which given his actions and demeanour comes as no surprise.  Over the decades Johns has carved out a nice niche playing sadistic characters, of which Mad Charley is a prime example.

Sylvie’s slowing spiralling unease as she realises that the still, sinister man has an agenda of his own is nicely played by Wilson.  To emphasise the way she begins to feel trapped, the camera closes in on her face. An obvious move, but still effective.

Charley’s looking for Sylvie’s ponce, Tommy Bartrum, who’s disappeared.  Tommy works for Jackie Frankitt (Alex Scott) as does Charley.  Jackie’s currently inside, so his business interests (prostitution, naturally) are being looked after by his sister Mollie (Elizabeth Seal).  It appears that Tommy’s absconded with some of Jackie’s money, hence the interest.

The attack on Sylvie has disrupted the smooth running of the neighbourhood, which concerns Detective Sergeant Foster (Aubrey Richards).  Foster has been a vice detective for thirty years and it’s plain that he operates in a very hands-off mode.  He regards the vice scene in the area as disorganised and low-key, so sees no reason why everything should be stirred up by Watt’s aggressive questioning.  Rarely seen without a fag dangling from his mouth, Foster is the antithesis of a policeman like Watt.

As the Task Force’s token woman, it falls to Donald to go to the hospital to try and make Sylvie talk.  Considering that it wasn’t a life-threatening attack, it seems a little strange that Donald spends so much time with her.  It’s also slightly odd that Sylvie seems to have a private room complete with a television set.  Clearly prostitution pays ….

Sylvie tells Donald that “you’re a different animal to me. You live in the fresh air, see. I live in a room, with little rodents. Ever since I was 16, I’ve lived in rooms, whole world full of little rodents.”  Donald tries to get her to name her attacker, but Sylvie knows what her fate would be.  She’s offered protection, but Donald’s offer is an empty one (which presumably she realises – after all, how long could they really protect her?).

Jake Rollins (Keith Marsh) and John Johnson (John Bown) are also reluctant to talk to the police.  They live in the flat below Sylvie and Jake is able to identity Charley as Sylvie’s attacker.  But Jake also knows what would happen if he was to give evidence.  Jake and John are clearly a couple, although it’s not stated outright.  After Watt and Snow leave their room, Snow remarks that they were quite helpful, considering.  Watt looks at him but doesn’t say anything.  Later Watt uses the same remark to Snow in an ironic way, although Snow doesn’t respond either.  Snow’s prejudices are therefore made clear, but not in an overt way.

Watt is able to persuade both Jake and Sylvie to name Mad Charley.  His bullying of Sylvie is something of an eye-opener (the episode closes with a shot of Sylvie’s weary face lying in her hospital bed).  She might have agreed to give a statement, but at what cost to her?  And what cost to Jake and John?  Watt may have got the result he wanted – enough evidence to charge Charley – but there’s an uncomfortable sense that the witnesses may be looking over their shoulders for the rest of their lives.  Does Watt appreciate this, or is the “result” the only thing that matters?

Another taut script from Allan Prior, A World Full of Rooms is enlivened by several of the guest players, notably Milton Johns and Jennifer Wilson.  At the start of the story, Charley is totally in control, but when we see him again (towards the end) this control is starting to crack.  If Johns has always been good at playing sadists, then he’s even better at playing sadists who have some sort of character flaw, like Mad Charley.  The scenes between Wilson and Tebbs, as Sylvie recounts her life, don’t advance the plot a great deal, but they help to make her seem like a real person, rather than the cliché figure of the middle-aged prostitute she otherwise might have been.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Its Ugly Head

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A student called Bernard Pinks (Ian Sharp) is arrested at a demonstration after throwing pepper at Snow’s dog, Radar.  His solicitor, Grenville (Michael Goodliffe), later alleges that Pinks, whilst he was in custody, was subjected to a homosexual assault by Harry Hawkins ….

Its Ugly Head opens with Barlow and Watt hauled over the coals by Cullen.  They both look rather like naughty schoolchildren summoned to the Headmaster’s office for a dressing down.  The reason for Cullen’s displeasure isn’t particularly important in plot terms, but it helps to reinforce the notion that he’s an implacable individual, well versed in getting his own way.

He also has a chat to Donald about the conduct of Inspector Reynolds.  During the course of the conversation it becomes clear that Inspector Reynolds made advances to Donald when she was a uniformed officer (which was one of the reasons why Donald was glad to move to plain-clothes).  That the unseen Reynolds is later revealed to be a woman is an unexpected development.  It seems that rumours of her conduct have been fairly widespread (although Cullen knew nothing about it until recently).  Now that he does, he wants action – but without hard evidence, what can be done?

It can hardly be a coincidence that the main plot thread is also concerned with an allegation of misconduct against an officer.  Cullen and Barlow are visited by the smooth-talking Grenville, who tells Barlow that his client, Pinks, might make a counter-claim of assault against Hawkins when he appears in court the following day.  Nothing’s put down officially on paper though and it becomes obvious that this is a fishing exercise – if the police drop their charges then Pink will drop his.  It’s blackmail, pure and simple, and neither Barlow or Cullen can possibly agree to Grenville’s veiled offer, but Hawkins still has to be questioned.

A completely studio-bound episode (we hear about the demonstration, but never see it) Its Ugly Head works best as an exercise in seeing how the various member of the Task Force operate under stress.  Barlow is quick to rise to anger when Grenville makes his allegations, whilst Watt is irritated to find he’s been kept out of the loop.  Frank Windsor’s very good in this one, a particular highlight being Watt’s rather awkward chat with Donald, after he stumbles across her problems with Inspector Reynolds.

Evans is initially sanguine about being called back to the station (it puts off a wall-papering job) but his anger slowly rises when he understands where Barlow’s questioning is leading.  Evans’ self-declared awe at Barlow (he feels more comfortable standing up when being questioned by him, rather than sitting down) slowly dissipates as incredulity takes hold.  Norman Bowler, as the unfortunate Hawkins, also has his moment to shine, although it’s relatively brief – he might be the man in the spotlight, but the likes of Cullen and Donald have more screentime.

The way Donald’s colleagues feel about her, also a feature of the previous story, is touched upon again.  Some, like Snow, are almost paternalistic – he feels she’s too nice a girl to be in a job like this.  Others, such as Watt, can’t help but make mildly sexist remarks, although he’s later given a chance to make his position clearer.

Donald – the object of unwanted attention from both males and females –  clearly has a lot to put up with. That she struggles to be treated as an equal with her male colleagues can be seen during her interview with Cullen. He speaks to her in an avuncular way that just wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t been a women (imagining a similarly cosy chat with the likes of Snow or Evans makes the mind boggle!) Is this another example of the sexist nature of the series or is it simply reflecting the way the police force was at the time? Or maybe a little of both?

Michael Goodliffe was an impeccable actor with a long and impressive list of credits.  As Grenville, he’s controlled and calm until the closing minutes, when it becomes clear that the police hold the upper hand, meaning that his composure ever so slightly wavers.  Ian Sharp, the other guest artist, has less to work with, but is able to capture well the contradictions in Pinks’ character.  He might be scruffy and dirty, but he’s not ill-educated – so it’s possible to believe that he comes from an affluent background and is simply playing at being a revolutionary.

As ever, Elwyn Jones delivers a sharply-written script, full of decent character conflict.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Never Hit a Lady

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PC Snow and WDC Donald go undercover.  For Donald, posing as a prostitute, it means putting herself at considerable personal risk ….

Never Hit A Lady has an effective cold opening – the setting is a greasy spoon transport café.  Our initial sight of Donald – plastered in makeup – makes it obvious that she’s working undercover.  When Mick Harrigan (Neil McCallum) enters, we see her keen to strike up a conversation.

Harrigan drives lorries full of whisky from Scotland to London.  He’s been robbed in the past and there’s a suspicion it might happen again soon.  But is Harrigan a victim or part of the criminal conspiracy?  If Donald can persuade him to take her to London, there’s a chance she’ll be able to find out.  But Harrigan refuses – he doesn’t travel with anybody that he doesn’t know.

Donald makes a friend – Peg (Margaret Brady).  Peg has plied her trade up and down the lorry routes for a while and now cuts a somewhat tragic figure.  But there’s still a spark of defiance and bite there (which she obviously needs, otherwise the life she leads would have worn her down a long time ago).  Peg is the sort of person that Donald, if she really was a prostitute, might eventually become – Peg knows that she’s doomed, but can’t see any way out.  Brady essays a confident performance.

Barlow, Hawkins and especially Snow (who’s been detailed to watch her every step of the way) are concerned about Donald.  At this point there’s no evidence that Harrigan is particularly violent, so it’s hard not to interpret their concern in a sexist light.  The unspoken inference is that Donald, since she’s a woman, will be unable to cope if things turn ugly.

But then it turns out that Harrigan might be dangerous after all, as it seems he brutally beat up Peg after giving her a lift.  After hearing the news, Donald rushes to the hospital to speak to her (which is a little bit of a story loophole – just how did the Task Force learn so quickly that Peg had been hospitalised?)  Still posing as a fellow prostitute, Donald gives her some money to tide her over – a gift which Peg gratefully (and somewhat pathetically) accepts.

It’s third time lucky, as Harrigan agrees to give Donald a lift to London and also suggests they might have a meal later on.  He’s something of an old smoothie, telling her that – unlike most of the girls who work this route – she doesn’t smell.  I have to confess that it’s slightly hard to see what Donald’s undercover operation is now supposed to achieve.  A confession from Harrigan that he hit Peg?  Even if he did so, it wouldn’t be admissible as evidence.

It’s a pity there wasn’t a closer guard on his parked lorry, as whilst Snow and Hawkins were tailing Donald and Harrigan, a group of armed men drove it away from the lorry park.  Since the whisky thefts were supposed to be the object of the exercise, why didn’t the Task Force have somebody on a constant watch?

Now that Donald’s gone back to Harrigan’s room it’s painfully obvious what he expects to happen next, and he’s not going to take no for an answer.  Given there’s a suspicion he could be violent, Donald seems to have been placed in danger for no good reason.  He does attack her, but she’s able to signal to Snow and Hawkins (waiting anxiously outside).

The sight of an unconscious Donald – blood on her face – incenses Snow.  He proceeds to choke the life out of Harrigan before Hawkins pulls him off.  Terence Rigby was good at playing affable, but – as here – could do implacable just as well.  Feelings are running high as Barlow (after Harrigan dismisses Donald as “a bloody teaser”) also looks as if he’d like to choke Harrigan.  But luckily Hawkins is there once again to keep the peace.

Never Hit A Lady is a cracking showcase for Susan Tebbs.  What’s especially interesting about Allan Prior’s script is how it doesn’t shy away from showing just how inept and flawed the operation was right from the start.  There’s not a great deal of Stratford Johns, but the final five minutes or so are centered around Barlow’s questioning of Harrigan, which is electrifying.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Good Listener

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PC Snow and Radar are patrolling in the park, where they meet an old lady called Miss Thomson (Sylvia Barter).  She’s clearly agitated and Snow, seeing this, suggests she tells her story to Radar.  As strange as this seems it does the trick and Miss Thomson explains that she’s worked as a bookkeeper at a local company for the last fifteen years.  It’s recently been taken over by a man called Overson (Jonathan Newth) and Miss Thomson is concerned that something fraudulent is going on.

The opening scene has another example of a film/VT mix which isn’t very effective.  Location filming always cost more (and was a lengthier process) than taping scenes on videotape in the studio, so it’s easy to see why SS:TF tried to limit the time they spent on location.  The problem comes when you mix film and videotape in the same scene.  Here, the establishing shots of the park are on film.  We them move to videotape for the dialogue, which is jarring enough, but there’s also a moment when Terence Rigby delivers several lines on videotape with a film background.  This looks very odd indeed.

PC Snow is a copper rather in the Dixon mould, shown by the way that he has time to stop and chat.  Possibly this might also have something to do with the fact that he spends most of his time with Radar.  He admits he does talk to his dog, but presumably the dog doesn’t answer back!

Sgt Jackson (David Allister) is a more complicated figure than Snow.  He tended to exist around the fringes of the action in series one and rarely initiated events.  Unlike the much more avuncular Sgt Evans, Jackson doesn’t seem to possess any sense of humour and is also deeply ambitious.  We see an example of this here – Hawkins is happy to shuffle off the job of investigating the fraud to the Commerce Division, but Jackson is keen to keep it in-house.  He argues that it’ll be good experience for them (and won’t look bad on their records if the right result is gained).

Jackson, clearly enjoying being in charge, sends Snow around to the company warehouse to sniff around.  He meets the manager, Bert Fowler (Douglas Livingstone) and the assistant bookkeeper Betty Adams (Marilyn Harrington).  Both are friendly enough to Snow’s face, but clearly have little time for the police.  Because they have something to hide?  For his part, Snow’s not impressed with Betty, later telling Hawkins that she’s “a little tartlet and tough with it.”

When Barlow finds out that Jackson is running his own enquiry without the authorisation of the Commerce Division, he entertains himself by making the Sergeant sweat for a few minutes.  There’s no finer sight than Barlow in full flight, although he’s prepared to wait and see what Hawkins and Snow (on photographic reconnaissance) turn up.

When Hawkins and Snow return, Barlow continues in pretty much the same vein, taking shots at all of them.  I also love Stratford Johns’ reaction when PC Snow admits that he talks to Radar.  Barlow succulently sums the situation up. “Barmy. I think this is a nut house, not a police office.”

The crime in this story is very much secondary to the interactions of the regulars.  I’ll probably end up sounding like a broken record as I make my way through the series, but Stratford Johns is always so amazingly watchable.  When he leaves SS:TF for yet another spin off series (hopefully Simply will consider releasing Barlow in the future) it’s going to leave something of a hole.

Jonathan Newth, an actor who’s appeared in a score of popular series from the 1960’s onwards (and is still going strong today) is perfect as the icy kingpin.  He considers himself to be fireproof (as the police aren’t interested in long frauds) but now that Barlow’s on the case all bets are off ….

Another good script from Elwyn Jones.

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