Softly Softly: Task Force – Conversion (6th December 1972)

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An ingenious bank raid – carried out at the same time that the street is undergoing a gas conversion – is today’s crime. But as so often, character dynamics are pushed to the fore whilst the crime sits in the background.

Adler’s continuing mission to refer to all the regulars as “son” continues (today it’s Snow who receives that honour). Having not featured too heavily for a while, it’s nice that Terence Rigby is given more to do (although the reason becomes clear at the end of the episode).

Pete Ryan (Billy Hamon) is befriended by Snow. Something of an innocent, the early part of Conversion leaves us in no doubt that he’s very slow on the uptake (two experienced villains plan to use him when they rob the bank).

Pete, one the army of gas fitters, agrees to block the road at the appointed time (thereby allowing the getaway car to escape). This he does, but it means that he becomes a person of interest to the police – although not as you might expect.  He isn’t lifted for a grilling, instead Snow buys him drinks and listens to his story.

This all the more remarkable since Pete is aware that Snow’s a copper.  Although Snow could never be called soft, something about Pete (who’s barely more than a lad) clearly engages his sympathy.  So when Pete is killed in a road accident, Snow (who was observing him at the time) blames himself.

Spike Harran (Frank Barrie) and Tom Bishop (Graham Weston) are the two members of the gang granted speaking roles.  Many more are seen when the bank raid is carried out, but they were clearly stuntmen and non-speaking extras.  Indeed, the robbery is something of a jolting moment – up until this point the episode has proceeded in a typical fashion for SS:TF (high on character detail, low on visual excitement) so the sight of a gaggle of stuntmen throwing themselves about with wild abandon certainly catches the eye.

The early scenes between Pete, Spike and Tom have something of a comic air. Partly this is down to Tom’s tie, but the dialogue (the way that Spike and Tom have to repeat things again and again to Pete) also reinforces the feeling that the whole escapade is a bit of a lark.  But the brief violence seen during the raid, Pete’s death and Snow’s cold fury at Pete’s wasted life all help to darken the mood.

Adler once again is placed at the centre of the story. His interactions with both Snow and Evans are fascinating.  Snow is happy to give the new Task Force boss a little time to settle in (his attitude reflects his phlegmatic nature). The voluble Evans is a totally different type of person, he’s never slow to reveal his feelings ….

Adler and Snow later bring Spike back to the area.  Their train journey allows Snow to vent his feelings towards Spike, whom he feels had a part to play in Pete’s death. “If this was an old-fashioned compartment with a door there, I’d open it and shove you out”.  Snow’s impassioned tirade, which runs for several minutes, is easily the highlight of the episode.

Terence Rigby once again is excellent value, which makes it a pity that he then took something of a break from the series (sitting out the second half of series four and not returning until the fifth series).  Presumably Rigby had commitments elsewhere.

Grahame Mallard is drafted in as PC Nesbitt (he’d previously appeared in two previous episodes as two different PCs).  His introduction is typical of the series as it couldn’t really be any lower-key (he just appears out of nowhere).

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Dog Eat Dog (4th October 1972)

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Dog Eat Dog is that rarest of SS:TF beasts – a Snow-centric episode. PC Snow stumbles across Colin Talbot (Greg Smith) a troubled teenager who – like Snow – has recently lost his dog.  This would seem to be the cue for the two to bond, but it’s not quite as straightforward as that.

Snow later returns with a present for him (a puppy) but Colin angrily refuses it.  Given that Rigby and Smith share several strong scenes at the start of the episode, we seem to be heading towards a story in which Colin will feature heavily. It’s therefore slightly surprising that he then disappears from view until the final ten minutes or so.

But even though he’s offscreen, the problem of Colin still dominates. His father, Harry Talbot (Windsor Davies), is a right piece of work – a workshy layabout, he despises the boy (demonstrated by the fact he strangled his dog).  Needless to say Snow doesn’t react to this news terribly well – the scene where Snow and Talbot face off is an episode highlight.  The way that Snow casually calls Talbot a “bastard” before threatening violence is all the more chilling due to Rigby’s typically measured delivery.

Another highlight is Watt’s confrontation with Snow. With Barlow absent, Watt is the episode’s authority figure – although he’s largely used here for comic effect.  After sustaining a nasty injury to his nose (Evans was forced to break heavily when Snow’s puppy ran out in front of their car) Watt’s patience with the do-gooder Snow is stretched to breaking point ….

PC Knowles (Martin C. Thurley) also gets a spot of character development. The latest of the desk-bound coordinators, he has a few mild clashes with the practical Snow (Knowles – somewhat physically underdeveloped – also admires Snow’s impressive shoulders!). This is another nice comic touch which helps to balance out the drama of Colin’s storyline.

If we trust IMDb, then this was Ewart Alexander’s sole SS:TF script, which might explain why the tone feels slightly different.  No complaints though, as it’s good to have some episodes which push the series in an unusual direction.

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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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