Four of a Kind, the first episode of Z Cars, was originally broadcast on BBC Television in 1962.
So it’s the sixtieth anniversary of Z Cars (looks in vain for BBC4 documentary and extensive repeat season. Ho hum).
This opening episode hits the ground running by deftly establishing the differing personas of the four policeman selected for the new crime patrols (Lynch, Steele, Smith, Weir) and their two bosses (Barlow, Watt).
It’s true that broad brushstrokes are used though – Lynch is a garrulous Irishman, Steele might knock his wife about but we’re assured he’s a good chap really, Fancy is a ridiculously confident Teddy Boy and Jock … ah poor Jock (he very much gets the short end of the stick in this debut episode, only being called upon to mumble a few incoherent words).
Fare Forward Voyagers, the first episode of Manhunt, was originally broadcast on ITV in 1970.
The premise of the series is simple – Nina (Cyd Hayman) has vital information about the French resistance networks. The Germans desperately want it, but so do the British – which means that Jimmy (Alfred Lynch) and Vincent (Peter Barkworth) have to somehow spirit her out of occupied France and back to London.
Rewatching this opener, it’s impossible not to nitpick a little – how did Nina escape after the Germans gunned down every other member of the Paris resistance cell? We’re never told (and given how hysterical she is for most of the episode, it’s difficult to see how she could have gone more than a few paces).
And why are the Germans so trigger happy? If they hadn’t massacred everyone, then Nina wouldn’t be such a valuable property.
All of the three regulars have a tricky time in this episode, as their characters are so extreme – Jimmy’s a wisecracking RAF pilot, Vincent’s a cold-hearted killer and Nina’s little more than a bundle of nerves. Putting the three of them together seems like a recipe for disaster, but hopefully they’ll settle down over the course of the next 25 (!) episodes. Given that Secret Army tended to spirit British airmen out of Belgium in a single episode, 26 episodes to get Nina over to Britain seems rather generous ….
The fine guest performances of Peter Copley, Andrew Keir and Yootha Joyce are one of the saving graces of Fare Forward Voyagers. Keir is especially impressive as the doomed Robespierre, a radio operator who sacrifices himself in order to allow Jimmy, Nina and Vincent the chance to escape.
Ringer, the first episode of The Sweeney, was broadcast on ITV in 1975.
Following the Armchair Cinema ‘pilot’ in 1974, The Sweeney burst onto our screens with this effort. Subtle it isn’t (the closing punch up is so ridiculously over the top that I’ve never been sure if it’s supposed to be tongue in cheek or not) but overall the episode is still rather bracing.
Brian Blessed (with a stick on beard) and Ian Hendry are the main guest stars whilst there’s plenty of familiar faces (Ray Mort, June Brown, Alan Lake, Angus Mackay) also present and correct.
The Way Back, the first episode of Blakes 7, was broadcast on BBC1 in 1978.
This dystopian tale of thought control and (thankfully trumped up) charges of child abuse had a surprisingly early evening slot. Fair to say that The Way Back is very much a one-off as the following 51 episodes never recaptured the tone of this opening installment.
Writing (or at least credited for) all 13 episodes of the first series, it’s not surprising that Terry Nation’s at his sharpest here. As time wore on and inspiration began to dry up, his scripts became rather more perfunctory.
Given the episode title, the opening few minutes (which finds PC Lynch in court as a chief prosecution witness) appears to be something of an exercise in misdirection. Lynch (James Ellis) has been called upon to give evidence against a man accused of stealing a bottle of milk – not exactly the crime of the century (nor one that you would assume would be sufficient to maintain fifty minutes of drama).
But in one way it does turn out to have a later significance. The case is quickly proved, with the magistrate (played by John Gabriel) commenting that although Lynch was accused of planting this bottle of milk, he can find no reason why he would have done so. A modern audience might possibly look slightly askance at this seemingly automatic assumption that the police would be incapable of speaking nothing but the whole truth, but they’d be well advised to watch the remainder of John Hopkins’ script before jumping to any conclusions.
The bulk of the story revolves around a series of fairly petty thefts of foodstuffs organised by Trevor Kiernan (Richard Leech). Kiernan runs a small supermarket, frequented by the likes of Fancy Smith (Brian Blessed), and has taken to pilfering from his competitors in order to increase his profit margins.
But the dogged Detective Inspector Dunn (Dudley Foster) is on his case. Foster didn’t appear in that many episodes of Z Cars, which is a slight shame as Dunn’s incredibly phlegmatic and passionless officer is quite compelling. It’s plain though that he’s never going to be the sort of person to make many friends (at one point he tells a weary Lynch to grab some sleep before returning to duty but – as Lynch says – always manages to make a friendly remark sound like an insult).
Fancy and Jock Weir (Joe Brady) seem to have created a watertight case against Kiernan (thanks to a marked box) but this all comes to naught after they’re both destroyed in the witness box by Kiernan’s smooth-talking barrister, Garston (Jerome Willis).
This last ten minutes or so is easily the most compelling section of the episode. Willis’ character is able to effortlessly run rings around both Fancy and Jock, casting just enough doubt on their evidence without ever stepping over the boundary to accuse them of outright corruption. Thanks to this, he’s able to secure an acquittal for his client. Therefore the same magistrate who earlier found in favour of the police – Lynch – now finds against them.
Dunn’s reaction to the hapless Fancy and Jock afterwards is interesting. You might have expected him to be more than a little ticked off, but instead he’s fairly sanguine about the whole affair. No, they didn’t gain a conviction, but he’s convinced that Kiernan would have found the whole trial and subsequent publicity to be so off-putting that from now on he’ll stick to the straight and narrow. Other, later, police shows might regard the conviction as the be all and end all – but for this era of Z Cars that’s not the case.
Brief appearances by Barlow and Watt help to enhance a fairly routine instalment, although Jerome Willis’ appearance (and the always solid performances from the regulars) helps to keep the interest ticking along.
A Place of Safety has something of an abstract opening. We see a man climbing up several flights of stairs, but then the camera seems to lose interest in him as it tracks away – firstly to record some children going down the stairs and then to observe a woman slowly walking upwards.
But we can still hear his voice. He’s banging on a door, demanding entry – promising that things will be worse if he has to come back. The relative peace is then shattered as the man falls down the stairs. We cut to the inside of a room to reveal a man holding a bloody axe.
If parts of Newtown (Z Cars‘ fictional location) were indeed new, then others most certainly were not. The building where the man (who we later learn is a bailiff called Wallace) lies injured is a crumbling wreck, mostly populated by those on the poverty line (and who also happen to be black). This doesn’t seem to please Fancy Smith (Brian Blessed) who is visibly exasperated when he’s unable to get any of the other residents to utter a word. He ironically comments that they’re deaf, but the inference seems to be that they can’t, rather than won’t, speak English.
To begin with, it’s possible that the same could be said for the man with the axe – Adignu Sadik (Johnny Sekka). Barricading the door, he’s depicted as a mute, irresolute figure. He’s not alone, as his wife Nana (Alaknanda Samart) and his two young children are also present. Bathed in sweat, Sadik doesn’t utter a word during these early scenes – not even when he’s tempted out of the room by Detective Chief Inspector Barlow (Stratford Johns).
Indeed it’s not until about twenty minutes in, when he’s being questioned at the police station by Detective Sergeant Watt (Frank Windsor), that Sadik utters his first words. And he’s revealed to be an articulate, softly spoken man, unable to explain why he should have exploded in a sudden burst of anger against Wallace.
That Sadik is not an unthinking, violent creature is surely an intentional piece of scripting – as several characters have already expressed negative opinions about Sadik and the black community in general. Wallace’s boss, Lowther (Norman Bird) regards them as savages whilst Fancy makes the unoriginal observation that they all look alike.
A Place of Safety doesn’t offer any glib answers or pat solutions and nor does it shie away from suggesting that the police are capable of prejudice just like anybody else. Barlow gently probes Lowther to try and find out what Wallace was like as a person – did he enjoy his job too much? Lowther reacts angrily. Wallace was an ex-copper, doing a dirty job, he says, but he didn’t deserve to be the victim of an unprovoked assault. After he leaves, Watt tells Barlow that Wallace does have a reputation as a troublemaker, but nothing ever comes of this (we never see Wallace after his tumble down the stairs, so he’s not a defined character).
Lowther bitterly believes that Barlow’s attempting to find excuses to excuse Sadik’s attack. But when Barlow and Watt are alone, Barlow admits quite the reverse – he suffers from prejudice as well, so he’s doubly keen to ensure that he treats Sadik fairly.
Johnny Sekka is excellent as Sadik, a man with no previous history of violence who finds events has spiraled out of his control. But the script also poses the question about exactly how much sympathy we should have for him. Another very strong performance comes from Alakanda Samarth as his wife, Nana. She has several key scenes, but possibly the most notable one is right at the end.
With her husband locked up, she and her children have been thrown out onto the streets. Watt arranges a temporary place for them to stay, but the children can’t remain with their mother. Fancy and Jock drop her off and there’s an intriguing moment of tension between her and Fancy. We’ve already seen that the bluff Fancy has an undisguised raft of prejudices and Nana is prepared to meet him head on – she’s proud and independent and can clearly pick up the negative signals from Fancy (and isn’t prepared to ignore them)
An excellent episode by John Hopkins, which also works as a fascinating slice of social history.
I’ve uploaded some bits and bobs to my YouTube channel over the last few days and one of them is this Timeshift documentary from 2004.
It tells the story of live British television drama – from the early days and then right up to date. Covering programmes like the original Quatermass serials, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Dixon of Dock Green and Z Cars and featuring interviews with Nigel Kneale, Peter Byrne and Brian Blessed amongst others, it ties neatly into some of the shows that I’ve written about in recent months.
For those who subscribe to a strictly linear view concerning British police drama it is possible to draw a line something like this –
In the beginning (the 1950’s) there was Dixon of Dock Green. It was fine for its time, but the launch of Z Cars in 1962 made it an obsolete dinosaur. Z Cars was fine for its time, but the launch of The Sweeney in 1975 made it an obsolete dinosaur, etc.
Of course, the true picture isn’t nearly as straightforward. Acorn DVD’s recent releases of the majority of existing Dixon episodes from the early to the mid seventies reveal a series of considerable interest. And whilst the 1970’s Z Cars lack the edge and spirit of the earliest episodes from a decade earlier, they also have merit and in many ways point towards the style and format of later series, such as The Bill.
A brief potted history of Z Cars. It was created in 1962 by Troy Kennedy-Martin, who spent a period of illness confined to bed and listening to police messages on his radio. The range of calls that they answered, from trivialities to more serious matters, convinced Kennedy-Martin that there was considerable scope for drama which had hitherto been untapped.
Assembling a first rate cast, including Stratford Johns as DCI Barlow, Frank Windsor as DS Watt, Brian Blessed as PC Fancy Smith and James Ellis as PC Bert Lynch, the series was an instant success and ran until 1965. Stratford Johns and Frank Windsor went into the spin off Softly Softly and Z Cars itself was revived in 1967 in a twice weekly soap opera format of 25 minute episodes twice a week. In 1972 it returned to a weekly 50 minute format and stayed that way until the final episode was transmitted in 1978.
Like many series of the 1960’s and 1970’s there are some gaps in the archive, although it fares better than Dixon which only has 30 or so episodes in existence from over 400 transmitted.
From around 800 episodes made, Z Cars has just under 400 present in the archives. Certain years are hard hit (patchy selections from 1967, 1969 and 1970, nothing at all from 1968 or 1971) whilst other years are virtually complete.
With so much available, there’s plenty of scope when selecting episodes for DVD. And whilst the logical choice might have been to choose a run of episodes from the first series, Acorn instead have chosen to start at July 1972.
The first DVD, released last year, contained episodes from July – September 1972 and this new DVD contains the next six episodes, which takes us up to the end of October 1972. With the survival rate being rather poor for the next year or so it will be interesting to see what Acorn do next (provided of course there is another release). But one plus point of releasing a run of consecutive episodes is that we can get a handle on the nuances of the regular characters, something that is harder to do with the Dixon DVDs due to the large gaps in the archives.
It’s 1972 and the Z Cars team continue to patrol the fictional Newtown. Back in 1962 the name was well chosen, as it was a new town, with newly built housing estates where the working classes found themselves rehoused. A decade later there’s a general feeling of decay which is quite prevalent in a considerable amount of early 1970’s television, particularly the Dixons of this time. Everything looks grimy and rundown and there’s a feeling that people are just hanging on.
First episode on the set is Witness by David Ellis. This episode, like many others, juggles several plot lines at once, something which would be a hallmark of later series like The Bill. The main plot concerns the witness to a forthcoming trial facing intimidation and threats whilst the second plot line sees Det Sgt Stone (John Slater) face an unwelcome visitor from his past. George Appleton (Campbell Singer), a now retired colleague of Stone’s, decides to pay Stone a visit.
Stone is a middle-aged copper who seems to have reached his peak, career wise. This he puts down to the efforts of Appleton in years gone by, whose constant belittling seems to have irrevocably damaged Stone’s confidence. Slater is one of the stand-out performers of this era of the programme, and whilst this plot thread is fairly minor, thanks to Slater it’s the best part of the episode.
Next up is Takes All Sorts by Leslie Duxbury. Inspector Pratt (Graham Armitage) is a by-the-book officer who is despised by some of the more maverick coppers, such as PC Yates (Nicholas Smith). Yates is an old-fashioned bobby who sees nothing wrong in dishing out a bit of summary justice or accepting the odd drink or meal whilst on the beat. This brings him into direct conflict with Pratt, although there’s plenty of other things happening on this night shift, such as the theft of a yellow dumper truck and the arrival at the station of Jean Knight (Gwyneth Powell) who has evidence that will put her criminal husband away for a long time.
Takes All Sorts, thanks to the interweaving plot threads, is one of the best episodes on this release. Nicholas Smith (well known for playing Mr Rumbold in Are You Being Served?) is good value here, and also in several other episodes on the DVD.
The last episode on disc 1 is Sins of the Father by Bill Lyons. There are two main plot threads – a robbery at a local supermarket and the travails of a mother and her wayward son. Like the majority of the stories of this era, the crimes are fairly low key, but it’s a solid enough episode.
Damage by P.J. Hammond is the first story on the second DVD. It does stand out from the episodes around it, which is no bad thing, thanks to it’s slightly unusual tone.
Burglar Terry Moon (John Shedden) gets more than he bargained for when he attempts to break into a house in Newtown. He finds his hand trapped in the door, tied up with string and then burnt with matches. Stone doesn’t consider that the woman who carried out the attack was responsible for her actions – rather he blames the parents for their treatment of her. This is a chance for Slater to shine again, particularly at the end of the episode.
Day Trip by Bill Barron sees the return of Det Sgt Haggar (John Collin). As soon as he’s back in Newtown he spots a familiar face – Dilly Watson (Hilary Tindall). Dilly’s a known thief, only petty thefts, but a irritant nonetheless. Haggar thinks he’s run her out of town, but Dilly returns and together with Rose (Elisabeth Sladen) plans a job to embarrass Haggar.
Chiefly notable for the appearance of Sladen, this is a somewhat forgettable episode that has all the elements, but doesn’t ever quite click into life. Elisabeth Sladen would appear several times in Z Cars (each time playing a different character) and it was this flexability that would later impress Barry Letts and prove to be a major factor in his decision to cast her as Sarah-Jane Smith in Doctor Who.
Final episode on the set is Public Relations by Leslie Duxbury. Ken Knowles (Gareth Thomas) runs a news agency and is distinctly ambitious. Upset that Haggar never seems to tip him off when a big case breaks, he decides to go and find his own.
The clash of wills between Knowles and Haggar is the highlight of the episode, and Gareth Thomas (and his coat!) are very impressive. A good story to end this release on.
Apart from the actors already mentioned, both James Ellis (Sgt Lynch) and Ian Cullen (PC Skinner) are solid presences throughout all the episodes. Ellis had been with the series from the start and would remain firmly in place until the final episode. Cullen would leave a few years later, not by choice – as he discusses in a newly shot interview on disc one, which is one of a number of short interviews with cast members produced for this release.
For the hardened archive television fan, if you have the first release and enjoyed it then this is definitely worth purchasing. If you are more selective, then I would recommend either of the Dixon DVDs or series one of Softly Softly Task Force (provided you can find a re-released copy and not the original release with the major encoding fault) ahead of this.
Apart from Damage, there’s nothing stand-out here, but the humdrum cases were the bread and butter of Z Cars. If you want squealing tyres and armed robbers then try The Sweeney. The cases in Z Cars are much more low-key but they’re not without interest for a number of reasons, particularly the quality acting – both from the regulars and the guest casts.