Saturday, March 25, 2023

Softly, Softly: Task Force and the history of police on television

This post is written for the 9th Annual Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon on Terence Towles Canote's blog A Shroud of Thoughts.

It’s 1968 and downstairs I can hear the theme music for Softly, Softly playing. But it’s eight o’clock and I'm only eight years old. Not suprisingly, I long to watch the programme.

A couple of years later, when I could watch it, Softly, Softly had metamorphosed into Softly, Softly Task Force and it is an episode of this latter series - Copper Wire, first broadcast on 1 December 1971 - that I shall be writing about here.

But to set it in context, we need a bit history of first - the history of police series on British television, or at least on the BBC.

The fall and rise of PC Dixon

That history really begins in the cinema. Ealing Studios released its police drama The Blue Lamp in 1950. It dealt with the murder of a London policeman who’s coming up to retirement, PC George Dixon played by Jack Warner, and the capture of his killer.

As in many British films of that decade, the villains are much more sharply drawn than the good characters. So the young hoodlum who shoots Dixon after robbing a cinema of its takings, Dirk Bogarde, still seems sexy and dangerous today. But James Hanley as the new constable who lodges with the Dixons and acts as a sort of surrogate son comes over as a wet haddock.

But then The Times critic of the day complained that: 

There is an indefinable feel of the theatrical backcloth behind their words and actions ... The sense that the policemen they are acting are not policemen as they really are, but policemen as an indulgent tradition has chosen to think they are, will not be banished.

That didn’t stop George Dixon rising from the dead to become nearly immortal.

In 1955 the BBC began to screen Dixon of Dock Green, a police series featuring several characters from The Blue Lamp, including a resurrected PC Dixon - again played by Jack Warner.

Warner was to go on playing him until the series ended in 1976, by which time he was 80 himself.

Dixon of Dock Green is written off in the TV history books as being ridiculously dated long before its 21 years on screen were up. 

I remember watching it as a small boy in the Sixties - it was shown at Saturday teatime, so no bedtime issues arose - and each episode began and ended with a homily delivered straight to camera by Dixon himself. 

These generally ran along the lines of “Young Johnny wasn’t a bad lad, but he fell in with the wrong crowd.”

Before I move this history on, I should add that, out of curiosity, I watched a 1970 episode of Dixon of Dock Green and found it wasn’t dated at all. 

Yes, Jack Warner was visibly at least two decades past retirement age – even his son-in-law Andy Crawford, the equivalent of Jimmy Hanley’s character in the film, must have been disappointed not to have made it past Detective Sergeant at his age. 

But the rest of it felt like 1970 and there was good use made of then-derelict Dockland locations.

Even Dixon’s opening monologue, which was about how you could work with someone for years but never really know them, was haunting rather than cosy.

Enter Barlow and Watt

In 1962 the BBC embarked on a new police series set in a new town in the North West of England.

The first episode of Z-Cars began with Detective Inspector Barlow (played by Stratford Johns) and Detective Sergeant John Watt (Frank Windsor) meeting by the graveside of another version of the original PC Dixon – an old constable gunned down by a young hoodlum.

While the makers of The Blue Lamp could only suggest more bobbies on the beat, Barlow and Watt have a modern answer to the problem. 

Watt says:

“If we had crime patrols like other divisions, Reggie Farrow would be alive today. If we had crime patrols in Newtown, when the burglar alarm went at the factory it would have been two tough commandos that tearaway met instead of old Reggie and his bicycle.”

And the rest of the episode shows them assigning suitable officers to these new motorised patrols.

The original run of Z-Cars between 1962 and 1965 – it was one of the last British TV dramas to be screened live – had a strong impact and was hailed as presenting the police as they really were.

When it returned in 1968, it was without Barlow and Watt, who had become the dominant characters in a new show. These later years of Z-Cars was never as ground-breaking as the original series, and scheduled like a soap on two evenings a week, it was in danger of turning into a soap.

Still, the Z-Cars theme tune remains one of the greats.

I finally get to watch Softly, Softly

Barlow and Watt had moved on to Softly, Softly. This new drama series again tried to keep up with developments in British policing by covering the work of a regional crime squad – in this case in a fictional region called Wyvern located somewhere near Bristol.

The series took its name from the motto of Lancashire Constabulary Training School: ‘Softly, softly, catchee monkey.’

In 1969 Barlow and Watt, by now promoted to Detective Chief Superintendent and Detective Superintendent respectively, moved to a new series called Softly, Softly: Taskforce. Set in the fictional town of Thamesford (and filmed in the Medway towns in Kent), this concentrated on a team of uniform and plain-clothes police establish to carry out large operations.

It was this series that I got to watch as a boy.

Copper Wire

I’ve chosen Copper Wire for two reasons: the first is what it tells us about policing in 1971 and the second is the quality of the acting.

To get a result, the Task Force relies on either catching the criminals red handed or getting a confession out of them. There is little mention of forensic science beyond fingerprinting - the analysis of blood groups could eliminate suspects but not convict them.

And to get catch criminals in the act you needed a tip off, either from police intelligence – another force hearing rumours that one of their regular customers is planning a job in Thamesford – or from an informer. Every detective has his informers and their identities are jealously hidden even from superior officers.

If you wanted a confession, then Barlow was your man. This was the age before the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, but I can’t remember an episode when he beat it out of a suspect. He could be a bully, and he was sometimes shown bullying the innocent, but he also used cunning and psychology. In Copper Wire he resembles a priest hearing confession.

Barlow is being driven home by his sergeant from a dinner where he has drunk too much. Listening in on the police radio for entertainment, he hears a name he recognises from his days in the North West. Partly out of mischief and partly out of nostalgia, he inserts himself in the investigation.

What follows in the second half of this episode is a wonderful two-hander between Stratford Johns as Barlow and Peter Kerrigan as Tiger Mulholland.

Stratford Johns was a mighty actor. Before Z-Cars he had been with the Royal Court in its glory years and he would later shave his head and play Daddy Warbucks in the first West End production of Annie. When he left Softly, Softly: Task Force in 1972, initially to play Barlow in a series of his own, it was never as good.

But Peter Kerrigan is marvellous here too. In what could be a stereotyped Liverpudlian role, he underplays beautifully. Kerrigan had been a docker on Merseyside and was later to appear in many of Alan Bleasdale’s television plays.

Not that good acting in Task Force was a surprise. Thamesford’s Chief Constable was played by Walter Gotell, whose granite face and gravelly voice made him a regular Bond villain. And the dog-handler PC Snow was played by Terence Rigby, who was one of Harold Pinter’s favourite actors.

Frank Windsor devoted much of his career to playing John Watt, but when the series ended he went back to the stage and won warm reviews for his comic acting.

My favourite Task Force character as a boy was Inspector Harry Hawkins, played by Norman Bowler. I was later to learn that Bowler had been a member of the Soho set in the 1950s - here he is talking about the artist John Minton.

To end, and to prove there was some humour in Task Force, here from another episode is a short exchange between Inspector Hawkins and PC Snow, who is gently breaking in his new police dog.


Rich said...

Interesting history of early British cop shows, though I’m unfamiliar with SSTF. Sounds like a different dynamic than, say, STARSKY & HUTCH, but it is a different country, after all.

Jonathan Calder said...

Thank you, Rich. There was often action in Softly, Softly: Task Force, particularly when the police got a tip off about a criminal raid and were lying in wait when the gang arrives.

Harry Hawkins even shoots a man dead in one episode, but as it's British TV he is sick afterwards.

Phil Beesley said...

I worked with a bloke employed at Thames TV when The Sweeney was first broadcast. They showed it to staff beforehand for comments -- like in that documentary about Coronation Street -- and they were impressed. A "new realism".

For years, BBC and ITV conducted a TV battle about how well they portrayed cops and robbers.

Anonymous said...

I recall that in the first episode of Z Cars there was a suspicion of domestic violence involving a policeman - either he had thrown his dinner* at his wife, or vice versa. Realism indeed. But how can you mention the show without reference to John Slater as DS Tom Stone? One of the first actors to make an impression on me.

(*As it was set in a fictional Merseyside, it was probably "tea" rather than dinner.)

Jonathan Calder said...

Phil: As I recall, The Sweeney panicked the BBC and they came up with Patrick Mower in Target, which was even more violent.

Anonymous: I remember Sergeant Stone from Z-Cars in the late Sixties, but I'm afraid the post is more about Softly, Softly: Task Force. Frank Windsor did return to Newtown for the last ever episode of Z-Cars.

I once heard John Alderson, who was Chief Constable of the Devon and Cornwall force and later a Liberal parliamentary candidate, say he had returned home to find his wife writing a letter of complaint to the BBC about the Z-Cars episode you mention or another on the same theme. He had spent the day dealing with an officer who had been beating his wife.

Archive TV Musings said...

Copper Wire is such a good episode, although as I make my way through the series again (currently almost at the end of series 3) I've found that the general level of scripting is pretty consistent.

Possibly SS:TF slightly suffers from only using a small pool of writers (Elwyn Jones and Allan Prior especially) which means the series can feel a little samey.

Maybe that's the reason why Copper Wire (the first of six scripts written by Keith Dewhurst) has a little more of an edge. Like Tony Hoare, Dewhurst was a welcome addition to the writing line-up during S3.

Terence Towles Canote said...

I don't think either show ever aired here in the States, so I never got a chance to watch either Softly, Softly or Softly, Softly: Task Force. It's for that reason I really appreciate your history of police on television, and your write-up on the episode "Copper Wire." I really want to see both shows now. Anyway, thank you so much for taking part in the blogathon!

Mike's Movie Room said...

Thank you for a very informative article. I haven't seen that much British television.