Tom Bishop (George Cole) is a man with a secret. Outwardly he appears to be just another normal member of society, but he’s responsible for starting a number of fires in abandoned buildings. After his wife and daughter were killed in a recent fire, Bishop has found himself driven to become an arsonist – in this way he hopes to demonstrate just how deadly and dangerous fire can be. But events take a tragic turn when his latest arson attack kills fours squatters and badly injures a police officer. But after the initial shock of learning of the fatalities, Bishop only becomes more and more obsessed to carry on ….
Before finding his niche as Arthur Daley, George Cole seemed to spend a lot of his time playing flawed characters – people who seemed to be normal on the surface but were disturbed or homicidal underneath. Other examples include the UFO episode Flight Path and Return of the Saint‘s The Armageddon Alternative. Bishop fits into this pattern perfectly – his landlady regards him as a nice, quiet man but there’s clearly something slightly off-kilter about him.
The way he clutches his daughter’s doll (and the fact that it shows obvious fire damage) is a sign that something’s not quite right. It’s the only tangible thing he has of hers – which makes it precious – but it’s also an indicator that he remains tied to the past and unable to proceed with his life. In this way he’s not too dissimilar from Max Fischer (The State Visit) although Bishop is a much darker character. Max had murder on his mind, but he didn’t carry it out: whereas Bishop finds himself caught in a spiral of destruction. Although he never intended to kill anybody at first – he only set fires in buildings that he thought were empty – once his arson addiction has taken hold he finds it impossible to stop. Whilst his shock at discovering the latest fire killed four people is evident, he’s quickly able to rationalise what’s happened and decides the innocent will have to continue to die, as only in that way will action be taken by the authorities.
George Cole is excellent throughout the episode, especially during the scene where he tells his landlady how his family died. “There was all these people in the street. I didn’t realise at first it was my house, then I saw the fire engine. It was all over by then, the fire was out. The fireman were very nice, very kind. We looked, looked all through the ashes. All we ever found was Carrie’s doll.”
There’s obviously a sombre tone to this one, but there are a few touches of levity – centring around Gideon’s second in command, David Keen. His eye for the ladies, something of a running gag throughout the series, is mentioned yet again and there’s also a nice comic moment when Gideon insists he finds a bike in order to examine the area of the latest fire in more detail. He commanders one from a child (who rather reluctantly gives it up) and later makes his report to Gideon, who then looks askance at the fact he’s standing in his office still wearing bicycle clips!
Gideon decides that Bishop has to be the guilty party, since his house was the first to be destroyed in the recent wave of fires. The audience knows that he’s right of course, but this is rather thin evidence – not that it stops the police plastering Bishop’s photograph on the front cover of the newspapers (“have you seen this man?”). Just as well they had the right man then.
It’s slightly hard to accept that Bishop’s character devolves so quickly that by the end of the episode he’s driving around London on a scooter, lobbing sticks of dynamite about. But the chase around the streets does give us the chance to yet again marvel about how few cars were about. Truly it was a different age.