Softly Softly: Task Force – Lessons

lessons

Lessons opens with Barlow teaching a group of cadets how to work a murder scene.  The training officer, Chief Inspector Fox (John Ringham), expresses his surprise to Watt that Barlow agreed so readily to play teacher, but Watt knows that Barlow is never more in his element than when he has an attentive audience.  He covers all the essentials – don’t contaminate the crime scene, ensure that life really is extinct, etc – and thanks to his convivial, easy-going nature he seems to have got the message across.

In story terms, it’s no surprise that a real-life murder is discovered shortly afterwards – now we’ll have the chance to see how well Barlow’s theories work in practice.  The presence of Fox is also interesting.  He’d been seconded to training for the last two years, but has just returned to active service.  Fox has long desired to be back at the sharp end and now has his wish – but how will he shape up after such a long spell in the classroom?

The discovery of the body – a girl’s naked corpse on the beach – is tightly filmed.  We observe events from the viewpoint of the man who finds her.  He spies a trail of clothes, leading to a fence partitioning two sides of the beach.  After seeing an arm lolling out, he rushes over (at this point we don’t see the body) but by his expression it’s evident that something bad has happened.  He rushes off for help, but the seafront is eerily deserted, so he hurries over to the nearest phone box.

The picture then cuts to a quick reveal of the dead girl, before showing a grim-faced Barlow approaching the scene.  This rapid cutting is an interesting choice – it’s a little jarring to jump ahead quite so quickly, but it helps to keep the story moving along.

The girl is soon identified – Myra Vernon, aged fourteen.  “A dangerous age” mutters Barlow.  Her father (played by Glynn Edwards) looks very distraught after identifying the body, leading Barlow to offer him a drop of something.  The lack of incidental music (the series never featured any) and the stark, sea-front setting makes the moment seem quite brutal.

There’s some good character work in this story.  Early on, Jackson and Evans are discussing the first murder case Barlow investigated in the area.  Evans still feels sorrow for the murderer, considering him to be as much of a victim as the murdered child,  something which Jackson doesn’t understand.  And later at the murder scene there’s a brief scene between Jackson and Hawkins which serves to illuminate the Sergeant’s character a little more.

After discussing whether Mr Vernon is the sort of person likely to go to pieces after learning that his daughter is dead, Jackson is easily able to banish this thought from his mind and go about his business.  Hawkins calls him a hard case, whilst Jackson counters that he’s simply objective.  Barlow’s irritation with Jackson is also made evident – the senior man is vaguely contemptuous that the Sergeant has little practical knowledge of the nitty-gritty of policework (he’s never worked directly on a murder enquiry, for example).   Jackson may be a decent administrator, but he’s not a thief-catcher, which explains Barlow’s regular baiting of him.

Cadet Wellbeloved (Crispin Gillbard) had earlier played the body in Barlow’s training exercise, but now he’s of even more use.  As a local man, he knows that the tide on this part of the beach will be coming in very soon (and not in two hours time, as the tide books report).  This means there’s something of a scramble to document all the evidence before it’s washed away.  Fox is perturbed that they’re not following the correct procedure, but Barlow tells him that it’s the “difference between textbook and the real thing, Mr Fox. Tides wait for no man”.

Susan (Sally Thomsett), a schoolfriend of Myra’s, has some information.  Presumably Susan was supposed to have been the same age as Myra, although Thomsett was twenty when this was recorded.  Susan reveals that Myra was seen chatting to a window-cleaner, shortly before she disappeared, which gives the police a suspect to pursue.  The window-cleaner, Dave (Graham Berown), is quickly run to ground and seems to be rather shifty.  The truth emerges shortly afterwards, and although it gives Jackson the chance to experience the sharp end of policing, Barlow’s still less than impressed with him …

Lessons was the first episode of SS:TF to be shot entirety on film.  Dixon of Dock Green had also begun to do the same thing at around this time (the first all-film Dixon, Waste Land, aired a month after this).  It helps to give the story a very different feel, although this effectiveness is somewhat blunted by the rather poor picture quality.  The above screen-shot shows just how faded the colours are.  It’s a slight pity, but considering that many other series from around this time (especially Dixon) are poorly represented in the archives, the fact that every episode of SS:TF still exists is rather amazing (so if some are rather dog-eared, that’s better than them not being around at all).

Arnold Yarrow was something of a renaissance man.   He penned several episodes of SS:TF whilst working as the story editor at the same time.  And when he wasn’t wearing those two hats, he also pursued a successful acting career.  For me he’ll forever be plucky Bellal from the Jon Pertwee Doctor Who story Death to the Daleks.

With a very limited cast of suspects, Lessons isn’t a whodunnit.  Yarrow’s script focuses on the procedural nature of a murder enquiry and also serves as a good vehicle for the regulars (Yarrow’s familiarity with the characters, due to his work as the show’s story editor, no doubt had something to do with this).

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