Softly Softly: Task Force – Games

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A thirteen-year old girl called Emma Jones (Jane Sharkey) is brought into one of the local stations by Donald.  Emma has cuts and bruises to her face and tells Donald that she was attacked by an unknown man.  One of Emma’s school friends, David Ransom (Andrew Benson), provides a statement which gives a clear description of her attacker – a tramp with a flapping shoe.  Watt, passing through all the stations in the area whilst investigating their security procedures, becomes intrigued with the case and begins to dig ….

One aspect of the series which is sometimes overlooked is that the Task Force is a mobile unit which can be deployed to assist officers and stations in the force area.  That theme is sort of touched upon here, as the entire story takes place within an unfamiliar police station.  But there is a touch of contrivance about this since Watt and Armstrong aren’t there because of this case, they’re simply in the right place at the right time to lend their assistance to Hawkins and Donald (although it’s clear that Hawkins begins to rue Watt’s presence just a little).

Watt’s first appearance is memorable.  Striding through the station door with Armstrong and another officer either side, Watt tells the desk sergeant (played by Colin Rix) that he’s “a militant Black Panther.”  Pointing to the two officers with him he then tells the befuddled sergeant that “he’s got a petrol bomb in his hands, and he’s a skinhead under detention. With over a hundred mates outside threatening blue murder if you don’t let him go, what would you do?”  The sergeant manages to provide a suitable reply to this hypothetical question, which pleases Watt slightly, although he’s not too impressed with the fairly flimsy security procedures currently in place.

If Stratford Johns (sitting this episode out) is never less than first-class, then the same must be said of Frank Windsor.  This is an excellent script for Watt, allowing him to take centre-stage (even if it’s really Hawkins’ investigation not his).

Donald takes a statement from the girl and is as sensitive as you’d expect.  Emma seems a little shell-shocked at first but then slowly springs into life.  But there’s a lingering sense that something isn’t quite right and many might have guessed the answer before Watt spells it out.  Emma wasn’t attacked – she threw herself down the embankment deliberately, causing her injuries.  David’s statement is false as well, meaning that both children have deliberately told a pack of lies.  This then explains the episode title  …..

We don’t find out what David’s reasons were (although the probability is that he agreed to help Emma because he’s fond of her).  Emma’s motivation is much clearer – after her father remarried (and with someone not much older than herself, she says with vague disgust) she admits to feeling neglected.  And although she still lives with her mother, Mrs Jones is more interested in her new boyfriend than she is with her daughter, so there’s neglect on that side as well.

It’s telling that we never see either of Emma’s parents in the flesh, which helps to reinforce Emma’s sense of isolation.  Instead, a neighbour called Mrs Lacey (Jean Boht) is on hand to explain to Watt why Mrs Jones can’t be contacted.  She’s spending the day with her boyfriend, who happens to be married, and so the pair don’t want to be bothered.  Watt is aghast at this, surely she would want to know that her daughter was attacked?  But Mrs Lacey (maybe speaking for Mrs Jones as well) tells Watt that the girl’s only got cuts and bruises, so why make a fuss?

The lack of parental interest is reinforced later – Watt sends a car round for Mrs Jones and we’re told how her boyfriend was less than pleased to be disturbed by the police.  But it’s interesting that since Emma’s parents are denied a voice of their own we’re clearly not seeing the full picture – only the one that Emma wants us to see.  And it’s open to debate exactly how truthful that is.

Hawkins and Watt regard the two children very differently.  Hawkins wants to throw the book at them and their parents, but Watt elects to let them go with the minimum of fuss.  Since they want to be the centre of attention he’s simply denying them this chance.

This is a tight studio-bound story by Arnold Yarrow.  Jane Sharkey only had two further television credits following this (both were on The Bill some two decades later) which is slightly surprising as she’s got a decent screen presence.  The sub-plot of the hunt for a suspect tramp means that the station is overrun by them, most notably Terence de Marney as Timothy Lee.  A very experienced theatre, film and television actor, this was his penultimate credit before his death in 1971.

After a few fairly indifferent episodes, Games is a return to form.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Lessons

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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).