Softly Softly: Task Force – Kick Off

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Barlow and Watt are at the big match.  Whilst Watt is enjoying the luxury of the director’s box, Barlow is in much less salubrious surroundings, intently watching the crowd from a private vantage point, high up.   Inspector Armstrong (Terrence Hardiman) is also there – directing the officers towards potential trouble-spots.  Armstrong, a martinet by-the-book character, and Barlow, free and easy on the surface but with a core of steel underneath, don’t hit it off.

This isn’t surprising as Armstrong is a graduate policeman – a lawyer with a first-class degree – and therefore just the sort of copper that Barlow has little regard for.  So he amuses himself by gently needling the man, which passes the time as he searches the crowd.  Armstrong doesn’t enjoy football, rugby’s his game.  Barlow correctly guesses that he means rugby union, whereas Barlow prefers “rugby league, faster professional.”

At the start of the episode Armstrong isn’t a member of the Task Force, but it’ll possibly come as no surprise to learn that Cullen, deciding that the Inspector should have some hard practical experience, decides to deploy him there.  Armstrong’s not pleased, enquiring if he has to report directly to Barlow.  Cullen says not, but tells him that if he has a problem with Barlow then he needs to sort it out.  “You fit in with him, not the other way around. Charlie Barlow is the best head of CID that this constabulary has ever had.”

Armstrong is going places.  He’s the youngest uniformed Inspector in the division, in two years time he’ll be a Chief Inspector and his progress ever upwards to Chief Constable seems to be predestined.  Older hands, such as Watt, have a distinct lack of enthusiasm for him.  “Men a lot younger than me making Chief Constable.”  Watt’s therefore less than overjoyed when Cullen tells him Armstrong will be seconded to the Task Force, but before Cullen leaves he has this to say. “Things are moving pretty fast in this service, the old order changes, yielding place to new. Armstrong might be made Chief Constable in a force you want to serve in. It’s worth bearing that in mind in your treatment of him, I mean.”

Watt calls Armstrong in.  He enters the office ramrod straight, swagger stick under his arm, standing to attention as if he’s on parade.  This is just the sort of thing that’s guaranteed to irritate Watt and it’s plan that if Armstrong’s going to fit in he’s going to have to unbend a little.  His later encounter with Evans is a case in point.  We’ve seen how Evans has amused himself by baiting Jackson in the past, and he carries on in much the same vein with Armstrong.  When the Inspector asks him if he always dresses so sloppily, Evans’ rejoinder is unabashed.  “Yes sir. As a rule, it’s my bulk you see. Everything wrinkles on me. Oh, and I’ve got messy eating habits, too.”

Jackson has gained his promotion to Inspector and is departing for a six-month fact-finding course overseas.  And that, I believe, is the last we see of him as this appears to be David Allister’s last SS:TF credit.  Susan Tebbs also bows out at the end of the year, which is also a shame – both will be missed.

Although Jackson’s never been the most popular officer, there does seem to be genuine pleasure from the others at his promotion – Barlow’s handshake for example.  It’s a pity that the possibility of his promotion couldn’t have been touched upon in earlier episodes, as it comes totally out of the blue.  His yell of “yippee” as he hears the news is a nice touch and is also something which is completely in character (a brief display of emotion before returning to his usual business-like state).  Also, everybody seems to have recently got into the habit of calling him Jacko, something which I don’t recall hearing very often before.

Apart from these comings and goings there is a spot of crime as well.  Barlow was at the match since he was concerned that somebody might be interested in stealing the gate takings.  This didn’t happen, but as Kick Off is the first of a two-parter there’s a sense that this story isn’t over yet.

Another plot-line that’s still running concerns a thief called Tommy Nunn (Roddy McMillan).  Barlow spotted Tommy in the crowd and asked Hawkins to tail him, although Hawkins lost him in the general melee.  This is unfortunate as Tommy robbed a local jewellers just before the end of the match.  The owner, Kahn (George Pravda), seems philosophical about his loss, but things aren’t quite as they seem.  Kahn is a fence and the items Tommy stole had already been stolen – so he takes great pleasure in blackmailing Kahn (if he doesn’t pay up then the items go to the police, with a note to say where they came from).

McMillan (later to play ‘Choc’ Minty in Hazell) and Pravda (an instantly recognisable face from a score of different television series of this era) are both solid actors and help to keep the interest of this sub-plot bubbling along.  The football scenes might be a mish-mash of stock footage, brief clips of a real match (which since it’s recorded on videotape rather jars with the film shots) and studio material (which also jars with the film-work) but it creates a reasonable impression.

And as we see Hawkins tail Tommy, either the series had employed an impressive number of extras or they took the opportunity to slip their actors into the departing crowd of a real match.  There’s also the opportunity to witness how Evans deals with troublemakers at the match – give them a quick clip on the ear and send one of them off to stand somewhere else!  Since the squabbling pair were teenage girls this has the potential for being a little dodgy, but it’s never a serious plot point, it’s just there to add a bit of colour.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Company Business

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Three batches of platinum, worth thousands, have been stolen from Nitrosyn Chemicals over the past ten months. Watt decides to send a man in undercover to root through their paperwork, and his unexpected choice is Jackson ….

Since he’s desk-bound and decidedly non-operational most of the time, there’s considerable novelty value in witnessing a plain-clothes Jackson working a case from the sharp end.  And John Elliot’s script certainly gives David Allister much more scope than usual.

Jackson tends to be presented as a humourless, cold and logical man.  But with Company Business we see quite a different character – one who’s able to interact with others by displaying humour and charm.  He catches the eye of a secretary at the factory, Ruth Kemp (Wendy Gifford), and it’s plain that she’s keen to get to know him better.  Jackson demurs though – is this because he’s afraid of an emotional attachment or is he simply concentrating on the job in hand?

Only the managing director, Fisher (Donald Douglas), knows the real reason for Jackson’s presence (everybody else thinks he’s a time and motion expert).  Jackson expresses a wish to meet the senior staff in an informal setting and Fisher tells him that it couldn’t be easier – one of Nitrosyn’s key personnel, Calwell (William Dexter) is throwing a party and he adds Jackson to the invite list.

Calwell immediately catches Jackson’s attention.  Both he and his wife Linda (Penelope Lee) are charming, but Jackson immediately senses something slightly off about him.  And after he visits Calwell’s boat, his suspicions harden into certainty.  The boat has had a considerable amount of work undertaken recently – where has the money come from?

For Jackson it’s obvious, Calwell is the thief. He tells this to Donald, who’s acting as his contact.  And he also explains the reason why his colleagues don’t suspect him.  “Oh, they’re all on the old boy net, the old school club, it wouldn’t be cricket. They make me a bit sick.”

Donald is posing as Jackson’s girlfriend, something which she’s not terribly keen about at all!  This is made obvious when they meet in the hotel bar for a debrief.  She’s slightly miffed at being kept waiting and rather flinches when Jackson, playing the part of the dutiful boyfriend with gusto, attempts to kiss her.  But they manage to get a good meal (on expenses) so it’s not all bad.

If Donald’s a little exasperated with Jackson then so is Watt.  Jackson’s theory is interesting, but it’s just that – a theory.  Watt’s irritated that Jackson’s not checking the paper trail like he was supposed to, instead he’s off playing detective.  It’s been hammered home time and again across numerous stories that Jackson’s not a detective – we’ve seen how others, especially Evans and Barlow, tend to treat him with veiled (and not so veiled) contempt.  To them he’s a penpusher, plain and simple.

Watt isn’t quite so prejudiced, but he’s not best pleased that Jackson seems to be stringing this job out.  He’s especially horrified at the thought that Jackson and Donald might be enjoying a slap-up meal at the taxpayers expense every week!  So next time, Watt takes Donald’s place and can’t help but start with a dig about food.  “I surprised you didn’t choose the Chinese joint up the road. That’s very plushy.”

There’s further wonderfully deadpan lines delivered so well by Frank Windsor after Jackson tells Watt that he’s stood up a beautiful girl, Ruth, in order to be here.  Watt’s sympathy is in rather short supply.  “And I’m missing me hot dinner, so let’s get on.”

The thefts are, of course, not the point of the story.  Company Business is concerned with Sergeant Jackson’s skills, or otherwise, as an investigating policeman.  His abilities as an administrator and organiser are second to none, but does he have the instinct to be able to tell the guilty from the innocent?

The group of regulars in this one is quite small.  Hawkins doesn’t have a great deal to do, except react to Watt, leaving Jackson, Donald and Watt as the main players.  As I’ve said, the chance to see Jackson as a more rounded character is a welcome rarity and Donald and Watt are both well served with some of the sharper lines in the script.  Things work out well in the end, although it’ll come as no surprise to learn that the dour Watt is quick to tell Jackson that one job doesn’t make him a detective.

 

Softly Softly: Task Force – Sweet are the Uses of Adversity

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A prostitute called Vera (Maggy Maxwell) is beaten up.  This irritates Hawkins, in charge of the Task Force during Watt’s absence, as Snow was keeping her under surveillance at the time ….

Sweet are the Uses of Adversity is a story that allows Hawkins to demonstrate his skills as a leader.  He’s clearly somewhat hesitant about taking command – demonstrated by his reluctance to use Watt’s office.  This was a suggestion made by Sergeant Jackson, a man who’s plainly very ambitious (much more ambitious than the easy-going Hawkins that’s for sure).  An interesting character-beat is developed when Jackson admits that he’s always fancied being either a butler or a valet and we see him put those skills in operation later in the episode.  Hawkins, the worse for wear after a night’s surveillance, is greeted by a chirpy Jackson who presents him with a fresh shirt and a razor.  Hawkins is irritated.  “Look, valet, am I going on parade or something?”  But Jackson’s response that Cullen wants to see him in half an hour is more than enough to make him spring into action!

In previous episodes we’ve seen Watt and Barlow gently (and not so gently) restrain some of Jackson’s impulses.  He’s a man who wants to get on in the force and is happy to ally himself to anybody – such as Hawkins – who might smooth his passage.  But it’s undeniable that Jackson makes a good point with his suggestion that Hawkins uses Watt’s office.  Hawkins must be seen to be in charge if he’s to command the respect of those below him.   Which raises the concept that command is – in part – little more than an acting job.

Jackson continues to operate as the power behind the throne by providing various avenues for Hawkins to investigate.  Whether Hawkins would have achieved so much without Jackson’s input is debatable – we’ve seen the Sergeant provide Watt with invaluable advice previously, but here he seems even more proactive.  That he desires to be the one in command has been a running thread since his earliest appearances.

Snow is mildly roasted by Hawkins, but Snow argues he was detailed to keep a watch on the house (he wouldn’t have been able to observe what was happening inside).  Evans, who’d taken over from Snow on watch, is first on the scene following the arrival of the ambulance for Vera.  This is a much more harder-edged Evans, somewhat removed from his more relaxed and jovial persona.

A woman’s touch is required, so Donald interviews Vera in the hospital.  She can’t tell the detective a great deal – names are not used in her business – but does reveal that the man was probably a Geordie.  The sight of Vera, middle-aged and careworn even without the bruises, makes a change from the more usual depiction of prostitutes as young and attractive.  Jennifer (Irene Bradshaw), the other prostitute in the house, fits the more stereotypical profile of the young and glamorous working girl.

Geordie (credited as such on the end titles, since we never learn his name) seems to be responsible for a number of other break-ins and assaults in the area, although the speed at which the Task Force jump to this conclusion feels a little contrived.  At one house, Evans radios in to say that he’s found some fingerprints which look very similar to the ones they’d taken from other recent crime scenes.  That Evans could zero in to suspect fingerprints is impressive enough, but to be able to match them with his naked eye to previously taken dabs is a step too far!

We then start to follow Geordie (Alan Tucker).  He’s very much a loner, and this lack of interaction with others allows Tucker the chance to show the character’s instability in a variety of non-verbal ways.  Using a knife to deface a table in one of the houses which he’s burgled is an obvious example.  Later he buys a bottle of milk from a milkman and then proceeds to smash it over the unfortunate milkman’s head.  This flash of violence – albeit mostly achieved offscreen – is unsettling.  Alan Tucker, as Geordie, doesn’t utter a word until the forty sixth minute.  His lack of speech works very well in maintaining an aura of menace and unpredictability around the character. His motivations remain a mystery though. We discover he has a job, so he’s not stealing money for need – presumably he just enjoys robbery with violence.

Hawkins’ inexperience sees him make decisions which possibly aren’t the best.  He later rallies the troops with a pep talk, although it’s slightly frustrating that this happens off-screen (we only hear about it from Donald and Evans).  Evans is impressed, calling it a beautiful speech.  Donald is slightly more cautious, for her it was a shrewd but cagey talk.

Sweet are the Uses of Adversity is an archetypical episode of SS:TF, with Elwyn Jones’ script concentrating on the character interactions of the regulars.  Norman Bowler and David Allister, as Hawkins and Jackson, get the lion’s share of the action, but Snow, Evans, Donald and Cullen all have a chance to shine as well.

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