Gideon’s Way – The Tin God

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Commander George Gideon was created by John Creasey (writing as J.J. Marric) and he featured in a series of novels published between the mid fifties and mid seventies.  Gideon appeared on the big screen in 1959 (Gideon’s Day, starring Jack Hawkins, directed by John Ford) and a few years later the character would transfer to the small screen – in this twenty-six episode ITC series starring John Gregson.

Although Gideon’s Way was filmed in the mid sixties and made use of extensive location filming in and around London, it’s notable that this is very much a pre “swinging” London.  The stark black and white camerawork helps with this, plus there’s also an occasional sense of decay and desolation – especially when locations still devastated from the war some twenty years earlier are used.  Location filming also gives the series something of a documentary feel and there’s an undoubted interest in seeing a very different London to the one that exists today.

John Gregson played Commander George Gideon.  A familiar face from both films and television, Gregson was perfect casting as the reassuring, dependable Gideon.  Gideon’s Way was very much a series like Dixon of Dock Green that took it for granted that the police were incorruptible and incapable of making mistakes.  Later programmes, such as The Sweeney, would cynically chip away at this reputation, which does mean that Gideon’s Way can seem rather old-fashioned.  But this is undoubtedly part of the series’ continuing appeal, as there’s something very comforting in watching a show where there’s clearly defined moral absolutes and crime is always shown not to pay.

Another joy of Gideon’s Way is the sheer quality of the guest casts.  The Tin God is a good example, as it features Derren Nesbitt (a familiar face from many an ITC series) as John “Benny” Benson and a young John Hurt as Freddy Tisdale,  They play escaped convicts and their first appearance provides us with some evocative location work – a high shot zooming into them as they run into a train yard.  Nesbitt specialised in playing unstable characters and Benny is no different – and within a matter of minutes it’s also clear he’s the dominant personality out of the two (even before he’s pulled out a knife).

The news that Benny was one of the two escapees instantly piques Gideon’s interest.  It’s slightly incredible that Gideon knows exactly how long Benny’s been inside, the name of his wife and how many children he has (but such feats of memory are par for the course in police fiction).

We’ve already had a demonstration of how ruthless Benny can be (he casually murders a car-park attendant called Taffy Jones) and because his wife Ruby (Jennifer Wilson) informed on him, revenge is now the only thing on his mind.  The news that he’s escaped fills her with dread, although her young son Syd (Michael Cashman) is ecstatic.  Syd doesn’t believe that his father is a vicious criminal and instead directs his anger towards his mother and Gideon (as he was the copper who put him inside).

Cashman would later become a familiar television face in series like The Sandbaggers and most famously Eastenders.   Syd becomes the lynchpin in Benny’s plan to exact his revenge on Ruby, although it’s only when he finally meets his father again that he realises his mother was right all along.

The type of story (escaped convict) means that Gideon and his number two, DCI David Kean (Alexander Davion), don’t have a great deal of interaction with many characters – there’s no suspects to interrogate, for example.  But this is only a minor quibble and there’s plenty of incidental pleasures – location filming around the London docks and the sight of a policeman using a Police Box (a reminder that personal radios weren’t common at the time) are just two.

Benny’s plan to revenge himself on his wife is more subtle than might have been expected from what we’ve seen of his character so far.  He plans to take his son abroad and leave Ruby in a constant state of anxiety about Syd’s whereabouts – even if he’s alive or dead.

Benny, Freddy and Syd are hiding out in a warehouse, but it’s not long before the police surround them.  This allows John Hurt a great final scene as he realises too late just how mad Benny has become (and therefore dies in a dramatic fashion).  It also gives Derren Nesbitt an opportunity to ramp up his own performance as Benny loses the last few shreds of his sanity.

Thanks to a cracking performance by Nesbitt, The Tin God is a memorable episode.

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Gideon’s Way – The “V” Men

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Sir Arthur Vane (Ronald Culver) is the leader of the Victory Party, an extreme fascist political movement which creates controversy wherever it goes.  After Vane receives death threats, Gideon assigns (slightly against his better judgement) Chief Supt Bill Parsons (Allan Cuthbertson) to take charge of the case.  Shortly after, a bomb explodes outside Vane’s flat.  There’s a witness – but she disappears and Gideon finds it hard to track her down.

The “V” Men is a reminder that some things never seem to change.  Although this was made some fifty years ago it could just as easily been set in 2015.  The Victory Party has several aims (which appear to have been designed to alienate as many people as possible) – keep Britain white, kick out the financiers (especially the Jews) and also deal harshly with the pacifists.

Gideon’s superior, Commissioner Scott-Marle (Basil Dingham), recommends that Parsons takes charge of Vane’s security.  Gideon’s momentary hesitation, as well as Keen’s obvious dislike of the man, is a rarity in Gideon’s Way as generally we see the police work together in complete harmony.  Allan Cuthbertson made a career out of playing tightly-wound martinets, so his casting here is an obvious piece of shorthand.  Parsons doesn’t seem to be anything more than a humourless, unimaginative copper.

After Gideon overhears some of his aggressive questioning, he calls a halt to the interview and proceeds to gently try and set him on the right track.  He tells him there’s no law against being a fanatic, to which Parsons responds that there should be.  “I’m sick and tired of these people trying to push everyone around. Why don’t we shove the lot of them into jail?” This is the sort of statement that you know Gideon would object to, although it’s typical that Gregson plays the scene with a mild air of humour – helping to diffuse the tension.

Two plot-threads seem to be developing – the other concerns a young woman, Cathy Miller (Angela Douglas) who bumps into Vane as she’s making her way to a meeting with one of his neighbours, Peter Bennett (Dyson Lovell).  Bennett is shocked to be told by Cathy that she’s pregnant (Bennett is a married man).  Cathy was the woman seen running away from the flats following the explosion and is now being sought by the police.

Angela Douglas is winsomely attractive as Cathy and it’s the human drama of her personal situation that’s the most memorable part of the episode.  Parsons is convinced that Cathy is involved in the bombing, but Gideon isn’t.  Her questioning by both of them demonstrates the difference in approach they take.  Parsons attempts to browbeat and intimidate her, whilst Gideon favours a friendly and conversational approach (John Gregson is typically charming in these scenes).

The mystery of who planted the bomb isn’t solved until the last few minutes, as once Cathy is introduced it takes second place to her problems.  But when Gideon is able to reassure her that her pregnancy isn’t the end of the world, we can once again refocus on Vane.

The conclusion – as Vane comes face to face with his attacker – is certainly dramatic (although it does lurch over the top somewhat).  The identity of the bomber is unexpected, to say the least, and any remaining loopholes in the plot have to be explained away with the catch-all explanation that the man was quite mad.  So whilst the script doesn’t quite fulfill the potential it might have done, once again the guest cast (Culver, Douglas, Cuthbertson) help to cover most of the cracks.

 

Gideon’s Way – To Catch A Tiger

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When Gideon hears the name John Borgman (Walter Brown), he reacts instantly.  He always had a lingering suspicion that Borgman murdered his first wife, but nothing could be proved.  Now he has a confession from a dying woman (one of the nurses who attended Mrs Borgman) who alleges her patient was poisoned with an overdose of morphine.

As the nurse subsequently dies, Gideon doesn’t have a witness who will stand up to cross-examination, nor does he have any real evidence.  But his suspicion is more than enough for him to reopen the case.

Our first sight of John Borgman demonstrates that he’s a hard and ruthless man.  He’s discovered that one of his employees, Samuels (Meredith Edwards), has been stealing small amounts of money.  When he asks why, Samuels tells him that his wife is an invalid and he needed the money for her.

This is an interesting scene for several reasons.  Although Samuels has worked for the company for twenty years, and his crime does has extenuating circumstances, Borgman has no compunction in firing him on the spot and insisting that the police have to be called.  During this brief and unpleasant meeting, Borgman is attended by  his secretary, Clare Selby (Erica Rogers).  She was responsible for bringing Samuels’ falsifications to Borgman’s attention and takes a barely disguised pleasure in his downfall.

We meet the latest Mrs Borgman (Vanda Godsell) shortly afterwards and she succinctly sums Clare Selby up.  “That cool, cute Selby. She’s got eyes like a cat. They’re hard, like ice, and acquisitive.”  Mrs Borgman is convinced that Clare Selby is Borgman’s latest lover and by her general tone (and the drink in her hand) it’s clear that their marriage is in terminal decline.

Samuels poisons his wife before shooting himself.  With Borgman’s threat of the police hanging over his head he clearly couldn’t see any other way out.  It’s a tragic scene – nicely acted by both Meredith Edwards and Patsy Smart (as Mrs Samuels).

But it does give Gideon a way into Borgman’s office – as he suggests that Samuels’ fraud might be more widespread than it first appears.  He doesn’t care about the fraud of course, but any excuse to root about is welcome.

Supt Fred Lee (Norman Bird) and Sgt Carmichael (Glyn Houston) are the officers assigned by Gideon to investigate Borgman’s books.  After being left alone in Borgman’s office late at night, they discover a secret draw with a hypodermic and a bottle of morphine tablets.  Gideon’s delighted and arranges a search-warrant for the following day, so it can be “found” in Borgman’s presence.  To Catch A Tiger shows us that Gideon isn’t above breaking the law when he believes it’s justified.

Raymond Huntley gives a typically strong performance as Borgman’s defending council Sir Percy Richmond, who rips the poor Supt Lee to shreds.  It’s interesting that the programme seems to be asking us to side with Lee as he withers under Sir Percy’s cross-examination, but most of Sir Percy’s objections are perfectly correct.  Lee did enter Borgman’s office and search his desk without a warrant (and with no witnesses present, any evidence found should be worthless and inadmissible in court).  That Gideon then decided to issue a search-warrant the next day to try and make it official doesn’t really make up for the laxity in procedure.

What’s even more confusing is that earlier in the episode they’d exhumed the first Mrs Borgman and found she was full of morphine but hadn’t bothered to mention this fact in court!

Somewhat lacking in logic, To Catch A Tiger isn’t a particularly enthralling episode.  As ever, there’s some decent guest stars (Norman Bird, Raymond Huntley) but sadly that’s about all.

Gideon’s Way – The Rhyme and the Reason

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The Rhyme and the Reason opens with Bill Rose (Alan Rothwell) and Winifred Norton (Carol White) enjoying the peace and quiet of a woodland glade.  But their peace is soon shattered by the arrival of a motorbike gang, lead by Rod (Clive Colin Bowler).

Gideon’s Way would sometimes reflect contemporary youth culture, although it tended to be in an unintentionally amusing way.  The bike gang (sneeringly dismissed as Rockers by Bill) are a good case in point.  They don’t really exude an air of menace, although this may be due to viewing the episode in 2015 rather than 1964.  Possibly back then, when motorbike gangs were a hot topic of debate, simply the sight of them would have been sufficient to discomfort a section of the audience.

It quickly becomes clear that Bill, since he’s a Mod, isn’t fond of the bikers, but Winifred feels quite different.  The air of menace and danger she senses about Rod clearly excites her (as does the sound of his engine).  There’s a look of orgasmic pleasure on her face as she drinks in the powerful sound of the bikes – and Bill’s own inadequacy is clearly demonstrated when he fires up his much more modest moped.  Not only does it take several attempts to get going – as Winifred looks on with slight contempt – it also makes a much quieter noise, which obviously isn’t to her taste.

After fifteen minutes it’s still not clear what the crime is going to be – but shortly afterwards the camera tracks over Winifred’s lifeless body  and the police investigation can begin.  Bill is the chief suspect – he’d argued with her shortly before her death and his knife is discovered at the scene of the crime.  But he maintains his innocence, and Gideon is inclined to believe him.

There’s no doubt that Carol White will always be best remembered for the role of Cathy Ward in Ken Loach’s groundbreaking Wednesday Play, Cathy Come Home.  The role of Winfield was less demanding but she still gives a vivid performance.  Although she only has a short amount of screen-time, White is able to imbibe the girl with a clear zest for life as well as a definite streak of burgeoning sexuality.  It’s unremarkable now, but as touched upon before, in 1964 England was not really swinging – so overt displays of sexual desire were not so common on mainstream British television.  White later pursued an acting career in America and would die aged just 48 in 1991.

Alan Rothwell has enjoyed a lengthy career, with spells in several popular soap operas.  He was one of the original cast-members of Coronation Street, playing Ken Barlow’s brother David.  Several decades later he would make a memorable appearance in Brookside, although for a generation of children he’s probably best remembered as the host of the ITV Schools programme Picture Box.  And it’s good to know that he’s still going strong today – with recent appearances in The Musketeers, Casualty and Alan Partridge.  He’s perfect as the petulant Bill, who had the motive and opportunity to kill his girlfriend.  But did he do it?  He maintains that he’s bound to be found guilty because of the way he looks and dresses.  “I’m a Mod, so automatically that makes me into a shiftless, no-good layabout killer.”  It’s interesting that this view is shared by some of Gideon’s team (“his type burns me up” says Keen) and the only policeman who seems convinced of the boy’s innocence is Gideon himself.

As ever, there’s an incredibly strong supporting cast.  Jo Rowbottom plays Bill’s sister Mary whilst the always dependable Duncan Lamont is Divisional Supt Smedd, the man leading the investigation.  It does seem a little strange that an officer of Smedd’s seniority would be in charge (but then the series often shows the even more senior Gideon meddling in investigations – as he does here – so that’s fair enough).  Edward Evans (who’d previously played Bob Grove in the first British television soap, The Grove Family) has the key role of Winifred’s step-father Fred.

When Keen ventures into a club to talk to Rod, it’s a lovely time capsule of the period – with a beat-group on stage and everybody gently twisting in time to the music.  Keen’s later confrontation with Rod outside is another delightful moment – as the Rocker finds he’s no match for the wily police officer.

The episode concludes with a lengthy scene featuring Mary being pursued through the streets by the real murderer.  It’s a typically well-shot sequence that uses the available locations to their best advantage – the final shot (of Battersea Power Station) is especially striking.

Maybe not the most puzzling whodunnit ever, but The Rhyme and the Reason is a high-quality episode.

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Gideon’s Way – The White Rat

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The White Rat is one of a number of episodes which uses the American opening titles rather than the more familiar British ones.  The major difference is that there’s a lengthy voice-over by John Gregson, which spells out very clearly what the programme is about.

This is my city, London. Eight hundred square miles. Vast, sprawling, restless. Over eight million people live and work, love and play, hate and die. On the fringe, hidden in the shadows, those who prey on the innocent. Steal, destroy, attack and kill. When they do, it’s a job for me and the Criminal Investigation Department.

Once we get past the credits we open with a robbery taking place at a fur warehouse, which is led by Mickey Keston (Ray McAnally).  It’s not long before we have several examples of Mickey’s violent and unpredictable streak.  Firstly, when he notices the night-watchman attempting to reach the phone he viciously clubs him down (the man later dies in hospital).

He then reacts sharply when one of his underlings casually mentions a conversation he had with Mickey’s girlfriend Rose (Virginia Maskell).  Mickey’s jealousy at even the most innocuous comment is plain, but this isn’t the only character flaw he has.  Mickey is an albino and it’s given him a massive inferiority complex.  Maybe this isn’t surprising when you hear how Sergeant Syd Taylor (David Davies) describes his appearance.  “Makes him look almost like a cretin, but he’s not.  He’s tough, hard and ruthless.”

There’s several occasions when Mickey mentions how he loathes himself.  “Nobody could be in love with a freak and that’s what I am. Ever since I was five years old people have pointed at me.”

A visit to Mickey’s house by Taylor, Keen and Keen’s girlfriend Mary Henderson (Sue Lloyd) only serves to stoke up Mickey’s paranoia even more and it seems clear that he’s simply a powder-keg waiting to explode.

One possible flaw with The White Rat is that Mickey doesn’t really look too unusual.  Yes he has white hair, but that’s not very uncommon.  But a possible interpretation is that (Sergeant Taylor’s comment notwithstanding) very few people have ever looked twice at Mickey and his belief that the whole world is laughing at him is simply a delusion on his part.

As might be expected, Ray McAnally gives a nuanced performance.  This was pretty earlier on in his career – he’d appeared in a number of small-scale films but Gideon’s Way was his first major television part.  In the late 1960’s he’d appear in the memorable series Spindoe and towards the end of his life he’d play several roles for which he’ll probably be best remembered.  These include Rick Pym in John LeCarre’s A Perfect Spy (1987), Harry Perkins in A Very British Coup (1988) and Mr Brown in My Left Foot (1989).  Ray McAnally died in 1989, aged 63.

There’s a nice sense of tension between the veteran officer Syd Taylor and Gideon.  When Gideon joined the force it was Taylor who showed him the ropes, but now Gideon’s a commander and Taylor’s still a lowly sergeant.  Gideon is keen to re-establish their friendship, but there’s a reluctance on Taylor’s part (it seems the gulf in their rank is a major concern for him).  After Taylor is shot by Mickey, it gives Gideon a personal stake in the outcome of the manhunt and allows Gregson a few decent scenes, especially at the end when Gideon confronts Mickey (who’s armed with several sticks of dynamite).

Thanks to McAnally’s magnetic performance, The White Rat is another very decent episode.

Gideon’s Way – The State Visit

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Max Fischer (Alfie Bass) reacts angrily to the news that the President of West Germany is due to make a visit to London.  It may be nearly twenty years since the end of WW2 but Fischer, a Jewish survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, finds it impossible to forgive or forget.  Fischer works in a laboratory where he has access to explosives and he slowly begins to plan a way to gain revenge for all his years of hurt ….

Although The State Visit was set twenty years after the Second World War, this was still recent enough to make it a fertile area for drama.  Whilst it’s made clear very early on that the German President is personally blameless (Fischer’s wife tells him that the man was a staunch anti-Nazi) this cuts no ice with Max.  He retorts that nowadays every German claims they didn’t support Hitler, but if that were true where did the millions who joined the Nazi party come from?  Max’s view taps into real life opinions – for many, especially those who had fought, it was impossible not to regard any German as an ex-Nazi by default.  A decade later, the Fawlty Towers episode The Germans would make this very point.

Max is initially presented as a sympathetic man and we’re asked to emphasise with his suffering.  But it becomes clear that he’s also blinkered, obsessed  and incapable of adjusting to modern life.  It’s a tricky character to play, so casting Alfie Bass would no doubt have helped to engage the audience’s affections.  Already a very familiar face on both the big and small screens by the mid sixties, Bass is able to give Max a certain dignity.  And since Bass was forced to flee his native Russia with his parents when he was a child, it could be that he was able to tap some of his own memories when approaching the part.

Gideon’s been assigned to handle the security for the visit, much to the chagrin of Deputy Commissioner Rae Cox (Gerald Harper).  Cox’s youth and inexperience are the reasons why he isn’t placed in overall charge and although Gideon does his best to pour oil on troubled waters by involving him every step of the way, there’s a clear lingering resentment on Cox’s part.  His character is made plain very early on: after receiving the unwelcome news from Gideon, he returns home to berate his wife.  All of his actions – such as chastising her for not replacing the soda siphon – show him to be a man keen to find fault in others but incapable of taking criticism himself.

Max plans to explode a bomb made of nitro glycerine during the President’s parade.  His wife Sarah (Catherine Lacey) reacts in horror, such a bomb will kill dozens of people but by now Max seems to be incapable of rational thought.  His increasing detachment from reality is shown as he rides on the bus, clutching the bomb in a vacuum flask.  He begins to hear the voices of his Nazi persecutors in his head and answers them aloud, to the bemusement of his fellow passengers.

It’s no surprise that it’s Gideon himself who talks Max down.  “You’ve got it wrong Max, you’ve got it terribly wrong. You don’t want to kill all these women and children do you, Max? Because that’s what you’ll do if you throw that thing. What harm have these people done to you, Max? You throw that bomb you’ll be as bad as any Nazi.”

If the ending is predicable, then at least it’s another good showcase for John Gregson.  And apart from a few dodgy projection shots, The State Visit is decent enough fare, helped by a number of familiar faces popping up in small roles.  David Lodge and Julian Holloway appear as Max’s colleagues and Desmond Llewelyn has an uncredited role as a senior police officer.  Interestingly, he plays it with a broad Welsh accent, which is how Terence Young initially wanted Llewelyn to play Q in the second James Bond film.  But after the reluctant Llewelyn did so, Young agreed that Q would sound much better as an Englishman!

 

Gideon’s Way – The Firebug

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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.