Espionage – The Weakling

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The Weakling opens in North Africa during WW2.  Ferno (Dennis Hopper) is a highly insubordinate American soldier (in his opening scene he shows his disregard for authority by getting tangled up in a barroom brawl) which makes him pretty much the last person you’d entrust with a mission vital to the war effort.

But Colonel Ballin (John Gregson), a British intelligence officer, believes that Ferno is exactly the right man for the job he has in mind.  Ferno is told the time, date and place where the Allied invasion of Europe is due to begin and is parachuted into France to deliver this information to the leader of the Free French underground.

After Ferno is captured by the Germans, he’s subjected to extreme torture in order to make him talk.  But Ferno proves hard to crack.  This should be good news, but it turns out to be exactly the opposite ……

There’s a wonderful clash of styles in the first act of The Weakling.  Not only between Ferno and Ballin but also between Dennis Hopper and John Gregson.  They could hardly have been more different as actors.  Hopper (1936 – 2010) was a devote of the method school of acting and his off-screen life seemed to mirror Ferno’s.  It’s often been observed that Hopper tended to play himself so it’s fair to say that the anti-authoritarian, twitchy Ferno shouldn’t have been too much of a stretch for him.

Although his career had began promisingly in the 1950’s (appearing in several films with James Dean, a man he idolised) by the time he recorded this episode of Espionage he’d hit something of a brick wall.  His problems, like Ferno’s, were mostly self-inflicted as he proved to be an uncontrollable loose-cannon (more than one director told him he’d never work in Hollywood again).  But thanks to the intervention of John Wayne, Hopper slowly began to work his way back into favour, culminating in the sleeper hit Easy Rider (1969).

John Gregson (1919 – 1975) could hardly have been more different.  He’d forged a successful career playing supporting roles in many popular British films (Scott of the Antarctic, Whisky Galore!, The Lavender Hill Mob, Genevieve, Above Us The Waves, The Battle of the River plate, etc).  When the British film industry began to contract in the 1960’s he moved seamlessly in television, guest-starring in numerous series as well as starring as the avuncular George Gideon in Gideon’s Way.  Gregson always appeared to be the very model of stolid reliability, a trait which seems to be shared by Ballin.

Indeed, as Ferno rants and raves at Ballin, it’s instructive to watch the two actors at work.  Hopper has the showier material and he certainly goes for it – wringing everything he can from the script.  Gregson is still, silent and barely moves – but he still catches the eye, a clear demonstration that less is more.

When Ferno reaches France he makes contact with Jeanne (Patricia Neal), a doctor who agrees to set up his meeting with the resistance.  The year after The Weakling was broadcast Neal would win an Oscar for her role in Hud, so she was something of a catch for the series.  The scenes between Jeanne and Ferno are played at an intense emotional pitch – Jeanne tells him that she supplies the Nazis with narcotics and is unrepentant about it.  She appears to be just another victim of the war – a woman forced to sacrifice her principles – but the truth is much darker.  She’s an addict herself and is also revealed to be a collaborator, betraying him to the Nazis.  Ferno manages to make his escape and frantically radios to Ballin for help.  Ballin hears the message but doesn’t reply.  This is another quiet triumph for Gregson as Ballin says nothing – he simply buries his head in his hands.

The truth is revealed shortly afterwards by Ballin.  The information Ferno carries is false and the intention all along was that he would be captured, interrogated and finally be forced to give it up.  But since Ferno is the sort of man who can withstand a great deal of pain he won’t break easily, which means that the Germans should be convinced that what he tells them is genuine.

Jeanne is charged with getting him to speak, but despite all the drugs at her disposal it’s no easy task.  So Handler (Steve Plytas) decides to use more old-fashioned types of persuasion.  When we cut back to the room there’s a blow-torch in the background, which tells us all we need to know.

There’s an unspoken black irony about The Weakling.  The very title seems to suggest that Ferno was chosen because he was supposed to crack under pressure very quickly – but this is contradicted during the scene where Ferno, and three others, were put through rigorous tests to see which of them would fare best under interrogation.  Ferno seemed to be least affected, which surely wasn’t what was needed?

Although Ballin knew he was sending Ferno to suffer, he’s not portrayed as a cold-blooded monster.  As Ferno continues to struggle against his interrogators, Ballin (sitting alone in his office) seems to hear his screams and silently urges the man to talk.  Eventually, pushed beyond the limits of human endurance, Ferno does.  But the cost is great – as the American ends up as a shell of the man he used to be.

The closing scene, as Ballin visits him and begs for his forgiveness, is another memorable one.  And for one last time we see their two styles at play – Hopper emotes freely, whilst Gregson, leaving the room with a tear trickling down his eye, is much more restrained.

If The Weakling has a flaw then it’s probably some of Dennis Hopper’s dialogue.  At times Ferno talks with 1960’s idioms, which sit uneasily with the wartime setting.  It’s easy to believe that Hopper himself dropped these into the script and, given all we know about his personality, refused to compromise.  His full-throttle approach may not appeal to all, but it’s the difference between him and Gregson (as well as the moral complexities of the story) that make this such a fascinating watch.

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Gideon’s Way – The Perfect Crime

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Todd (Patrick Allen) and Casey (Patrick Bedford) have formed a profitable criminal partnership.  The mysterious Todd is a well-connected man who always seems to know when wealthy marks will be away from home – but he needs the skills of Casey, a noted safebreaker.

They’re very different characters though.   On their latest job, Todd thinks nothing of clubbing down an au pair who unexpectedly returns to the flat they’re burgling (with an off-hand comment of “stupid cow”).  This perturbs Casey, who hates violence and recoils at the sight of blood.  Casey’s wife, Sandra (Jean Marsh), urges him to cut his ties with Todd, but as he’s earning good money he’s prepared to ignore his scruples.

When the au pair dies and Casey is arrested on another job, things look bleak for him.  But a wily lawyer sees a chance to blame Casey’s self-inflicted injury on police brutality – with Gideon in the frame …..

The incomparable Patrick Allen – possessor of the type of voice I could listen to all day – is in fine form as Todd.  By night he’s a violent criminal, but by day Todd’s a respectable stockbroker, moving in the best of circles with his cultured and beautiful girlfriend, Anne Beaumont (Ann Lynn).  Lynn’s one of those actresses who, if you love television of this era, you can’t help coming across.  Sergeant Cork, Public Eye and Minder are just three series graced with her presence.

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Elsewhere, Jean Marsh is a vivid screen presence as Sandra.  Following her husband’s arrest, Sandra attempts to extract the money he’s owed from Todd, with fatal results.  The moment of Sandra’s murder is nicely done.  As so often in GW, we don’t actually see the fatal blow struck (the camera is elsewhere at the time) but the quick cuts – and Todd’s expression afterwards – still make it a chilling moment.

It’s an amusing character touch that whenever Todd’s in criminal mode he wears a pair of dark glasses.  Even when indoors!  How can he see what’s going on?!   It’s also noticeable how he’s able to edit his personality – when spending time with his girlfriend and their wealthy friends he’s urbane and pleasant.  But when he’s discussing the next job with Casey he’s blunt and business-like, seemingly uncaring that the au pair is hovering close to death.  When confronted by Sandra he explains why he’s embarked on a life of crime.  “I do it because stocks and shares are pedestrian, dull, inanimate. When I’m on a job with Casey I’m alive, quick turning in my guts of fear, excitement, even sensuality. There’s no rational explanation.”

It’s jarring to see Gideon accused of hitting a suspect.  Jack Regan maybe, but not the avuncular George Gideon.  This feels like a theme drawn more from the books, which tended to paint Gideon’s world in shades of grey, as opposed to the resolutely black and white world of the television series.   In Creasey’s novels, Gideon had to traverse a more morally corrupt landscape, where even his own colleagues couldn’t always be counted upon.  But whilst the series caught the flavour of the books they also tended to rub off the sharp edges (although the ending of this episode is rather bleak).  However I’m glad they never carried over the practice of having Gideon referred to by his colleagues as “Gee Gee”.  It wouldn’t seem right to me for John Gregson to be referred to that way!

There are some series which I’m glad to have, but don’t tend to get rewatched that often.  Gideon’s Way isn’t one of them.  Gregson and Davion form a solid partnership, the scripts are generally very strong, the guest casts can rarely be faulted and the extensive location filming in and around London is yet another reason why this is a programme to be cherished.  Possibly because it didn’t fit the usual template for ITC filmed series, it’s never had the profile of the likes of The Saint, but Gideon’s Way is an endlessly entertaining series that I can come back to time and time again.

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Gideon’s Way – Morna

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Everybody loved Morna Copthorne (Angela Douglas).  Or nearly everybody.  When she’s found shot dead, Gideon is tasked to investigate her murder – and he finds that a much more complex character emerges.

The opening scene is an interesting one – we see a fisherman discover Morna’s body and then we observe him rush off to inform the police.  But it’s all dialogue-free, instead the incidental music almost seems to be acting as a substitute.  It feels slightly odd, but it works.

We then cut to Gideon’s house as he, Kate and Matthew are planning a day out, although there’s no prizes for guessing that an important call will shortly force Gideon back on duty.  Kate looks far from happy (indeed, it’s pretty much the most disgruntled I can recall her looking throughout the whole series).

Morna was the daughter of an important man, Sir Robert Copthorne (Robert Adams), and some discrete strings have been pulled to ensure that Gideon heads the case.  During the early part of the episode we hear several fulsome tributes to the dead girl, starting with her father.  “What was Morna like? She was exquisite. She was like a rose, soft, fragile, lovely. Everything thing about her was beautiful.”  Poor Sir Robert seems a broken man.  Later he tells Gideon that since Morna was born late in his life, he now has nothing to look forward to.  The fact that he looks at his wife, Lady Copthorne (Shelagh Fraser), when he makes this statement is telling.

Gideon and Keen then travel to Morna’s exclusive public school, which is run by Harriet and Leonard Bright (Kay Walsh and John Justin) who continue the praise of the girl.  Harriet tells them that Morna was her favourite pupil (“she had all the qualities that make up a wonderful human being. She was so warm, so vital, so alive”).  Leonard is no less effusive. “She had a quality, you know. Same sort of quality a star has. She glowed.”

If all this sounds far too good to be true, then it’ll come as no surprise to learn that it is.  Everybody who praised Morna so fulsomely  had their own reasons and for many there’s an element of self deception.  For example, Lady Copthorne is the first to illuminate a chink in Morna’s armour – she drank.  Sir Robert seems disbelieving, but it’s more likely that he knew all along about her frailties, he just wouldn’t admit them.  Lady Copthorne then makes a damning statement about their child – by giving her every material gift they could, they ended up spoiling her.  She admits that they attempted to buy her affection, leaving the possibility open that Morna never cared for them at all.

Although Morna’s dead at the start of the episode, via flashbacks we do get to see her.  Because we’re effectively viewing her through the eyes of various people – her best friend Lydia Merritt (Alita Naughton), her fiancé Michael Usher (Norman Bowler) – there’s the possibility that the Morna we’re watching has been “edited” by them.  This doesn’t seem to be the case though.

Through various testimonies, we discover that Morna kept a flat in London, enjoyed gambling, marijuana and was pregnant.  She owed nightclub owner Chay (Johnny Sekka) eight hundred pounds and this seems at first to be the crisis she faced on the day of her death.  I’ve written elsewhere about how impressive Sekka was in the Z Cars episode A Place of Safety, and he’s equally good here.  Chay is someone with a chip on his shoulder – he’s a black man in a white man’s world – so below his charming exterior is a mass of resentment.  It bubbles to the surface after Gideon takes him in for questioning.  This interview is probably one of the most hostile seen in the series – compared to the likes of The Sweeney it’s tame stuff, but it pushed the series into an area that it didn’t often cover.

Angela Douglas (like Kay Walsh) was one of a select group of actors who played two different roles in Gideon’s Way.  Morna, like Cathy Miller in The “V” Men, is a vulnerable character.  Our perception of Morna certainly changes as the episode progresses, but she doesn’t suddenly turn into an “evil” person.  I think that Alun Falconer’s screenplay was attempting to make the point that she’s neither saint or sinner – just an ordinary person with human frailties.  And if she was painted by some as an untouchable goddess, then that was simply because they had agendas of their own.

As a big fan of Moonbase 3, my heart was warmed to see Barry Lowe in the small role of a forensics officer.  He clearly wasn’t a terribly good one though, as his examination of the boat house, close to where Morna’s body was found, failed to spot a bullet hole in the wall!

Kay Walsh had been the central figure in The Housekeeper, so the role of Harriet Bright appears, at first, to be much less interesting.  It’s certainly a smaller part, but it turns out to be a vital one.  John Justin is terribly good as her husband, a man who seems to have rather an inflated opinion of his teaching abilities.  Alita Naughton only had a handful of credits and there’s something a little distancing about her performance, which I think is down to the dubbing.  Her character, Lydia, was American, so possibly Alita’s American accent wasn’t terribly good and she was later redubbed?

Another good story, enlivened by some decent performances (most notably Johnny Sekka).

Gideon’s Way – Boy with Gun

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Chris Kirk (Howard Knight) is a quiet, bespectacled boy of fifteen who finds himself corned by three toughs of his own age, led by the knife-wielding Mick (Roger Foss).  Mick wants Chris’ rifle and after a struggle the gun goes off.  Mick falls to the ground, apparently dead, whilst Chris flees the scene.

Chris isn’t the sort of boy you’d expect to be tangled up in a shooting case.  His father, Dr Kirk (Anthony Bate) is the local police surgeon and a well respected man.  The reaction of the local Inspector, after Dr Kirk tells him that his son was responsible, speaks volumes.  He simply can’t believe it – after all, nice middle-class people don’t go around shooting other people.

Anthony Bate was an immaculate actor who I can never remember giving a bad performance.  His credits are too numerous to mention, but I’ve previously written about his turns in the likes of An Englishman’s Castle and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (both series are undeniably enriched by his playing).  He’s also first-rate in the classic Out of the Unknown episode Level Seven.  Dr Kirk is another well crafted creation – a cold, cold man who is indirectly responsible for the mess young Chris finds himself in.

Dr Kirk is pained that Chris takes no interest in sports and would sooner bury his head in a book.  He dismisses the boy as effeminate and then tells his wife Helen (Ruth Trouncer) that it’s mostly her fault anyway – she wanted a girl so (in his eyes) she’s stunted his development. Husband and wife have a blazing row, expertly performed by Bate and Trouncer (which is notable as it’s played at a more intense level than is normal for the series).

Helen concludes the argument by telling her husband that the reason he wants Chris to be a real man is because he isn’t one himself.  It’s a wonderful piece of character development which lays the character of Dr Kirk bare.  But this isn’t the whole story, as later Gideon remembers the time when Dr Kirk risked his life to save an injured policeman.  Gideon’s story helps to demonstrate that whilst the man may have many less than admirable traits, he (like all of us) is a more complex character than might first be supposed.

Kirk gave his son the gun because he’s been trying to interest him in various manly pursuits – hunting, shooting, fishing.  Of course, this doesn’t explain why Chris was carrying a loaded gun around the streets of London, which remains a slight weakness of the story.  The point where Mick is shot is also worth looking at – did Chris shoot him deliberately or did the gun go off by accident?  It’s possible to make a case for both, although it has to be said that anybody who walks around with an unbroken rifle is simply asking for trouble.  It’s also odd that when Chris goes on the run he takes the gun with him, why would he do that?

Mick isn’t dead, although his condition is serious.  His anxious parents, Tim (George Sewell) and Mary (Mary Quinn) wait anxiously at the hospital for news, as Tim vows vengeance on Chris.  I’ve always loved George Sewell but since the character he’s playing is Irish, he’s operating a little out of his comfort zone, meaning that every time he opens his mouth I find it hard to take him seriously.  Quite why Tim couldn’t have been played with Sewell’s authentic East-End tones is a bit of a mystery.

After Chris goes on the run he’s befriended by Vince Kelly (Michael Craze), a Borstal escapee.  Chris’ mother tells Gideon that her son is a lonely child – shunned by the boys in his area – so he latches onto the friendly Vince with alacrity.  Craze’s breezy naturalistic playing is a delight.  He’s the diametric opposite of Chris – whilst Chris has had everything, Vince has had nothing – but there’s no resentment from the Borstal boy.  He simply accepts Chris at face value, understands that he too is in trouble and makes an instant connection.

Mick’s father, Tim, is the one with the resentment.  In a memorable scene, he confronts Gideon and tells him that he knows the police won’t try too hard to find Chris – after all, Dr Kirk is a member of the establishment and they always look after their own.  “My boy never really had a father. For ten years I was sewing bags in Dartmoor for the Regent’s Street fur job. The Kirk boy’s had everything. Good school, clothes, family background the lot. And what happens? My boy’s walking along, minding his own business, doing no harm to nobody, and the Kirk kid blasts him with a shotgun.”  Even allowing for Sewell’s interesting Irish accent this is good stuff, capped off when Gideon tells him that his son wasn’t quite the innocent party his father has made him out to be.

Vince is an irrestable dreamer, who’s sure that his elder brother Ches (Michael Standing) will be able to spirit them out of the country. As they hitch a ride to Ches’s flat, Vince continues to express his respect for the fact that Chris was able to shoot a man. It’s therefore fairly obvious that Vince isn’t the brightest, but Craze manages to make the boy both vunerable and appealing.

It slightly beggars belief that Chris eventually finds himself pretty much back where he begun, meaning that a local petty criminal (played by the wonderful Joe Gladwin) is able to pop round the corner and tell Tim that the boy who shot his son is hiding in the area. This is the excuse for Sewell to dial his Irish accent to eleven and it also shows Chris levelling his gun at the struggling Ches and Tim. So although Chris has been somewhat painted as a victim, this moment is another indication that his sense of morality is rather skewered.

The ending – as Gideon and the others confront Chris, who’s still armed – is very interesting. Dr Kirk is on the spot, and everything seems set up for him to be the one who talks the boy down. But this doesn’t happen and it’s Vince who’s finally able to bring the stand-off to a peaceful conclusion. Father and son do walk off together though, which suggests that maybe, over time, there’s a chance for them to rebuild their shattered relationship.

As ever, good playing from the guest cast helps to enrich an already strong screenplay by Iain MacCormick.  MacCormick’s screen credits aren’t terribly extensive (he died, aged just 48, in 1965) but his contribution to Gideon’s Way was notable.  Boy With Gun was his fifth and final script, whilst the others (especially The Nightlifers, The Alibi Man and The Thin Red Line) are amongst the best that the series had to offer.

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Gideon’s Way – The Millionaire’s Daughter

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Alan Blake (Don Borisenko) is a handsome, smooth-talking conman who’s well known to Gideon.  So when the Commander learns that Blake has begun a relationship with Nina Henderson (Lans Traverse), the daughter of millionaire businessman Elliot Henderson (David Bauer), he’s very interested.  And following Nina’s kidnapping, Gideon’s interest only grows …..

The Millionaire’s Daughter opens with Blake and the Hendersons disembarking from the cruise liner which has carried them from New York to London.  During that time Nina has become totally besotted with Blake and it appears that her parents are equally impressed.  Elliot, supposedly a hard-headed businessman, later tells his wife Felissa (Lois Maxwell) that he prides himself on being a good judge of character and that Blake is a fine young man.  Uh, oh, he got that a bit wrong!

Gideon’s Way was a slightly atypical ITC film series as most of the others (The Saint, Danger Man, Man in a Suitcase, The Champions, The Baron, etc) appeared to have been crafted very much with foreign sales in mind.  Lew Grade, the boss of ITC, had clear views about what sort of shows would sell in the foreign (especially American) market.  Globe-trotting action (even if it was all filmed on the back-lot at Borehamwood with the help of a palm tree or two!) and an American star, or co-star, usually didn’t go amiss.

But Gideon’s Way, with its very British (and London feel) didn’t fit this pattern at all.  Having said that though, it’s possible that it did find a receptive overseas audience, as there were many who rejected Grade’s formula and believed that series which made a point of their Britishness tended to do well.

The Millionaire’s Daughter certainly seems to be designed to push some of those buttons as early on we see Blake and Nina enjoy a whistle-stop tour of many of London’s top tourist attractions (they feed the pigeons at Trafalgar Square, walk past Buckingham Palace and view the Houses of Parliament).  Alas, Nina’s happiness is short-lived after she’s chloroformed by Blake.

Erica Townsend (Georgina Ward) and Philip Guest (Donald Sutherland) are the other members of Blake’s gang.  Erica swaps clothes with the unconscious Nina, so that she and Blake can create the illusion that Nina returned to her hotel later in the day.  Erica seems to have a few qualms about this, leading Philip to drawl that “you’ve got to baby.  I look awful in high-heel shoes.”

Given Donald Sutherland’s later career, it’s hard not to be drawn to his performance – but even if he’d faded from view a few years later, I think his turn as Philip would still be regarded as one of the best things about the episode.  Sutherland gives Philip an edgy intensity that is totally mesmerising – he’s so obviously a loose cannon, teetering on the edge of sanity.  Philip spends most of the episode advocating that they kill Nina (Blake and Erica take the opposite view) and it’s possible to believe that he’s capable of carrying out his threats.  But when Nina later attacks him in an abortive escape attempt, it’s telling that Philip just crumbles and has to be led away by Erica.  So given how unstable Philip appears, it’s a little surprising that he’s the one left to guard Nina – but his non verbal actions (such as the way he gives her an extra dose of chloroform) certainly help to ramp the tension up.

Georgina Ward has a less showy role but still catches the eye.  Although at times she seems vulnerable, she’s also often shown to be in command (she – not Philip – makes the ransom demands, for example).  But in many ways she’s just as much a victim of Blake as Nina is.  Gideon explains that the only reason he sought her out was for her resemablance to Nina.  And the fact that Blake’s run out on them (taking Fellisa’s diamonds) proves his point.

Lans Traverse has a slightly thankless role, since Nina isn’t really allowed to be much more than a easily duped mark, but David Bauer and Lois Maxwell fair a little better.  Bauer was an American actor who moved to Britain and became a familiar television face.  Authentic sounding American actors were quite rare in Britain during the 1960’s so it’s no surprise that Bauer prospered.  Canadian born Lois Maxwell will forever be known as the original (and best) big-screen Miss Moneypenny, but like many other actors – including Bauer – she was no stranger to the numerous ITC series that were flourishing at this time.

The relationship between Elliott and Felissa is put under great strain following the kidnapping.  Elliott is happy to leave matters to Gideon but Felissa is haunted by the kidnapper’s threats that they’d kill her if the police were involved.  All ends well, but not before both characters have been put through the wringer a little.

Gideon’s his usual efficient self.  There’s not really too much memorable material for John Gregson in this one – so possibly his best scene comes early on, as he’s seen relaxing at home.  His older son, Matthew (Richard James), is reluctant to speak to his (girlfriend?) on the phone, because his parents are in the room.  “I can’t talk now, older generation you know?”  John Gregson’s expression is pricless, as is Daphne Henderson’s (she makes it plain that Kate knows just how much this statement will irriate her husband).  Lovely stuff!

David Keen gets to tangle with Erica later on and his method of restraint – putting an arm around her waist – is an unusal one.  And after everything’s sorted he seems to have an eye for young Nina too.

Had it not been for Donald Sutherland this episde may have fallen a little flat, but his twitchy, edgy performance certainly helps to keep the interest up.

Gideon’s Way – The Reluctant Witness

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Red Carter (Mike Pratt) and his brother Syd (David Gregory) run a successful stolen car ring.  Their success sticks in the craw of Tiny Bray (Frederick Piesley) though.  Tiny spent four years inside for a crime he didn’t commit, thanks to Red, and the thought of revenge has obsessed him ever since his release.

Tiny is one of Gideon’s top informers – but Syd caches up with him before he can spill the beans to the Commander.  The younger Carter brother dishes out a savage beating and Tiny later dies from his injuries.  There was an eye-witness – Rachel Gulley (Audrey Nicholson) – but she’s a quiet, shy girl who’s reluctant to speak out.  However, the local beat copper, PC John Moss (Trevor Bannister), has a plan …..

The Reluctant Witness is packed full of incident and interest.  Like a number of actors, Mike Pratt made two appearances in Gideon’s Way, playing different characters.   Red was the more substantial role and Pratt certainly holds the viewers attention.  Red’s the elder brother and it’s plain that the younger Syd idolises him.  But Red’s not only older, he’s also wiser (at least during the early part of the story) since it seems more than likely he’d have never lost his temper with Tiny, as Syd did.

In contrast, Syd is portrayed as violent and reckless.  An insight into his personality is given during a party thrown by the two brothers.  Syd is slightly rough with his female companion, but is unrepentant – with the clear implication given that his treatment of the opposite sex is often far from chivalrous.

The party scene also has one of my favourite Gideon/Keen moments, as the officers gatecrash the swinging hop to sow a little discord.  They tell the brothers a fairy story – all about a stolen car ring – although there’s no happy ending (they drop the bombshell that Tiny’s dead).  Gregson and Davion work really well here.

You might wonder why Tiny was Gideon’s informant or indeed why the Commander is involved in such a low-key murder.  It’s a fair question, but for once there’s a good reason – Tiny was the only man convicted by Gideon who he later discovered was innocent.  If Gideon’s never been responsible for convicting anyone else who wasn’t guilty, then that’s a remarkable (if slightly unbelievable) strike-rate.  So Gideon feels obligated to get involved (not that he usually needs an excuse, he just tends to pitch in!).  But with Rachel hesitant to speak up, how will they obtain a confession from Syd?

This is a fairly unusual episode of GW, since a generous amount of screentime is given over to a uniformed copper.  Trevor Bannister, forever Mr Lucas in Are You Being Served?, is the fresh-faced man on the beat.  He gives a lovely performance as the friendly beat bobby who’s been carrying a torch for Rachel for some time.  Their relationship hasn’t got past the “good morning” stage, although there’s no doubt that he’s smitten.  The way that he stops the traffic to allow her to cross the road is a good example of this.

The only criticism I have of Audrey Nicholson’s performance as Rachel Gulley is that several times the script tells us that she’s plain and mousy.  Eh?  She’s a lovely looking girl!  But it’s true she’s something of a downtrodden waif, thanks to her domineering mother (played to great comic effect by Patricia Burke).

Mrs Gulley is a man-eater, plain and simple.  She tells Rachel to pretend to be her younger sister, as she doesn’t want her latest date to know that she’s old enough to have a grown-up daughter.  Later, when the relationship between Rachel and John deepens, Mrs Gulley is invited to tea with Rachel, John and John’s mother.  The tone is set when she asks for something a little stronger than tea – both John and Mrs Moss look a little askance at this, but politeness dictates that they don’t comment directly.  Alas, things go downhill from there, but John isn’t bothered – he tells Rachel that he wants to marry her, not her mother.

John’s plan to catch Syd is a decent one.  Gideon, Keen and John lie in wait at Rachel’s house and when Syd calls round – threating her to keep quiet or else – they’re in a position to overhear everything. But Rachel will still need to testify and this is the point in the story where Red starts to become a little unhinged.  When he sent Syd round to threaten the girl, he was quite clear – no excessive violence.  But once Syd’s been arrested he changes his tune – now he wants the girl dead.  As he says himself, Syd’s all he’s got in the world, so he’ll do anything – including murder – to protect him.

However, Rachel escapes his clutches (quite why he didn’t send more men after her is something of a mystery).  This means that he has to make an even more desperate gamble – attempting to hijack the prison van.  He must clearly love his brother, although it might have been a good idea for at least one of his gang to tentatively ask if this was altogether wise.  No matter, it concludes the story in an exciting way and there’s a nice twist which totally knocks the wind out of Red’s sails.

Mike Pratt, Trevor Bannister and Audrey Nicholson are three reasons why this episode is a favourite of mine.  The supporting players are far from shabby though and there’s familiar faces to spot, such as Gretchen Franklin (playing Tiny’s wife).  The eagle-eyed may also spy an uncredited Peter Purves as one of Red’s gang.

It’s getting a little predictable to keep on saying how good this series is, but it’s true nonetheless and The Reluctant Witness maintains the high standard.

Gideon’s Way – The Great Plane Robbery

plane

Terence Bailey (George Baker) has organised what seems to be the perfect crime – a million pounds in gold bullion, hijacked from a Russian plane.  Bailey remains confident that he’s covered all the angles, but then cracks begin to show amongst his gang …..

The Great Plane Robbery is something of a pun title, which would have been obvious to most of the audience at the time (The Great Train Robbery had occurred the previous year, 1963).

What’s remarkable about the plane robbery is just how straightforward it is.  There seems to be no security at all, either on the plane or at the airport.  They were carrying a million pounds in gold, for goodness sake!  You’d have assumed there would have been the odd guard lounging around, but no.  So Bailey’s right-hand man, Frank Dobson (Edwin Richfield) and the others are pretty much able to scoop it out of the plane at their leisure.  And even when the people in the airport control tower spot there’s a robbery taking place, all they can do is stare through their binoculars and sound the alarm.  The police are obviously a long way away, because Dobson and the others are easily able to make their escape before anybody turns up.

Edwin Richfield graced many a series with his presence (UFO, Doctor Who, The Avengers, Z Cars, Dixon of Dock Green, Adam Adamant Lives!).  He’s perfect as Bailey’s trusted second-in-command, who becomes rather disenchanted when a newcomer, Harold (Jeremy Burnham), turns up.  Harold is somewhat fey and camp and this doesn’t seem to go down well with Dobson (after Harold rests his hand on Dobson’s arm, he angrily tells Harold that he doesn’t like people touching him).  But that doesn’t seem to be the only reason why Harold irritates him – Dobson has enjoyed his time as Bailey’s closest confidant, but now there’s a newcomer who knows more than he does.  Their simmering discontent will later have serious consequences for Dobson ….

Jeremy Burham’s something of a renaissance man, not only an actor (including The Saint, The Avengers, Randall and Hopkirk and The Persuaders!) but a writer as well (Bergerac, Inspector Morse, The Gentle Touch, Minder, The Professionals, When the Boat Comes In, to mention but a few).  He helps to liven up the middle part of the episode, which otherwise might have sagged a little.

For me, this is one of the less essential GW episodes, and it only really succeeds because of the quality of the cast (as well as a few entertaining sequences which we’ll come to in a minute).  George Baker is certainly one of the reasons why it works as well as it does.  Much later he’d become very well known for playing a detective, but in the early part of his career he did a nice line in criminals, as he does here.  Bailey is a confident, cultured man.  He treats everybody around him with a casual air of indifference – he’s top dog and he knows it.  Of course, it’s his air of superiority which makes his eventual comeuppance all the more satisfying.

Memorable moments include young Malcolm and Gideon clashing over the best way to deal with the malfunctioning television.  Gideon is convinced he knows best, but Malcolm does know best and manages to restore the picture.  As with most of Giles Watling’s scenes throughout the series, this has no impact on the plot – it’s simply a nice character moment that helps to humanise Gideon.  Police officers, especially senior ones, with stable home lives are a rarity on television and whilst there’s an undeniable sense that their family set-up is simply too idealised to be true, it works nonetheless.

A quite different sort of family can be seen when we visit one of the gang, Kautsky (George Murcell).  His wife (played by Freda Bamford) is a remarkable creation, with big hair and a fag dangling from her lip.  And their son, Sid (John Hall), is remarkable too.  Although Hall was only in his early twenties when this episode was made, he looks a good deal older – meaning that it’s hard to take him seriously as the rebellious teen he’s written as.  His long hair is a bit of an eye-opener too.  Long hair for men isn’t really something that we’ve seen too often on GW – as touched upon before, the series has more of a fifties sensibility than a sixties one.  However, it’s not really the hair that’s an issue, more of the fact that it just looks so false (it surely must have been a wig).  If you can watch Hall’s performance and not think of Peter Sellers in What’s New Pussycat then you have more self control than me.

Not the best that the series can offer then, but it still has its moments.