Out of the Blue – Simply Media DVD Review

Running for two series and twelve episodes between 1995 and 1996, Out of the Blue is a somewhat overlooked police series.  Filmed in Sheffield, it’s a bleak and unsettling show which doesn’t attempt to wrap each episode up with a happy ending (or at times a definite conclusion).  The frenetic hand-held camerawork gives the series a fly-on-the-wall atmosphere at times (seemingly inspired by the likes of Hill Street Blues and Homicide: Life on the Street).

If Out of the Blue has a flaw then it’s probably that there’s few surprises – many of the regulars are character types we’ve seen many times before in other police series (the unorthodox maverick, the woman making her way in a man’s world, etc).

But the fact that Out of the Blue didn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel shouldn’t count too strongly against it.  One plus point is the fact that all twelve episodes were scripted by Peter Bowker and Bill Gallagher (often together, sometimes apart) – this gives the series a feeling of unity whilst the strong cast (a mixture of experienced hands and younger talent) is also something to be counted in its favour.

With a large cast of regulars and only six episodes to play with, the first episode of series one has to hit the ground running.  Several cases (the murder of a man already dying of cancer, the rape of a middle-aged woman) help to bring the motely group of detectives into sharp focus.

(L-R, Back Row) DC Bruce Hannaford (LENNIE JAMES), DC Tony Bromley (ANDY RASHLEIGH), DC Ron Ludlow (PETER WIGHT) and DC Marty Brazil (NEIL DUDGEON)
(L-R, Front Row) DS Frank ‘Franky’ Drinkall (JOHN HANNAH) DI Eric Temple (JOHN DUTTINE) DC Warren Allen (DARRELL D’SILVA) and DS Becky Bennett (ORLA BRADY)

DI Eric Temple (John Duttine) has the job of keeping them in order. He generally isn’t called on to do a great deal except bark some gruff orders, but having a familiar television face (and a good actor, of course) like Duttine helps to bring Temple to life.

DS Becky Bennett (Orla Brady) is the lone female detective, meaning that she’s a source of fascination for her unreconstructed male colleagues. Her decision during series one to conduct a clandestine affair with PC Alex Holder (Stephen Billington) will no doubt set tongues wagging …

DC Warren Allen (Darrell D’Silva) carries something of a torch for Becky, but his general persona – the nice guy who never gets the girl – suggests that he’s going to end up disappointed.

DC Marty Brazil (Neil Dudgeon) and DC Ron Ludlow (Peter Wight) make for a classic team. Marty is a wisecracking, unpredictable loose cannon (Dudgeon making the strongest impression during these early episodes) whilst Ron is the more dependable, solid type. Ron’s a devoted family man, although the fact that he’s still involved with his divorced ex-wife suggests he’s been taking his family duties rather too far (especially since his current wife has been kept totally in the dark).

Neil Dudgeon & Peter Wight

DS Franky Drinkall (John Hannah) is a high-flier, tipped for the top – although his epilepsy looks set to put paid to that. His long-suffering partner, DC Bruce Hannaford (Lennie James), has to take the brunt of his moody outbursts.

Although Hannah had been acting since the late eighties, Out of the Blue was his first regular television role. Almost immediately afterwards he would star as the unorthodox McCallum, which was just a slight change from playing the unorthodox Franky.  Since Franky is such a monumentally unlikeable character it’s to Hannah’s credit that he never attempts to soften his playing, instead he allows us to plainly see just what a monster DS Drinkall is.

Franky’s epilepsy and the fall-out from it, would be a running thread throughout the first series.  It’s just a pity that, due to the fact there were only six episodes, it isn’t a plotline that has too much room to breathe (we learn about it in episode one, everyone else does in episode two, etc).  A longer episode count would have enabled it to be spread out a little more, which would have worked to the series’ benefit.

Rounding off the team is DC Tony Bromley (Andy Rashleigh).  Newly transferred, he spends much of the first episode as a silent observer, but he later makes his presence felt.  A former teacher (and a devout believer in God) he makes for an unlikely copper, but his character – a patient, non-judgemental listener – will prove to be useful on occasions.

Most of the episodes tend to juggle several storylines, with many of the crimes having clear consequences for both the victims and perpetrators. One of the most striking things about the series is how the lines are blurred between the law-breakers and the law-makers. Not, for once, in the area of police corruption – instead we see that a number of serious crimes weren’t triggered by evil intent, instead the criminals were motivated by fear or boredom.  This is more disturbing than plain malice and although Peter Bowker and Bill Gallagher don’t hammer the point home, it seems to be suggested that both the system and the environment has its part to play in shaping the actions of those who operate on the wrong side of the law.

Following a dramatic conclusion to the first series, Out of the Blue returned for a second and final run of six episodes in late 1996.  The cast pretty much remained the same, although Becky’s love interest had departed.  The major change saw David Morrissey fill the gap left by the departed John Hannah.  Morrissey played DS Jim “Lew” Lewyn, a maverick copper with secrets.  Mmm, not at all like Franky then ….

David Morrissey

Although Lew’s not a terribly original character, he helps to shake up the established team.  Temple might have been aware of some of Franky’s less admirable traits, but there was no doubt that he respected him.  But Lew arrives with considerable baggage and Temple isn’t prepared to cut him the same sort of slack.

Whilst Lew is treating suspects to his own unique brand of policing, the others have various personal problems to overcome.  Warren’s run of bad luck on the emotional front seems to be over after he snags a new girlfriend – Lucy Shaw (Nicola Stephenson).  But she turns out to be somewhat unstable, so Warren’s soon back to square one and not even the solicitous Becky can cheer him up (he decides he doesn’t want her pity).

Bruce is also feeling the pressure.  He’s always been tightly wound, but there are times when even an innocent remark can set him off – on one notable occasion he and Warren come to blows at the pub.

The storylines continue to be as uncompromising as ever.  Episode three, which concerns a male rape, attracted a certain amount of attention at the time whilst the fourth – featuring Neil Stuke as Tommy Defty, a seemingly untouchable drug-dealer – is a particular highlight.  The final episode (revolving around the death of a fourteen-year old prostitute) is yet another strongly-scripted and well-played story.

Out of the Blue failed to be renewed for a third series.  Possibly this was because, as previously touched upon, it wasn’t doing anything we hadn’t seen before.  This was a pity because there was potential there – maybe an increased episode count would have helped to strengthen and broaden both the format and the characters.

Shot on 16mm film, Out of the Blue looks somewhat gritty and grainy.  This no doubt chimes with the series’ aesthetic – bright colours and sunshine wouldn’t have been the correct tone – but the picture quality probably also reflects the age of the masters (although what we have is perfectly watchable).

Although it never made a great deal of impact at the time, Out of the Blue is still of considerable interest.  Not only for the strong cast, but also for the way that it generates a snapshot of the seedier end of mid nineties Britain.  Warmly recommended.

Out of the Blue is released by Simply Media on the 10th of July 2017.  RRP £34.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here.

David Morrissey, Orla Brady & Neil Dudgeon

Out of the Blue – Series One, Episode One

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Hugh Evans was sixty seven years old and dying of cancer. So why would somebody shoot him four times as he lay in his hospital bed? Meanwhile, as the only female detective, DS Rebecca Bennett is called upon to interview a traumatised rape victim.

Out of the Blue hits in ground runnng. In the opening few minutes as – somewhat oddly – all the detectives hot-foot it over to the hospital, the regulars’ characters are deftly sketched.

DC Marty Brazil (Neil Dudgeon) and DC Ron Ludlow (Peter Wight) make for an entertaining double-act. Marty is clearly the iconoclast of the team (thinking nothing of giving a man who spat in the street a hard time). Also making an early impression is Orla Brady as DS Rebecca ‘Becky’ Bennett (partly because she’s the only female detective in an all-male enclave).

DS Franky Drinkall (John Hannah) and DC Bruce Hannaford (Lennie James) chase down a suspect in the shooting case, but it’s what happens afterwards which will haunt the remainder of the first series. Franky suffers an epileptic fit in the pub and refuses to report it to the medical officer. This not only puts his own career in jeopardy but swearing Bruce to secrecy only serves to complicate matters even further (as well as creating a simmering sense of tension).

Becky and DC Warren Allen (Darrell D’Silva) make up the third team and putting them together on the rape case helps to generate a certain amount of debate between them which defines both their characters, although at this point Becky is the one who’s received the most screentime.

DC Tony Bromley (Andy Rashleigh) has been newly transferred to the team and, as an outsider, serves as the audience identification figure. As he begins to understand how his new colleagues tick, so do we. Rounding off the squad is DI Temple (John Duttine). By far the most familiar television face, Duttine doesn’t have a great deal to do here (the harrased boss is a long-standing police series cliche) but having a quality actor in the role gives Temple the gravitas he needs.

Juggling two strong storylines, this opening episode is a solid one. The visual style (shaky camerawork and the occasional loss of focus as the camera – effectively acting as an unseen member of the team – moves from person to person) helps to give the story a little impetus.

Out of the Blue – Series One, Episode Two

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Ron and Marty are pursuing Neil Chettle (Matthew Wait). They’re convinced that he’s responsible for robbing a series of pensioners of their life savings, but there’s no solid evidence. Chettle’s clever, as by selecting only the elderly and infirm, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to pick him out of an identity parade ….

This second episode continues to put more meat on the bones of the regular characters. Becky’s fledgling relationship with PC Alex Holder (Stephen Billington) seems to have put Warren’s nose slightly out of joint whilst Tony’s casual statement that he believes in God somewhat nonplusses Marty (who then can’t resist questioning him on his beliefs).

This is a strong episode for Neil Dudgeon. Although the story isn’t doing anything we haven’t seen countless times before in other shows – Marty doggedly pursusing a cocky suspect who believes he’s untouchable – Dudgeon and Wait are still on top form. When the tables are turned and Chettle begins to target Marty’s wife, the pressure gets ramped up a notch, although this part of the plot is never really developed as much as it could have been.

Bruce continues to glower at Franky. Franky claims that he’s now perfectly fine but Bruce – he is a detective after all – doesn’t believe a word of it. This is confirmed later on by Franky’s retching and pained staring into the toilet mirror.

There’s a later oblique conversation between Bruce and DI Temple in which the senior officer seems to be warning Bruce against doing anything about Franky. Although this is contradicted towards the end when Temple spells out Franky’s options to him – none of which seem to appeal.

Broken marriages are a common sight in police series and Marty helps to explain why. He may still be married, but the job has plainly had a toxic effect. “I went home to Judy one time and I had to tell her that I’d been tying labels onto the toes of a kiddie who’d been strangled, and you know what she said to me? Do you know what my own wife said to me? Don’t touch me. Don’t touch me”.

Although the episode juggles several other plotlines – the mystery of how a man, dead for several months, has continued to open his mail and a potential robbery at a pub – it’s the feud between Marty and Chettle which dominates. Marty may be satisfied with the eventual outcome, but Ron isn’t. “Racing around like the caped crusader, you’ve turned this into a schoolroom brawl between you and him”.

Whilst the others enjoy an evening’s bowling, Franky – as befits a flawed hero – broods alone in the office, with only a cigarette for company.

Out of the Blue – Series One, Episode Three

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When Ron’s daughter is discovered with a computer disc containing violent pornography, the team spring into action to track the perpetrator down …

This episode is of particular interest due to the computer porn angle. Given it was the mid nineties when computers – and the internet – were just beginning to establish themselves, it has to be a pretty early example of this type of storyline.

Bruce is puzzled by this brave new computer world (no doubt a section of the audience would have been just as perplexed as he was) but luckily there’s a young schoolboy on hand to explain the world of networks, notice boards, DOS and floppy discs.  We must be pretty much pre-internet for most people, since the images were distributed on 3.5″ discs, which helps to date the programme.

John Hannah’s been boiling away nicely for the last few episodes but now Franky’s been suspended Hannah takes the opportunity to ramp up the intensity level several notches. Franky blames Bruce for shopping him, but he’s blameless (it was Franky’s wife, Lorraine, who informed DI Temple).  When Franky later learns the truth, does he apologise to Bruce? Nope. Which provides more evidence that Franky’s a charmless, self-centered, self-pitying sort of chap. Possibly he’s a good thief-taker, but his social skills need more than a spot of work.

Poor Warren’s lack of success with the opposite sex leads the others, notably Ron and Marty, to offer him some well-meaning words of advice. Bruce is more caustic, he opines that Warren’s problem is due to the fact he dresses off the peg (at the Salvation Army!)

There’s a nice mid-episode change of pace as Ron, Marty and Becky attempt to track down a suspect in the computer porn case, Gary Lowell. They encounter Craig Page (Andrew Dunn) at Lowell’s house, who looks more than a little shifty. The fact that Lowell’s dead body is stuffed in a cardboard box might have something to do with that ….

The episode also features a back-street strip club which employs disabled performers. Warren, at the club in surveillance mode, is appalled. The camera coyly doesn’t show us the stripper, but we get a good insight into Warren’s distressed state of mind by the way the camera starts to weave and lose focus.

The mystery of who killed Gary isn’t much of a mystery after all, but it’s still a strong enough episode with a pre-dinnerladies Andrew Dunn making the most of his limited screentime.

Out of the Blue – Series One, Episode Four

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A women is found dead in a bus shelter located just outside her house. It looks as if she was sleeping there, but why? A baker, Mr Flood (Kenneth Cope), is once again sweeping up broken glass from his shattered shop windows. Convinced that no-one is taking him seriously he resorts to drastic action to make himself heard. Meanwhile, Franky has disappeared. He had been working unofficially on a cold case, so the team follow it up ….

Dave Norman, playing Ray Chaplin, has an easy time of it. Ray, a pimp, previously had his tongue cut out, so Norman didn’t have to go to the trouble of learning any lines. All he had to do was look moody and scribble down his answers to Becky and Warren.

This was the cold case Franky was working on, so it serves a dual purpose in the narrative – not only is there a mystery to be solved, but finding the answer might allow the team to discover Franky’s location.

Ron’s dalliances with his ex-wife become public knowledge around the office (although his curent wife remains in the dark). He’s yet to discover that Marty let this secret slip though, but I’ve a feeling he’s going to find out soon …

Bruce and Tony visit Mr Flood. Their different reactions speak volumes about their characters. Bruce wants to be out looking for Franky, so dealing with a case of broken windows seems completely trivial (he caustically refers to Mr Flood as Mr Pastry).  But Tony instantly emphasises with the victim – he can see that Mr Flood is living a life of quiet desperation (his life made a misery due to abuse and vandalism) and wants to help. So Tony is idealistic, Bruce realistic.

Tony later confides that as a uniformed officer he felt part of the community, but now he’s in plain clothes there’s more of a sense of isolation. The fact that we never actually see any of the tearaways who abuse Mr Flood is an interesting touch – as making the threat abstract means it becomes more problematic and insoluble.

Kenneth Cope nicely underplays as a man driven to the edge by antisocial behaviour.  The way he finally gets a little attention is a wrong-footing moment (although due to the way the camera coyly doesn’t focus on the action, it’s possibly not as impactful as it could have been).  No matter though, Cope still deftly sketches the character of Mr Flood – a man who doesn’t want to be labelled a victim, but urgently needs help.

The dead woman at the bus stop, Angela Grainger, was also a victim of antisocial behaviour.  In her case, she was driven to distraction by pounding music played at all hours by her next door neighbours. But did one of them attack her in the days before she died of a heart attack?

It can’t be a coincidence that Kenneth Cope’s daughter, Martha, appears as Marilyn Jowett, Angela Grainger’s neighbour. Another familiar face, Sheila Ruskin, pops up as Margot Gillespie, the doctor who tells Franky that his epilepsy isn’t operable.

Alternating between these two storylines as well as the search for Ray’s attacker and Franky’s continuing tantrums, it’s a packed episode. At one point, Ron confides that there’s no justice and by the time the credits roll it’s hard to disagree with him.

Out of the Blue – Series One, Episode Five

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A woman called Anna Cornish is shot. Who did it and why was her body moved across town?

Although Mrs Cornish is a respected member of the local community (a black lawyer and a noted anti-drugs campaigner) the team can’t expect to receive much in the way of cooperation. Temple sums the mood up when he mentions that the community despises the police only slightly more than they hate each other.

The bleakness and hopelessness of mid nineties inner-city Britain is a running theme of Out of the Blue and gets developed in this episode. Mr Megson (Tony Barton) was the publican who wheeled Anna from away from his pub and he doesn’t waste any time in explaining why.  Anna was “a colonial cousin” and, according to him, a member of a race that doesn’t have a great respect for human life.

Megson believes that all of the estate’s problems can be dated to the arrival of the black community, which leaves us with the strong impression that he regarded Anna as little more than a piece of rubbish to be removed. It’s striking that Megson doesn’t seem to understand that he’s done anything wrong although when Bruce tells him that he may end up charged with manslaughter he starts to take attention.

A tip-offf leads them to three suspects, Shaun Hayley (Tim Evans), Bunny (John Muir) and Daniel Gelder (Taurean Mulholland). They’re only fifteen though. Could a group of fifteen year-olds really be responsible for this shooting? It’s a telling moment that nobody dismisses this out of hand. It clearly wouldn’t be the first time something like this has happened.

On the plus side, the episode doesn’t feature Franky whining about his epilepsy. Instead we see just how far he’ll go in order to get a result. Convinced that the shooting has a drug connection, he infiltrates a gang of low-lifes. First he shares their drugs and then he asks to buy a gun (because, he says, he wants to shoot a copper). By acting alone and without backup he’s taking an incredible risk – this seems to demonstrate he’s got something of a death-wish.  He’s remarkably convincing as an unstable psychopath ….

Nobody wins in this one since the shooters can be said to have been just as much victims as Anna was. Moments of levity are therefore few, although the spat between Marty and Ron is good fun (Ron’s aggrieved that Marty let slip about his philandering ways to the others).

The episode ends with Franky being confronted by Victor (Gary Sefton). Victor’s a drug dealer as well as Franky’s informant. Although Victor seems upset and a little unstable, Franky’s the sort of person you always imagine will win through, so when he’s stabbed and collapses in a large pool of his own blood on the office floor it’s a considerable jolt.

That the action then switches to the pub, where we see the others unwinding after another long day.  We’ve seen during the course of the first series how Franky has isolated himself from the others – declining to join them in the pub or for bowling nights on previous occasions – so the fact he dies alone whilst the others are together is clearly an intentional bitter irony.

Out of the Blue – Series One, Episode Six

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The hunt for Franky’s killer begins in earnest ….

There’s a certain amount of dramatic licence at play here, since it seems more than a little unlikely that the close colleagues of a dead officer would be the ones leading the investigation to find his killer. Surely the fact they’d be emotionally involved would have ruled them out?

The opening plays as you’d expect – the team are shellshocked (Bruce is the one we follow into the station as – disorientated – he reels from the buzz and bustle of the crime scene) whilst Franky’s widow, Lorraine (Denise Stephenson), blames Temple and just about any other copper she can find for Franky’s death.

Although Temple later warns the others not to cut any corners, Marty – when questioning a suspect – spells out precisely what Franky’s death signifies. “Do you know what a dead copper means? It means the sky falls in on every little arsewipe who might know anything”.

Assistant Chief Constable Friel (Trevor Cooper) makes a small, but telling, contribtion. He informs Temple that he doesn’t want any of Franky’s dirty linen washed in public. They have to tell the truth about Franky’s activities, but anything unsavoury needs to be hidden from public consumption. The conflict between the need for truth (the truth, but not necessarily the whole truth) and police politics is clearly delineated here.

It’s hard not to feel that the unstable Victor was pushed into a corner by Franky. Temple later makes that point to the team, although most of them – especially Marty – don’t really want to hear. Even though Temple then goes on to say that he’s making the potential case of Victor’s defence laywers, there’s more than a kernel of truth in his statement.

Apart from a voice on the phone, we don’t see Victor until we’re well into the episode. The stake-out nature of the middle part of the story, as the team wait for him to surface, enables there’s a little time for various personal problems to be given an airing. Warren still hasn’t given up hope that he and Becky might become an item whilst Ron gives Marty some sage advice about children (Marty and his wife have been unable to conceive).

The tension that hangs over the episode, indeed the whole series, concerning Franky continues here. His colleagues have always been loyal and – toasting his memory in the pub – they continue to be. All except the newcomer Tony. “When everything else comes second best to your ambition. Your mates, your wife, your kids …”

Victor confesses but there’s little sense of celebration. The mood is best summed up by Marty in a short speech which could easily serve as the series’ raison d’etre. “Where’s the blame? I’ve been searching in me head for where the blame is. All day. Thinking and looking. Asking and asking. No, it’s kids going mad, but its not. Who teaches you to be stupid? Where does greedy start from? You know what I’ve decided? I can’t find it”.

The last scene – Franky entertains the others from beyond the grave via the power of VHS – proves to be something of a cathartic experience. If some questions about his character will remain unanswered for ever, at least this provides them with the opportunity of remembering his better side.  The truth then, but not the whole truth ….