Softly Softly: Task Force – Cash and Carry

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Stock is being pilfered from a local Cash and Carry.  The two men responsible – James (David Spenser) and Fox (Roland Curram) – are quickly identified but Barlow is concerned that this relatively small-scale affair might only be the prelude to a larger crime.

Cash and Carry is one of those stories which is more than content to take its time.  We initially see Snow and Radar, passing the Cash and Carry at night, become suspicious after they spy a light inside the building.  Officers are then called out in force along with the keyholder Mr Lodge (Peter Sallis).  None of them find anything so they leave empty-handed.  By this time a good ten minutes has elapsed without the plot advancing a great deal.

The next day it’s quickly worked out how such a large amount of stock could have gone missing – James and Fox work at the Cash and Carry, driving the delivery van, and they simply pile it up with stolen stock and sleep in the building overnight, leaving the next morning as if nothing has happened.  Donald likens it to the Trojan Horse, which is a neat description.

But this crime is so humdrum that there has to be more to the story.  Barlow seems to think that an attempt will be made to rob the cashiers department on its busiest day (when there could be as much as twenty thousand pounds for the taking).  If that’s the case (and Fox and James were the gang’s inside men) then it seems very foolish for them to have jeopardised the whole operation in order to make a little profit on the side.

Possibly the weakest part of Elwyn Jones’ script is Barlow’s sixth-sense which decides that an armed robbery is the real endgame.  Just how did he work this out? The story would have probably been more satisfying if the information about the intended robbery had come from an informer and the stock pilfering section had been excised (the time spent on this dead-end part of the plot could have been used to develop the individual characters of the gang).

Barlow and Cullen clash over the potential operation.  Barlow believes that the gang stand their best chance of succeeding if they make their attempt before the security guards arrive to take the money away, i.e. when the store is still open. Cullen argues that if they let things play out then innocent members of the public could get hurt.  Barlow agrees, but he wants to catch them in the act and not just arrest them for conspiracy.  Given that Cullen has always been portrayed as strong-willed and single-minded it seems a little uncharacteristic that he reverses his opinion so quickly and allows the covert operation to go ahead.

When Donald replaces one of the cashiers it’s easy to believe this is something of a sexist move (seemingly the only woman on the Task Force working at the till).  But amusingly this is undercut just a few seconds later when Barlow tells Lodge that he plans to replace another of his cashiers with Armstrong, who he says even looks like an accountant.  And with Watt dressed in overalls, shifting boxes into the back of a lorry, there’s another brief moment of humour to be enjoyed.

Will there be an attempt to steal the cash?  Looking down the cast list, names such as Alan Chuntz, Dinny Powell and Terry Walsh should provide you with the answer. Although it’s fair to say that it’s a very long build-up for such a brief moment of mayhem (nobody’s ever going to mistake Softly Softly: Task Force for The Sweeeny).  Evans gets shot, but only in the leg, so I’ve a feeling he’s going to live.

Even allowing for a few fisticuffs, Cash and Carry concludes the second series in a pretty low-key way.  It lacks the character drama that characterised most of the other stories, so has to go down as one of the lesser entries.  But generally the standard across the twenty six episodes was very consistent and I hope that it won’t be too long before series three is available.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Black Equals White

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A group of protesters have barricaded themselves on the first floor of a local hotel – their target being a group of businessmen and their wives.  The leader of the protest group, Leroy (Neville Aurelius), wants the businessmen to sign a letter admitting that their company discriminates against hiring black people in all but the most menial of positions. Barlow is keen to ensure that a peaceful solution is found, but this may not be possible ….

The colour problem was a topic that regularly turned up during this era of television.  Sometimes it was handled in a rather ham-fisted manner (the Callan episode Amos Green Must Live springs to mind) but on other occasions, as here, it provided some genuine food for thought.  Although that’s not to say that Black Equals White doesn’t have a few cringeworthy moments.

The protestors are a mixed group, male and female, black and white.  To begin with, Leroy is seen to be the obvious leader and he appears to advocate a policy of non-violence. This concept of a peaceful protest is shared by most of the others (there are quite a few “hey mans” bandied about and this, together with the endless protest songs. are a couple of reasons why this part of the story hasn’t aged terribly well).

But after a while it becomes clear that there’s another strong character upstairs, Mac (James Copeland).  Unlike Leroy, Mac is white and he also advocates more direct and threatening action.  Barlow later succulently sums Mac up.  “Party member I reckon. Closed mind, bitter.  Wherever there’s trouble that’s where you’ll find him.”  Given that Mac’s aims and ideals seem to be diametrically opposed to Leroy’s, it’s strange that they’ve joined forces, but an answer is provided at the end.

The hotel manager, Mr Henry (Angus MacKay), wants them out and he wants them out now.  MacKay’s ever increasing exasperation at the way that Barlow and Watt seems to be dragging their heels provides the episode with a rare shaft of humour.

A successful raid manages to extricate Leroy and he’s brought downstairs.  This only inflames Mac, who brings out a petrol bomb and tells the others that they may just have to use it.  Given that the rest are long-haired student types it seems clear this isn’t what they signed up for, although as most of them are non-speaking extras there’s not a great deal of debate.

Barlow and Leroy cross swords.  Neville Aurelius continues to play his part broadly whilst Stratford Johns is quite subdued and restrained.  This isn’t a bad choice from Johns as it allows Barlow to soak up Leroy’s various barbs without displaying the anger that Leroy was no doubt hoping to see.  Some of Leroy’s points might have struck home but there’s counter-arguments too – Snow mentions that unemployment isn’t just a problem for blacks.  In the end Barlow tells Leroy that the law isn’t perfect but it’s what they have and it’s what everybody has to live by.  Leroy sneers that white man’s laws don’t apply to him.

Barlow pleads with Leroy to ask the others to leave peacefully but he refuses which leaves Barlow no alternative but to send officers up in force.  It’s an interesting choice that we don’t see what happens to the protestors, instead we hear their screams whilst the camera focusses on both Barlow and Leroy.  Barlow’s faintly disgusted whilst Leroy seems satisfied.  He might not have openly advocated violence like Mac but he’s pleased enough that it’s happened, admitting to Barlow that it helps the cause.

Mr Henry pops up to express his feelings as the screams continue (“good god”).  But any fleeting thoughts that he’d suddenly gained a conscience are negated when his next words are “I’m losing business”.  Black Equals White may be content to paint its characters in fairly broad brush strokes but that doesn’t mean that it’s completely without merit.  Stratford Johns once again commands the screen as Barlow

All this plus Pat Gorman gets a couple of lines as well.  He may be one of the most familiar extras from this era of British television, but I can’t recall him speaking that often.   Which makes this appearance a notable one for Gorman watchers (I suspect we’re a small, but dedicated, group).

Softly Softly: Task Force – Held for Questioning

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The Task Force are out in numbers, looking for safebreaker Tommy Lee (Norman Jones).  Watt suspects that Lee was responsible for three recent robberies (in the latest, a security guard was shot and injured).  Hawkins brings in Jack Taylor (Denis Quilley), a known associate of Lee – although unlike Lee, Taylor has never been convicted of any crime.  Hawkins is convinced that Taylor knows where Tommy Lee is, but he proves to be a tough nut to crack ….

After a run of indifferent episodes, Robert Barr finally comes up with something very decent.  The clash between Hawkins and Taylor (and later Watt and Taylor) is most watchable, although the story does have one major plot flaw.   Watt strongly suspects that Lee and Taylor are partners and also that Lee will attempt to contact Taylor at the filling station he owns.  If that’s the case, then why bother to arrest Taylor?  They could have simply posted a few men in the vicinity, well hidden, and nabbed Lee when he turned up (which is pretty much what they do in the end anyway).  And since neither Hawkins or Watt manage to get Taylor to talk, the whole evening at the station has to be written off as a complete waste.

Denis Quilley was a heavyweight actor (he enjoyed lengthy spells at the National Theatre aappearing opposite the likes of Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud) which means that his casting helps to give Held for Questioning an extra lift.  To begin with, Taylor claims he hasn’t seen Lee for five years.  Later he admits that they have met a few times recently, but that he’s not involved with Lee’s criminal activities.

Taylor maintains an air of amused indifference during his interview with Hawkins.  He rarely seems flustered, meaning that any progress Hawkins makes is agonisingly slow.  There are a few flashpoints but it’s not until Watt turns up that the sparks really start to fly.  Watt asks exactly the same questions, but does so in a highly aggressive manner, causing the first signs of real anger from Taylor.  Windsor and Quilley – facing each other eyeball to eyeball – are both mesmerising in this scene.

There’s also a fascinating clash between Taylor and the duty officer, Chief Inspector Rankin (Michael Griffiths).  Taylor is well-known to the officers at the station, especially Rankin.  When the Chief Inspector pops his head around the interview room door, Taylor takes the opportunity to aim a few will-timed jibes in his direction.  His claim that he was attacked by several officers the last time he was there could be dismissed as simple troublemaking, but Cullen’s arrival confirms that it did actually happen (and officers were suspended).

Given that Taylor’s never been convicted of any crime (up until now) this moment shines a little light on police methods at the time.  Barr’s script doesn’t condone or condemn, but the inference is plain – it’s also spelled out earlier by Hawkins – you may be innocent in the eyes of the law but that doesn’t stop you from being regarded as guilty by the police.  It’s a brief, but disquieting, moment.

Norman Jones, as Lee, doesn’t have a great deal to do as he’s holed up for most of the episode, vainly attempting to contact Taylor.  In fact it’s easy to see how the story could have dispensed with his on-screen appearances completely (a quick message to say that he’d been captured would have sufficed).  Indeed, if the story really wanted to do something a little different then it could have taken place entirely within the confines of the interview room (at first I thought that was the way the episode would go).  A bit of a shame they didn’t go down this route, as all the best scenes do take place within the interview room, everything outside is of secondary importance.

A few minor quibbles apart, this is a fine showcase for Windsor, Bowler and Quilley.

Softly Softly: Task Force – In The Public Gaze

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Returning home after a less than enjoyable social function, Cullen spies a young officer, PC Pugh (Martin C. Thursley), being attacked by two men – Dawson (Michael Finbar) and Wilson (Gawn Grainger).  Without a seconds hesitation Cullen steams in, pulls both men off the stricken officer and bangs their heads together.  Although Cullen obviously saved Pugh from further punishment he’s laid himself open to an assault charge, which is further complicated after Dawson drops dead the next day ….

Episodes where Cullen is central to proceedings are rather rare, so In The Public Gaze is something of a treat.  Gotell’s firing on all cylinders right from the start as he subdues PC Pugh’s two attackers.  Snow, next on the scene, reacts with barely disguised admiration at the way the Chief Constable handled himself and it’s impossible not to agree with him.  Prior to the attack we have an opportunity to observe Cullen’s wry sense of humour as he tells his driver they might as well listen to the light programme on the way home and then proceeds to switch the radio over to the police frequency!

Walter Gotell and Stratford Johns share some sharply-written two-handed scenes as Cullen and Barlow mull over the possibilities.  Cullen declares that he’s not a man of violence whilst Barlow reflects on the way he’s trying to conserve his energies.   For example, Chief Superintendent Leach (Reginald Marsh), is a capable enough officer, but not when he’s worried or flustered.  And the arrival of the Chief Constable at his station is just the sort of thing to drive Leach to distraction so Barlow is careful to treat him with kid gloves, rather than lose his temper with him.  Marsh doesn’t have a great deal to do but he’s quite effective at looming in the background looking anxious.

It’s stated several times that Wilson is a troublemaker who will delight in laying the blame for his injuries at Cullen’s door.  What’s interesting is that we don’t see Wilson or Dawson during the period that they’re in custody – either whilst they’re being interviewed or later when they’re charged.  The first time we hear either of them speak is the following day, when the pair are presented at the magistrates court, prior to a possible trial.

Most other police series would have chosen to display them as cocky, arrogant types, but that isn’t the case here.  Both are hesitant and stumbling in the way that they question Pugh about the attack, which is an unexpected touch.  Armstrong conducts the police case, but he’s unsuccessful in keeping Cullen out of the witness box .  This infuriates Barlow, who maintains that a word in the right ear could have saved them all this hassle.  Cullen ironically jibes him about the old boy network, but Barlow doesn’t see anything wrong in bending the law in a good cause.

After Dawson’s death, the story moves to the coroner’s court.  It’s established that Dawson had an aneurism and so could have died at any time, but was there a reason why it happened now?  The Chief Constable is called to give evidence and Gotell once again commands the screen as Cullen gives a clear, concise statement about the events in question.  When questioned about whether he’s set any guidelines concerning the amount of force which should be used by his officers, he answers in the negative but adds “I do not want my men to get involved in a fight. But if they do, I expect them to win.”

A verdict of death by natural causes is recorded, but Wilson continues to harangue Cullen. The coroner makes the good point (he’s the first to do so) that Wilson has to share some of the blame since he involved Dawson in the attack on Pugh, but this falls on deaf ears.  And Wilson doesn’t let up – bombarding the press and members of the police committee with letters.  Barlow muses to Armstrong that something has to be done about him ….

In The Public Gaze is another excellent script by Elwyn Jones.  As touched upon, Gotell excels throughout whilst the solution to neutralising Wilson is a neat one.  PC Snow is responsible for delivering the metaphorical knock-out punch, with Terence Rigby on typically good and intimidating form.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Softly Softly: Task Force – Something Big

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Detective Chief Superintendent Alan (John Woodvine) of the Regional Crime Squad asks for Barlow’s help.  He’s interested in two known criminals, Hulton (William Abney) and McBride (Godfrey Quigley), whom he believes are in the Task Force’s area.

Watt discovers they’ve been seen in the company of Peter Thornley (Jeremy Wilkin).  Thornley owns a substantial house which is packed with valuable works of art.  But Hulton and McBride aren’t interested in burglary – they want to use Thornley’s house for a high-stakes evening of gambling.  It isn’t the gambling that interests Alan though, he’s hopeful that the evening will entice a much wanted criminal, Rendell (David Morrell), into making a rare public appearance ….

I’ve not been the greatest admirer of Robert Barr’s contributions to series two and although Something Big is solid enough, there’s still something lacking.  Peter Thornley remains a rather nebulous character, since it’s never established exactly why he should decide to throw in his hand with Hulton and McBride.  It can’t be money, since Thornley inherited numerous valuable pieces (paintings by Constable, etc) from his father.  He does seem mildly besotted with Pat Anderson (Vicki Woolf), a hostess introduced to him by Hulton and McBride, but since, like Thornley, she has very little dialogue it’s a relationship that’s never established with any substance.

Thankfully John Woodvine is on hand to bring a touch of class to the story.  There’s a vague sense of combative one-upmanship between Barlow and Alan, but although Alan plays his cards close to his chest to begin with, he doesn’t leave Barlow in the dark for too long.  In truth, Alan’s dialogue is nothing special, but Woodvine has the sort of natural gravitas which is able to give light and shade to even fairly undistinguished material.

A brief appearance by Desmond Llewellyn proves to be another highlight in a fairly average story that rather splutters to a conclusion.  We’re told that Rendell could be armed and is certainly dangerous, but everything passes off without a hitch when he’s taken into custody.  Rendell is another character who barely utters a handful of words, meaning that it’s hard to feel at all invested in his fate.  A shame that they couldn’t have featured the same character in an earlier story, that way his appearance here would have had a certain impact.

As it is, his capture stirs no emotions.  We’ve been told he’s a bad ‘un, but we’ve never had the chance to witness it for ourselves.  Show not tell is a basic rule of storytelling, but unfortunately it’s not adhered to here.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Final Score

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Final Score offers a good opportunity to see Barlow in action.  He begins by questioning Mrs Young (Avis Bunnage).  She works for Khan as a cleaner and had assisted Tommy Nunn in the recent robbery from Khan’s jewellers (Tommy did the robbery, Mrs Young took possession of the stones).

She’s taciturn during Barlow’s interview with her, offering little more than non-committal answers.  The director, Paul Ciappessoni, favours close-ups of Barlow and Mrs Nunn during this scene, quickly cutting between the two.  This helps to create a sense of anxiety and claustrophobia.

Although he doesn’t make much headway with Mrs Nunn, he has rather more fun with Khan.  Having recovered the stolen stones from Mrs Young, Barlow’s interested to see if Khan will claim them (unlikely, since they were already stolen before he received them).  Stratford Johns, Norman Bowler and George Pravda all sparkle in this scene – Khan has the persona of a slightly confused foreigner, whilst Barlow alternates between charming and threatening at will.  Hawkins chips in to increase the pressure a little more.

Watt wants to turn the screw on Tommy Nunn by telling him that Mrs Young will be charged with both robbery and possession of the stones.  He asks Evans to do it and also to apologise for suspecting him, but Evans is hesitant – it’s a lie and he doesn’t like telling lies.  Watt’s reaction is swift – he tells him to go back to normal duties, as he’s too delicate for this type of work.  After Evans exits Watt’s office he’s clearly kicking himself about his offhand comment.  We’ve seen before that Evans seems to have had a certain leeway in the way he interacts with his superiors, so it’s possibly not surprising that eventually his off-hand conduct would catch up with him.

If it hadn’t been for the playing of George Pravda and Roddy McMillan the crime part of the story probably wouldn’t have been as interesting as it turned out.  Given this, it’s a little debatable whether it should have been spread out across two episodes.

There are some character moments between the regulars which help to keep the interest level up during the second half of this episode.  Snow pops up with a present for Barlow from Watt – a bottle of whisky.  Barlow then asks Snow if he’s passed his sergeant’s exam.  Snow says he has, but doesn’t want to apply just at the moment, due to his attachment to Radar.  He’s not interested in continuing as a dog-handler when he’s made up to sergeant, but he’ll stick with Radar as long as he’s able to do the job.  And after Radar retires he’ll then move up the ranks.

But just as the story seems to be rather meandering to a halt, there’s shocking news – Mrs Young is dead (she committed suicide in her cell).  Unsurprisingly we don’t witness the aftermath of Mrs Young’s death – it’s only reported – and neither is any concern expressed that her death might trigger an investigation.  Madeline Mills made her only SS:TF appearance as WPC Berry, who’d been assigned to watch Mrs Young.  Given the paucity of female characters in the series it’s a pity her character (or someone similar) wasn’t retained.