Blakes 7 – Games

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Avon’s hot on the trail of Feldon crystals, one of the most precious minerals in the galaxy, but it’ll come as no surprise to learn that so is Servalan.  Both the Scorpio crew and Servalan end up on the mining planet Mercol 2, which is run by the duplicitous Belkov (Stratford Johns).  Suspiciously low production yields and a tendency for members of the survey team to die in strange and unexplained ways are two reasons why Servalan is interested in Belkov, but he attempts to broker a deal – promising to deliver up the Scorpio crew in exchange for his life.

Games is another B7 tale which boasts a heavyweight guest star – in this case Stratford Johns.  Elsewhere on this blog I’ve waxed lyrical about how good Johns always is in Softly Softly: Task Force and indeed he’s such a fine actor that he even convinces as a frog with a funny hairdo in the Doctor Who story Four To Doomsday.  But he’s got his work cut out here as Belkov isn’t a character of great depth.

The basic concept of the story is sound enough though.  Belkov enjoys a good double or triple cross and he’s also an expert games player, so with the aid of his computer Gambit (voiced by Rosalind Bailey) he’s able to set multiple traps for the unwary.  There’s a similar vibe with Belkov/Gambit as there was between Ensor/Orac, only not as well defined.  Gambit seems to lack Orac’s free will and argumentative nature, but the ending suggests that Gambit was more than the logical machine she appeared to be, although this isn’t something that’s really developed.

Servalan once again does little of note.  Had Jacqueline Pearce been held back for three or four significant appearances per year then I think it would have benefited the character enormously.   There’s still the odd writer – such as Tanith Lee in the upcoming Sand – who are able to do something interesting with her, but that one’s pretty much the exception now rather than the rule. Having said that, Servalan’s first appearance is memorable – striking a pose whilst masked Federation troopers (who we haven’t seen very often recently) mass behind her.  But it’s odd that she never meets Avon or the others, meaning that her role could have been played by any Federation officer.

Vivienne Cozens’ direction is very sure-footed – there’s some nice film work and the odd gruesome death (one of the Federation troopers is reduced to pink dust after falling down a mine-shaft).

Vila gets to be a little more proactive than usual – rescuing Tarrant, Dayna and Gerren (David Neal).  Gerren’s been brought along for the ride by Avon, who’s blackmailing him into helping them (nice chap, Avon). It’s characteristic of Avon that he secretly made contact with Gerren, meaning that the others were none the wiser until he deigned to tell them what was going on. Neal’s a good actor, although he’s hamstrung with a painfully obvious fake beard. But it’s a nothing role, since Gerren doesn’t really bring any knowledge to the table that Avon didn’t already possess.

Games is a bit of a runaround but things pick up towards the end when Avon, Vila, Tarrant and Soolin play Belkov’s endgame.  The prize – should they live – will be the Feldon crystals, but first they all have to win their various challenges.  Conveniently, each game is suited to one of them (Soolin excels at the sharp-shooting challenge whilst Tarrant tackles a flight simulator with ease).  This section of the story reveals that the episode title has something of a double-meaning as eventually Avon realises that there won’t be any crystals at the end of their quest.  “There aren’t any damned crystals. There never were any damned crystals. They’re like everything else on this ship: a game.”

With no crystals and Belkov dead after Gambit initiates a self-destruct sequence, Games is a typically downbeat S4 yarn where everybody loses.  It should be a better story than it actually is, but some parts feel a little perfunctory (especially the games section at the end) which is a problem. And even Stratford Johns’ freewheeling performance can’t hide the fact that the plot is fairly pedestrian (the Scorpio crew get captured, escape, get captured again, etc).

But there are compensations – the location may be a quarry, but it’s a very nice one. And there’s a number of rather impressive explosions which are certainly more substantial than the standard BBC bangs of the time. It’s this sort of visual sheen which helps to make Games an above average S4 entry.

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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.

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 – 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 – 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.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Kick Off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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