Friday, 21 August 2015
Blaxploitation finally came to Britain television in 1981 with Wolcott, a groundbreaking detective drama released by Network DVD this week which was the first drama to feature a black actor in a leading role.
The actor in question is the magnetic George Harris (billed here as George William Harris) playing the role of Detective Constable Winston Churchill Wolcott. Newly promoted to CID by a Metropolitan Police with an eye for PR and community relations, he swiftly becomes embroiled in a drug war between rival black and white gangs in London's East End.
Produced by ITC and Black Lion Films and written by Americans Barry Wasserman and Patrick Carroll, this mini-series (the first of its kind on British TV screens apparently) is a pulpy delight, with its blunt, bloody violence and colourful language ultimately - and perhaps rather unfortunately - dominating the sociopolitical context. It's easy to draw a line from blaxploitation films like Shaft and Across 110th Street to this (as I have at the top of this review) but it's also fair to say there's a good deal of influence noticeable here from the likes of the Sidney Poitier Virgil Tibbs movies and our very own The Sweeney. But Wolcott certainly doesn't look like the exploits of Regan and Carter and it's clear to see that ITC had an eye on export value too - as indeed they always did - creating a glossy, hard hitting aesthetic thanks to Roger Deakins glorious and striking cinematography and Colin Bucksey's innovative direction which makes Wolcott far removed from the look of its contemporary British crime dramas. There's also a role for visiting American actress Christine Lahti as a journalist who sees in Wolcott a wealth of headline grabbing stories.
The cast is actually a very interesting one with Hugh Quarshie (now a regular in Holby City) as Wolcott's youth worker cousin who disapproves of him being in his view little more than the Met's pet, Mona Hammond as his proud mother, Warren Clarke as the representative of old school gangland villainy struggling to keep apace with the rise of black rivals and cheap heroin, and Christopher Ellison as a bent cop that can easily be seen as a dummy run for his role as DI Frank Burnside in The Bill. Unfortunately the rest of the cast are a bit of a let down; Raul Newney as an up and coming black gangster doesn't have the necessary menace for the role, and Martin Dempsey and Paul McDowell (dubbed throughout by Bernard Gallagher, whom Harris would later star opposite in the first series of Casualty) as Wolcott's weary and/or disapproving superiors at the station offer little or merit. But perhaps of most interest in the cast are the likes of the young Rik Mayall, Alexei Sayle and Keith Allen, then making a name for themselves on the alternative comedy scene of The Comic Strip, appearing respectively as a sneering racist policeman, a right-on soap box public speaker and his National Front heckler in the crowd - the latter at least helping to give Wolcott some of its sociopolitical context.
Dominating it all is the tremendous short tempered tough guy presence of George Harris in the title role. An outsider to both the community he was brought up in and the colleagues he now works alongside, it's clear he is the only one who seems to have little problem with being a black policeman. The miniseries was originally designed to be a pilot run for a full thirteen-part series but this failed to materialise, leaving the nihilistic tone it builds up to a rather ambiguous conclusion. It's a shame, but it is fair to say that the central storyline chosen to open with was too minimal and unable to sustain its original four episode run. Perhaps if it had something stronger from the off it would have been readily picked up for further episodes. As it is, just a couple of months later, the BBC's answer to racial intolerance and the ethnic minorities within the police force at the time was handled with more subtlety and intelligence in The Chinese Detective, written by Ian Kennedy Martin the creator of The Sweeney.
Network have produced another great release here but it's lacking on the extras front; just an image gallery and the chance to see 'clean' titles for one episode.