Dixon of Dock Green was a mainstay of BBC drama for a staggeringly successful twenty-one years, starting in 1955 and coming to a close in 1976. A spin-off of the classic British crime film The Blue Lamp, the Ted Willis-devised show brought Jack Warner's helpful old school beat bobby PC George Dixon back from the dead (he was gunned down by a young Dirk Bogarde twenty minutes into the film) and saw Warner portray the character until his 80th year, well past police retirement age!
Sadly much of Dixon of Dock Green has been wiped from the BBC archives and so, Acorn DVD's three releases (available both individually and as a boxset) have concentrated on the available colour episodes from 1970-1976 which saw the 70-odd year old Warner portray Dixon as the Sergeant of the Dock Green parish alongside his son-in-law Andy Crawford (Peter Byrne) now a detective in CID and other characters such as Nicholas Donnelly's strapping uniformed Sergeant Johnny Wills who would understandably undertake much of the legwork and action-orientated scenes at this stage in the show's history.
Not that there's all that much action in Dixon of Dock Green. Those expecting a '70s cop show like The Sweeney will be somewhat disappointed by the lack of grit, street vernacular and squealing tyres that marked out that series, but it's actually a popular misconception that, by this era, Dixon was an outdated and redundant relic that was out of touch with reality and long surpassed by the antics of the aforementioned Flying Squad and the BBC's own Z Cars. For a start, it still pulled in extremely healthy viewing figures suggesting there was great affection and a demand for the series, and secondly, going off the six episodes in this volume, it was still a remarkably solid drama that didn't shy away from the bleak and gritty aspects of crime and the subsequent investigations made by the police force. In my view and on the evidence laid out here, Dixon was still in good health in the early '70s and far better than Z Cars from the same period which Acorn has also released to DVD and which frankly, with a few exceptions outstanding, pretty much bored me to tears with its humdrum low-risk and uneventful mundanity.
Some episodes in this set wouldn't actually look that out of place plot-wise on The Sweeney; episodes like Eye Witness, Harry's Back and Firearms Were Issued are all set in roughly the same ballpark as the crimes and characters depicted in ITV's swaggering, rough and ready rival, and feature such cases as a young woman who witnesses a gangland slaying being taken into police protection; Crawford's dogged efforts to prove that a roguish charmer is in fact a ruthless and deadly villain; and an internal inquiry into the fatal shooting by the police of an unarmed criminal fleeing his hideout respectively.
Unfortunately no matter how much these episodes want to come to terms with the contemporary styles of that era, the elephant in the room remains Jack Warner himself, looking faintly ridiculous as a still-serving police officer. There's an air of 'what am I still doing here?' that lingers around his reliable, comforting presence in a manner which I imagine dogs the 67-year-old Derek Thompson's performance as nurse Charlie Fairhead now in that other BBC Saturday night perennial, Casualty. It's not just Warner's age (given that back then most men in their '60s looked by today's standards to be a good 15-20 years older, it's worth pointing out that Warner actually doesn't look half bad for his age) it's also the fact that he's clearly increasingly unsteady on his pins thanks to crippling arthritis of the hip and, on one occasion (the episode Sounds on this disc) seems to be reading all of his lines from various places around the set. These frailties saw the character become increasingly sidelined, content to open and close each episode with his trademark and now classic monologue to camera and later restrict himself to studio scenes only. But if you can suspend your disbelief it's really worth it because no one but the extremely hard-hearted would want to see Dixon completely removed from the programme. After all, he was the programme.
This set opens with what was the debut episode in the show's 17th series from November 1970. Entitled Waste-Land it marks a change in the show's format thanks to new producer Joe Waters who claims that his intentions were to make it less a show about the police and more about the people who got involved with the police. His decision to move the action onto the streets of East London using hand-held cameras means this episode has aged remarkably well and its easy to see why it garnered very good reviews way back in 1970 - dramas shot completely on film and on location were very rare for the BBC at that time. Watching it now, Waste-Land has a curio appeal, capturing as it does a disappearing and admittedly bleak and decrepit looking London on the cusp of change before the crumbling, decaying docklands were earmarked for redevelopment.
It's also a big step away from the preconceptions that the world of Dixon of Dock Green was a cosy one; the disturbing and grimy 16mm POV shot that opens proceedings suggesting someone disorientated, wandering around the derelict docks, with the unseen character's unnerving laboured breathing playing out upon the soundtrack, joined in by the voice of a woman describing the actions of someone who is clearly deeply, mentally troubled is far from what one expects.
It turns out the unseen character is one PC Norman, and the voice belongs to his long suffering wife. Norman is an officer plagued by an assault against him earlier in his career and we quickly learn that he is AWOL from duty with his Panda car turning up abandoned by the dock's waste-land. The team set out to locate their colleague, going from door to door speaking to the kind of community that, like the London of this time, has also now long gone. The kind of community we see replicated in Call The Midwife these days. They presume Norman was out looking for a suspect but, as Dixon talks to his wife, it becomes clear other, stranger possibilities may be near the mark. It's a bleak narrative that remains ever out of reach concluding with an open ending in which Dixon has to admit we can never truly know or understand a person, even if they live or work alongside us day to day.
Like the black and white episodes of the 50s and 60s, the rest of series 17 was wiped by the BBC meaning that the next episode on the disc is Jigsaw from a year later. Unfortunately, Jigsaw suffers from a slight case of repetition being, through no fault of it's own, similar to Waste-Land in terms of its exclusive location shoot around the unkempt abandoned areas of East London, its documentarian film style approach and the unnerving nature of the crime at its heart. The setting this time around is a derelict gasworks, and the case involves a missing wife rather than a husband. The programme boasts a strong guest cast including Windsor Davies, Glyn Edwards and Victor Maddern.
Eye Witness dates from 1973 and is an episode from Dixon's 20th series. This one, as mentioned earlier, feels very much like it's in The Sweeney's domain, apart from one major plot device that ultimately scuppers it and beggars belief. We open with Gwyneth Powell (later to become Grange Hill's Mrs McCluskey and Greg Davies' mum in Man Down) as Anne, the sole witness to a gangland shooting. She's a hardbitten, cynical young woman who is immediately taken into police protection, which she treats with utter disdain and contempt. And it's kind of easy to see why. You've just watched your boyfriend get gunned down by the likes of Stephen Grief (Citizen Smith's Harry Fenning) and Euro hood Steve Plytas (the drunk chef from the Fawlty Towers episode Gourmet Night) and had an attempt made on your own life - so I ask you, would you be happy to guarded by the 78-year-old Dixon and an ineffectual WPC on an island off the coast of Bristol?!
It's a major stretch of credibility and the episode never recovers from it, least of all when we're treated to a less than exhilarating 30mph chase across an unfinished stretch of West Country motorway to a private airfield where Dixon, clad in his civvies of sports jacket and vivid red poloneck (mmmm, nice) and accompanied by the irritating and wooden young hotelier, announces to the base staff that he's a policeman and averts the murderers plane from taking off. By that point it doesn't matter that we've seen Plytas handle business from the phone offered to him poolside by a delectable dollybird in the South of France (a very Sweeney like touch) or that Grief gives as ever a great account of himself as a tough heavy, the damage is pretty irreparable. That said, we're witness to yet another unhappy ending in which the villains get away with it (another Sweeney like touch - and remember, The Sweeney hadn't appeared on our screens by this stage) the headstrong Anne deciding to take the hush money offered to her by Plytas who, Dixon reveals, was the victim of a fatal traffic accident in France not long after - the only crumb of comfort in terms of justice this storyline offers us. Again, it's a world away from the notion of the show being a cosy, unrealistic representation of the police and criminals. The good guys in Dixon don't always win, just like they don't in reality.
Another face worth pointing out in this episode is that of a very young John Salthouse, appearing here as one of the criminals who kidnap Anne from her hotel hideaway. He would later go on to play the brilliant DI Roy Galloway in the first 3 series of The Bill.
Harry's Back is probably my favourite episode in the set. Again it's plot is very familiar to fans of The Sweeney and crime drama in general, indeed it's something of a mainstay. It concerns a seemingly untouchable villain, the kind of charmer who has everyone in the local community hoodwinked as to his true nature - family, fiance, friends, neighbours and even the police....except for Dixon's son-in-law Andy Crawford, who is determined to finally bring Harry Simpson (Lee Montague, brilliant with the aspects of largesse in his character but always tipping the viewer off to his real nature, which Andy suspects - it's worth mentioning too that Montague played the villain in Regan, the TV movie that started The Sweeney) to justice.
Harry is a typical stereotype of the East End villain; the kind one imagines is good to his mother and helps old dears across the road, is always in the chair at the pub and always has a good word or a fistful of fivers if you're on your uppers. Dock Green police know he's not as legit as he seems, but they can't prove it. Dixon takes the view that a criminal like Harry will one day trip up and that, in the meantime, it is best just to tolerate him. His son-in-law and former protege, disagrees. Andy wants to keep very close tabs on Harry, and its an action that leads to Harry - at his most cunning - report Andy for harassment to his superior officer, who just happens to belong to Harry's local golf club.
Written by NJ Crisp, a veteran scriptwriter on the show, Harry's Back is a strong episode which is only let down by its refusal to offer up another 'unlucky this time' finale - the kind of finale The Sweeney would have given us. Instead, through a series of slightly improbable events, Harry is ultimately brought to book by Andy. Though pleasingingly, in Dixon's closing monologue, it is revealed that Harry's friends, family and neighbours refuse to hear a bad word said about him and believe him to be framed by Andy.
So far, all the episodes in this set have been shot on film and on location. That's about to change with the next episode, 1974's Sounds
By 1974, it's rather clear Jack Warner was too ill to endure long location shoots. Transferring the character to the duties of desk sergeant meant that Warner was only required for studio scenes, which this time were shot on videotape. It's also clear - as I said earlier - that Warner is reading his lines from hidden cues around the set here.
Sounds is an interesting episode. There's a touch of Coppola's The Conversation on display in the team's efforts to make sense of the various background noises in a woman's call to the station which is abruptly cut off, suggesting foul play. The rather attractive Jacqueline Stanbury stars as WPC Hawkins, the young officer who takes the call and raised the alarm. She has heard the woman on the line ask for the police, before a choking sound is heard on the line and the woman's infant daughter picks up the phone to announce that mummy seems to have 'fallen asleep'. The race is on to save this potentially injured woman and her child who could still very well be in danger. Aiding the investigation is Dave (David Wood, who would go on to become Stanbury's husband a year later) a sound technician who examines the recording of the telephone call. He's gloriously '70s with his long hair and groovy clobber, a stark and somewhat jarring contrast to the staid old timer Dixon which reminds viewers there's a different world going on out there beyond the confines of Television Centre's Dock Green set, one which the show naively fails to understand or depict.
The plot develops rather nicely with the team locating where the call was made from, but finding no one at home. This leads to a representative from a security firm - the number of which was written alongside Dock Green's telephone number at the woman's address - played with an oily sickening charm by Michael Graham Cox. The police, and the audience, smell a rat instantly; this guy is too eager to help locate the woman and child and it isn't long before it becomes clear that he is the missing woman's husband and has ferreted her sway after a bout of domestic violence. When she is finally located, she refuses to press charges despite everyone's best efforts. Her husband, who believes he is utterly untouchable, is proven to be so and swaggers out of the station full of nauseating confidence as we know he will continue to abuse his wife.
Again, a desperately bleak tale in stark contrast to the twee reputation the series has. In conclusion, Dixon offers up only the tiniest sliver of hope in his monologue when he states that one day he hopes the battered woman will have the courage to report her husband to the police, if only for her daughter's sake. It's worth noting how far the show had progressed by this stage in terms of its stance on domestic violence - a previous episode from the 1950s suggested Dixon saw little harm in what went on between man and wife behind closed doors ;"if I arrested every bloke who clocked his wife, I'd be working overtime" An offensive attitude yes, but sadly one all too indicative of the times. Twenty years is a long time in television, and Dixon clearly rode the seas of change to move with the times thankfully.
The last episode in this DVD set is another which features a plot that could conceivably come straight from The Sweeney and is one that is especially interesting to watch as a comparison piece to Line of Duty currently on its blisteringly good third series on BBC2. Entitled Firearms Were Issued it dates from 1974 and features a nighttime raid on a house a gang of bank robbers are holed up in by armed police officers led by Andy Crawford. Andy has received a tip-off regarding the gang's whereabouts and was told they would be armed. He believes this tip because the gang are wanted for an armed robbery and so it falls to Dixon to issue guns to Dock Green officers Crawford, Wills, Cox and Dewar, reminding them firmly and precisely of the procedures they must adhere to whilst in possession of a lethal weapon.
Needles to say the raid is a disaster. It's the dead of night, which means a disorientating experience and, when Andy Crawford tumbles to the ground whilst giving chase, his colleagues believe he has been shot and 'return' fire on what is soon to be revealed as an unarmed, fleeing man.
What follows is an atmospherically captured long dark night of the soul for the regular characters as they are each confined to the station to come under the scrutiny of no-nonsense A10 officer Donovan played by veteran actor Percy Herbert who interrogates them intensely one by one. Both Dewar and Wills believe themselves responsible for the death of the unarmed man as they both fired off shots alongside the shot Andy inadvertently fired as he took his tumble - the shot they believed came from their man. Wills is a reliable, dependable type who, having been with the show since 1961, is understandably familiar to the viewers. He's also referred to in the episode as an excellent marksman, cool under crisis. Dewar, on the other hand, is an unknown quantity, younger and clearly greener. However the episode pulls the rug from under us by revealing at the close that it was in fact Wills who delivered the fatal bullet.
It's a rather cracking, atmospheric 'night shift' episode but unfortunately it's one that is likely to support anyone's idea that Dixon was not very realistic and prone to wrapping things up in a happy-ever-after style. We know from the other episodes in this set that that was not the case, but Firearms Were Issued does rather let the side down. In the closing monologue it is revealed by Dixon that an inquest into Wills' actions returned a verdict of justifiable homicide, with Dixon admitting he would likely have made the same mistake in Wills and Dewar's situation.
All very well George, but the fact remains that an unarmed was fatally shot whilst running away. It's an astounding conclusion, but given the miscarriages of justice involved in cases against police officers down the years (and as I type this post the family of Juan Charles de Menezes have just been told they have lost their human rights challenge over the decision not to charge any police officer for the unlawful shooting of their son in London's Stockwell Tube in 2005) it's perhaps one that is more likely than we'd care to admit.
Just like the character of DS Steve Arnott says in Line of Duty; "easiest way to get away with killing someone? Be a police officer"
Same as it ever was.
If you've enjoyed my ramblings on this show, I may review the other two DVDs in the boxset once I get round to viewing them.