Sunday, 28 August 2016

DVD Review: Dixon of Dock Green Collection Two

I've previously discussed Acorn DVD's release of six existing episodes from 1970-1974 of BBC Television's Dixon of Dock Green here. This second volume covers what's left of the long running show's twenty-first series from 1975; six episodes entitled Target, Seven for a Secret Never to be Told, Baubles, Bangles and Beads, Looters Ltd, A Slight Case of Love and Conspiracy.



After watching the first DVD, I pretty much know what to expect from Dixon now. If you're looking for hard edged thrills, this isn't the place, but it is fair to say the cosy, anachronistic and outdated stereotype argument that is levelled at the series during this period isn't correct either. The show may have been running for twenty years by this point (and Dixon himself had been in the public conscious since 1950, thanks to The Blue Lamp) but its clear it did so for a reason; its ability to tell well crafted, solid storylines that were entertaining, thought provoking and enjoyable.



Target was the first episode of this twenty-first season and was broadcast on the 15th Feb, 1975. Again, it puts pay to the lie that the show was a genteel depiction of community policing and old style bobbies on the beat. Anthony Steel stars as Smith, a clearly ill and disorientated man we meet at the start of the episode. Director Vere Lorrimer immediately hooks our attention with some impressive and atmospheric camerawork shown from Smith's POV as he struggles to differentiate between reality and his own imagination (which may hint at past experiences) Collapsing in a supermarket, he is helped by a young black couple (Willie Jonah and a pre-fame Floella Benjamin) who he feverishly believes to mean him some harm. They manage to get him back to his flat, but he pulls a gun on the man and they leave and notify the police. Unbeknownst to them - and the team at Dock Green - Smith has already alerted the suspicion of the police; Special Branch are watching his flat.

Written by Kenneth Clark under the alias of Ben Bassett, Target is that favoured sub-genre of 70s TV and cinema, the mercenary story. It transpires Smith has been a soldier for hire in the Congo and is currently suffering from a bout of Malaria. Special Branch are waiting for a man called Kumal (Yashaw Adem) to show up at Smith's abode, a particularly nasty piece of work who is wanted for a massacre he took part in in Central Africa. As the SB officers - and our heroes Andy Crawford (Peter Byrne) and his sergeant, Mike Brewer (Gregory de Polnay) - continue their surveillance of Smith from the confines of a candy-striped workman's tent in the road (the Dock Green boys joke that the stunt is so old hat, they tried to catch Jack the Ripper with it!), Smith opens up about his life to his landlady, a musician called Joyce played by Freda Knorr. Interestingly, David Hargreaves plays one of the SB officers. Hargreaves would go on to play a regular in two other police dramas; Juliet Bravo and Mersey Beat.

Though there is some impressive gunplay and action involved, along with the traditional 1970s 'swarthy' foreign villain, Target isn't really in the same league as The Sweeney and is actually quite an eccentric episode - Brewer waylays a local French onion seller, complete with beret, Breton top and bicycle, and adopts his clothes and bike as a disguise to get close to Smith's home; were there really French onion sellers doing the rounds in London in the mid 70s?? - which benefits from being shot entirely on film, on location. Target gives Jack Warner's Dixon incredibly little to do, as befits the actor's ill health and mobility issues at the time, but such a lack of presence from the leading character does make for a rather slow-burning and strange season starter.



Target was immediately followed by Derek Ingrey's script for Seven for a Secret - Never to be Told, so it's nice that there's no gap in the archives here and the DVD moves along in the correct order. By the time the series came to a close Ingrey had written 19 episodes across the 1970s, and he was responsible for Eye Witness which appeared in Volume One and a further two episodes which appear in the collection. His episode here is an interesting one, paving the way for the kind of sympathetic, character driven crime-based storytelling that became more popular and common in later detective series like Shoestring.

The all-film episode starts with a bang - literally! - as a man enters his home, lights up a cigarette and is engulfed in a sudden explosion. Someone has deliberately turned all the gas on and its down to Dock Green to find out who is responsible. Miraculously, the man has survived and been rushed to hospital, but the officers find a dead woman elsewhere in the building, and the woman's current boyfriend and her sixteen year old have gone missing.



The episode is neatly divided between the police chasing up the clues that will solve the case and the boyfriend and daughter of the deceased on the run. Andrew Bradford and June Page star as Ralph and Chrissie respectively, and the titular secrecy shapes the bond between them. Chrissie is, to quote her father "a bit backward like" and it's a quality that the blank Page (pun totally intended) captures and plays off very well against Bradford's intriguing, enigmatic performance. We know something isn't right here, and all roads are pointing to Ralph being responsible for the explosion and kidnapping Chrissie, but there's much more to this episode than meets the eye. 

What also makes Seven for a Secret - Never to be Told stand out is the departure from the usual London locale. Crawford and Brewer chase up the leads and discover that Ralph hails from the west country, so it isn't long before they're in the greenery of the countryside with the admirably slow local bobby Sgt Dawes (Denis Goacher) assisting them and proving that things are done much differently here in the sticks. Once again, there isn't really all that much for Dixon himself to do and Warner's mobility problems are painfully obvious in scenes where he is shown to be walking or when he arrives at the scene of the gas explosion and remains seated in a panda car whilst Sgt Johnny Wills briefs him, crouching down in the gutter. However the director Joe Waters does occasionally cover these issues in a suitable way simply by cutting as Dixon moves off or by having him standing in the street, which at least does look like he's going about his business. 



The next two episodes of this series are missing from the BBC archives, and the next episode in this set existed only as an off-air recording which means some of the picture quality is a little ropey at times. It's another one from the team of Ingrey and Waters entitled Baubles, Bangles and Beads and it couldn't be more different from their previous story. As a viewing audience, we're quite familiar with the diversity of storytelling in modern day long running prime time drama; how Doctor Who can afford us some seriously dark thrills one week, and some panto like comedy the next. Given the gaps in the archives it is sometimes hard to glean the variety of stories that Dixon, a primetime Saturday night drama that attracted all ages just like Who does, tackled. However, from Baubles, Bangles and Beads, it is clear they weren't averse to playing things for laughs either.

The episode opens with a somewhat deliberate piece of misdirection; a car chase between the police and three actors who can only be described as a trio of likely looking villains (Brian Glover, Frank Jarvis and Johnny Shannon - who certainly knew the seamy side of life before taking up acting in Ni Roeg's Performance) makes one suspect we are in store for an episode not unlike The Sweeney. Indeed, all three actors had appeared in Euston Films grittier depiction of policing, with Glover and Shannon appearing in both the series and the spin off film Sweeney!. The resemblance to The Sweeney goes out the window though once Glover throws the stash they've just snatched out of their car window, thereby evading arrest for burglary when the police catch up with them. The stash - a leather bag containing the titular three B's - landed in the yard of a derelict, condemned property. But unbeknowst to our villains, the property was home to two squatters - and one of them has taken their booty for himself as they move on to their next digs.



Please Sir and future Dear John star Peter Denyer and Kubrick favourite Leon Vitali (he starred in Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut, and was personal aide and casting director to the auteur on The Shining and Full Metal Jacket) star as the squatters Phil and Eric, two young men who have 'got religion' and are following the teachings of the guru Shashti Ap Davies. On their path to enlightenment, they come to live with the comely Marion (Kitty Stevenson) who follows Guru Rhum Rhaji and has a tendency to meditate naked (regrettably off camera, of course!) Eric becomes somewhat smitten ("That's your trouble that is," says Phil at one point. "You're carnal oriented") and resolves to visit the Guru Rhum Rhaji's temple with Marion, along with an offering of the jewellery they found in the leather bag which of course the Guru is only too happy to receive. Meanwhile the villains are on the trail and they won't their stash back...

In exploring the hippy counter-culture, it's fair to say that Dixon of Dock Green's view is a little pessimistic as perhaps befits the attitude many households watching no doubt possessed. It's perhaps best exemplified with an exchange in the episode that sees the ever-dependable Sgt Johnny Wills claim that whilst he has no problem with religious cult followers who have a genuine faith, he does express caution about their leaders, many of whom he believes to be nothing more than con artists. Wills' words are very prophetic; as the Maharishi Yogi-like Rhum Rhaji and his aide are unmasked at the end of the episode as nothing more than a pair of blacked up cockney confidence tricksters! This neatly sidesteps the increasingly uncomfortable feeling I was experiencing throughout this episode at seeing what was clearly two white actors affecting cod Indian accents and wearing dark make-up. Once I knew it was all part of the plot rather than casual racism, I could relax a little!

Pessimism aside, where Baubles, Bangles and Beads truly succeeds is in the comic playing of Denyer, Vitali and Stevenson. In Denyer and Vitali, Ingrey's script captures a hippy version of Pete and Dud. Like Cook and Moore's fabulous creations, they're both idiots, but crucially, one idiot thinks he's cleverer than the other. That trait here goes to the Denyer's dogmatic know-all Eric who never wastes an opportunity to put down Vitali's dopey, good-natured Phil and claim he is further along the road to enlightenment than he is. Stevenson is a wonderful, doe eyed innocent and neatly plays the lines brilliantly.

It's an episode that perhaps sees something more of a culture bump, than a culture clash, and it's quite amusing to see the patriarchal figure of George Dixon sharing the screen with patchouli oil, flared trousered, long-haired hippies - even if they are a somewhat cynical parody depiction of them - as it means we're a long way from The Blue Lamp now!



Which brings us to the more familiar ground of Looters Ltd. Indeed this next episode spins on the notion of a grudging respect and a sense of fair play between the old school lifelong copper and the old school lifelong villain, and the latter's disgust at fly-by-night reckless crooks without 'a trade' as previously witnessed in Basil Dearden's The Blue Lamp.

Veteran character actor Sam Kydd stars as Charlie Barnett our old school villain. Time was, Charlie could scale any building you'd care to name, but a bad fall on his last job saw him crippled and banged up. Fresh out of the nick, Charlie stumbles upon a mugging and intervenes, returning the wallet to the victim before heading home to his family who have thrown a little welcome home party in his honour.  

On hearing of Charlie's good deed, Sgt Dixon - who knows Charlie of old - decides to gatecrash said party, not long after Charlie's eldest Ray (Terry Cowling) gives his old man a gold watch as a present. Charlie senses the watch is hot, and he's right - by a stroke of sheer coincidence Ray was one of the muggers Charlie had disturbed earlier! Turns out Ray's not the only one in the family who has been busy whilst Charlie's been banged up either; his wife (Margery Mason) and his daughter (Gwyneth Powell - who had appeared in the episode Eye Witness on the previous DVD) have taken to shoplifting and selling the goods on to neighbours and friends on the 'never never'. Unfortunately they get much more than they bargained for when they attempt to sell a mini-TV to the fiancee of PC Dunne who brings it into the station to show it off to his colleagues.

Written by Gerald Kelsey, a prolific writer for the series, and directed by Mary Ridge, Looters Ltd is a strong episode that explores the code of honour amongst thieves. Charlie is disappointed to learn that his son was one of the muggers, but he's not necessarily appalled; he just wishes that his son would learn "a proper trade" insisting, "I don't want no son of mine to turn out to be a small-time mugger" He doesn't mind him entering a life of crime, but draws the line at petty thievery with menaces. "The young 'uns today. They're too wild" he laments to a friend still in the game - words that could have been used to describe Dirk Bogarde's character Riley in The Blue Lamp. Interestingly, he is less concerned with his wife and daughter's antics, and we must presume shop lifting is fair game for a woman to be doing in Charlie's books. As you can tell, it's an episode that delights in the morally grey areas and is delivered by a writer and director with a clear understanding of the show.



The next two episodes of the series are also missing in action which means the next on the DVD is another strong offering from Derek Ingrey, entitled A Slight Case of Love. The episode opens in great fashion as we see a woman, in a variety of different wigs, turning down a series of proposals from gentlemen because of her commitment to an unseen ailing mother. Each scene ends with the suitor in question signing and handing over a cheque for a £1,000 to place dear old mum in a care home so they can be married and live happily ever after. Realising they have been conned, the men report her to Dock Green police but, because of her chameleon nature and her use of aliases, our boys in blue have very little to go on.

Kate Harris is the woman in question played by Moira Redmond. Her and her sister are both artists (she pottery, her sister - played by the beautiful Isla Blair - a potter) and are in financial difficulties. They required £8,000 to keep their artistic projects going, so Kate went out to romance and con eight suitors from a grand each. The perfect con you might say - except one of those men has really fallen for her.

The man in question is the effortlessly debonair Julian Glover (Blair's husband) He plays a merchant banker called Lewis Naylor, a man who is clearly used to getting exactly what he wants. And what he wants is Kate in his life. He wants to marry her, and he doesn't want her going to prison. Retracting his complaint from the police, Naylor hires a private detective (a youngish Dave Hill) to locate Kate and gives him a painting that she had gifted to him as a lead. The PI is a step ahead of the police, meaning the boys at Dock Green have to simply play catch up, watching his every move in the hope that it will lead them to Kate.

The story culminates with a police line up that Naylor has agreed to attend that features, unbeknownst to him, Kate (who he has now been reunited with and romance has peculiarly bloomed for them in the proper fashion) Determined that Kate should walk free so they can live happily ever after, Naylor refuses to identify her from the line up. But the police have also called in the seven other conned men, who all make positive identifications of Kate. Dixon closes the case with the usual 'crime doesn't pay' kind of homily, but adds that it's not every woman who leaves Holloway gaol for a honeymoon in Barbados! 

A Slight Case of Love is another good character piece helped immeasurably by fine performances from Glover and Redmond, each playing the moral ambiguity inherent in their characters rather brilliantly. It also boasts some fine little comic relief cameos from Mela White (later to become Diamante Lil in Bergerac) and Hilary Crane (later to appear in doomed soap Eldorado) as two other honeytrap con artistes; White's Heather is hilarious, a short sighted good time girl who is now 'retired' and writing her memoirs which she has provisionally entitled 'Horizontal Confessions' though Crawford, who knows her of old, argues that 'A Hard Time Was Had By All' would be more fitting. Crane plays Susan, who claims in her babygirl voice  to be long out of the game and settled down with Rory an Irish man ("though you wouldn't know it, as he's quite intelligent" is the un-PC joke of the week) but when Dixon and Brewer leave the room, she's on the phone to an accomplice telling her their have to put their latest con on ice whilst the police are sniffing around.

Again, A Slight Case of Love seems to be made from an off-air recording, so the quality isn't as crisp as you might hope in places.



The last episode in the collection is also the last episode of the series, entitled Conspiracy and written by NJ Crisp, it was almost the last episode ever of Dixon of Dock Green. There's certainly a sense of everything coming full circle in Conspiracy, an effective tale concerning the possibilities of police corruption.

Andrew Burt (the first Jack Sugden of Emmerdale Farm) stars as the ambitious young beat bobby PC Warren, whose activities are brought to the attention of Dixon and Andy Crawford by way of an anonymous letter which claims Warren is in the habit of drinking with Ben Randall a known criminal. Worse, Warren is chief prosecuting witness in an upcoming trial featuring Randall, which makes the allegation in the letter all the more damaging.

The reaction the letter gains from both old colleagues is less than harmonious. Dixon views it with utter disdain and announces how, ten years ago, such a letter would have been binned straight away, but now Crawford has to flag it up with A10 (the anti-corruption squad) a move which Andy is extremely keen to do, setting him at odds with Dixon who wants to keep the inquiry in house for the time being, doing his best for the uniformed constable who after all falls under his jurisdiction.

Warren is depicted as an ambitious, cold loner of an officer. One who is keen to get on and move off the beat and into CID and who isn't above cutting corners. It's an attitude that clearly gets Andy's back up but, as wise old Dixon points out, Andy was much the same as Warren back when they were both pounding the beat together - a remark that Crawford doesn't take kindly to. Their investigations draw out a significant amount of circumstantial evidence that seems to support the poison pen letter writer's claims but in the end it is revealed that the letter has been written by an unlicensed street trader (Tommy Wright - making his second appearance in this series of Dixon, having previously appeared as a different character in the episode Seven for a Secret - Never to be Told, that's quite the turnaround for guest actors!) who has a grudge against PC Warren for what he believes is the officer's unfair treatment of him. Warren is cleared; he took no bribe whatsoever from Randall. 

Feeling hounded and betrayed by Crawford and the team's investigation into his personal affairs, Warren subsequently resigns. Dixon is naturally disappointed by the young man's decision and tries to get him to change his mind. This leads to what is one of several good moments from Jack Warner in this episode, a speech on the nature of the police force and what is expected of an officer of the law.

"All the years I've spent as a copper, I think every minute;s been worth it. Oh the police force isn't perfect. It can't be. It's manned by ordinary men. I know we talk about red tape and frustration when a villain foes free and the harm done by the occasional bent copper. But, for all the criticism, the police are there to protect the public, and that's what we do. We curb violence. We do our best to deal with villains who want to prey on society. I've been proud to have been a part of that. Even a small part. It's been my life for a long time now and I don't regret any of it"

Fine words, delivered by an actor who clearly believes every one of them. It would have been a fitting end to the series in fact, ending twenty years of untarnished service with its head held high as the camera watches Dixon and Crawford (on happy terms once more) exit the station before panning up to 'The Blue Lamp' that started it all. But the BBC decided there was one more series in it yet, and Dixon was to return a year later for his last hurrah, working semi-retired as a collator in the back office of Dock Green station. But not with Andy Crawford, Peter Byrne having decided twenty years was enough for him.



Evening All.

2 comments:

  1. It was all about as realistic as when Derek Guyler played the desk Sergeant in A Hard Day's Night. When Z Cars came along and Softly Softly, and then The Sweeney, it exposed Dixon as the bobby who was trapped in a world that had moved on. He was ready for retirement and his writers were too. Shame, as, like you, it's a world we'd all like to return to. But can we still keep the Panda Cars?

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    1. But surprisingly though, these '70s episodes seem more genuine and realistic than Z Cars was at the time, going off the DVD release of episodes from the same era. I found Z Cars really tedious and a pale imitation of those classic, groundbreaking 60s episodes. I do miss proper police cars!

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