The first thing that strikes you about this final series of Dixon is that the shadow of The Sweeney has started to loom large. Euston Films fast, hard hitting and gritty police drama had made its series debut the previous year in 1975 and instantly appealed to a more discerning, mature audience who wanted more realism from their TV thrills. Dixon of Dock Green had been a Saturday evening institution for twenty-one years by this point and wasn't about to discard its credentials as a programme that was suitable for all the family, nevertheless this 1976 series does show signs of toughening up. And it really is all change too - gone is Peter Byrne's detective Andy Crawford, and his subordinate Mike Brewer played by Greg de Polnay (in the documentary extra, de Polnay remarks that both he and Byrne had watched Regan, the original TV play piece that launched The Sweeney and, seeing which way the wind was blowing, decided to give up the ghost) to work in different stations and departments out of the area. In their place are the younger, harder, somewhat more believable pairing of DS Alan Bruton and DC Len Clayton played by Richard Heffer and Ben Howard respectively.
Leading me to good old George himself. Dixon is finally out of uniform, though not yet retired (despite Jack Warner being 81 at this point) In the first episode he reveals to a returning-to-duty-from-leave PC Dunne that he has agreed to extend his service to work as the station's Collator until a suitable replacement can be found and trained up for the role, and that replacement is set to be Dunne himself. The Collator's job is essentially compiling and maintaining the files, records and information that is routinely required for the station personnel in their day to day task of catching criminals. As such, it's the perfect fit for Dixon given that Warner now found many aspects of the role too physically demanding and that Dixon himself with all his years of service in Dock Green was a mine of useful information. Now more than ever, Dixon's role is minimal to the proceedings; he tops and tails each episode with his usual direct-to-camera piece (though this traditional opening is missing from the first episode, to build up the surprise of his new role) and appears occasionally during each episode to feed information from the files to the younger officers. The vast majority of Warner's scenes are shot in the studio, but he does get to venture outside and onto film in two episodes; The Job (where he catches up with an old colleague at a squash court and bar) and Jackpot (where he catches a ferry to hear some news from a reliable informer) both are brief sequences as were to be expected given his mobility issues at this stage.
The first episode in the series is Domino by veteran Dixon scriptwriter Derek Ingrey. Boasting extensive location shooting down at London docks, which really makes the notion of the fictional Dock Green area such a viable prospect in a way that Casualty made Holby feel so real when it was little more than a thinly disguised Bristol, it's a rather packed and busy affair that successfully introduces the new set-up, cast and vibe of the series, and manages to tell a good story in its own right, but I'm beginning to spot a trend here with Ingrey's writing and that is he loves a good, last minute twist. It's a debut episode that is helped by the assured direction of Vere Lorrimer, as well as its strong guest cast too, which included Sally Faulkner and Alan Lake (pictured above) Simon Lack, and familiar faces to Dixon such as Gwyneth Powell (who appeared in 5 episodes, 3 of whom feature across this collection) Jim McManus (who stars in 2 episodes here) and Michael Stainton who beats everyone hands down with a staggering 19 appearances on the show, the record for any guest artiste.
Alan Lake has long been a favourite of mine. The actor from the travelling/gypsy community is perhaps best known now as the last husband of actress Diana Dors, but to remember him solely as such would do his talent and body of work a disservice. A volatile personality in real life (he was an alcoholic and was sentenced to 18 months in prison in 1970 following a pub brawl, serving a year) he brought some of that unpredictability to many of his roles. Whilst he wasn't the most subtle of actors and was pretty much typecast throughout his career, he was never less than compelling and his role here as a rather hapless dock worker whose short temper may be the key to the whereabouts of missing rich girl Annabelle (Faulkner) last seen mooring her father's yacht, Domino at Dock Green. Look out for that twist though...
Our second episode is probably my least favourite of the series. Again penned by Ingrey, The Job is by no means unwatchable, but it suffers by focusing on two characters whose seeming slow-wittedness actually makes the whole affair feel like pulling teeth. Mela White and George Innes are two great actors, and they simply do too good at job at selling how easy their behaviour infuriates the officers of Dock Green nick. Innes stars as small-time crook Phil Harvey, fished out of the Thames one foggy morning by Sgt Johnny Wills (Nicholas Donnelly) But this was no accident or attempted suicide; Harvey has been bound and gagged. Determined to get to the bottom of this mystery, DC Len Clayton is assigned to question Harvey's wife Jessie, played by Mela White, who was last seen as a goodtime girl in the previous series and DVD in an episode entitled A Slight Case of Love. She's a world away from that part her, and delivers a truly unglamourous and vacant turn that drives Clayton - and the viewers I'm sure - up the wall, which depicts how much more brusque our new CID boys are compared to their predecessors. But again, this being an Ingrey story, there's a twist to the tale as the officers slowly try to build a link between the attempted murder and a local 'Mr Big' (played by David Lodge) who the regional crime squad (represented by Stephen Greif in a ludicrous fake 'tache that thwarts any degree of believability) The episode is directed by series producer Joe Waters and has some very evocative early morning scenes by the harbour, as well as an amusing and believable cameo from Glynis Brooks as a nurse on duty on the ward that Harvey is admitted to who only has eyes for the visiting DS Bruton.
Vagrant is the third episode, again written by Ingrey and directed by Lorrimer. It opens with old Arthur Fowler himself, Bill Treacher (some nine years before he'd make his name in EastEnders) witnessing a hit and run on our eponymous vagrant, played by John Carson. Again the location work here shows us just how different this part of London was back in the mid 70s; drab, run down streets and corrugated, grafitti riddled fences form out backdrop in an area that is now completely redeveloped for business and upmarket apartments. The vagrant is largely unharmed by this attempt on his life and is revealed to be Joseph Conway, a thief who turned Queen's Evidence some years earlier, whose testimony placed two criminals (Johnny Shannon - his second Dixon appearance in this set, having appeared in the previous year's Baubles, Bangles and Beads - and John Hartley) behind bars. Dock Green find out that both men have since been released and suspect that a desire for revenge may have something to do with the attempt on Conway's life.
Carson's hoarse, high and reedy delivery can be a bit mannered, and put me in mind of James Mason, but it's a remarkably arresting guest turn that slowly reveals our man Conway is not who he seems to be. In fact, he's not even Conway! He is in fact a disgraced former doctor, Francis Spurling, who climbed into a bottle after some medical malpractice and never came out again. When the real Conway, a fellow traveller, died, Spurling switched identities and his estranged wife (Suzan Farmer) certified Conway's body as his. But now that people seem to want him dead, Spurling no longer wants to be Conway, and there's also the small matter of claiming the inheritance from his recently deceased mother.
As you can tell this is a twisty tale even by Ingrey's standards, but he really does go that little bit too far in adding a further twist when its revealed that neither Shannon or Hartley are responsible for the attempts on 'Conway's' life, but the solicitor responsible for Spurling's mother's affairs! By this point, I'd wish Ingrey would bugger off with his last minute turn of events.
The story concerns a nosy landlady Mrs Hooker (Queenie Watts) who sees the police as a personal hobby - she loves to report offences to them, even when it's nothing more than a rumour that clearly doesn't hold water. A prospective lodger (Roger Lloyd-Pack) arrives at her house specifically requesting the room at the front, but that room already has a lodger, a young lady called Rita (Cheryl Hall) who, aware that Mrs Hooker was listening in on her private phonecall, played a little prank by suggesting she was up to something criminal, which she duly informs Dock Green of.
Meanwhile next door Sylvia Coledridge's old dear is the recipient of some unwanted publicity when her antique painting makes the local newspaper. The painting is worth £40,000, which makes her a target for every crook in the manor. Dock Green have their hands busy enough in that street as it is!
Thanks to the BBC repeating Citizen Smith on Tuesday evenings in the early 90s when I was not long into my teens, I developed something of a crush on Cheryl Hall, which has developed into an affection I feel for any of her appearances on TV. Prolific in the '70s, Hall was often cast in 'dollybird' roles because of her looks, but would always deliver a fair amount of comedy to these parts - her turn in the Jon Pertwee Doctor Who serial Carnival of Monsters is a prime example of that - which suggested she was a much better actress than most typical 'dollybirds' of that era. She got to prove her chops in guest roles like her appearance in the first series of Angels and in her role here as Rita Batty. She's incredibly natural and believable, with a fun loving glint in her eye, but manages to successfully convey the more vulnerable elements of her character once the drama kicks. You see, the real reason Lloyd Pack (and his accomplice George Sweeney) want her room is because its chimney leads directly in to the house next door, meaning they can lift the painting without setting off any of the alarms. They pull the job and tie Rita up where, to her distress, she's not found and rescued until the following morning. Unfortunately, Rita also falls victim to the new brusque nature of Dock Green CID with Bruton putting the 'brute' in his name by seemingly not initially believing her tale of being held hostage in her own room all evening. His questioning of her lacks any sympathy and he is really off-hand with her, but its likely that he's simply put out that a valuable painting has been stolen under his nose, having spent some time trying to persuade the old woman to up her security measures. Then again, it could just be that the show wanted to lose some of its cosy trappings in the wake of the harder-edged antics of The Sweeney.
Kelsey's story is strong on character and populated by good actors who can do it justice and is once again nicely handled by Vere Lorrimer.
The high watermark of Everybody's Business continues with the next episode, Alice, a rather interesting and nifty episode from writer Ben Bassett (the alias of Kenneth Clark, who was himself a police officer) directed with real style by Michael E. Briant and guest starring Angela Pleasence (daughter of Donald, and picture above) as the eponymous character, a seemingly shy violinist living in near penury.
That said, you wouldn't think Alice would be that special an episode initially. It may be that I was too tired at first (I tended to watch Dixon immediately before bed, alternating it with Teachers) but it actually took me two attempts to get passed the first 15 minutes or so which were something uneventful and packed with characters who the script wasn't clear about. It also didn't help that one of those characters was played by the black actress Tania Rogers as secretary to wheeler-dealing and crooked Jewish businessman Keeley, played by (now) veteran character actor Harry Landis. You could blame her performance on the shortcomings of the script, which expects little from her other than incredibly shallow, stereotypical jive-talk, tossing the term 'honky' at any white character who brings her disdain, but ultimately Rogers is out of her depth when sharing the screen with other obviously more talented performers such as Landis, Pleasence and Paul Luty (in a role that is largely surplus to requirements - Dixon did a lot of this by the way, overpopulating its cast of characters) and her other role from this period, in the Doctor Who serial Robots of Death (also directed by Briant, so she had a supporter in him at least) shows the same below par acting style.
It becomes clear to us that Keeley is up to no good with Asian man Mohinder Singh (Renu Setna who, like Landis, is another veteran character actor) and that that no good is human trafficking; Singh has forty of his fellow countrymen adrift in Ostend, the Dutch ship captain demanding immediate payment. Such a storyline is topical now, but little is actually made of the nature of this 'shipment' - indeed the Dock Green boys are working on the assumption that it is drugs - it's nothing more than a plot device to explore the characters involved in the story, and Alice is a very intriguing character.
Bassett's script is full of lovely detail when it comes to Alice, which the production brings wonderfully to life. She's so devoted to her music that she cares little for the upkeep of her appearance and, as a result, she has a pair of thick rimmed NHS specs with only one 'arm' and a large hole in her stockings which causes her shame when Keeley spots it. Because Keeley has spotted her, and spotted her for a potential gullible girl who will take the money to Ostend to pay the captain, thereby breaking the then laws regarding how much currency you can take in and out of the country. But Alice quickly proves she isn't as green as she looks and surprises everyone with an aptitude for nefarious business.
Pleasence is a delight in the role, a real enigma which she inhabits beautifully. In the first half of the episode you could argue by today's standards that she is autistic in that she clearly has difficulties with social situations and communicating with others. However,once she puts her mind to the crime she is asked to commit, she becomes a mercurial quick-thinking marvel who runs rings around Bruton and Clayton, losing them both in a really very good and atmospheric filmed sequence that is shot in a busy London railway station.
Alice ultimately becomes a very fun character study with the message that sometimes crime does pay because, although Alice neatly dodges the police, she does change her mind and neglects to go to Ostend, convincing Singh and Keeley that she was robbed at the station, thereby pocketing the money for herself to put towards the hiring of a hall for a recital.
Unfortunately, like the repetition of Ingrey's twists earlier in this series, the next episode suffers in following on from Alice and sharing a similar tale of unlikely 'hero' proving crime can sometimes pay. Jackpot is another Derek Ingrey script and one that could work very very well as a stand-alone light hearted TV play if you removed all the Dock Green scenes from it. That you could even suggest that, just shows how small a presence Jack Warner's venerable George Dixon was now becoming to the show.
Jackpot has a beautifully simple rewarding storyline; Kenneth Cope stars Harold, a down-trodden meek and hen-pecked husband to Margaret played Pat Ashton (who had previously appeared in the previous series finale, Conspiracy) whose brother is flash local crook Tony Kinsley (played by future Blake's 7 star Paul Darrow) Tony has just pulled off a job and celebrating with a little get together round at his sister and her husband's flat. Retiring to bed early because he's going on holiday alone the following day, the bookish Harold overhears Tony talking on the balcony outside his window as to where he's hid the loot, and about his fellow partner in crime Mickey who intends to make a move on Margaret whilst Harold is away.
Arriving at the airport the following morning, Harold learns that his flight has been cancelled due to a strike. However, instead of going back home to Margaret, Harold decides that the meek should finally inherit something and promptly steals his brother-in-law's haul to live it up around London by himself. He buys an expensive suit, hires a chauffeur and car, books a room at a swanky hotel and wears a wig and adopts an American accent to become the wealthy Arnold Rothstein (yes, named after the Rothstein) little knowing that the police are just waiting for the stolen banknotes to make an appearance...
During his 'holiday' Harold falls for an escort girl his hotel porter has fixed him up with and the pair go to the casino for the night and it just so happens that Mickey and Margaret, along with Tony and his wife are there too. Harold goes by unnoticed thanks to his disguise, but the notes have been passed over and the crooks Dock Green suspect can be placed there. Tony and Mickey are nicked and sent down, and Harold returns home to an unsuspecting wife who has realised she is better off with a safe bet like her Harold rather than a big noise in the underworld.
Jackpot is a really fun bit of whimsy and is another episode ably directed by Michael E Briant. It also benefits from a lovely comedic central performance from Cope, even if his American accent goes for a wander almost immediately, and some lively performances from the likes of Ashton and Darrow in support. I's just a shame it ploughs a similar furrow to the episode that preceded it.
Because I'd known Ben Howard from his roles as a cockney villain in the likes Of Big Deal, I was waiting for his chance to show off some of his blunt aggression. The episode Legacy finally gives him that opportunity and, because it does so with a target of the calibre of Tom Adams, it really crackles on the screen.
The once touted to be James Bond actor Tom Adams (who we sadly lost almost two years ago now) is brilliant here as Giancarlo 'Jack' Montelbetti aka 'Jack The Lad', an unflappable career criminal that demands respect across 'the Green'. Released from the Scrubs, he returns home to his flat only to find a dead body waiting for him. The dead man is Bruno Pacelli an old-school criminal who specialised in jewel heists, and it appears he died of a heart attack. Montelbetti calls the police and sets off a chain of events that almost sees him lose his own life.
I must admit I got a kick out of hearing Montelbetti ask for Andy Crawford when ringing Dock Green nick to report the body. It sets up the fact that he's been out of circulation for a couple of years, as well as paying tribute to the show's own rich history (I've only subsequently learnt that Tom Adams had played Montelbetti the previous year, in an episode entitled Jack The Lad that the BBC unfortunately wiped, so it's only right he asked for Andy given that he'd have shared the screen with him then. Based on the charisma Adams displays here, it's only right they brought the character back too) Unfortunately, with Andy now at A-10, he gets Len Clayton - and Len takes an instant dislike to Jack Montelbetti, a feeling that is mutual enough for the confident crook to clam up until 'your guvnor' arrives. He gets on much better with Bruton, whose manners he values and appreciates, much to the chagrin of the rough and ready Len.
It soon transpires that the long-retired Pacelli had returned for one last job, stealing from Van Heerden, a Dutch gangster you really do not want to cross. Van Heerden joins the dots and arrives to lean on Montelbetti with the stark choice - my diamonds or your life. Played by John Savident (yes, Fred Elliott from Coronation Street) Van Heerden talks the talk, but doesn't convince in walking the walk, but I think that's down to Dixon's family friendly values than any issue real with Savident's performance (though his accent is a bit ropey) Again, they're obviously aiming for the kind of villain who would pop up in The Sweeney, but it doesn't quite come off here.
Thanks to Pacelli's daughter (played by Italian actress Gigi Gatti, who went on to star in Survivors before giving up acting - no great loss I must say though it does pain me to do so - to become a psychotherapist before her untimely death in 2003) whom Montelbetti was once engaged to, he manages to get his hands on the diamonds and lures Van Heerden out to the derelict docks for a trade-off (because of course Jack the Lad has managed to strike a deal which means he gets a significant finders fee) Here he uses all his quick wits, informing Bruton that Van Heerden will be there and thereby securing his arrest. In the end, Montelbetti sets sail on a speedboat into the sunset and the arms of his estranged love, presumably with the money in his pocket. Nobody does it better eh?
Legacy really works because of Tom Adams and you can just see the regulars like Heffer, Howard and Donnelly upping their game when appearing opposite him. It's another one of those episodes that focus on the grudging respect cops and cons have for one another, providing both sides are aware of and adhere to the rules. Directed by series producer Joe Waters and is significantly better than the previous episode he directed on this set, the largely insipid The Job.
The final episode of Dixon of Dock Green is a lovely affair entitled Reunion. Granted its not as aware and reflective as Conspiracy from the previous series which was intended as the last ever episode, but there's something fitting about the last word concerning itself with a job from twenty years previously.
Back in 1956 (a year after the series started in fact) George Dixon we are told was one officer in a team that successfully thwarted a heist on a half a million pounds worth of silver from a cargo ship called Galveston Bay. Dock Green covered itself in glory that night, nabbing the gang and its ringleader Trunky Small. But in doing so they lost one of their own; a young PC who fatally drowned.
Now in 1976, one of that team DS Cope (Glynn Edwards, later to become Dave the barman in Minder) now of Special Branch, has decided to host a twentieth anniversary reunion in a room above a local pub. But the night of reminiscences is soon soured as Dixon realises Cope has an ulterior motive for the dinner - he blames Commander Ashe (the marvellous Jack Watson) for the death of their young colleague. He believes that Ashe, who was their DI at the time, was told the boy had fell overboard but refused to raise the alarm because it would have signalled their presence to the robbers - a theory corroborated to an interested Sgt Wills and DS Bruton when they strike up a conversation with the coroner's assistant in the police club. Cope intends to call him out on it that evening in the most haunting of ways, as Dixon realises there's something familiar about the barmaid who has been serving them all evening...
Meanwhile away from the festivities, Dixon's protege PC Dunne witnesses a middle-aged seaman (Bill Dean, on fine lugubrious form) attempt to take his own life by throwing himself into that very same dock. Dunne dives in after him and rescues him and in the hospital, the old seadog reveals to the constable and Len Clayton just what compelled him to do it. It all revolves around something that happened twenty years ago to the day...
It may be packed with one too many coincidences, but there's something wonderfully elegiac about Reunion that makes this a fine send off. It is also really authentic, again coming from the pen of real-life copper 'Ben Bassett', who probably attended a few such anniversary dinners himself in his time. The casting of Dixon's old colleagues is spot on too; Watson, Edwards and also Alan Tilvern as the joker of the group to name but three, and Jack Warner himself has much more to do in this swansong than he has had all series. The supporting storylines that ultimately tie in also boast some nice performances and finally Stephen Marsh's PC Dunne has something to do and a small chance to shine. Marsh was never convincing in his role, but he does just about pull it off in his scenes here, especially the initial two-hander between him and Bill Dean at the hospital. It's quite amusing to hear Dean tell him he needs to go out and see the world, when you know that in real life Marsh called it a day after Dixon and left the UK to become a successful and much sought after art director and production designer on Hollywood movies such as Runaway Train, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation and Cool Runnings. Interesting to note in the episode is the scene where Wills relates Dunne's domestic life to a superior officer on the phone following his heroic deed, claiming he is unmarried and living in the station house. In Looters Ltd from the previous series Dunne was engaged to be married and we saw his fiancee - perhaps she dumped the dull drip after her embarrassment and being caught inadvertently purchasing stolen goods during the course of that episode!
There's nothing in Dixon's farewell piece to camera that suggests this was to be the last we'd ever see of him, which means Reunion is a somewhat low-key farewell to a programme which had graced our screens for twenty-one years, though it must have been obvious to all that the 81-year-old Warner couldn't go on forever or indeed much further. As I said earlier, it was intended that the show would continue in some form or other but inevitably, even before the filming wrapped on this series, the powers that be had changed their minds. It probably made practical sense at the time, but when you consider other fictional universes like Holby can now count a staggering 47 years of combined history between Casualty and Holby City, with the former dominating the Saturday night schedules for a whole nine years more than even Dixon managed, you can't help wondering if this was a lost opportunity.
The extras on this collection are really worth your time too. I particularly enjoyed the documentaries The Final Cases (which looks at the making of this last series and features recollections from much of the cast as well as Production Assistant Vivenne Cozens, with Heffer proving to be a hoarder of paperwork relating to the show) and Good Evening All (a warm and heartfelt tribute to Jack Warner by cast and crew) as well as the Personnel Files which are essentially extended interviews with Greg de Polnay, Richard Heffer, Stephen Marsh and Nicholas Donnally. Less interesting are the commentaries, save for Michael E Briant's commentary for Alice that is - which manages to be insightful and engaging, revealing a few tricks about just how he managed to shoot that busy train station sequence in the middle of the morning rush-hour, as well as his delight in conveying a very real multicultural London thanks to performers like Landis, Setna and Rogers. The episodes Domino and Legacy feature commentaries from cast members Stephen Marsh and Ben Howard, and suffer from repetition, little to say and clear prompting from written notes/questions. Indeed Howard seems to get so bored he trails off a good ten minutes before the episode ends without even a goodbye! This was especially disappointing as I admired Howard as an actor, so to hear him talk in a somewhat occasionally bitter way about the business (he retired from acting in the '90s having finally 'grown up') and with little real memory of the show (he claims to have barely met Warner and Donnelly because he only really worked on location, even when we can clearly see he's appearing in the studio inserts too, and with them!) was disheartening. However, I had no idea he was responsible for the Benjyboard skateboard?! So you learn something new every day!