Wednesday, 22 June 2016

It’s Dark Outside, season one (1964)

Chief Inspector Rose was a central character in no less than three Granada Television series during the 1960s. He made his first appearance in the final two seasons of the police drama The Odd Man. He then featured in a new cop series, It’s Dark Outside, the first season of which included another character from The Odd Man, Detective Sergeant Swift. Then in 1967 he was the subject of yet another series, the superb Mr Rose.

Chief Inspector Rose was played throughout by William Mervyn, a fine character actor with a particular gift for comedy but who was quite capable of being serious or even sinister when required.

Rose does change somewhat between It’s Dark Outside and Mr Rose but the change is plausible enough. In Mr Rose he has mellowed quite a bit. He has also inherited a great deal of money, taken early retirement and now lives in gracious comfort in the country. I imagine I’d mellow as well if that happened to me.

The subject of this review is however It’s Dark Outside, which lasted two seasons from 1964 to 1965. In the first season Rose’s sergeant is Detective Sergeant Swift (Keith Barron). Barron left after the first season and was replaced by Anthony Ainley as Detective Sergeant Hunter.

Chief Inspector Rose is a rather pompous character but it would be a dangerous mistake to dismiss him lightly for that reason. Under the pomposity there’s a sharp mind and a streak of considerable ruthlessness. 

The first episode, The Grim World of the Brothers Tulk, introduces us to the series’ two other regular characters, Anthony Brand (John Carson) and his wife Alice (June Tobin). Anthony is a barrister and human rights campaigner and is even more pompous than Chief Inspector Rose while lacking the positive qualities that make Rose so fascinating. Alice is a typical crusading journalist. This episode is certainly very dark indeed, dealing with a child murder, a couple of faded music hall performers and an unfortunate sequel to an interrogation. DS Swift finds himself in trouble and feels he is being stabbed in the back by Rose.

There are two ongoing story arcs intertwined with the individual stories that make up the eight episodes of the first season. One arc concerns a tentative romance between Detective Sergeant Swift and Alice Brand; the other concerns a figure from Anthony Brand’s past. These story arcs will gradually assume more and more importance as the series progresses. They’re not really apparent in the first episode but it does lay down the groundwork by giving us some insights into the characters involved.

This is a series that must be watched in sequence and from the beginning otherwise you will find the last few episodes quite mystifying.

In the second episode, One Man’s Right, Brand is organising a human right convention but his illustrious guest speaker proves to be rather embarrassing - his view of human rights is not at all the view that Brand takes and more alarmingly he puts his principles into practice. Which brings Chief Inspector Rose into the picture.

Speak Ill of the Living opens with a hanging, but then a day later another woman confesses to the murder. Her confession is however just a little suspicious. Anthony Brand sees this as a wonderful opportunity to advance yet another of his human rights causes. Chief Inspector Rose and DS Swift are meanwhile making their own investigation.

This is typical of the approach taken by this series. The case is complex, even more complex than it seems to be at first. The truth is shadowy and elusive and the moral dilemmas prove to be fiendish traps. Anthony Brand is as usual convinced that his cause is just and seems unable to perceive that his self-righteousness is leading him into dangerous moral territory. His own conduct is ruthless and unscrupulous, ethically very questionable indeed and possibly illegal. While he likes to think of himself as being morally superior to his friend Charles Rose it is clear that Rose would never stoop to such dubious methods.

More Ways of Killing a Cat is a more straightforward crime story without the obvious political subtexts of the earlier episodes. DS Swift is being stalked by someone from his past, someone who had been in a mental hospital but is now completely cured and has therefore been released. At least the psychiatrists thought he was cured (psychiatrists do not come off very well in this tale).

Wake the Dead is a major improvement on earlier episodes. Mercifully Anthony Brand is relegated to a minor role. An old lady is found dead under very mysterious circumstances - with alcohol and barbiturates in her bloodstream although she was a non-drinker and several letters are found from her late husband. The trouble is the letters were posted three years after his death. Meanwhile Alice Brand is once again trying to rescue a poor downtrodden criminal - in her mind no criminal has ever been responsible for his actions and no amount of evidence or experience will change her views. It’s starting to become obvious by now that we’re expected to have much more sympathy for Chief Inspector Rose’s worldview (do your duty as efficiently as you can with decency and commonsense) than for the worldview of the Brands (everything is the fault of society and criminals are always victims). Wake the Dead is neatly plotted and benefits from fine guest performances by Patrick Newell as a phony spiritualist and Liam Redmond as a cheerful habitual thief.

A Room with No View has two completely unconnected plots. The main plot concerning a rent collector is heavy-handed and preachy and makes no sense. The subsidiary plot though, involving Anthony Brand’s war service that might in reality have been a good deal less than glorious, is subtle and very very clever. 

With A Case for Indentification the series starts to fall apart really badly. Excruciatingly poor acting, a ludicrous plot involving a disturbed young man and it’s all made worse by the increasingly embarrassing ongoing story arc detailing a squalid entanglement between Sergeant Swift and the awful Alice Brand. This may be the worst single episode of any 1960s British TV series.

The final episode, You Play the Red and the Black Comes Up, is surprisingly good. In fact it’s very good indeed. This one resolves both of the two ongoing story arcs and does so quite satisfactorily. This was one of the three episodes written by Marc Brandel (the other two being Speak Ill of the Living and Wake the Dead) which are by far the strongest of the first season. Anthony Brand’s past catches up to him in a very unpleasant way but what’s most impressive about this episode is that it makes sense given what we’ve already learnt about his character in the preceding seven episodes. It’s believable.

It’s worth pointing out that It’s Dark Outside and Mr Rose had entirely different production teams - different producers and a quite different roster of writers and directors. In fact the only connection between the two series is the character of Chief Inspector Rose and even he’s not quite the same.

It’s Dark Outside is very much an oddity. It’s wildly uneven and it suffers from a certain amount of genre confusion - it’s not sure if it wants to be a quirky cop series, a soap opera or a slice of heavy-handed moralising social realism. It doesn’t quite succeed on any of these levels although it’s an intriguing attempt and it does avoid being overly obvious. Social commentary was common enough in 60s British TV but It’s Dark Outside doesn’t always follow the ideological line you think it’s going to follow. At times it will strike modern audiences as being very politically correct while at other times it will seem to be almost shockingly politically incorrect.

Two years later when Philip Mackie revived the character of Chief Inspector Rose in Mr Rose he was careful not to fall into such a trap. Mr Rose focuses entirely on being a quirky crime drama and it’s one of the very best examples of the genre from its era. It’s Dark Outside on the other hand never quite manages to resolve its internal contradictions and ends up being less successful although it remains interesting. You’d probably want to rent it first before risking a purchase.

Network’s DVD release includes the whole of the first season plus the two surviving episodes of the second.

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