Saturday, 6 May 2017

Special Branch, season 4 (1974)

Special Branch, produced by Britain’s Thames TV, underwent a very drastic revamp for its third season in 1973. In fact it became almost entirely a different series, with an entirely new cast and a whole new look. Thames TV’s Euston Films division took over the production. The new season would abandon the traditional practice of shooting mainly on videotape with only outdoor scenes shot on film. Everything would now be shot on film and there would be more emphasis on action and gritty realism. 

The only thing that the these two later seasons had in common with the first two seasons was the subject matter - the activities of Special Branch, police officers who were part of the Metropolitan Police but who worked in conjunction with the security and intelligence services. 

The lead character was to be Detective Chief Inspector Alan Craven, played by George Sewell.

Halfway through the initial season of the new-look series it became obvious that it wasn’t quite working. It looked terrific but it just didn’t generate any real excitement. At which point the producers decoded to bring in a new character, Detective Chief Inspector Tom Haggerty, played by Patrick Mower. Mower, having played the neurotic but sinister assassin Cross in Callan, had the right tough guy credentials and he had the youth and energy to be a great action hero type. Equally important he was good at playing prickly characters and the combination of George Sewell’s more laid-back style with Mower’s manic energy promised to work well. The slightly antagonistic relationship between Craven and Haggerty would also add some needed edge to the series.

This proved to be a very good decision, the series became quite successful in Britain and a further season was made in 1974 but it wasn’t enough for the US networks. They wanted even more action. There were plans to try to ramp up the action but eventually Euston Films felt that it would be better to drop Special Branch and develop a whole new series. The result was The Sweeney, which (for good and ill) revolutionised British television.

Special Branch is thus a transitional series, and an important one.

While the Euston Films incarnation of Special Branch is entertaining I find it to be a bit uneven. I generally like George Sewell a great deal as an actor but I have to confess that I really don’t care for Craven as a character. He has a bit of a self-righteous side and his sensitivity comes across as smug and at times irritating. He’s the sort of policeman who wants people to like him and understand how sensitive and caring he is. Perhaps he should have been a social worker. Haggerty on the other hand is a great character - he’s like a bomb ready to go off at any moment.

The scripts are mostly good but occasionally veer into an annoying preachiness (a mistake that the writers for The Sweeney would wisely avoid).

In Double Exposure Haggerty goes undercover to investigate a photographer who makes his living by taking embarrassing photographs of important people. Haggerty has to get very close to the photographer and also finds himself getting very close indeed to the photographer’s female assistant. Haggerty is in serious danger of getting just a bit too personally involved. What really puzzles him is that the investigations seems utterly pointless. There seems to be no security angle at all. Strand (Paul Eddington), the smooth,  somewhat sinister and frighteningly ruthless man from the Security Service (MI5) is however determined that the investigation should continue. Strand always has a reason for doing things but in this case that reason is a complete mystery. This episode is typical of the extremely cynical tone that came to dominate this series more and more.

In Catherine the Great Craven has to find a German assassin, the difficulty being that although Special Branch knows he’s in Britain to carry out an assassination they don’t know who the target is. And how did he get into the country? They know he was on board a freighter but he didn’t get off, and yet he did leave the ship. Craven finds himself working with his old sergeant, Bill North, now an Inspector with the CID. It was Craven who had North kicked out of Special Branch, which adds the potential for a certain amount of tension.

The 70s saw British television moving in a much sleazier direction and this episode has plenty of sleaze. It’s made worthwhile by fine performances by Tony Beckley as the cross-dressing assassin and Jacqueline Pearce as a German stripper.

Stand and Deliver is a good example of the problems afflicting this later incarnation of Special Branch. Michael J. Bird’s script has too much clumsy political messaging and too much cheap cynicism. It’s also wildly far-fetched and stretches credibility to breaking point and beyond. Two losers steal a new high-tech anti-tank gun from the British Army and Craven and Haggerty have to get it back. Somehow we’re meant to believe that two guys in an old beat-up truck can just drive out of an army base with the army’s latest super-weapon and the police can’t find them even though they have a description of both the men and the truck and the anti-tank gun is not exactly easy to conceal. An episode that is preachy, obvious and dull. And silly as well.

Something About a Soldier is a very fine episode with a pretty spectacular action set-piece at the end. Garfield Morgan is wonderful as a disgraced British army officer turned mercenary  who is discovered, by a lucky chance, to be back in England and with quite an armoury with him. He’s clearly up to no good but what exactly is he planning?

Rendezvous, written by the reliable Tony Williamson, is very much a spy thriller with some very nice plot twists and as much action as anyone could possibly wish for. Craven has to babysit a Russian defector at a safe house although in this case safe house is a bit of a misnomer. It’s about as safe as being in the middle of a war zone.

Sounds Sinister is a nice little episode about a pirate radio station broadcasting outrageous allegations about various very prominent people. These allegations could cause a crisis of confidence in the government and in the business and financial worlds. The problem is that the allegations are all true. 

Entente Cordiale finds Haggerty in a spot of bother after an arrest doesn’t go quite as smoothly as might have been hoped while Craven has to deal with his French ex-wife who seems to have gotten herself mixed up with the remnants of the OAS. Not one of the better episodes but it's OK.

Date of Birth is a very fine spy thriller story. A vital piece of microfilm is going to be passed to one of six au pair girls in London, but which of the six is the contact for the KGB spy? Craven and Haggerty have to find out, and fast. An interesting bit of trivia for you. The most famous line from The Sweeney, “Get Yer Trousers On You're Nicked,” is actually spoken by Patrick Mower in this episode of Special Branch, a couple of months before the pilot episode of The Sweeney went to air.

Intercept is a neat little story about a corrupt South American dictator, some morally dubious manoeuvrings by the Foreign Office, diamond smuggling, sleazy show-biz types and a mad bomber. 

Alien on the other hand is a bit of a nothing story about the deportation of a German student revolutionary.

Diversion perhaps tries too hard to be cynical, ironic and convoluted. Craven and Haggerty are asked to investigate Strand, who has been drinking heavily and chasing women. Craven soon comes to suspect that Strand is actually up to something devious (after all Strand is almost always up to something devious) The plot throws in hints of blackmail and treason and personal betrayal but somehow it feels just a bit contrived. Trying to humanise Strand is not a good idea - he’s much more interesting when he’s being his usual inhuman self.

The final episode, Downwind of Angels, is a very strong story to takes the series out. A police shooting is always a nightmare. Even if the officer was justified in shooting it’s bad enough but when it’s an innocent bystander who gets shot things get very nasty indeed. Especially when the officer claims to have fired at a man trying to assassinate a visiting dignitary but all the witnesses deny that any such man existed.

The Euston Films version of Special Branch was genuinely ground-breaking at the time and it stands up pretty well. There’s plenty of action but the graphic violence that would become more and more common in British series of this type is not yet in evidence. Craven can be an irritating character but Patrick Mower as Haggerty is great fun to watch. Paul Eddington as Strand takes cynicism to a whole new level and his performance is a delight. Frederick Jaeger is very good as Commander Fletcher. Season four introduced Susan Jameson as Detective Sergeant Mary Holmes, obviously an attempt to add a bit of glamour and a hint of romance (Craven is clearly interested in her). I still prefer the original 1969-70 shot-on-videotape Special Branch but the later version does have a modern action-oriented feel for those who prefer that approach. It’s on DVD from Network (Region 2) and they offer a boxed set that includes all four seasons. The series is also available on DVD in Region 4. Recommended.

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