Special Branch: The Fear of the Vintage TV fan Somewhat Assuaged
I posted recently about my fear that there will come a time when there is no 'new' vintage TV to be discovered, a post which certainly seems to have made a hit with the blogosphere, judging by the number of page hits. Of course this may be partly explained by the recommendation by Mitchell Hadley (thank you), who has made me realise the reason that the hit counter for posts about The Man from UNCLE has suddenly gone up, even though I too don't think I'll bother watching the film.
Having seen it as a recommendation on Amazon and hummed and ha'ed over it, I saw the discs for the 1973 series of Special Branch for sale yesterday and bought them on spec. I am delighted to say that while I didn't initially warm to this show, having watched a few episodes I think I have found another quality 1970s series.
Except this isn't a 1970s series. It's a 1960s – 1970s series, which went through a major transformation of approach, cast, and production values as it went on for a relatively short time. I can't put the complexities of reviewing this series better than the Wikipedia page:
'Special Branch is a British television series made by Thames Television for ITV and shown between 1969 and 1974. A police drama series, the action was centred on members of the Special Branch anti-espionage and anti-terrorist department of the London Metropolitan Police.
'The first two series were shot mainly in a studio on videotape with filmed location inserts; a standard method of the time but one which suffered from jarring differences in picture quality between interior and exterior scenes. The location scenes of some episodes were shot on outside broadcast cameras, leading to smoother transitions between location and studio work for those episodes. Series 1 and 2 starred Derren Nesbitt as Det Insp Jordan, working to Det Supt Eden (Wensley Pithey) and subsequently Det Supt Inman (Fulton Mackay). The episodes featuring Eden (the first 9 of Series 1) were recorded in black and white, while all subsequent episodes were recorded on colour videotape.
'The show was revamped in 1973 after Thames Television's Euston Films subsidiary took over production using film which allowed for a less studio-based series. Euston Films had pioneered the technique of shooting action and adventure series entirely on location using 16mm film, for a more gritty and realistic look. These episodes starred George Sewell as Chief Inspector Alan Craven and Roger Rowland as Bill North. The show was slow to take off so the producers introduced Patrick Mower as Detective Chief Inspector Tom Haggerty, and by the 1974 series Bill North had been axed, having had a nervous breakdown, though he returned for one episode later in the run.' (Soutce)
Since I have the 1973 series most of the episodes I have seen come towards the end of the programme's run. Perhaps I had better use the box as an illustration to this post to make it clear that I am talking about the Network DVD release, which also has the first episode of the first series as an extra. It seems this series is also available from Acorn Media, and based on this excellent review, that seems to have gone for the interview-extras rather than the extra episode.
It is clear therefore that we are really talking about two different shows, so I will begin with the 1973 ones. I love them. You won't have often heard me say that on this blog, so perhaps I'd better also say that they don't really get into my Stonking Good Television category, because that is to me an award for objective merit and I love Special Branch for completely personal reasons.
The clothes. The cars. The desks without computers. The conflictual historical setting. The way people smoke in public areas. The way the actors have skin tags and smoker's teeth. The domestic settings are not bang up to date for the seventies, as presumably being intended to indicate poverty. Hard-hitting this is. Hard-hitting in buckets. As gritty as it comes. Romantic Anglophiles won't like this very much, it shows a working- class Britain of terraced houses and the grinding lives always lived by the working class, as well as the great and the good. It screams 'London', and is clearly the historical precedent of The Sweeney and other shows of that ilk. Incidentally, the reason the houses look so London is the stock yellow 'London' bricks used to construct them. Yellow because that is how the clay down south comes out when made into bricks. As you go north the brickwork (I'm talking about older buildings of course) tend to be more red in colour.
Visually and in reminiscence terms for anyone of my age or older, the 1973 series is superb. The theme is unusual but on repeated hearings has grown on me. The clothes are naturally of the time and the hair styles. The ongoing sparking off between Craven and Haggerty adds a layer of interest which may otherwise be missing, since this show very much moves at the pace of the time, and would probably be considered rather slow by today's standards. It is interesting that I notice it commands attention rather well, because while the relatively slow pace would seem to invite you to look away, it's interesting how quickly you feel you've missed something when you do.
The series 1 black and white episode I have seen (Troika) takes us back to a completely different age of television. Given that it was made around the time of the Tara King Avengers series, it is striking how much more like a Mrs Gale-era Avengers it is. I had better make it clear that I am not complaining here, but I do think it is difficult or impossible to treat this as one show rather than two. Would I also say that about The Avengers? – I think I probably would with the difference that The Avengers changed slowly over the years rather than the sudden change I'm seeing here in episodes from the first and penultimate series.
The sets are what I love about Troika. The meeting room in the early scenes of the show is very reminiscent of some of the more 'up-to-date' sets in early Avengers, in colour scheme and lighting. The 'presentation' uses film of the time, and the whole technological approach of both series looks incredibly old-fashioned now. The first series, on the basis of Troika alone, moves slower than than the 1973 one. The cast is completely different, which is slightly confusing, to say the least. It is also noticeable that the 'familiar faces' are different in the first episode, and the cast list reads like a list of usual suspects in jobbing actors. Unusually for me, this isn't a distraction and I don't object to it.
Perhaps I had better not comment too much on series 1, since I have only seen one episode, although I have just ordered the whole series. This is not a preference, but merely that that was the cheapest available whole series on eBay!
While I was reading around the show on the internet, stills from Get Carter (because it shares George Sewell with Special Branch) kept appearing. I was ashamed to say I had never seen this film, but on reading about it I bought that too today, since it sounded like it was in a very similar milieu to Special Branch. It has merely reminded me of why I prefer TV to film: it seems to me that the plot of Get Carter could very well be squeezed into a single episode of a TV show. I'd also forgotten how much Michael Caine irritates me, and in fact I knew I wasn't going to get on well with the film as soon as her opened his mouth. If he doesn't have that completely subjective effect on you, and you want a gritty film set in Britain's 1970s underworld, then go for it.
My fears that there will be nothing left have been further assuaged by reading about the show Target. I have never seen that one, but if it is every released in an official way I want to see it. Also today I bought the box set of 'orphaned' episodes of Dr Who series, which I have been seeing around for ages, and finally went to. I am not in a position to write too much about it yet, but it has given me some reassurance that all is not lost for the vintage TV fan. In fact all I need to do for that reassurance is look at my own collection of DVDs.