Monday, 1 May 2017

Special Branch: Intercept

I have honestly no recollection whether I have posted about Special Branch here before: I have a feeling that since it is a show which took a marked change of direction from its 1960s incarnation to its 1970s incarnation, I may have posted about the 1960s incarnation before, and left the 1970s version to be dealt with on a different day. That day has npw arrived, and frankly I am surprised that I haven't got round to posting about how much I love this series here. It has literally everything. It has 1970s nostalgia (my dad had a Ford Cortina like that), it has politics in their broader sense, it has the internal politics of the special branch, it has the personality clash between Craven and Haggerty, and most particularly it has that wonderful 1970s feel.
WHat I like very much about Intercept is the political topic of the South American oil and how this is all related to a parcel bomb which goes off right at the beginning. Energy and violence: what more 1970s subject matter could you require? - this was of course the age when nobody really knew what was going to kick off next. I have written before repeatedly about how I tend to dislike reality coming crashing in on my TV, but in this case I will make an exception. In fact Special Branch is an exception to my rule: here I don't mind the reality creeping in on my escapism, because, well, I don't really have a because. Here it just strikes me differently, and the grittiness is part of the package.
Take the scene where a parcel bomb is delivered by a fake postman to a man in a grotty bedsit. Well, that said the bedsit itself is probably more boho than grotty, but it is very apparent that the *setting* more than anything else, is a bit of a mess. And there is almost something of The Avengers in the way the bomb is delivered as if it is a special delivery, by a man pretending to be a postman, that pillar of British Society.
In common with many 1970s TV programmes, Special Branch is very sexy in a particular way which nowadays seems rather old-fashioned. As usual I'll comment on the totally non-sexual bare chest of the parcel bomb recipient. In this episode a female police sergeant poses as an actress to get in with a bent theatre producer, and I just love the way he literally ogles her when she turns up at his office. He tells her to take her coat off so that he can get a better view, and I love the way he literally licks his lips as he eyes her up. In the next scene she is in his American car and he feels up her leg. You probably couldn't put that on the TV now, merely because it would seem so overdone and corny, as indeed I suppose it is in retrospect. One of the things I like best about this show is that it literally pulls no punches, and the sleazy director character gets his 'comeuppance' by winding up getting shot while on the loo and ending up rolling around in the street in his underpants. The female sergeant, incidentally, winds up with her dress ripped open and also winds up in the road in her bra, in an interesting parallel of the earlier incident. There is nothing of the feel-good amorality of much of 1970s film and TV, in fact there is almost nothing feel-good about this at all! Special Branch is also interesting by virtue of not having a female lead - of the two male leads I suppose Patrick Mower is intended to be the male sex object, but it is ironically George Sewell's character who has had a more established sex life. The relationship here, where they perpetually spark off against each other, is reminiscent of The Professionals, and I suppose the two shows come out of the same stable, as being about a professional job, with anything sexy as a side interest.
I'm finding it hard to find fault with this episode of Special Branch, but I suppose I can drag up some criticism if I try to hard enough. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my distaste with typecasting actors, or even with actors who keep on reappearing. You could say this of both George Sewell and Patrick Mower, of course, but they don't grate on me personally by their presence in this episode. What does grate on me is Paul Eddington cast as the government official. I know that people often comments on an actor's suitability to a particular kind of role, but it is not something I take to. I have watched this episode four or five times, including one time paying much closer attention for the purpose of this post, and it may be just me getting lost in the 1970s milieu, but I find it very difficult to know who is who in this show, or even which side they are on. Of course this may be deliberate.
Otherwise I like it very much indeed. Visually, this episode excels at the contrast between high society and the sleazy demimonde. It is shows like this which show up period shows such as Life on Mars as not quite getting the period touches right. In Special Branch you can almost smell the cigarette smoke and feel the vinyl seats of the cars against your legs. That is without the 1970s smell of fear and the perpetual threat of violence and disaster at any moment.
That, of course, is what Special Branch excels at and which puts it head and shoulders above most of the 1970s shows I have blogged about here. It is also what makes its realism more acceptable to me personally. Some 1970s TV shows try to avoid the unremitting awfulness of that decade and in the process create a show which is as interesting as the instant mashed potato of the age. Special Branch faces the violence and desperation of the age head on, and by not avoiding it, come up with a show which is superlative in its interest and drama.

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