Grinning and bearing my way through precisely six months of paralysis following the abrupt stopping of the clocks last December has had a funny effect on my perception of time. Frozen as both participant and observer, one way of suppressing a sense of uselessness at my sudden inability to respond to contemporary events in the customary manner has been to retreat into a digitally restored version of the past. After all, when circumstances rob you of the present and deprive you of a future in the process (or at least the future you thought you were getting), the one certainty you can turn to is the past, a place where the ground beneath your feet is reassuringly solid.
This is a painless post in terms of writing (and, one hopes, reading); it’s simply me taking a stress-free diversion into my viewing habits of the last half-year, one that may strike the odd chord merely as an entertaining interlude. And, as it’s not unusual for this blog to mine a bit of nostalgia from archive telly, I speak today of ‘Special Branch’, a series produced by ITV back in the days when it added up to a good deal more as a broadcaster than the vacuous vacuum it currently inhabits. It’s a series that has also provided me with a convenient distraction from recent events via the DVD box-set.
Originally a dramatic, franchise-justifying product of the fledgling Thames Television, ‘Special Branch’ first appeared at the fag-end of the monochrome era in late 1969. Starring the chunky-faced Derren Nesbitt as DCI Jordan, the series dramatised the middle man between CID and the Secret Service at the height of post-Philby Cold War paranoia. Nesbitt’s Jordan was a flash young buck whose startlingly dapper dress sense always made him look as if he’d just stepped off a gentleman’s fashion shoot for ‘Town’ magazine; a bit of a flamboyant oddity in stale environs populated by both stuffy Whitehall suits and crusty Met veterans, Jordan nevertheless got results as well as gorgeous ‘dollies’ resplendent in the big hair/false eyelashes/micro-dress ensembles popularised by the likes of Bobbie Gentry at the time.
Constantly thwarted by MI5 mandarin Moxon (played with slimy languor by Morris Perry), DCI Jordan eventually threw his career away when the seductive charms of recurring double-agent Christine Morris (the Bobbie Gentry blueprint par excellence) proved a little too seductive. But then, Jordan was very much a man of his time – a time when men weren’t marginalised by a media intent on portraying the male of the species (and his ‘toxic masculinity’) as the embodiment of all evil whilst simultaneously wondering why so many examples of this useless, redundant relic end up jumping off rooftops.
Like most British drama of the era, ‘Special Branch’ in its original format was divided between studio sets shot on videotape and location inserts shot on film. Occasionally, embryonic OB (Outside Broadcast) cameras were used for exteriors, but the blatantly artificial lighting and shaky visuals suggested the time was not yet right for its use as a regular system for anything beyond on-the-spot news reports. The more familiar contrast between studio VT and location film was industry standard then and only seems jarring decades after the event, as does an acting style informed more by theatre than cinema. However, it clearly irked some working in TV and eventually led to the aesthetic rebirth of the show following a two-year hiatus in 1973.
Euston Films was established by Thames as a means of shooting serious, grown-up dramas entirely on film, both indoors and outdoors, and must have been a gritty innovation in the early 70s, particularly when compared to the slicker fantasy-adventure filmed series from the ITC stable. The revived ‘Special Branch’ was its first outing and it wasn’t just the look of the series that had changed. The cast received a complete overhaul as well. Out had gone Detective Chief Inspector Jordan and his superior (played by Fulton Mackay long before he became a familiar face courtesy of a certain prisoner name of Norman Stanley Fletcher); in came the craggy countenance of DCI Alan Craven, played by George Sewell. Prior to his recruitment to the side of the good guys, Sewell had mostly been a character actor playing villains; he had a memorable role in 1971’s seminal Brit gangster flick, ‘Get Carter’. After ‘Special Branch’, he reverted to type; but in the part of Craven, Sewell excelled as a hard-boiled copper that the viewer could entirely believe in.
Considering the controversial role the actual Special Branch played in Northern Ireland in the 70s, the TV version of the department largely avoids such contentious areas and also distinguishes itself from its earlier incarnation by mostly steering clear of staple stories surrounding suspected spies and Marxist student revolutionaries. Often, the storylines seem suited to a series focusing on routine police work, though there are numerous ‘firsts’ present, not least the fact that the lead character has a girlfriend who happens to be black. Nobody would bat an eyelid at an interracial relationship today, but this was pretty groundbreaking stuff in 1973; in retrospect, the mixed-race love interest between Craven and a nurse called Pam is a refreshing development for mainstream drama and one that wasn’t built upon for several years. Moreover, there’s also the mental breakdown of a regular cast member, something which is handled with both surprising sensitivity and a welcome absence of ‘issue’-led sentimentality so commonplace in present-day soaps.
The key ingredient in the reboot of ‘Special Branch’ is the introduction of the old cop/young cop dynamic when Patrick Mower appears as DCI Haggerty; initially a ‘guest artist’ (as the opening credits imply), Mower’s arrogant and swaggering character is then bedded in as a permanent presence, providing the show with some testosterone bite and laying the foundations for the Regan & Carter double act of the series that ultimately succeeded it. Paul Eddington is also added in a pre-‘Good Life’ role as an MI5 bigwig whose urbane pomposity serves to frustrate the more hands-on approach of his subordinates on the street. The cast list is fleshed out by members of the wonderful rep company of character actors that peppers British TV drama of the 70s, some of whom eventually found leading roles of their own.
After two successful ‘seasons’ (as is now the norm to say), ‘Special Branch’ was dropped in favour of ‘The Sweeney’, a series produced by the same team, and one which took many elements from its predecessor but crucially cranked up the macho violence in the process. Thanks to consistent reruns from the early 80s onwards, the adventures of the Flying Squad have rarely been absent from our screens and have become established as the retrospective template for British police dramas, inspiring tributes as diverse as ‘Life on Mars’ and the memorable ‘Comic Strip’ homage, ‘Detectives on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’. But none of that would have happened had not ‘Special Branch’ paved the way.
I don’t know why, but an antiquated series produced in a different country has served a need almost half-a-century on for someone struggling to cope with the wasteland bequeathed to him, and has also opened a portal into a past far more alluring than anything the present can boast. An entirely irretrievable image of England, of course; but we all find our own personal panaceas when confronted by the unbearable. This has been mine – well, one of them. And when it comes to dealing with the troublesome twenty-first century, those of us who experienced at least thirty years of its predecessor can always count on its cultural artefacts to provide necessary shelter from the storm.
© The Editor