There’s been a lot of understandable talk these past few days of how her late Majesty gave the British people a sense of security when every other Great British bastion proved fallible; if all else failed, the Queen was always there. Now she’s gone, who can we rely on? Well, at one time – albeit over 40 years ago – we could rely on CI5. This uniquely hardline service, sandwiched between Special Branch and MI6, was established in the tumultuous climate of the 1970s to deal with the escalating threats to the British way of life from international terrorism and increasingly sophisticated espionage. Headed by the redoubtable Major George Cowley, CI5 drew on the best men from the armed forces and the police and rode roughshod over all the legal obstacles that hindered ordinary coppers from nailing their man. CI5 had a remit that precluded niceties and this was reflected in the guys that fronted it, especially agents Bodie and Doyle. The former was an ex-military man who’d earned his spurs as a mercenary-for-hire in Africa; the latter rose to the rank of DC in the Police Force. When partnered together, Bodie and Doyle proved to be the ideal combination to cope with the challenges that threatened Britannia’s borders as the country careered towards the 80s.
Of course, CI5 only existed in the parallel universe of the cathode ray tube between 1977 and 1983. George Cowley was Gordon Jackson, Bodie was Lewis Collins, and Doyle was Martin Shaw. But from the moment that car crashed through a plate glass window and arguably one of the most energising theme tunes in TV history pumped its testosterone-fuelled beats into the living room, CI5 was for real – well, for an hour every Sunday evening, anyway. ‘The Professionals’ was a film series produced for London Weekend Television, being the brainchild of Brian Clemens, the man who had developed ‘The Avengers’ into such a memorably quirky and stylish series ten years before; having recently revived it as ‘The New Avengers’, Clemens was eager to create something less eccentric and more pertinent to the brutal 1970s and he hatched the concept of CI5 as an organisation to hang his idea around.
The success of ‘The Sweeney’ (1975-78) had shown there was an appetite for a hard-hitting police series in which the protagonists might bend the rules to nail society’s nastiest bastards; the popularity of the swearing, smoking, shagging, punching and boozing Regan & Carter was a testament to the charismatic chemistry of the two leads (John Thaw and Dennis Waterman) and was enhanced by sharp, witty writing. The show was produced by Euston Films for Thames Television, holders of ITV’s weekday franchise in the capital, and networked across all the ITV regions. The capital’s franchise holder for weekends, LWT, was desperate to come up with something similar, and Clemens’ idea sounded like just the series the company was looking for, combining the familiar police elements with the spy factor that had proven successful in the past with the likes of ‘Callan’, and adding the terrorism angle that was a reality for the British people after several years of IRA bombs causing mayhem on the mainland. The show had the potential to capture the public’s imagination in the same way ‘The Sweeney’ had, but it all depended on recruiting the right men for the job.
Gordon Jackson certainly wouldn’t have been the obvious choice to play the brash, abrasive boss of CI5; he was a household name thanks to a very different kind of character indeed – Hudson, the urbane head butler on LWT’s internationally popular period soap, ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’. However, Jackson proved himself to be far more versatile an actor than people gave him credit for and was as capable of barking out orders at his subordinates as any Sergeant-Major on the parade ground. After first-choice Jon Finch decided against being tied to a series, Martin Shaw, whose grumblings about his time on the show have become part of the programme’s legend, was selected for the part of ex-copper Ray Doyle; Shaw had an impressive theatre and TV CV that had been steadily building throughout the 70s. Contrary to popular belief, his distinctive bubble-haired look predated ‘The Professionals’ – it’s evident in an episode of Nigel Kneale’s anthology series, ‘Beasts’, from the year before he joined CI5 – although Shaw’s concessions to the sartorial styles of the era perhaps placed the show in a time capsule that often distracts from its enduring strengths. Initially, he was pared with Anthony Andrews as Bodie – an actor whose aristocratic bearing proved ideal for the series that made him a household name in 1981, ‘Brideshead Revisited’; but Andrews’ attributes didn’t work for Bodie and the part was recast after several days of shooting.
In stepped Lewis Collins, a lesser ‘thespian’ as far as Martin Shaw was concerned, though an actor who had also established himself on the small-screen, albeit via the vehicle of the sitcom; in Collins’s case it was the mid-70s ITV show, ‘The Cuckoo Waltz’, co-starring the beautiful Diane Keen. Called upon to play it straight, Collins nevertheless injected a level of humour into the role of Bodie that helped give the show some light relief; the banter between Bodie and Doyle – especially during extended in-car scenes when the two were screeching tyres en route to their next assignment – oozed a natural camaraderie that gave the series a great deal of its appeal. Regardless of some rather chaotic behind-the-scenes shenanigans involving lack of money, delayed shooting schedules and scripts being rewritten at the eleventh hour, ‘The Professionals’ debuted across the ITV network at the end of December 1977. Despite premiering in that television no-man’s land between Christmas and New Year, the show proved to be pretty much an overnight success. By the opening months of 1978, the benefits of being seen by all ITV viewers at the same time – a luxury denied the ITC series of the 60s and early 70s – ensured high viewing figures and instant fame for the two main leads.
‘The Professionals’ drew upon a vast, rich pool of experienced TV dramatists for its stories – men who had cut their teeth on the long-running series British television specialised in at the time – and also inherited the crew from ‘The Sweeney’ when that drew to a close. The talent behind the camera combining with the talent on-screen made for a heady mix and there followed three or four years when ‘The Professionals’ was one of the highest-rated shows on TV. It had its critics – usually hurling accusations that it was mindless, misogynistic, macho entertainment; but it was very much a show of its time, and the exhilarating action elements didn’t detract from the routinely engaging relationship at the core of its success. Yes, violence was paramount, though, unlike ‘The Sweeney’, there was no what was then referred to as ‘bad language’. The only time ‘The Professionals’ crossed a line was in an episode called ‘Klansmen’; it was pulled from transmission at the last minute and has still never been seen on terrestrial television in this country. It’s been included on every VHS and DVD release of the series, but an episode that actually addresses the issue of racism in an intelligent and honest manner stands up as a good example of how there were more dimensions to ‘The Professionals’ than merely the one.
Currently viewing the series for the first time since the 1990s, I think the old-school charm often associated with any vintage show loaded with plenty of ‘well, you couldn’t get away with that today’ moments gives it a ‘guilty pleasure’ quality; but when stood beside so much of contemporary mainstream fare, ‘The Professionals’ comes across far better than it ever did in its heyday as every little boy’s favourite undemanding series. Standards were higher on TV in the late 70s and it certainly shows in 2022. Moreover, the virtues at which Bodie and Doyle excelled were actually valued at the time rather than dismissed and denigrated as ‘toxic’; and despite changing fashions dictated by a cultural elite obsessed with what the public ought to want as opposed to what they do, these are virtues still valued by the majority, who would no doubt warm to ‘The Professionals’ all over again if given the chance.
© The Editor