THE GHOST SQUAD

It’s not often a present-day news story has echoes of a fifty-year-old TV drama series, but the gruesome discovery of 39 bodies in a refrigerated lorry in Essex this week has weirdly done just that. Thanks to the international publicity afforded this ghastly smuggling operation gone horribly wrong, it would now appear the victims emanated from Vietnam, rather than China (as was initially announced by police). I’m reluctant to invoke the spirit of Prince Philip and his neat summary of ‘Orientals’, but surely Old Bill jumping to conclusions based on clumsy racial profiling should have been kept private before a clearer picture emerged. Half-a-century ago, in an episode of ‘Softly Softly: Taskforce’, it was the Indian Subcontinent that provided the illegal immigrants whose bodies were uncovered in the gas tank of a docked vessel – though Barlow & Watt interestingly didn’t publicly speculate on the country of origin where their victims were concerned.

Those who regard ruthlessly-organised illegal immigration as a recent innovation might be surprised to learn that people-smuggling was a stand-by storyline of several vintage TV mainstays such as ‘Special Branch’, ‘Budgie’ and even ‘Dixon of Dock Green’; but for some reason it was the full colour turn-of-the-70s successor to the monochrome 60s ‘Z-Cars’ spin-off, ‘Softly Softly’, that sprang to mind when news broke of the latest tragedy to befall the most vulnerable of contemporary cargos. This BBC series, running from 1969 to 1976, saw the aforementioned CID double act that began in Newtown relocated to Thamesford, a Home Counties conurbation in which urban and coastal districts merged together, enabling the region’s constabulary (and the scriptwriters) to cover a wide range of scenery from mean street to bleak beach – scenery the familiar rep company of character actors making up the cast numbers in most UK TV dramas of the era could easily slot into.

The location was an ideal setting for the Thamesford Taskforce, a fictionalised portrayal of the period in which regional crime-squads pooled their resources and answered to a higher power that was entrusted with overall responsibility for law and order across a coalition of counties. Upon its formation, this particular Taskforce required the kind of heavyweight reputations amongst its senior personnel that would justify its existence. Foremost amongst these recruits was the fearsome Detective Chief Superintendent Charles Barlow, memorably played by Stratford Johns.

Barlow was a bull in humanoid form, a balding Minotaur that provoked panic in all proprietors of china shops within a two-mile radius when roused. Yet he was ‘hard, but fair’ – a description Ronnie Barker’s Norman Stanley Fletcher would later use in relation to Don Revie’s Leeds United team; both are applicable and very much of their time, the same time. Johns inhabited the larger-than-life character for 14 years, and though a notable lack of repeat screenings has prevented successive generations from forming the same appreciation of him as those who watched back in the day, Barlow remains one of the outstanding television creations of an era abundant in them.

Barlow’s was the first generation to miss out on the War, and one often gets the impression this was a grievance it then took out on the generation behind it, that misfire with the long greasy hair in its eyes and sneering disregard for the full range of Burtons’ brown ensembles. They never had to suffer all those dismal National Service drills in provincial backwaters, playing at being soldiers and having nothing to show for it in the shape of medals, maimed limbs, heroic anecdotes or stolen cigarette cases emblazoned with Swastikas. The weight of the chip on those shoulders was crippling. Maybe it would explain the ease with which Barlow barked and bit at the slightest indication of provocation.

If DCS Barlow was the bad cop, Detective Superintendent John Watt was the good one. Second-in-command since 60s Merseyside days, Watt had been by Barlow’s side through thick and thin. Played by Frank Windsor, Watt was gruff in a blunt Northern fashion, but approachable and diplomatic – the McCartney to Barlow’s Lennon. Notable other members of the Taskforce squad included PC Snow, played by the excellent Terence Rigby; the Brummie dog-handler formed a telepathic synergy with his canine partners which was given a heartbreaking jolt when his first sidekick Inky was shot dead during a siege; successor Radar was a bright Alsatian whose initial lack of experience was soon overcome via several acts of heroism. Less dog-friendly was Sgt Evans (David Lloyd Meredith), the rotund ginger Welshman prone to reciting Bible passages absorbed during many a Sunday spent killing time in the Valleys by attending chapel shindigs.

DI Harry Hawkins (played by future ‘Emmerdale’ star Norman Bowler) was the beefcake of the team, the kind of man who probably wore Tabac; not exactly what the next century would label Metrosexual – he was still too stridently masculine for that – Hawkins was nevertheless unashamedly well-groomed in a new way, certainly by the stiffer, starched standards of Barlow and Watt. There was also a token girl, DC Donald (Susan Tebbs), regularly referred to as ‘pretty’ by the older men surrounding her (in whom she brought out an overprotective paternalism); but it’s worth remembering that female officers comprised a separate unit ala the dog division at this time, rather than being ranked on the same level as male colleagues, so it’s no wonder the likes of DC Donald were special cases. There were, however, no ‘people of colour’ in the Taskforce – something the diversity-conscious BBC of 2019 certainly wouldn’t tolerate.

This engaging ensemble cast shared Shepherd’s Bush nick with the ongoing crime stories of Dock Green and Newtown at a time when the BBC evidently regarded the police station, rather than the hospital, as the prime setting for primetime TV drama. In that soothing seven-year window in which this popular trio of strong and solid cop soaps served as the antidote to ITV’s raw alternatives such as ‘Special Branch’ and ‘The Sweeney’, the line between crime and crime-fighter was unmistakable; there were no rotten apples in the Taskforce barrel, and the villains were villains – moustachioed, necker-chiefed, working-class, and not too nasty for pre-watershed sensibilities; even the skinheads and football hooligans weren’t all bad. None carried a swag-bag, but nobody would have been too surprised if they had.

The Thamesford Taskforce was neither the uniformed branch of the social services nor the paramilitary wing of Political Correctness. It was a proper police force, just as the criminals were proper criminals; television may have been transforming into colour, but morality (like certainties) remained black & white. We wanted them on our side when we were in trouble, and we knew we could trust them to defend the children of the poor and punish the wrongdoer. Mr Barlow wouldn’t let us down, even if the real-life contemporaries who valued his interpretation of their profession were too embroiled in corruption scandals to emulate his simple principles. Perhaps, as with the persistence of people-smugglers, this merely shows we haven’t actually moved on much in fifty years after all.

© The Editor