SOLDIER AND ME - The Complete Series / DVD Review

Soldier And Me, Granada's 1974 BAFTA award-winning children's drama, comes to DVD this month courtesy of Network.

The nine half-hour episodes, broadcast in a Sunday tea-time slot between 15 September and 10 November 1974, were made by producer Brian Armstrong and directed by Carol Wilks, both formerly producer and researcher respectively on Granada's hard-hitting documentary strand World in Action.

Soldier and Me was an adaptation by writer David Line of his own best selling book 'Run For Your Life', originally published by Jonathan Cape in 1966. Line was the pseudonym of thriller writer Lionel Davidson.

As Jake Kerridge noted Davidson, born in Hull in 1922 and who died in 2009, was perhaps the last of the great adventure writers of the 1950s and 1960s, casting his unwitting heroes in the tradition of the ripping yarns spun by writers such as John Buchan. He was referred to as "today’s Rider Haggard" by Daphne du Maurier and his early novel 'The Rose of Tibet' was praised by Graham Greene as a "genuine adventure story." (1)

Davidson's career as a writer started with him as an office boy opening the post at The Spectator (it published his first story when he was 15 after he smuggled one of his own pieces into the submissions he forwarded to the literary editor), writing syndicated features for children and an agony column and, after the Second World War, working at Fleet Street's Keystone press agency. As a freelance writer he travelled to Czechoslovakia in 1947, smuggling himself aboard a lorry deporting Slovaks from Hungary back to Czechoslovakia as per Stalin's diktat for Eastern Europe. (2)

By 1955, he was the fiction editor of short story and serial magazine John Bull and his first novel, 'The Night of Wenceslas' in 1960, was a Gold Dagger thriller award winner and was inspired by his experiences in Czechoslovakia. The rights to the book were sold to British producer Betty Box who transformed it into a limp comedy Hot Enough for June (1964). Dirk Bogarde turned down the lead role but was instructed by his agent to take it because he needed the money. He played the innocent British writer Nicholas Whistler who becomes embroiled with agents in Czechoslovakia after inadvertently 'spying' for British Intelligence while employed as a trainee executive for a glass company. Davidson's brush with the film world was financially lucrative but creatively not an entirely successful one.
'... this may reflect his own position as something of an outsider in English society'
Two further Gold Dagger awards were bestowed upon 'A Long Way to Shiloh' (1966) and 'The Chelsea Murders' (1978). The former novel, a thriller dealing with the race between a Professor of Languages, Caspar Laing, the Israelis and Jordanians to locate a holy relic in the burning Negev desert signalled a growing preoccupation with his Jewish heritage and he moved to Israel with his family in 1968. After a decade he returned to Britain to publish 'The Chelsea Murders' and a final novel, the highly praised 'Kolymsky Heights', in 1994.

As Michael Carlson noted in his 2009 obituary for the writer: "Davidson's novels generally involved multiple protagonists working together for different reasons, with hidden motives and potential betrayal at their core. Some of this may reflect his own position as something of an outsider in English society." (3)

'Run for Your Life', a novel for teenagers published in 1966, seemed to reflect this too and returned to his experiences in Czechoslovakia for its post-Hungarian revolution tale of two boys, one a refugee, who uncover a plot to murder dissidents in London. The murderers give chase and follow the two boys from their escape on a Liverpool Street train across the wintry landscape of the Norfolk fens. When Granada producer Brian Armstrong decided to adapt the book, he suggested updating the background to post-1968 Prague Spring, after the Soviets invaded to halt the democratic liberal reforms proposed by First Secretary Alexander Dubček.

Educated at Heaton Grammar school and Wadham College, Oxford, Brian Armstrong joined Granada in 1958 as an assistant transmission controller. He became a researcher, writer and producer, and between 1963 and 1969 worked on The World Tomorrow, World in Action as well as Nice Time, Cinema and All Our Yesterdays. He eventually went on to produce Coronation Street and became Head of Comedy at Granada. 

Clearly, the changes he suggested to Lionel Davidson when it came to adapting his own book for television had been born out of Armstrong's own near-death experiences in Prague making a film, without the Russians' knowledge, for the World in Action team in 1968. Talking to the TV Times, he recalled filming in Prague and turning to see a Russian soldier taking aim at his bead: "Looking back, I remember not being frightened, just embarrassed, like a naughty school-boy who'd been caught breaking school rules. As I moved, he followed my head with his rifle. Then, for no apparent reason, he lowered it and turned away. I'll never know why." (4)

The difficulties of reporting from Czechoslovakia were not without their humorous side: "I had thought I might have to appear on Intervision with a live, to-camera report - so I borrowed a little number from Granada's wardrobe department before I left Manchester. I had been in the middle of mayhem for three days when the phone rang in my hotel room. It was a call from Granada. It was May, Head of Wardrobe: "Can I have Albert Tatlock's best jacket back immediately?"(5)

Carol Wilks, who directed Soldier and Me, came from a similar background. She joined Granada on a production training course after graduating from Bristol University and became a researcher on drama and on World in Action. She researched, produced and directed a number of documentaries, completed Granada's directors' course and also worked on Coronation Street. In 1970, she directed The Sinners, a drama set in Ireland and produced by Brian Armstrong. She continued to direct for ITV and BBC, helming episodes of Grange Hill, Hazell, The XYY Man, Juliet Bravo, Emmerdale Farm and Strangers before moving on to produce The Bill and Heartbeat.

To play the two juvenile leads, Jim Woolcott and Pavel Szolda (nicknamed 'Soldier' and hence the title of the series), Granada cast two newcomers to television. Gerry Sundquist, who was born in Manchester and grew up in Chorlton, caught the acting bug at primary school and developed his interest at the Stretford Children's Theatre while attending Grammar School in Wythenshawe. He left school at 16 to work the night shift at the Kellogg's factory in Old Trafford but soon headed for London to pursue his acting career. (6)

After a supporting role in Crown Court, Soldier and Me was Sundquist's professional television breakthrough and his success as Jim Woolcott lead to another children's drama, The Siege of Golden Hill and an episode of Space: 1999. Film roles in The Black Panther (1977) and Meetings with Remarkable Men (1979) and a number of theatre productions swiftly followed, including a memorable appearance in 'Equus' at the National Theatre in 1976. He met and fell in love with Nastassja Kinski when they were filming Passion Flower Hotel in 1978.

He continued to make television appearances, best remembered for his roles in The Mallens and Barry Letts' 1981 BBC adaptation of Great Expectations. However, his career and personal life collapsed in the late 1980s and it took a number of years, with support from his family, for him to recover from heroin addiction and resume his career. He returned to television in an episode of The Bill in 1992 but his career never recovered and it was his last appearance as an actor. Tragically in 1993, at the age of 37, he committed suicide by jumping in front of a train. (7)

His co-star Richard Willis, like Gerry and many other young male actors of the period, became a familiar face in children's television drama. His role as Pavel 'Soldier' Szolda came at a time when Willis' career was taking off. He was fifteen when he played Pavel and had just completed two West End appearances, as East in the musical 'Tom Brown's Schooldays' and as Tom (chosen from 2000 hopefuls) in 'The Water Babies', co-starring with musical legend Jessie Matthews.

From there, he secured a role in the ill feted Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan film Ghost in the Noonday Sun (1973). Even though Willis got on very well with him, Sellers lost confidence in the film and, after the director refused his request to shut the film down, he set out to deliberately scupper the production. It was never released theatrically. (8)

Willis notched up many television appearances after Soldier and Me, including a co-starring role as Tozo in Thames' wonderful Aztec drama The Feathered Serpent and roles in the naval science fiction thriller The Doombolt Chase and ITV's A Bunch of Fives. He is also remembered for his appearance in Doctor Who as Varsh, Adric's brother, in 'Full Circle'. He subsequently moved to America and now lives in Canada and successfully tours in theatre there to this day.
'I latched on to Gerry at the audition. I knew instinctively he was going to get the part.'
In an interview with Look-In about Soldier and Me both actors described how they were chosen for the roles. Willis said, "I auditioned through my agent. The auditioning went on for a couple of months, from early February to the end of March, when I went for a screen test and got the part of Soldier."

Sundquist explained his casting: "The actual part came through an amateur theatre company that I'm with in Manchester, 'cos they'd been looking round for the right character and hadn't managed to find him, so they came along to our company, and I in turn went along for an audition, and then back for the screen test, where I first met Richard. About a fortnight later, I heard I'd got the part of Jim." (9)

Many years later, on his personal blog Willis reflected on the series: "The story revolved around a 12 year old Czech boy in glasses and short trousers Szolda and his reluctant Manchester friend, played by a newcomer, Gerry Sundquist. I hated my character's short trousers, his short haircut and his ugly glasses. But I was immediately at home in his inner life - the awkward outcast, Szolda. I latched on to Gerry at the audition. I knew instinctively he was going to get the part. We became good friends." (10)

The setting of the novel - London and Norfolk - was also changed to Stockport and the Lake District. As Armstrong indicated at the time: "We've altered the setting from a white Christmas in East Anglia to Spring in the Lake District, because you can't rely on snow when you're filming. We've also changed the title to Soldier and Me - that was the book's title in America, where it was a best-seller." (11)

The arduous shoot took a twenty-five strong crew four months to film in the Spring of 1974. Granada had scored some success with filmed children's drama made by producer Peter Plummer in the much admired and deeply strange The Owl Service, adapted by Alan Garner from his own book and shot in April 1969, and The Intruder, adapted by Plummer and Mervyn Haisman from John Rowe Townsend's novel in 1972.

Together with Soldier and Me, they indicated the shift towards a contemporary milieu in children's drama and, beyond the fantastical and supernatural, a search for realism in counterpoint to the period adaptations of classic texts that had become the stock in trade during the 1960s. Armstrong confirmed the series would be "Gritty... [and] we're opting for rugged realism." (12)

The opening titles certainly denote this difference immediately - Derek Hilton's pulsing funk soundtrack plays over stylised silhouettes of the two main characters running toward the camera. This is abruptly intercut with action scenes from the series featuring guns being fired and cocked, Pavel leaping off a wall, close ups of the sleazy looking villains, car chases, kidnapping and then the two main characters rolling down a hillside straight into the camera. Everything signifies 'action'.

However, Soldier and Me's opening episode 'Conspiracy' is dominated by its school setting and spends most of its running time establishing the social background of Jim Woolcott and Pavel Szolda, beginning with the two main characters becoming friends after Jim recuses Pavel from his bullying class mates.

Jim is a senior boy and Pavel, grateful for his help, clearly sees him as a protective older brother. Wilks uses the camera subjectively too and we often see events from Pavel's point of view, especially during the opening sequence with the bullies. 

Much to Richard Willis' annoyance at the time Pavel is the only boy in the school who does wear short trousers. It singles out his immaturity (in contrast to Sundquist's Jim who smokes and moans about Pavel's attentions) and that he comes from a low wage family who can't buy him long trousers. His status is as 'other', an outsider who must be bullied because he's "a little dark skinny kid with glasses." Outsiderdom, cultural difference and bullying would have been familiar scenarios through 1970s children's fiction such as Rumer Godden's 'The Didakoi' and Susan Hill's 'I'm The King of the Castle'.

The other striking thing is that the social and cultural aspects of this setting are narrated in voice over, mainly by Gerry Sundquist. He relates not only the background details of working class life in the back streets of Stockport, in familiar narrow back alleys that have long since gone, but also his and Pavel's status at school and home.

This inner monologue tells us about Pavel's Czech refugee and one-parent family status before the boys' partnership is established and Jim nicknames him 'Soldier'. Willis' Czech accent was given some authenticity by fellow cast member Milos Kireck, an actor-director in Prague until 1968, and here playing the gang boss who orders his henchmen to execute a dissident. "He 'Czechs' my dialogue, so to speak," joked Willis, at the time. (13)
"Stockport's answer to Einstein"
The school milieu depicts the recognisable allegiances (Jim's concern is that his friendship with the kid 'Soldier' will jeopardise his status and he won't be asked by his friend Ron Nixon on holiday to Cumberland) and tropes of the day (Richard Wilson's drama teacher Dr Nixon is spot on). Some of it is reminiscent of Ken Loach's observational approach in Kes (1970). According to the TV Times, "Armstrong was so meticulous in his pursuit of authenticity that he was to be seen skulking around school playgrounds, picking up ideas for the most up-to-date junior expletives for inclusion in the script." (14)

Only when Pavel visits the library ("Stockport's answer to Einstein" as Jim sneers in voice over) does the thriller element start to develop. Director Carol Wilks makes this the centre piece of the episode, her camera roving through the bookshelves while two Czech executioners (Greasy and Smiler played by Richard Ireson and Constantin de Goguel) plot their forthcoming murder over the newspapers as their victim, a crippled old man (Armitage Ware), arrives to the noisy tapping of his stick.

Here, both Pavel and Jim relate to the viewer their thoughts and observations about the encounter in the library through a running commentary that Wilks then extends into a scene after school where Pavel is relating all this to a disbelieving Jim. The police aren't exactly impressed either and dismiss the story.

His holiday plans scuppered, there's an amusing scene where Jim ends up working in a dress shop full of customers "grabbing stuff like they were going out of fashion." The uneasy friendship threatens to dissolve when Pavel insists they break into a school where the villains are due to carry out their execution. However, as Jim again acknowledges in voice over, Pavel "had this knack of getting you to do things you didn't want to know about really."

Episode two, 'The House of Secrets' concentrates entirely on the thriller element. Shot at night, Wilks uses the location and school interiors to generate a great deal of claustrophobic tension and introduces some stylish touches. Low angle shots, expressionistic lighting and Jim's inner monologue describing his fears provide a suitable ambience as Jim and Pavel struggle to find a place to hide as the executioners arrive and they witness the murder of the disabled old man. The meeting becomes a bleak interrogation scene as the heavily breathing old man struggles up the stairs and meets his fate. It has an uncompromising, gritty edge to it that would not be out of place in more adult dramas of the time.

The interrogation descends into chaos when the old man is shot after he denies betraying the list of Czechs read out to him. Some rapidly cut sequences punctuate the murder, Jim and Pavel's dash from their hiding place and the chase through the house as they attempt to escape. There's a montage that's particularly accomplished: as Jim and Pavel are pursued Wilks drops in a series of effective, silent shots: a close up of a broken plaster bust, the old man's hand, a head and shoulders shot of one of the Czech executioners and a final close up of the old man's head slumped on a desk.

These are aesthetics that mix the dispassionate realism of the documentary (the way the interrogation is set up looks like something from World in Action) with the stylistic qualities of film noir - strange angles, chiaroscuro lighting, uncanny sound and distorted narrative through editing and voice over. The climax develops as an unresolved conspiracy and paranoia narrative when the police arrive after Jim and Pavel alert them to the shooting and find the old man is apparently alive and well in his own home.

This twist in the narrative reflects contemporaneous political thrillers (ironically Jim is seen reading Frederick Forsyth's 'The Day of the Jackal' at the breakfast table) and the tone shifts when the boys are confronted by the old man who Pavel now realises is one of the Czech gang in disguise (Derrick O'Connor in an early role, playing a character credited as 'Driver', and who would pop up in a vast amount of British television crime dramas including The Sweeney, The XYY Man, Out and Fox during the rest of the decade) as a set up to fool the police.

The comic potential of the 'odd couple' relationship between Pavel and Jim is exploited in episode three 'Alibi' with some simple physical comedy: Jim smuggles toast out to Pavel who has been squeezed into a dustbin to hide him from Jim's suspicious mum and, later, they both hide in the discarded remains of farm produce on the back of a lorry and make fools of themselves with several train commuters.
'Could we have a shot of you looking as if you are in pain, please?'
Now under the watchful eyes of the gang and pursued by Smiler (a wonderfully sinister turn from Constantin de Goguel sporting a deformed lip), the friendship begins to disintegrate. However, after Smiler chases them through Stockport cemetery on a very small motorbike, Jim realises that Pavel's suggestion to go on the run to get to Nixon's farm in Cumberland isn't so ridiculous. The boys are then chased through the centre of Stockport (Market Place, the market hall and market are very recognisable as is the now demolished Portwood cooling tower).

This opens the drama up from the confined and claustrophobic opening episodes and affords Wilks an opportunity to tighten the pace and throw in some more physical comedy as market stalls and shoppers go flying in all directions and there's some great visual incongruity as a cascade of displaced oranges tumble down a street as Pavel and Jim make their escape.

Armstrong underlined this approach in TV Times: "We've tried to inject realism into the proceedings by filming many of the chases in live locations - like Stockport market in full swing - and by adding a wry, mature humour. This comes in the narration by Jim, constantly bemoaning the fact that he is saddled with little 'Soldier'." (15)

The chase is a central trope of the espionage adventure thriller and of children's literature and Line uses this to shape the psychological progression of his two characters. Thrown together, they must make sense of the chaos let loose in their normal urban surroundings, a stressful situation that forces them to grow up, and they must team up and seek a solution. Jim's inner monologue therefore is useful in making the connection between what the reader feels emotionally in the book to what is translated into action on screen.

There is a tense game of cat and mouse on the train journey they take to Carlisle, offset by some further comedy featuring Coronation Street's Fred Feast as a friendly drunk, which reaches a climax when the only way to escape from Smiler's clutches is to risk jumping off the moving train.

As Willis noted this was frowned upon by parents watching at the time: "We caused some controversy because the opening titles involved us jumping from a moving train - a stunt that we did ourselves. A warning had to be given before the programme telling the kids watching about the danger of jumping from trains." (16)

Stunts and physical hardships were clearly a badge of honour for both actors, as they told Look-In in 1974 where Sundquist described the perils of location shooting: "Jumping from a wall on one occasion I snapped the ligaments in an ankle. That was the day a Press photographer came and asked me, while I was lying in agony in the back of a Land-Rover: 'Could we have a shot of you looking as if you are in pain, please?' That didn't please me too much."

Of the second episode 'House of Secrets' he remembered: "Another time I was trying to lock a door which wouldn't, while there were two villains on the other side who were trying to kick it down. They managed that... and as it landed, it banged me in the eye and knocked me out cold." (17)

Willis, struggling to keep his dignity in those short trousers throughout the shoot, added: "For one scene we were told to row across one of the deepest lakes in England, in the Lake District, which was pretty rough at the time. I wouldn't have fancied a dip in that water. Still, we pulled through, and the scene was a success." (18)

Their escapades and injuries falling off a bicycle, with Willis sat on the crossbar, during filming for 'Cross Country' were also reported by the TV Times. Mindful of children possibly copying the stunts this piece came with a warning that "ill-used and ill-kept bikes can be a real danger. Children should be made fully aware of their responsibilities when on the road." Strangely, while publicising the national Cycling Proficiency Scheme the TV Times made no mention of falling foul of Czech villains with guns, jumping off trains or near drowning in lakes.  (19)

Landscape replaces the urban, market town milieu of Stockport and Jim and Pavel are reduced to tiny figures stumbling across the quarries and fells of the Lake District while the villains continue their pursuit and eventually lodge at Eskdale (breakfasting at the King George Inn). Clearly, Sundquist and Willis suffered for their art as they - not their stunt doubles - can be seen climbing over sheer drops, scaling fences, navigating streams and rowing across lakes. 

Ray Goode, one of Granada's top lighting cameramen who would go on to BAFTA success with Brideshead Revisited and The Jewel in the Crown, wonderfully captures the bleak beauty of the area and his stunning views from the hills of Scafell above Wastwater, a three mile long lake, bring a real sense of scale to the chase in 'Cross Country' and 'Alone'.

One of the advantages of regional television's contribution to children's drama was to bring regional identities and culture to the screen and Soldier and Me makes a virtue of its stunning locations. By the same token the series not only took viewers beyond the towns and cities and into the countryside - just as Line had originally taken his characters out of London and into the Norfolk fens in 'Run For Your Life' - but it also expresses something of Pavel's struggle to integrate into urban life in Northern England and places Jim's Mancunian accent at the heart of the drama through his voice overs.

In a sense rurality is used to indicate class and social mobility. Great British character actor Jack Woolgar appears as a gruff, shotgun wielding irate chicken farmer. He's fondly remembered for Doctor Who 'The Web of Fear' and his regular role as diamond-in-the-rough Carney in Crossroads among a string of character roles in most of the major drama series of the 1960s and 1970s. Lancashire actor Harry Markham also appears as a well-meaning farmer who believes the Czech gang's story the two boys have absconded from a reform school.

Markham appeared in key British films of the 1960s and 1970s such as A Kind of Loving (1962), This Sporting Life (1963), Kes (1969) and was a television regular, popping up in A Family at War, Follyfoot, Sam, Village Hall, Survivors, Crown Court, and as Handel Gartside he took Minnie Caldwell away from Coronation Street. Two Alan Bennett plays at the end of the 1970s All Day On The Sands and Sunset Across the Bay sealed his reputation as a warm, sensitive actor.

It's worth comparing Woolgar and Markham's performances - connoted as working class characters through accent, appearance and surroundings - to that of Richard Wilson as Dr. Nixon. Nixon resolves the crisis in the last two episodes and is clearly an educated, middle class man situated in the markedly more affluent looking farmhouse he uses for his holidays. Rurality encompasses social and spatial differences in the story and the countryside is presented as both idyllic and threatening from the various perspective of the farmers, Dr. Nixon, Jim and Soldier.  

The climax of the story is gripping, returning to the espionage tropes of the opening episodes and extinguishing the bright daylight scenes in the Lake District with cramped, low angle point of view shots from Jim and Pavel, tied and gagged in a car, directed at their mysterious abductors. The final episodes 'Trapped' and 'No Escape' also reveal a different interpretation of what we know thus far about the gang. There are some interesting moral complexities layered into the conclusion, underlining an aspect of Lionel Davidson's thrillers, where his "speciality is showing what it feels like for peaceable men to make their first forays into violence." (20)

This transforms the resolution to the standard chase narrative in Soldier and Me into a meditation on ideology, morality and violence that makes Jim pause for thought in the final episode. Jim and Pavel's experiences in the wilderness cast a shadow over the celebratory appreciation of the landscape in 'No Escape'. Much of this is reflected in the value of the bond between them, strengthened through adversity and tenacity over the course of the series, one far stronger than the fair-weather friendship that Ron Nixon attempts to court in the final scene.

Sundquist and Willis are remarkably good at capturing this and their performances, accompanied by the realism injected into the script by Armstrong, Wilks and Davidson's literary double David Line, help create a sympathetic, realistic double act, depicting a friendship put under immense physical strain but one that ultimately embraces difference and otherness. 

Special Features
Sadly, not much additional content to speak of.  
A selection of colour stills from the Rex Features ITV archive 
Featuring Richard Willis' personal reminiscences of making the series. This wasn't made available for review.

Soldier and Me
Granada Television Production 1974
9 episodes (216 mins approx)
Transmitted 15 September to 11 November 1974
Network DVD 7954354 / Region 2 / Released 17 August 2015 / Subtitles: None / Sound: Mono - English / 1.33:1 / Colour / Classification: PG

(1) Jake Kerridge, 'Lionel Davidson, the best spy novelist you might never have read' in The Telegraph 07/03/2015, (accessed 12/08/2015)
(2) Dennis Barker, 'Lionel Davidson obituary' in The Guardian 02/11/2009, (accessed 12/08/2015)
(3) Michael Carlson, 'Lionel Davidson: Crime and thriller writer celebrated for his intricate plots and tongue-in-cheek humour' in The Independent 02/11/2009, (accessed 12/08/2015)
(4) Brian Armstrong interview 'We'll be seeing some tough times on Sundays' in Stewpot Calling, TV Times 14/09/1974. 
(5) Brian Armstrong, 'A base occupation' in Granada Television: The First Generation (Manchester University Press, 2003)
(6) Matt Finnegan, 'Magical fable that masks a tragedy' in Manchester Evening News 03/11/1997 (accessed 12/08/2015)
(7) Ibid
(8) Richard Willis, Strolling Player An English/American actor's search for character, in 'Beauty, Certainty and Quiet Kind' 12/04/2007. (accessed 12/08/2015)
(9) Richard Tippett, 'Soldier and Me' interviews with Richard Willis and Gerry Sundquist, Look-In 26/10/1974.
(10) Richard Willis, Strolling Player An English/American actor's search for character, in 'Beauty, Certainty and Quiet Kind' 12/04/2007. (accessed 12/08/2015)
(11) Brian Armstrong interview 'We'll be seeing some tough times on Sundays' in Stewpot Calling, TV Times 14/09/1974. 
(12) Ibid
(13) Ibid
(14) Ibid
(15) Ibid
(16) Richard Willis, Strolling Player An English/American actor's search for character, in 'Beauty, Certainty and Quiet Kind' 12/04/2007. (accessed 12/08/2015)
(17) Richard Tippett, 'Soldier and Me' interviews with Richard Willis and Gerry Sundquist, Look-In 26/10/1974.
(18) Ibid
(19) 'Two into one may be fun but no copying please! in TV Times 12/10/1974
(20) Jake Kerridge, 'Lionel Davidson, the best spy novelist you might never have read' in The Telegraph 07/03/2015, (accessed 12/08/2015)

COMPETITION: Wolcott: The Complete Series Blu-Ray (Closed)

Released on Blu-Ray and DVD on Monday 17 August by Network Distributing, Wolcott hails from 1981, a groundbreaking drama made by the ITC subsidiary Black Lion Films for ATV. Broadcast from the 13 to 15 January 1981, it was the first example of a prime time mini-series stripped over three nights in the ITV schedule. The episodes have now been newly transferred into HD from the original film elements for this long overdue release.

Displaying the same rough, streetwise vibe as The Sweeney, Wolcott stars the charismatic George William Harris as a tough, loner detective with a gift for rubbing people up the wrong way. Winning massive viewing figures, its controversially unflinching depiction of racism and crime ensured that it has never been repeated or released in any format until now. With all four episodes now transferred in High Definition from the original film elements, Wolcott includes early roles for Christopher Ellison, Hugh Quarshie, Warren Clarke and Rik Mayall – cast against type as a racist policeman. - See more at:
Most importantly, it was the first British crime drama with a black actor playing the lead role and it did not shy away from depicting the corruption and villainy in both the black and white communities. Played with great power and charisma by George William Harris, Wolcott is a man in the middle, facing hostility both from the community he polices and his colleagues in the Force. His investigations into the fatal stabbing of an old woman and a journalist soon uncover a brutal drug war being fought between criminal gangs.

Co-writer Patrick Carroll notes: "At the inception of the project there were no black officers in the Met C.I.D.  By the time the programme aired we were told that there were three, all of whom were involved in undercover work relating to drug dealing." The series' unflinching and controversial approach to race and policing at the time captured something of the deprivation, distrust of the police and authority, and inequalities of the period that culminated in the inner city riots in Brixton, Birmingham and Liverpool.

Wolcott made for uncomfortable viewing judging by the mixed critical reaction at the time but it gained impressive viewing figures of 13 million. ATV lost its franchise to Central in the summer of 1981, and when producers Barry Hanson and Jacky Stoller approached Central "with a view to developing a follow-up series they were told that, despite the original serial’s impressive viewing figures, the project was simply too much of a political hot potato.  When Barry and Jacky brought their proposal to the BBC they were given much the same answer."

Nigel Kneale's QUATERMASS - The Complete Series / Blu-Ray Review

After successfully adapting the three Quatermass television stories of the 1950s and with the box office tills ringing from the well-received cinema version of Quatermass and the Pit (1967), Hammer Films approached creator-writer Nigel 'Tom' Kneale for an original film script featuring the titular scientist with a view to continuing the franchise.

The studio announced another film but nothing developed beyond an outline and preliminary discussions with Kneale. Hammer had faced delays getting Quatermass and the Pit to the screen after their partnership with Columbia faltered and it was perhaps disinterest from distributors, Hammer's struggle to adapt to changing audience tastes and the slow decline of the industry as a whole that stalled their fourth Quatermass outing.

Kneale remained busy. His relationship with the BBC strengthened in the late 1960s and early 1970s and he succeeded in getting several key plays to the screen in this period. This was after he had refused overtures from the BBC to contribute a one-off drama to their Theatre 625 strand on BBC2. He felt he had never really been properly recompensed for the Quatermass serials he had made in the 1950s, something he made quite clear to the BBC's Director General Hugh Carleton Greene. A one off payment was duly agreed and Kneale undertook his new assignment. This would become 1968's celebrated play about television's Orwellian future potential, The Year of the Sex Olympics. (1)

He followed this with 1970's 'Wine of India' for The Wednesday Play, which centred on a 100-year old couple who must make plans for their funeral in a future where advances in medicine have resulted in a need for population control and where those reaching the age of 100 must submit to a government controlled euthanasia program. He contributed 'The Chopper' to Out of the Unknown in 1971, a ghost story about a dead motorcyclist haunting his wrecked machine, and followed this in 1972 with The Stone Tape, in which scientists researching new recording technologies at an old mansion investigate a haunting.

Coppers & Spies Revisited
This entry concludes the re-written versions of the original Coppers and Spies blog posts published on the MovieMail site in 2014. Each part contains additional research material and information on the various crime and spy adventure series the original blog series covered, timed to celebrate Network's highly-anticipated release of The Professionals in high-definition last March.

I hope you enjoy this final post.

6: Beyond the police - From The Professionals to Life on Mars

Creator of The Professionals, writer-producer-director Brian Clemens, boasted a six-decade career making iconic crime and adventure drama. In the 1950s, as staff writer, he scripted many half-hour crime series for the Danzigers production company. He wrote the pilot episode for Danger Man in 1960 and a year later provided the same for The Avengers, the series with which he is forever associated.

While he and producer Albert Fennell oversaw ABC television’s international success with John Steed and Emma Peel in The Avengers, Clemens also contributed to ITC’s The Baron, The Champions and Man in a Suitcase. He created ATV’s anthology series Thriller and, with Fennell, revived The Avengers in 1976 as The New Avengers.

As the second series of The New Avengers completed filming in October 1977 it was clear to Clemens that his co-production company The Avengers (Film and TV) Enterprises Ltd, formed with Fennell and composer Laurie Johnson, was running into financial difficulties. After French finance failed to materialise, the final three episodes of the series were cancelled and the prospect of making a third series evaporated. Four episodes, then being completed in Canada, provided an underwhelming coda to a troubled production.

Coppers & Spies Revisited
Continuing with the re-written versions of the original Coppers and Spies blog posts published on the MovieMail site in 2014. Each part contains additional research material and information on the various crime and spy adventure series the original blog series covered, timed to celebrate Network's highly-anticipated release of The Professionals in high-definition last March.

5: Jack or Knave - From Special Branch to The Sweeney

Euston Films, the subsidiary of Thames Television founded in 1971 by executives Lloyd Shirley (Controller of Drama), George Taylor (Head of Film Facilities) and Brian Tesler (Director of Programmes), set out to make television faster and cheaper. It swapped studio taping for lighter film cameras, ten-day turnarounds with minimal rehearsal, non-union crews, and all-location filming. Affectionately described by the crew of The Sweeney as the ‘kick, bollock and scramble’ approach, Euston’s operation transformed television drama in the 1970s.

Prior to Euston’s formation, directors Jim Goddard and Terry Green and writer Trevor Preston had already proposed to ABC the creation of a small group to produce work on 16mm film, a gauge normally used to film inserts on location for video taped drama but not considered as a format for an entire drama's production.

COPPERS & SPIES REVISITED - A Man Alone: Callan and Public Eye

Coppers & Spies Revisited
Continuing with the re-written versions of the original Coppers and Spies blog posts published on the MovieMail site in 2014. Each part contains additional research material and information on the various crime and spy adventure series the original blog series covered, timed to celebrate Network's highly-anticipated release of The Professionals in high-definition last March.

4: A Man Alone - Callan and Public Eye

In February 1967 ABC transmitted an Armchair Theatre play entitled ‘A Magnum For Schneider’ and introduced viewers to writer James Mitchell’s volatile, ill-natured and cynical spy David Callan. Disgraced from the Section, an anonymous branch of the British security services run by a boss code-named Hunter, he was recruited again to eliminate Schneider, a gunrunner posing as a German businessman.

Mitchell embarked late on a successful career as a novelist in 1957. Previously a teacher, actor, civil servant, shipyard worker, barman, officer cadet and travel courier, he claimed, “Even the idea of writing fiction didn’t occur to me till I was over 30.” In 1960 Sydney Newman, Head of Drama at ABC, asked him to adapt his novel A Way Back, about a former Communist blackmailed to steal the blueprints of a new bomb, into a play ‘A Flight From Treason’ for Armchair Mystery Theatre.

Birth of an existential hero

Mitchell, a full-time writer in 1965, sold the script for Callan’s debut, ‘A Magnum For Schneider’, to BBC’s Detective but it languished unproduced. He bought the play back and offered it to Armchair Theatre story editor Terence Feely. Feely saw its potential and, with producer Leonard White and casting director Dodo Watts, considered actors for the key roles of reluctant spy Callan, his antagonistic boss Hunter and the informant with the personal hygiene problem, Lonely.

White’s casting suggestion for Callan was Edward Woodward. Woodward was impressed with the script, personally delivered to him by Watts, and cancelled his family holiday to play the role. He drove his wife and children to Devon but then immediately returned to London by train to attend his first rehearsal in the part.

Watts also admired actor, former shipyard worker and stand up comedian Russell Hunter for his Shakespearian talents and recommended him for Lonely. Played by a series of actors, like the ever-changing Number 2 in The Prisoner, the character of Hunter was first realised by White’s choice Ronald Radd and joining him in the play was Peter Bowles as his bright but sadistic young acolyte Toby Meres.

Sensing ABC was looking for a replacement for Redcap, the series about military police starring John Thaw, Feely worked with Mitchell and paid him £150 to develop a series pitch for Brian Tesler, Director of Programmes, and Lloyd Shirley, Controller of Drama, at ABC. In December 1966, on the strength of ‘Schneider’ and the pitch, they commissioned six episodes of what would become Callan before the play’s transmission.

In Callan’s world, the pitch offered, ‘the reality doesn’t come from atomic fountain pens or poisoned wall-paper: it comes from people. And some of them are very ordinary people, caught up in extraordinary situations.’ This was the antithesis of the onscreen escapades of James Bond and John Steed. Callan was a killer vulnerable to mixing the personal with the professional in a series that embraced the gritty, unglamorous twilight world of Len Deighton and John le Carre’s spy fiction.

Speaking to the TV Times in 1972, Mitchell indicated Callan possibly originated in a Spaniard, Paco, he encountered while teaching English in Spain during the 1950s: "He spied, I learned later, against the regime in Spain. There was no doubt in his mind that the revolution would come, and when it did, everyone had to be ready, with weapons, training, information. And information meant spies like Paco. He had contacts everywhere, even in the police."

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