This is the first series of 'Special Branch', produced by Thames Television in 1969, and many of you may recall it from its later revamp, in 1973, by Euston Films, and starring the legendary George Sewell and Patrick Mower. These are the first 13 episodes, studio based VT with some location filming, with the original line-up of Derren Nesbitt, Wensley Pithey, Fulton MacKay and Morris Perry.
Essentially, the stories, edited by George Markstein in this and the 1970 series concern various threats to international security - communist students, Russian diplomats. With Patrick McGoohan, Markstein was the co-creator of the classic series 'The Prisoner' and he also the produced the 1970-1971 series 'Man at the Top' and contributed to 'Callan'.
The first episode 'Troika' opens the series, and begins a plot line that continues over into the second series. A sting operation against a ring of spies working for the Russians goes tits up and heads will roll. One of the operatives manages to get a coded message out to Moscow and escapes the closing net. This is a strong opener and basically sets the template for the two series that runs from 1969 through to 1970. It's primarily a studio based series at this point with only a few inserts of location filming. What's striking here is the instant charisma of Derren Nesbitt as Detective Chief Inspector, a slightly frustrated, dandy policeman very keen on the ladies. He's coupled with Wensley Pithey as the supremely grouchy old timer Supt. Eden, later replaced towards the end of this run by Fulton Mackay as Det. Supt. Inman, and the utterly wonderful Morris Perry as the slimy, manipulating and rather amoral Charles Moxon. Moxon is certainly the series most interesting character and he uses his various schemes to nail suspects without bothering to keep both Eden and Inman in the loop, often undermining them in the process. So it's a spiky set of relationships between the officers. And that's the major reason for watching this - a group of good actors at the top of their game instantly providing us with memorable characters.
The episodes are pretty much a slow burn throughout. It's more about the restraint of the methods employed by the Branch here than it is about the later 'Sweeney' style viloence and car chases. In fact, I don't think there is one bona fide car chase in any of the 13 episodes here. The 'Troika' storyline is continued into a very powerful second episode 'Smokescreen' where Eden becomes culpable in the suicide of one of the Moscow contacts held in the Scrubs. The best of the run are 'A New Face' about student revolts (very spirit of '68), 'The Children Of Light, an investigation into a Moonie type cult, 'Short Change' which carries on the Troika plot line and keeps tabs on a recurring character Christine Morris, 'Care Of Her Majesty', a great Jordan centred episode with a typical 'Moxon pulls the rug' conclusion and the last episode 'Time Bomb' where political in-fighting in an oil rich Arab family now actually seems very contemporary.
If you enjoy good, studio based secret service type drama with a political edge then this is for you. Well worth it just for the consistently good performances from Nesbitt, Pithey, MacKay and Perry. Don't expect gun battles, car chases and 1970s library music tracks though. Well, not until 1973.
Special Branch - The Complete First Series (Network DVD 7952196)
Check out the Network website for web-exclusive releases: Network DVD
- Freelance writer and film and television researcher (for hire).
He has contributed to a number of books and websites about British archive television and cinema as well as recent television series including work for Moviemail, Frame Rated and Arrow Video. Publications include I.B Tauris's 'Doctor Who: The Eleventh Hour - A Critical
Celebration of the Matt Smith and Steven Moffat Era' (2013) and 'Doctor
Who - The Pandorica Opens' (2010).
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