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.

2: Kinky Boots and Z-Victor 2: From The Avengers to Z Cars

George Dixon had been on his beat for five years in Dixon of Dock Green when ABC’s canny producer Sydney Newman created Police Surgeon in 1960. A short-lived star vehicle for actor Ian Hendry, it featured the moral and ethical dilemmas faced by Dr Geoffrey Brent as he assisted the London Metropolitan Police with Bayswater’s dysfunctional families, disreputable landlords, delinquents and petty criminals.

Created, written and initially produced by Julian Bond, many of the scripts had been written in collaboration with J.J. Bernard, the pseudonym of a real police surgeon. When he raised certain contractual issues, Newman cancelled the half-hour drama after 13 episodes. It had also not fulfilled a brief from ABC’s chief executive Howard Thomas for Newman to develop an adventure series similar to Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, featuring retired private detective Nick Charles and his wealthy wife Nora.

While the ‘police in the community’ theme of Dixon developed into the realism of Z Cars, Newman asked producer Leonard White to take elements of Police Surgeon and create an entirely new crime drama for his star Hendry, inspired by Hitchcock’s thriller North By Northwest (1959) and Fleming’s Bond books, and based on nothing more than a title…The Avengers. Police Surgeon’s successor ushered in a very different crime fighting partnership.

Iconic bowler, brolly and sharp tailored suits

Writer Brian Clemens, who had worked on Danger Man (which we will return to in due course) in 1960, was given the task of making the title a reality. Hendry became Dr. David Keel and was joined by actor Patrick Macnee as John Steed, an undercover spy to whom Keel turned for help after his fiancée was murdered by heroin smugglers in the opening episode ‘Hot Snow’. When Hendry left during a prolonged Equity strike, Macnee’s Steed took centre stage and The Avengers reinvented itself.

Steed’s raincoat and trilby uniform were replaced with his iconic bowler, brolly and mod-trad Edwardian suits. Keel’s dialogue was transfered to Honor Blackman’s self-assured, leather outfitted anthropologist Dr Cathy Gale, the first of Steed’s strong, independent female partners. Newman saw Gale as a mix of Grace Kelly and noted ethnographer Margaret Mead. Dave Rogers summarised her as ‘a 1960s version of Shaw’s emancipated young woman providing the conscience in combat with Steed’s contemporary Chocolate Soldier.’

The sexual tension between Steed and Cathy flavoured the rapidly changing series. Gritty stories about London’s criminal underworld gave way to Cold War thrillers and yarns featuring the occult, advanced computers and unbreakable ceramics, deadly viruses, industrial saboteurs, technological espionage and political assassinations.

The Avengers continued to self-consciously explore the gender play, fashion and materialism of a changing post-war society especially when the series, produced jointly by Clemens and Albert Fennell, moved onto film in 1965 and introduced Steed’s new foil, Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel.

Publicist Marie Donaldson was apparently responsible for her name, summarising her qualities and shortening ‘Man Appeal’ to ‘M Appeal’ in a press release. The widow of test pilot Peter Peel and daughter of industrialist Sir John Knight, she was an adventurous, intelligent and sexually confident woman capable of fending off assailants with her karate skills.

Steed and Emma were kept busy thwarting malcontent scientists, autocrats, astronomers, executives, aristocrats, ministers and dilettante playboys sidelined by the modernisation of Britain. The series cherry-picked from various genres, playfully wove them together using exaggerated colour, stylised fashion and production design and a self-awareness about the relationship between the television audience and the programme itself.

Stories such as ‘Epic’, ‘Escape in Time’ and ‘Something Nasty in the Nursery’ saw a pop-art style married to increasingly surreal narratives, commenting on the nature of storytelling and film-making, at a time when London was regarded as the epicentre of the 1960s explosion of pop, architecture, fashion and design.

Michael Bracewell summarised this construction of an England of the imagination as one ‘in which the underworld of crime, the underground of popular culture and the hidden precincts of Cold War paranoia were compressed into a Looking Glass world where nothing - to satirical ends or not - was ever quite as it seemed.’ Science fiction, fantasy and the psychedelic increasingly infiltrated the format as flirtatious Emma Peel handed over to ingénue agent Tara King, played by Linda Thorson.

Women as independent protagonists

Thorson was initially promoted as a Shirley Maclaine type and producer John Bryce, who had replaced Clemens and Fennell, was under instructions to return the series to a more grounded style. Rookie agent Tara King was less stylised than predecessors Emma and Cathy and wore fashions of the moment. There was a suggestion of a more human, rounded 'May to December' relationship between Tara and Steed.

However, Bryce struggled with the production schedule and Thorson was deemed too young and inexperienced. Clemens and Fennell returned to overhaul the series, developing Tara King’s character and introducing support in the form of Steed and Tara’s boss, Mother, played by Patrick Newell. Mother’s presence increased the bizarre humour and, in inimitable style, episodes embraced noir, Victorian horror and spoofs of hard-boiled spy fiction.

Made in colour, financed by American network ABC to the tune of $2 million, The Avengers was one of the first British series aired in US prime time. Despite achieving some of its highest ratings in the UK, the Thorson series faltered in the US ratings, a casualty of its scheduling against Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. ABC pulled the plug and, financially unviable, The Avengers concluded in May 1969 just as the tensions pulling apart Britain’s economy, which had led the consumerist boom associated with the series, became all-too apparent with its steep decline.

As well as influencing many 60s spy adventure series, returning as The New Avengers in 1975 and a forgettable 1998 film, The Avengers lasting impact was placing women, as independent protagonists, at the heart of a genre dominated by masculine discourse. While Cathy Gale and Emma Peel were perhaps hostages to male fantasies, they did anticipate the women-centred police procedurals and adventure dramas of the 1980s and beyond.

‘It was obvious that the police were not coping’

With the crime rate soaring, public safety a major concern and policing high on the political agenda in the 1960s, the ‘cosy’ world of the BBC’s Dixon of Dock Green, which had been running since 1955, looked static and remote. Developments in documentary-drama and the assimilation of social realism into television saw a new drama series address these issues.

Debuting in January 1962, Z Cars was also the BBC’s response to a serious ratings challenge from ITV. It was inspired by the memoirs of Liverpool police officer Bill Prendergast, a regular consultant on BBC programmes, and writer Troy Kennedy Martin listening to police radio chatter as he convalesced from mumps. Overhearing “incidents where it was obvious that the police were not coping”, he took ideas for a crime drama to Elwyn Jones at the BBC Documentary Department.

Jones was considering a new police series after positive reactions to Gilchrist Calder and Colin Morris’s documentary Who, Me?, about police interrogation methods, from a group of Lancashire policemen. Jones then sent Kennedy Martin and fellow writer Allan Prior to research Lancashire County Police’s ‘crime car’ policing, live in the community and develop scripts from case material supplied by them and Prendergast.

Producer-director John McGrath then assembled the cast and “spent a clear week with them discussing the complete social background of every character” and was determined that “not one of those blokes would say a line without knowing why he was saying it.” He also insisted they visit policemen at home and get to understand their work and family life.

Joseph Brady, who played PC Jock Weir, reflected: “Police are human beings. They don’t spend all their time saying don’t - as we found out in our filming in the North of England. They look after old widows and children - but if it comes to a scrap they get steamed in.” Joining him in the series were Brian Blessed, Colin Welland and James Ellis as PCs ‘Fancy’ Smith, David Graham and Bert Lynch. Along with their bosses, tough DCI Charles Barlow and bad-tempered DS John Watt memorably brought to life by Stratford Johns and Frank Windsor, they became household names.

Set in the fictional Liverpool district of Newtown, Z Cars injected pace into the police procedural and developed its documentary style from recording live in studio using six cameras, a dozen sets, film inserts and back projections. Employing over 250 changes of shot per episode fulfilled director McGrath’s aim, “of giving television some of the speed, the pace of film… where people cut, cut, cut...”
 
Group producer Robert Barr, the documentarian responsible for Pilgrim Street and War On Crime, was often at loggerheads with Kennedy Martin. “One of the qualities of Z Cars comes from a constant war between me, who wants it to be documentary, and Troy, who wants to write fiction.” Elwyn Jones would also tear up scripts during rehearsals, dropping characters and scenes, and leave Kennedy Martin to rewrite the episode.

Provocative stories about delinquency, domestic violence and racism

Documentary-dramas Tearaway, Who, Me?, and Jacks and Knaves, made by the Calder and Morris team, influenced Z Cars’ depiction of police officers, criminals and their victims and its use of housing estate locations, vernacular speech and class authenticity. This also reflected the emerging British social realist cinema’s focus on the human foibles and weaknesses of the rootless, displaced and dispossessed in society.

However, Z Cars’ realistic portrait of policemen as gamblers, drinkers and wife-beaters enraged Lancashire’s Chief Constable Colonel Eric St Johnston. He complained to the Home Office, drove to London and begged Controller of Television Stuart Hood to abandon the series. The credit thanking Lancashire County Police for their support was withdrawn. Despite mixed reactions from police, public and press, Z Cars’ high viewing figures ensured the extension of its initial run from 13 to 31 episodes.

Kennedy Martin and McGrath left the series, feeling it had abandoned character in favour of story and shifted emphasis from social issues to the personal problems of police officers. Attempts to include strong female characters foundered too. With the focus firmly on male characters, radio operator Katie Hoskins, played by Virginia Stride, was written out of the first series.

Writer John Hopkins, a prolific contributor to the series who became its new story editor, offered, “Z Cars is like a serial rather than a series. Each story is progressive; there’s a growth in the characters.” Under his influence, it delivered provocative stories about delinquency, domestic violence and racism and provided early opportunities for directors Ken Loach and Ridley Scott and writer Alan Plater.

The series’ live format ended in 1965. It returned as a twice-weekly drama in 1967, updated with Panda Cars and pocket radios, and produced by Colin Morris, who made the innovative docu-dramas with Gilchrist Calder that anticipated Z Cars’ creation. The characters of Barlow and Watt transferred to Elwyn Jones’ regional crime squad sequel Softly, Softly, which became Softly, Softly: Taskforce in 1969.

Barlow’s popularity generated another spin-off in 1971, Barlow At Large and he was reunited with Watt for 1973’s fascinating, experimental six-part Jack The Ripper series, where they reopened and analysed the notorious case. They unpacked other famous unsolved crimes in 1976’s Second Verdict and Watt made his final appearance in the last Z Cars episode in 1978. By then Z Cars and its spin-offs had, together with Dixon of Dock Green, run on the BBC for 16 years.

Over on ITV in 1975, Troy Kennedy Martin’s brother Ian transformed the police drama with The Sweeney, a fast-paced, hard-hitting series featuring Inspector Jack Regan of the Metropolitan Police’s elite Flying Squad. The representation of the British policeman altered from Z Cars’ flawed but committed pillar of the community to The Sweeney’s unorthodox outsider consorting with villains to secure an arrest. Yet, as Rebecca Feasey observed, even if both shows were aesthetically poles apart Regan’s innate ‘honesty, incorruptibility and fairness harks back to the core values of those earlier productions’ like Z Cars.

Bibliography:

  • Blake, Philip, ‘Z Cars, Wednesday preview,’ in Radio Times, (BBC, 3 September 1964).
  • Bracewell, Michael, England is Mine: Pop Life in Albion From Wilde to Goldie, (Flamingo, 2009)
  • Chapman, James, Saints & Avengers: British Adventure Series of the 1960s (I.B.Tauris, 2002).
  • Cooke, Lez, ‘‘It was political’: John McGrath and Radical Television Drama’ in Journal of British Cinema and Television (Volume 10, Issue 1, Edinburgh University Press, January 2013).
  • Cornell, Paul, Day, Martin and Topping, Keith, The Guinness Book of Classic British TV (2nd Edition, Guinness Publishing, 1996).
  • Feasey, Rebecca, Masculinity And Popular Television (Edinburgh University Press, 2013).
  • Leishmann, Frank, ‘From Dock Green to Life on Mars: Continuity and Change in TV Copland,’ inaugural lecture at University of Gloucestershire on 7 May 2008 (The Cyder Press, 2008).
  • Lewis, Peter, ‘Z Cars’ in Contrast: The Television Quarterly, (Vol.1, No.4, British Film Institute, Summer 1962).
  • Miller, Toby, The Avengers (BFI Publishing, 1997).
  • Robert Reiner, ‘The Dialectics of Dixon: The Changing Image of the TV Cop’, in Mike Stephens and Saul Becker (eds), Police Force, Police Service (MacMillan, 1994)
  • Rogers, Dave, The Ultimate Avengers (Boxtree/Channel 4, 1995).
  • Rolinson, David, ‘The Blue Lamp to The Black and Blue Lamp: The police in TV Drama’, 24 April 2011, British Television Drama (2009), available at http://www.britishtelevisiondrama.org.uk/?p=1429, accessed 3 March 2014.
  • Rose, David E., ‘Softly Softly: the work of the Regional Crime Squads is the subject of this new detection series which features some of the characters from Z Cars,’ in Radio Times, (BBC,1 January 1966).
  • Sydney-Smith, Susan, Beyond Dixon Of Dock Green: Early British Police Series (I.B.Tauris, 2002).
  • ‘Z Cars,’ interview with John Hopkins, in Radio Times, (BBC, 5 September 1963).
  • ‘Z Cars: Elwyn Jones, Head of Drama Series, introduces the hundredth edition,’ in Radio Times, (BBC, 27 February 1964).
  • ‘Z Cars,’ interview with Stratford Johns, in Radio Times, (BBC, 5 March 1964).
  • ‘Z Cars: Back as a twice weekly serial,’ in Radio Times, (BBC, 2 March 1967).  

Last time: Fabian of the Yard and Dixon of Dock Green
Next time: ITC and The Prisoner

Viewing Figures

The Legal Bit

All written material is copyright © 2007-2017 Cathode Ray Tube and Frank Collins. Cathode Ray Tube is a not for profit publication primarily for review, research and comment. In the use of images and materials no infringement of the copyright held by their respective owners is intended. If you wish to quote material from this site please seek the author's permission.

Creative Commons License
Cathode Ray Tube by Frank Collins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.