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.
Recruiting The Professionals
During this unsettled period the managing director of London Weekend Television, Brian Tesler, approached Clemens and Fennell to pitch ideas for a rival drama to Thames Television's hugely successful The Sweeney, made by Euston Films. Clemens devised The A Squad about a fictional British law enforcement agency - CI5 - operating ‘beyond the police’ and ordered by the Home Secretary to combat specific crimes by any means necessary. An elite unit led by the uncompromising George Cowley, two of his top operatives were William Bodie, an ex-paratrooper, mercenary and SAS sergeant, and former detective constable Ray Doyle.
Clemens and Fennell created a subsidiary company, Avengers Mark 1 Productions, and hired director Sidney Hayers, often behind the camera on The Avengers, ITC's The Persuaders! and The New Avengers, to produce the first series of The Professionals. Echoing The Sweeney's use of a former school as an independent production base, Mark 1 established their operations at Harefield Grove, an estate just outside Pinewood Studios. Its grounds and buildings offered filming locations, offices and editing facilities and kept production costs manageable.
Original casting was not without its problems. Clive Revill was offered the role of Cowley but his unavailability eventually took Fennell to Gordon Jackson, an example of casting against type after his success as the buttoned up butler Hudson in Upstairs Downstairs.
A number of British actors were tested for Bodie and Doyle, including Oliver Tobias, Ken Hutchinson and Simon Oates. Jon Finch successfully tested for and accepted the role of Doyle but changed his mind about playing the character. Martin Shaw, best known to audiences for appearances in popular series such as Coronation Street, Doctor in the House, Helen: A Woman of Today, Z Cars, Villains and The Duchess of Duke Street, tested at the same time and was second choice.
Anthony Andrews was signed as Bodie, but as filming commenced it was evident his chemistry with Shaw failed to deliver the required relationship between Bodie and Doyle. Lewis Collins, contracted to play a minor role in the first episode, was then approached about replacing Andrews. Shaw and Collins were wary of each other after appearing together and not quite hitting it off in 'Obsession', an episode of The New Avengers, but the producers believed their off screen animosity had potential for the on screen partnership. The two actors developed their characters and, in the process, became good friends.
The emphasis in The Professionals was on action. Tesler admired how Euston had used hand held cameras, location filming and pacy editing to transform crime dramas such as Special Branch and The Sweeney. After completing the final series of The Sweeney in 1978, many members of Euston’s crew were hired by LWT for The Professionals’ second series, produced by Raymond Menmuir. Filming on 35mm switched to 16mm to allow for the use of lighter, more portable cameras on London locations and production moved to Lee International Studios.
Facing the critics
These changes brought a welcome sense of realism to a series that clocked up 57 episodes between 1977 and 1981. Hugely popular as it was, The Professionals was criticised as a brash, violent, reactionary hybrid of recent crime adventure and police dramas, one decorated with the conspicuous consumerism of the latest fashions and cars. An unsubtle extension of The Sweeney and its BBC clone Target, it eschewed the charm and sophistication of The Avengers and the secret agent travelogue tourism of the ITC days.
Mary Whitehouse vilified it as ‘violent, uncouth and unsavoury’ and LWT withdrew ‘Klansmen’, the last episode of the first series from British screens for not entirely clear reasons other than citing its discomfort about a story that, rather crudely, exposed Bodie’s racism. This signalled the series’ emergence during a period of social and political upheaval, its characters and format both reflecting and contradicting these changes.
Permissive, misogynistic and pathologically insolent, Bodie and Doyle maintained a macho fantasy just as ‘traditional’ masculinity itself was undergoing a major reconfiguration via feminist and queer critiques. Indeed the ‘rough’ and ‘sensitive’ of the Bodie and Doyle pairing played into a homoerotic re-coding of the relationship, something not lost on both the Comic Strip’s own satire of the series in 1984, The Bullshitters, and female writers who erotically reinterpreted this bond in stories produced for fan communities in the 1980s.
Perhaps responding to Martin Shaw's own disenchantment with the role, Clemens and his writing team attempted to deflect the pervasive hypermasculinity of the series with the more sensitive characterisation of Doyle. Gradually, and particularly when Raymond Menmuir took over as producer, there was an effort to inject more characterisation into the three leads and develop a sense of realism to some of the storylines.
It was not entirely successful and The Professionals always seemed to sit uneasily between the glamorous and stereotypical machismo of Starsky and Hutch and the grittier world of its predecessor The Sweeney or spy thrillers such as Callan. Menmuir took a less fascistic tone with the series' depiction of the extreme methods employed by CI5 to deal with terrorist plots, assassinations, police corruption, miscarriages of justice, inner city racism and drug smuggling.
If The Sweeney exposed the tensions between ‘old’ and ‘new’ policing during the 1970s, with Inspector Jack Regan symbolising these painful changes, The Professionals offered tough remedies for a dysfunctional Britain perceived as ‘the sick man of Europe’. Occasionally this 'fight fire with fire' attitude was leavened with stories that attempted to question or expose CI5’s morality as it defended the British way of life and Cowley himself often spoke up for civil rights.
The Professionals was a power fantasy mirroring the harder law and order agenda of a newly elected centre right Conservative government under Thatcher. Britain experienced IRA bombings, the Iranian Embassy siege, the Falklands and the Operation Countryman investigation into police corruption while The Professionals was on air. To emphasise this connection TV Times promoted The Professionals with a sobering article about its inspiration, the real trouble-shooters of the SAS and the Metropolitan Police Special Patrol Group whose single aim was ‘to crush terrorism’.
However, the BBC eventually challenged Bodie and Doyle’s violent escapism with Shoestring, a drama about a sensitive private investigator recovering from a nervous breakdown. Layers of characterisation replaced kicking down doors and impressive ratings saw off ITV’s competitive scheduling of The Professionals fourth season. The ITV strike of 1979, which caused financial problems for LWT, also disrupted the transmission and production of the series.
Life after The Professionals
The SAS affected Collins’ subsequent career after the series finished in 1981. While Shaw successfully returned to the stage in Alan Bleasdale’s acclaimed ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ in the mid-1980s and has since enjoyed a stable television career, Collins enlisted with the Territorials, gained the coveted Red Beret and joined the Parachute Regiment.
He applied to the SAS, passed the initial selection stages but was rejected because senior officers believed his public profile made him a security risk. Ironically, he then played SAS Captain Peter Skellen in the film Who Dares Wins. Made by former Professionals alumni Ian Sharp and Raymond Menmuir, and inspired by the SAS assault of the Iranian Embassy in 1980, it emulated the hawkishness of the series. Collins was briefly considered as a possible James Bond in 1982 but producer Albert Broccoli thought him ‘too aggressive’.
After The Professionals the crime adventure format endured with Dempsey and Makepeace and C.A.T.S Eyes but police procedurals and private investigators dominated television during the 1980s and 1990s.
It was a sign fictional representations of crime and security were reflecting the shift in crime control attitudes and equal opportunities within the occupational culture of policing. Prime Suspect and Between the Lines became the template for realistic explorations of operational issues, police corruption and institutional sexism and racism.
The 1990s saw a revival, by dint of baby boomer nostalgia, of the crime adventure genre. The Saint and The Avengers underwent dubious, uninspiring Hollywood film adaptations and the BBC produced a short-lived return of the quirky detective series, Randall and Hopkirk. After satellite channel Granada Plus achieved high ratings with their re-screening of The Professionals and the series was fondly referenced in an ad for the Nissan Almera in 1997, David Wickes, who directed episodes of the series, and creator Brian Clemens felt it was ripe for a return.
However, they struggled to sell the independently financed series to terrestrial broadcasters. Despite expanding the format of the series to encompass global terrorism and international crime, audiences did not embrace CI5 - The Professionals and UK investor and broadcaster Sky One heavily cut episodes for violent content. A mooted second series was cancelled.
In 2002 Spooks, a BBC drama firmly set in the post-9/11 global terrorism age and branded ‘MI5 not 9 – 5’, debuted. A fast paced thriller intertwining the personal lives of agents with the unrelenting ‘war on terror’ it echoed Wickes’ and Clemens’ attempts to globalise and update their franchise. Unlike The Professionals and the glossy ITC spy series of the 1960s, Spooks determined to depict male heroes making difficult choices between domestic responsibilities and maintaining the secret state. As an index of their millennial masculine insecurities, male characters sacrificed their personal lives for the public good.
These developments in crime adventure and police dramas connect with issues raised by Arthur Ellis’s 1988 play The Black And Blue Lamp. It wittily unpacked the changing television depictions of community policing and modern crime control and examined the darker side of public perceptions of crime professionals. Ellis’s deconstruction of the nostalgic but illusory yearning for a more direct way of tackling crime would be influential on Life on Mars, a series conceived in 1998 but not produced and broadcast until 2006.
Life on Mars, and its sequel Ashes to Ashes, interrogated the questionable, fictionalised views of crime and police via its unreconstructed central male character Gene Hunt. Television depictions of the police were, it suggested, nostalgic, memorialised constructions belonging to a television afterlife.
Hunt symbolised our desire to constantly resurrect and reinstate the ideal crime fighter on television, where such figures help us reconceptualise the past and render order in a chaotic modern world. A post-credits shot of George Dixon in the final episode of Ashes to Ashes, a policeman shot dead in The Blue Lamp but revived for the eponymous television series, visually acknowledged Ellis’s theme and Gene Hunt’s origins.
- Alvarado, Manuel, and Stewart, John, Made For Television: Euston Films Limited (BFI Publishing / Thames Television, 1985).
- Brunsdon, Charlotte, ‘Structure of anxiety: recent British television crime fiction,’ in Screen (Volume 39, Issue 3, Oxford Journals, Autumn 1998).
- Chapman, James, Saints & Avengers: British Adventure Series of the 1960s (I.B.Tauris, 2002).
- 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).
- Hunt, Leon, ‘“Drop everything… including your pants!”: The Professionals and ‘hard’ action TV,’ in Osgerby, Bill and Gough-Yates, Anna (eds), Action TV: Tough Guys, Smooth Operators and Foxy Chicks, (Routledge, 2001).
- 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).
- Mason, Bernard, ‘The quiet killers who wage war on terror,’ in TV Times, (IPC, 28 January 1978).
- Matthews, Dave, ‘Modus Operandi’, ‘Headquarters’, ‘Episode Guide’, ‘Lewis Collins’, The Authorised Guide to The Professionals (1996), available at http://www.mark-1.co.uk, accessed between February and June 2014.
- 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.
Earlier: Callan and Public Eye
Last time: ITC and The Prisoner
Previously: The Avengers and Z Cars
Originally: Fabian of the Yard and Dixon of Dock Green