Coppers & Spies Revisited

I thought you might enjoy these extensively 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.  

1: Evenin' All: From Fabian of the Yard to Dixon of Dock Green
 Crime and detective fiction developed from the public’s appetite for lurid reports of court proceedings, the serialised, sensationalist ‘penny dreadfuls’ and the first appearance of Edgar Allan Poe’s creation C. August Dupin in 1841’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue. As Dupin worked his case, the Metropolitan Police set up Scotland Yard and, forever synonymous with the London detective force, the Yard caught the public’s imagination. Inspector Bucket, in Dickens’ Bleak House, and Wilkie Collins’ creation Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone were inspired by the real-life exploits of the Yard’s officers.

Their popularity ushered in the ‘golden age’ of crime fiction and the success of Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Edgar Wallace and Agatha Christie also went hand in hand with the
mythologising of Scotland Yard. Inevitably, these stories would be adapted for radio, film and, finally, television. The crime drama and police procedural television series then emerged out of several related pre-war and post-war film and television traditions and practices.

For example, BBC dramas of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Dixon of Dock Green and Z Cars, developed from an experimental documentary ethos that stretched back to the General Post Office film unit overseen by John Grierson. It greatly influenced the BBC Documentary Unit’s production of public-information style crime documentary-dramas prior to Dixon of Dock Green. On the other hand, crime dramas shown on the commercial channel ITV, when it began transmission in 1955, evolved from economic and industrial changes to the production of B pictures.

Funded by US studios, these crime B pictures were also influenced by American detective noir of the 1930s, popularised by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and often featured lead American actors to ensure export potential. This British-American hybridisation of the genre would have a lasting effect as British film studios gradually switched to production of filmed crime series, intended for American television networks and often repackaged for cinema exhibition in Britain.

Pilgrim Street’s ‘manor’ and ‘ordinary everyday crime’

Prior to ITV’s arrival in 1955, at the BBC a key figure in the development of the crime documentary-drama was Robert Barr. A former BBC war correspondent and crime reporter Barr was unofficially in charge of the Documentary Unit at the BBC in the late 1940s and contributed to and produced several television magazine and story-documentary strands. His expertise on the police and crime featured in 1946’s Telecrimes, in which a Scotland Yard representative presented 15 minute dramatisations of true crimes, and a reconstruction style documentary about black marketers It’s Your Money They’re After, made in cooperation with the Yard in 1948.

Barr’s understanding of what constituted police work and his insider knowledge of Scotland Yard continued to inform BBC series such as 1950’s War On Crime and 1951’s I Made News. Fictional dramatisations of crime and the work of the police emerged from this documentary-reconstruction tradition and the research methods used were central to the early development of Dixon Of Dock Green and Z Cars, both of which would set the template for the television studio based police series of the era.

Many visual tropes in War On Crime were repeated in later dramas such as Fabian Of The Yard and Dixon Of Dock Green and production techniques used on I Made News, including creation of the new role of ‘director’ in BBC television production, had a lasting impact. Their reassuring public service element was eventually reconstituted within George Dixon’s direct to camera homilies in Dixon Of Dock Green.

Barr’s innovations coalesced in 1952’s Pilgrim Street, a weekly, public service themed drama-documentary series that shared aspects of Basil Dearden’s iconic 1950 Ealing crime thriller The Blue Lamp. Pilgrim Street’s working title was ‘the Blue Lamp series’, both were co-written by Jan Read and, like Dixon, they focused on a police station’s ‘manor’ and ‘ordinary everyday crime’. A framing shot of the ‘police’ lamp outside Pilgrim Street station referenced a similar image in the film and would be repeated in the Dixon Of Dock Green series.

Scotland Yard and the dual-purpose film

ITV recognised the potential for British filmed series as way of filling their schedules. Dramas made on film rather than on tape, using a rationalised, economic production ethos, allowed Anglo Amalgamated/Merton Park, the Danzigers, Hannah Weinstein, Lew Grade’s ITC and Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman to make the transition from crime feature films to television production in the 1950s and fulfil the demand from the small screen.

Anglo Amalgamated specialised in the dual-purpose film. 1953’s Scotland Yard, successor The Scales of Justice and their Edgar Wallace adaptations were featurettes shown in UK cinemas, sold for television broadcast in the US and later retransmitted on ITV. Quintessentially British, they explored an authentic London milieu on the verge of the social and cultural changes ushered in by the 1960s. Many of these films were based on actual cases and exploited the mythical status of Scotland Yard, due largely to the increasing relationship between sensationalist journalism and its ‘celebrity’ detectives.

In 1959 ITC and Baker and Berman’s company New World agreed a deal to produce Leslie Charteris’s The Saint and adapt John Creasey’s George Gideon novels as Gideon’s Way for television. To make them, New World put together a stable of writers, including Terry Nation and Harry W. Junkin, and directors such as Cyril Frankel, Roy Ward Baker and John Gilling. All had considerable experience working on the crime feature films made by New Word’s predecessor Tempean and they were gainfully employed by Grade’s ITC making British-American hybrid crime adventure series for the next decade.

American producer Hannah Weinstein came to Britain and established Fountain Films in 1952. She optioned the rights to John Dickson Carr’s Colonel March stories for a series of 26 dual-purpose half-hour film series transmitted as Colonel March of Scotland Yard on ITV from 1956. Boris Karloff played the eye-patched detective solving crimes too baffling for Scotland Yard, many with a hint of the supernatural. Weinstein, in collaboration with ITC, scored international success with historical adventure series The Adventures of Robin Hood but she returned to crime drama in 1959 with The Four Just Men, one of the first series to exploit the vogue for international detectives.

Two American brothers, Harry and Edward Danziger also brought an American production ethos to Britain and speedily made a series of crime features and series with an American and British repertory company of directors, actors and writers, including the creator of The Avengers, Brian Clemens, ITC stalwart Dennis Spooner and the prolific Roger Marshall.

Crime anthology series The Vise, produced in 1956 at Riverside Studios, eventually evolved into Mark Saber, a standard crime thriller featuring the eponymous former Scotland Yard man and gentleman detective. A British-American hybrid series, 130 half-hours of Mark Saber were networked in the US and then ran on ITV from 1957. It was retitled as Saber of London when NBC acquired the series and it ran for a further 90 episodes.

The Danzigers also contributed to the development of the international crime adventure series with Man From Interpol, a production made entirely at Elstree that exploited the use of stock footage to represent a myriad of foreign locations. It was a format that would stand the likes of ITC in good stead throughout the 1960s.

From acid bath murders to terrorism

With the launch of ITV imminent, in 1954 the BBC was pressured into developing new formats for drama and comedy. The new Head of Light Entertainment Ronnie Waldman commissioned the weekly Fabian Of The Yard, written and produced by Robert Barr and made by Trinity Films for the BBC, which ran for 36 episodes between 1954 and 1956.

Fabian shared many of the features of the US series Dragnet: it was notable as one of the first British series shot entirely on film; it used a voice-over travelogue to locate its crime stories in post war reconstruction London; and it based its stories on many of the real-life Fabian’s cases at Scotland Yard. The series’ noir-ish, forensic approach to everything from acid bath murders to terrorism established the benchmark for the dramatised police series on television.

Barr had persuaded Robert Fabian, head of the Flying Squad, to appear in I Made News and used his connections again to bring the detective to television. Actor Bruce Seton played his fictional incarnation and would then be switched to the real Fabian for an awkward prologue and epilogue to each episode, another device borrowed from Dragnet and used more effectively by Fabian's successor Dixon Of Dock Green.

To replace Fabian Of The Yard, Ronnie Waldman asked writer Ted Willis to revive PC George Dixon, last seen murdered in Ealing’s crime thriller The Blue Lamp. Based on Fabian’s case files about the gangland murder of Alec de Antiquis.

Written by Willis and Jan Read, the film’s depiction of the typical bobby on the beat and police teamwork set the tone for the television series Willis created. He told the Radio Times in January 1957 that he ‘discovered’ Dixon, while researching for The Blue Lamp, by walking ‘the manor’ with an East End copper and meeting the various denizens of the area around Leman Street Police Station.

The writing of six initial scripts for the Dixon of Dock Green series were inspired by his research at Paddington Green police station and anecdotal evidence from hundreds of officers. It informed the direction Willis would take: ‘We decided from the start, win or lose, to break away from the accepted formula for police and crime stories. Dixon wouldn’t be Dixon in a programme which was full of wailing sirens, screeching brakes, gun fights, murderers and crazy mixed-up kids. His life is one of routine: traffic duty, drunks, night-beats, answering questions, handling minor criminals.’

The avuncular Jack Warner reprised the role of George Dixon, whom he had played in The Blue Lamp, and became the epitome of community policing and the traditional image of the foot patrol policeman. The series consolidated the BBC’s move toward serialised drama and embraced the public service remit of Robert Barr’s documentaries, providing advice on crime prevention and information on support organisations such as the NSPCC.

With Fabian’s demise, Barr moved to ITV and worked there until 1958, when Elwyn Jones enticed him to return to the BBC as a Group Producer. He produced the BBC’s Scotland Yard series in 1960 and oversaw the development of, and contributed scripts to, Z Cars.

A cosy, paternalistic attitude towards crime

Willis left Dixon in 1963 as the 1960 Royal Commission on the Police and the Police Act 1964 responded to the public’s concerns about police corruption, organisational issues and accountability in a Britain then witnessing a crime wave. He and Warner were somewhat dismissive of Z Cars and its realistic reflection of these issues when it started transmission in 1962 but Willis later admitted that George Dixon was a product of his time, forever linked to Jack Warner’s gentle performance.

Although criticised for its cosy, paternalistic attitude towards crime, the series made a valiant attempt, with an influx of new writers, to inject realism into the format. In 1966 producer Ronnie Marsh responded to the series’ perceived cosiness with ‘a new tempo’ and introduced a toughness into the series when writers Eric Paice and N. J. Crisp created stronger stories less focused on Dixon’s home life.

When producer Joe Waters oversaw the series’ transition into the 1970s the lads of Dock Green were faced with police corruption, blackmail, suicide, gang warfare and gun crime. However, the final series in 1976, where a retired Dixon was re-employed as a civilian collator analysing criminal records, felt very anachronistic compared with the faster paced, gritty realism of The Sweeney.

The legacy of George Dixon continues in period dramas George Gently and Heartbeat, both nostalgic derivations of the uniformed police series with the former exploring the moral complexities of policing and the latter retreating into an idealised past. The police station as the centre for community-based stories was also reconfigured in the equally long running The Bill.

Robert Reiner, summarising this evolution, saw Dixon Of Dock Green as the thesis, with the police depicted as carers, The Sweeney as its antithesis where the police were controllers, and The Bill, as a synthesis of the two, showed the police as a service of interdependent care and control. The police series continues to evolve in this way, offering a pluralist approach to the depiction of police procedure and crime and its relationship with British society.

  • Adams, Bernard, ‘Dixon of Dock Green: why TV’s longest-running crime series is more talked about than ever,’ in Radio Times, (BBC, 20 January 1966).
  • 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). 
  • Mann, David, Britain’s First TV/Film Crime Series and the Industralisation of its Film Industry, 1946-1964, (The Edwin Mellen Press, Wales, New York, 2009)
  • Reiner, Robert, ‘The Dialectics of Dixon: The Changing Image of the TV Cop’, in Mike Stephens and Saul Becker (eds), Police Force, Police Service (MacMillan, 1994)
  • 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, accessed 3 March 2014.
  • Sydney-Smith, Susan, Beyond Dixon Of Dock Green: Early British Police Series (I.B.Tauris, 2002).
  • Willis, Ted, ‘George Dixon of Dock Green is back,’ in Radio Times, (BBC, 4 January 1957).
  • Willis, Ted, ‘Dock Green through the years,’ in Radio Times, (BBC, 17 September 1964).
Next time: The Avengers and Z Cars

One Response to “COPPERS & SPIES REVISITED - Evenin' All: From Fabian of the Yard to Dixon of Dock Green”
  1. Excellent article...fascinating reading.

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