Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Wednesday 26 June 1963

Yes, Z Cars.  One of the most important and influential programmes of the 1960s: and as with so many other shows of its era, a depressingly small proportion of the episodes that were made still exist.  This is the first of several  extremely sporadic appearances the show will be making around these parts.

If you don't know the set-up of Z Cars, it concerns the groundbreakingly gritty adventures of the police force in Newtown (a fictionalised version of Liverpool's overspill town Kirkby - Liverpool itself appears in the show in the guise of "Seaport"). The force's adversaries this week are a team of "whizzers" - organised pickpockets.  The organisation consists of three men: the burly Geer (Michael Brennan, owner of one of the most menacing faces in screen history), knocks some unsuspecting sap into the gang's leader, the suave, ever-so-polite Finger (Rex Garner), who extracts the victim's wallet.

The Finger then surreptitiously passes this to the Third Man (Harry Locke), who legs it.

The Newtown police are on the lookout for the Whizzers, but PC Jock Weir (Joseph Brady) has his mind on other things: specifically the way his shifts are forever being moved round to ensure he can play in the police football matches: he's the leading light of the local team but he's getting a bit cheesed off with his participation being taken for granted.  The storyline of Jock as a reluctant sporting hero's a perfect example of the pioneering soap opera-like approach Z Cars takes to its principal characters, fleshing out their characters by giving them complicated lives outside of their pursuit of wrongdoers.  We take this stuff for granted in 21st century police shows, but it was a trail that Z Cars blazed.

Jock's partner, the dandyish PC "Fancy" Smith is played by Brian Blessed, who's disconcertingly baby-faced at this stage in his career but still manages the occasional deafening bellow.

On the lookout for the Whizzers, Smith and Weir pull over a chap who matches the Finger's description and has a similar car.  This man, Mr Broom (Gerald Anderson) turns out to be a massive headache for poor Jock.  He's appallingly snooty and shows utter contempt for Jock's questions: things get a bit heated and he and the policeman end up each calling the other a bloody liar.  Yes, strong language for telly in 1963.  The encounter ends with the scandalised Broom insisting he'll have Jock hauled over the coals for his behaviour.

Meanwhile, the real Finger's relaxing in his hotel room with his truculent missus Sandra (Jill Carson).  She's fed up with the life of a pickpocket's moll, and her assessment of their current surroundings is succinct.  "What an 'ole," she complains, like a cheap Cockney Bette Davis.  The Finger tries to convince her of the luxury of their current residence.  You can even get a chicken sent up to your room!

Sandra's requests to be allowed to leave the hotel for a trip to the seaside fall on deaf ears, as the Finger contemplates the most important thing in the world to him: his supernaturally dextrous hands.  He's terrified of going to prison because of what might happen to them there: "You know what happens to dips in stir.  They do their time the hard way, sewing mail bags and chopping rocks.  When they come out their hands are in such a state they couldn't lift a watch off a blind man's belly."

In stark contrast to Mr and Mrs Finger's hotel suite, the other members of the gang have to make do with some thoroughly insalubrious digs.

Still, at least the Geer's got something to occupy his mind:

The gang have been extremely successful, parting 14 people from their money in just three days.  Their modus operandi involves a lot of hanging around outside public conveniences.

After the gang rob one unfortunate feller in the loos, Jock and Fancy interview the lavatory attendant (the idea of going into a public toilet and being greeted by a dapper gent ready to minister to one's every need now seems peculiar and strangely disconcerting).  "Would you know them again?" Jock asks.  "Oh no," the little man says, shocked.  "I never look at their faces."

While Detective Sergeant Watt (Frank Windsor) stalks the Whizzers, Jock finds himself on trial as the Chief Constable hears Mr Broom's accusations.  Rather wonderfully, said Chief's played by Kenneth J Warren, last seen here just last week in Hugh and I in the diametrically opposed role of an escaped convict.  The Assistant Chief Constable's played by another actor who's no stranger to TV Minus 50, the always rather stern Ronald Leigh-Hunt.

Unable to stand by and see Jock's career ruined, the meek Mrs Broom (Margery Mason) utterly humiliates her ghastly husband by admitting that he swore at Jock first.  This earns Jock a stiff reprimand, but nothing more.  Hooray! Now there's the business of catching those thieves to attend to.  Fancy acts as bait with a pocketful of ink to stain the Finger's beloved hands, then duffs the Geer up good and proper.

Jock sets off in pursuit of the Third Man and eventually tackles him, the resulting injury to his knee meaning he won't be playing football for a good long while.

The Whizzers is a fascinating (though pretty headache-inducing due to its entirely unrestored image quality) watch, but more than any other orphan episode I've featured here (except maybe the Coronation Streets) it feels like it badly misses the context of being a weekly instalment of a continuing show.  Z Cars will return to TV Minus 50, but it won't be for some months yet.

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