SOFTLY, SOFTLY: TASK FORCE. “Blind Alley.” BBC, UK, December 3 1975 (Series 7, Episode 15). Frank Windsor, Norman Bowler, David Lloyd Meredith Guests: Ralph Michael, Michael Culver. Teleplay: Elwyn Jones (Format Creator). Director: Gilchrist Calder.  Streaming online here.

    This series that ran from 1969 to1976 was a police procedural that spun off from the famed Z Cars (from 1962 to 1978 and featuring Brian Blessed in a key role as a PC for several seasons) and its own spin-off Softly, Softly (1966-1969) moving the action from Wyvern possibly around Bristol to Thamesford and the city of Kingly where former Chief Inspector Charlie Barlow (Stratford Johns) is promoted to Superintendent and his top Inspector John Watts (Frank Windsor) to Chief Inspector forming a new special department designed to respond quickly to crimes in the area.

    There were a number of series regulars over the series run but only a few that appeared in most episodes, with Windsor’s John Watt appearing in the most episodes and replacing Johns as Superintendent when he moved on to another series in Barlow at Large in 1971.

    Other regulars over the course of the series were Norman Bowler as Harry Hawkins (who appeared in Softly, Softly from 1966 to 1968) rising from CID Sergeant to Chief Inspector over the series run 1969-1976), the more or less romantic lead; David Lloyd Meredith as Bob Evans (1969-1976) who rises from uniformed Sergeant to Inspector over the series run, a wry Welshman with a nose for crime; PC eventually Sergeant Snow (Terence Rigby 1969-1976) who begins the series as a K9 handler and is eventually promoted to Evans old job; and, Walter Gotell (also Softly, Softly and From Russia With Love, The Guns of Navarone, The Spy Who Loved Me, For Your Eyes Only) as Chief Constable Cullen (1969-1975) their superior, canny political figure as much as policeman.

    There was also a short Softly, Softly, Strike Force series in 1984.

    Unlike Z Cars and Softly, Softly which had many episodes erased by the BBC, all the episodes but one of Task Force are available on YouTube at various sites. Seasons run from thirteen to fifteen episodes and most are self contained although personal struggles and histories carry over from episode to episode and season to season though the series tends to focus on the main characters at work and not at home with only Barlow, Watts, and Hawkins domestic lives explored much.

    Along the line of a British 87th Precinct the series deals realistically with crime and police and there is no guarantee in any episode that the police will triumph and the criminals be caught. Many episodes portray the criminals as human beings caught between their chosen way of life and the police who offer them little room to maneuver. The police aren’t always happy with their own tactics and constraints and are torn between distrust and a natural desire to catch the bad guys and often old relationships with them over the years.

    As often as not the final solution is left in the air or the villains to be caught on another day in other circumstances. Like real police work the cases are messy, plans go awry, and innocents caught out by both police and criminals.

    The format for the series was created by Elwyn Jones with many episodes written by novelist Alan Prior and at least one by none other than novelist Kingsley Amis.

    Frank Windsor’s John Watt is the conscience of the series, a much less high handed and brutal man than Barlow who is portrayed as fairly ruthless and more feared than loved by his men. The camaraderie between higher ranking officers often portrayed in American police series is less noticeable here, the emphasis on discipline and rank however human the officers are. These are human beings, not stereotypes and cartoon figures. This isn’t Dragnet, nor is it car chases and gunfights though there is action in many episodes. Police are vulnerable, fallible, and prone to human mistakes and sometimes butt heads with each other.

    In “Blind Alley” Justice Ballantyre (Ralph Michaels), a notable and often strict judge has bought a weekend home in the area and the Task Force is bending over backward to protect him on his weekends when PC Lincoln (Peter Clough 1975-76) of the Mounted Patrol notices someone has been spying on the judge. While the judge is out of town his home is broken into and leaflets are posted on his window and door while the intruder burns FDR into his lawn, a reference to a radical group Ballantyre sentenced to prison, Free The Daventry Resisters.

    Meanwhile Sgt. Evans is about to officially receive promotion to Inspector, a secret no one on the force seems able to keep.

    When the break-in happens a reporter from London (Michael Culver) shows up claiming he knows the man, a well known radical member of the Daventry Registers, who is willing to surrender to the police, but Watts and Hawkins suspect the man is wanting publicity and they are wary to give it to him, with good reason it seems when the Judge returns and reveals a secret that changes everything.

    Things take a more radical change when they snub the confessor who makes an unexpected attack on the judge turning a celebration into a dark finale for the season.

    Strong writing, flawed protagonists, solid plots, and a jaundiced view of crime and police marked the series. Certainly weighted in favor of the police point of view the series still managed to present criminals as human beings developing more of a social conscience as time went on over its eight year run. Over the years the series dealt with many serious issues and did so sensitively as well as doing the usual mix of seventies subjects like terrorism and hijacking.

    Even if your tastes don’t run to police procedurals the quality of the acting and the writing on this series was exceptionally high. For beginners, I’d dip into a few of the later episodes after the series had its feet and if I liked it — and I did, very much — go back to the beginning. I don’t know about the original Softly, Softly, but a few episodes of Z Cars are on YouTube.