Saturday 12 March 2016

The Professionals, season 1 (1977)

The Professionals marked a change of pace for Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell. They had enjoyed enormous success with series like The Avengers and The New Avengers - witty and stylish action adventure series with no pretensions to realism. In 1977 they launched a new series for London Weekend Television - a series that was determinedly and self-consciously in the mould of the increasingly popular Gritty Realism school of television drama. The series was The Professionals which was a major hit, running for five seasons from 1977 to 1983.

The Professionals deals with CI5, an elite (and wholly imaginary) British counter-intelligence agency specialising in anti-terrorist operations. CI5 is run by the hardbitten George Cowley (Gordon Jackson) and the focus of the series is on Cowley and his two top agents, Doyle (Martin Shaw) and Bodie (Lewis Collins)

The Professionals aimed not only to be gritty and realistic but also reflected the increasingly violent and cynical tone of British television in the late 70s. The body counts in some episodes are quite alarmingly high!

Gordon Jackson had been best known for playing a butler in Upstairs, Downstairs so he might have seemed an unlikely choice to play the ruthless Cowley. Jackson was however a versatile actor and he relished the opportunity to play a bit of a heavy.

London Weekend Television had asked Clemens to create a buddy series for them and that’s exactly what he gave them. Doyle and Bodie spend as much time trading wisecracks as they do blowing away terrorists. Fortunately most of the scripts (for the first season at least - I haven’t ventured any further than that so far) provide them with the right sort of dialogue so the formula works.

One of the things that Brian Clemens felt strongly about in regard to this series was that the emphasis should be on action and on the relationship between the three principals. Overt political content of social commentary was to be avoided since such elements would slow down the action and also date the program - there’s nothing more tedious than yesterday’s hot-button political issue.

When Clemens was asked how much background research he did on counter-intelligence and anti-terrorist agencies prior to creating the series he cheerfully replied that he had done none at all. Not that it matters - this is an action adventure TV series not a documentary and Clemens always understood that entertainment was the name of the game.

Old Dog With New Tricks was intended to be the debut episode and it gives us some of the background on CI5 and its peculiar structure (there are no ranks) and its powers (which are in practice virtually unlimited). It’s essentially an anti-terrorist squad and despite  Clemens’ having done no background research it’s a surprisingly accurate portrayal of the kinds of paramilitary anti-terrorist squads that have since become common. We also get a little background on Doyle and Bodie. Doyle is an ex-cop while Bodie is ex-military. The story is somewhat far-fetched. IRA terrorists steal a shipment of arms from an army base only to be hijacked in turn by a criminal gang with spectacular plans to spring a convict from prison.

Private Madness, Public Danger was the first episode to go to air (although this had definitely not been Clemens’ intention). It was a bizarre choice to launch what was intended to be a tough realistic no-nonsense series - this episode has a plot so far-fetched that it could easily have served as an episode of The New Avengers (of course that might have been the reason London Weekend Television picked it as the debut episode). Well-meaning idealists (and there’s nobody George Cowley hates more than well-meaning idealists) have decided to force the British Government to outlaw biological warfare - by launching a campaign of biological warfare. They are going to lace the nation’s drinking waters with hallucinogenic drugs. This is one episode that has not aged well.

Where the Jungle Ends, like Old Dog With New Tricks, is also outrageous enough to have been a New Avengers episode apart from the much higher level of violence. A team of mercenaries is conducting their own private war, in the heart of England. This episode gives us a bit more background on Bodie - it’s implied that he’s not only ex-military but possibly an ex-mercenary himself. These two episodes are quite over-the-top but both were written by Brian Clemens and if you can suspend your disbelief they’re quite fun. It’s amusing seeing David Suchet (Hercule Poirot himself) as a hardbitten and rather psychotic mercenary.

Long Shot (written by Anthony Read)  involves a plan to assassinate a former US Secretary of State, or at least that’s what CI5 thinks they’re dealing with. Roger Lloyd Pack gets to overact outrageously as the suave but ruthless assassin Ramos. Killer with a Long Arm (written by Brian Clemens) also deals with a foreign assassin operating on British soil, an assassin with a very special gun (and a very special target).

I thought the premise of Heroes was a bit unlikely - I can’t imagine the British government deporting a US Senator no matter how much they might disapprove of him. Clearly there are others who disapprove of him a good deal more - they intend to assassinate him. Cowley’s problem is to keep the Senator alive long enough to expel him from the country. One of the slight weaknesses of this series is the overuse of one particular plot element - the bad guys systematically killing all the witnesses to their crime. This episode makes full use of this idea and it becomes just a little predictable.

Everest Was Also Conquered begins with a prologue. It is 1953, the year of the Coronation (and the year Mount Everest was climbed for the first time, hence the title). A woman, a witness under police protection, is murdered by being hurled out of a window. A quarter of a century later a death-bed confession re-opens the case. The trail is well and truly cold but Cowley is determined to get a result. And yes, you guessed it, we again have the bad guys trying to kill all the witnesses!

The Female Factor is much more interesting. A call girl is murdered. She had tried to contact Doyle shortly before her death. Doyle takes this rather personally and involves himself in the case, even though this is certainly not a case for CI5. Cowley is about to give Doyle a dressing-down for wasting time of such a trivial matter when an alarming discovery is made. A sheet of notepaper with a telephone number is found in the dead woman’s flat. The telephone number is the Prime Minister’s direct line. Now this is definitely a CI5 case - only a handful of people have that phone number and all of them are very important people with access to very important secrets. 

The political incorrectness of this series is absolutely off the scale. There’s more political incorrectness packed into one episode than you’ll find in an entire season of The Sweeney.

The extraordinary ruthlessness of CI5 may also come as something of a shock. George Cowley really doesn’t care what methods he has to use to get results. There is nothing that is off limits.

What makes The Professionals interesting is that it tries on the surface to be a hardboiled and brutally realistic crime/espionage series and in many ways it succeeds in being just that but then on occasions some of the story lines really do stretch credibility. That’s not by any means a fatal weakness and even when the stories are a little incredible they’re highly entertaining.

I wasn’t a great fan of this series when I first encountered it but revisiting it now I’m finding it to be rather enjoyable indeed. Recommended.

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