Tuesday 31 January 2017

Z Cars (1962-65)

Z Cars is one of the most famous and influential of all British television police shows. It was produced from 1962 to 1965. The BBC later revived the series in an ill-advised soap opera format and after several further format changes it finally ended in 1978. It is however the original 1962-65 series that changed the face of British cop shows. 

Troy Kennedy-Martin came up with the original concept for the series, which was to be set in Lancashire rather than (like most police series) London. The intention was to create a more modern and more gritty police series in contrast to the cosy and comfortable world of series like Dixon of Dock Green

Z Cars reflected significant changes in British society, with people being moved from overcrowded slums into new housing estates (which quickly became new slums). Z Cars is set in the fictional town of Newtown.

The series also reflected the major changes in policing policies that were being enacted at the time. The premise of the series is that the Chief Constable has agreed that the old-style bobby-on-the-beat methods are antiquated and ineffective. What they need is young fit hard men in high-powered cars. While Z Cars reflects these changes the series was so influential that it could be argued that it actually influenced the spread of these new American-style policing approaches in Britain. This was a new, more aggressive policing method and for the purposes of television it made police work more exciting and more glamorous.

It’s interesting that the first episode, Four of a Kind (written by Troy Kennedy-Martin), not only illustrates the older bobby-on-the-beat policing approach - it actually demonstrates just how effective that approach was.

In this debut episode Detective Chief Inspector Barlow (Stratford Johns) and Detective Sergeant Watt (Frank Windsor) are selecting the four officers for the new car patrols for Z Division. Incidentally this is why the series is called Z Cars - it’s not because the cars used are Ford Zephyrs. The two new patrol cars are code-named ZV1 and ZV2. The four officers include PC ‘Fancy’ Smith played by the legendary Brian Blessed.

Most British TV shows of this era have that characteristic look that comes from being shot on videotape in the studio but Z Cars used an even older production method (already disappearing by 1962) - it was transmitted live. 

While Z Cars marked the beginning of the trend towards a gritty realistic approach in British TV cop shows it has to be emphasised that this means gritty and realistic by the standards of 1962. By 1970s standards it’s very tame. This is not The Sweeney. The violence is very mild and there’s a complete (and welcome) lack of the sleaze that characterised so much 70s UK TV. It does however try to depict realistic police methods, it does show the grim reality of life for the poor and it’s pretty frank about the sordid nature of the criminal underclass.

It’s perhaps surprising that any episodes at all survive, but quite a few do.

Handle with Care, a very early episode, features a guest appearance by Arthur Lowe as a seedy housebreaker. ZV2 is called to a quarry where there’s been an explosion - someone has been stealing gelignite but they haven’t stored it properly and now it’s become unstable and the whole lot could explode at any moment. Meanwhile ZV1 has found an abandoned van which may have been used in the robbery of a toy shop. Toys and gelignite may not seem to have much connection but in this case they are indeed connected.

In Contraband PCs Smith and Jock Weir deal with a girl caught shoplifting and someone tries to sell Smith a watch. It’s a very good watch, and very cheap. Too cheap to be legitimate. PC Smith sees a chance to impress Chief Inspector Barlow who happens to be investigating a case involving watches smuggled into the country.

People’s Property tackles the issue of juvenile crime. PCs Smith and Weir catch two small boys breaking into a warehouse. It seems that both boys are already well advanced on the path to a life of crime. One in particular is a very troublesome specimen indeed. The two boys embark on as miniature crime wave. Actually it’s more of a large-scale crime wave. This story does depict fairly well the utter futility of the juvenile justice system.

The fine cast is a major asset. Stratford Johns, who went on to play the same character in three subsequent TV series (Softly Softly, Softly Softly: Taskforce and Barlow at Large), is in splendidly ebullient form. Frank Windsor is excellent as the harassed but dedicated Sergeant Watt. Brian Blessed of course steals every scene he’s in.

Compared to later crime series Z Cars is fairly light on action, but then it’s intended as a realistic portrayal of police work and in 1962 British policemen didn’t spend much time having shoot-outs or car chases. The cases are mostly the sorts of everyday cases that made up a policeman’s life in a society in which crime was still mercifully relatively rare. While the officers who man the crime patrol cars are tough they’re also good-natured and patient. Even though this represents a different style of policing from the era of Dixon of Dock Green there are still touches of the halcyon days when policemen were generally friendly and easy-going. And there are plenty of light-hearted and humourous moments.

When watching Z Cars you have to take into account the limited BBC budgets and the fact that being transmitted live make it at times a little rough around the edges. This being 1962 the pacing is relatively leisurely although this turns out to be an asset rather than a liability. Without constant car chases and fist fights there’s time to develop the characters of the people the Newtown Police encounter. The writing and acting are of course vastly superior to anything you’ll see on British TV today.

Sadly it seems that none of the episodes from the original 1962-65 series are available on DVD although the later (and very much inferior) series from the 70s have been released. You can however find some episodes online.

Z Cars is quality television and it’s intelligent entertainment. And it has Brian Blessed! Highly recommended.

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