Sunday, 9 June 2019

Gideon’s Way (1965-66)

Gideon’s Way is a much-praised British police drama from ITC which went to air in 1965-66 with John Gregson starring as Commander George Gideon of the Criminal Investigation Department of Scotland Yard.

It was an ITC series so production values were quite high and it features a lot more location shooting than you expect in a mid-60s British cop show. The London locations are a definite highlight. It shared the same production team as The Saint - producers Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman and script supervisor Harry W. Junkin. It was shot at Elstree Studios in tandem with The Saint.

Gideon’s Way was based on the series of crime novels which John Creasey wrote under the pseudonym J.J. Marric.

An interesting feature is that while most cop shows have an Inspector or a Chief Inspector as the protagonist, natural enough since these are the officers who are going to be the ones conducting the actual investigations of crime, Gideon’s Way focuses on a very senior officer. A Commander is very unlikely to have any intimate involvement in investigations so this series has to fudge things a bit by finding ways to get George Gideon out on the streets. The experiment does succeed pretty well though, with Gideon mostly making command decisions that influence the course of investigations while the hands-on stuff is mostly left to Chief Inspector David Keen (Alexander Davion).

In John Creasey’s Gideon novels Gideon’s marriage is not exactly on the rocks but it’s far from being a perfect marriage and neither Gideon nor his wife could really be described as happy. The TV series makes the Gideon family pretty much the perfect happy family. I think it was a positive change - personally I get a bit tired of tortured heroes whose personal lives are a train wreck.

Episode Guide

Unfortunately the series gets off to a rocky start. State Visit deals with terrorism but it’s a bit too inclined to be sympathetic to the terrorist. The ‘V’ Men taps into 1960s hysteria about neo-nazi conspiracies and an imminent fascist takeover of Britain. Worse than that it’s an utterly predictable story. And then we get The Firebug, another story that tries too hard to portray a villain as a victim. And it’s also very contrived.

The fourth episode, The Big Fix, is a more straightforward crime story but again with too much emphasis on criminals as victims, plus it’s a fairly unexciting story.

So the series kicks off with four dud episodes in a row. Can any series overcome such a disastrous start? Surprisingly the answer is yes.

Things get back on track with The Housekeeper, in which elderly rich men are being murdered by a sweet little old lady who is actually a very evil villainess. It’s a fairly good episode. And the series gets into top gear with The Lady-Killer, a tale of a man whose rich wives keep dying suddenly. These two episodes are both fine traditional suspense stories with the police racing against time to stop a killer from killing again.

To Catch a Tiger is great stuff. A death-bed confession by a nurse suggests that a man may have murdered his wife. Gideon is determined to get this murderer but the odds seem hopelessly stacked in the murderer’s favour. There’s no hard evidence and there seems to be no way to prove the case. But Gideon hates admitting defeat.

Big Fish Little Fish is a Dickensian tale of child thieves but it’s the Fagin behind them that Gideon wants. Melodramatic but enjoyable. The White Rat pits Gideon’s team against a ruthless but dangerously unbalanced crime boss. The ending is a fine suspense set-piece.

How To Retire Without Really Working is about a very pleasant middle-aged couple who happen to be very successful thieves. Now it’s time to retire but that requires a lot of money. If only they could pull off one big job they’d be set. The twist in this episode is that they’re so nice that Gideon really doesn’t want to catch them.

Subway To Revenge is a nice little mystery. Mild-mannered young accountant James Lane survives two attempts on his life. The difficulty is to persuade the young man that someone actually is trying to kill him. It’s up to Miss Winters from Personnel (who is awfully fond of James Lane) to persuade the police to do something. A good little story.

The Great Plane Robbery is a fine illustration of the principle that cops don’t catch criminals because cops are really clever. They catch criminals because criminals are really really stupid. All the cops have to be is patient and methodical. In this case the police are up against a criminal mastermind (played with panache by George Baker) but while he might be very clever the other members of his gang are monumentally dumb. And that is another reason cops usually win - the smartest master criminals always have at least one stupid underling. The heist itself, of a Russian airliner carrying gold bullion, is a fine set-piece.

In Gang War two rival youth gangs clash but Gideon has a suspicion that there’s something quite different going on beneath the surface. There’s a fine heist sequence and a rather brutal ending. A good story.

The Tin God concerns a prison breakout. For Benny Benson it’s a chance to even the score with the person he believes betrayed him to the police - his own wife.  And his wife knows that promises of police protection won’t do her any good. Benny will get her sooner or later, unless he is recaptured. A fine episode with a great performance from Derren Nesbitt as Benny.

The Alibi Man is an interesting tale of loyalty with some elements that are very surprising and very daring for 1965. A racing driver has been cheating his business partner and the ensuing confrontation ends in murder. The racing driver has an alibi but Gideon and David Keen are not entirely convinced by it. They’re not entirely convinced by any of the apparent circumstances but their suspicions do not amount to proof. A very good episode.

In Fall High Fall Hard a construction company has been indulging in some less than ethical practices which may have led to murder. And may lead to more murders. Quite a good episode.

Sometimes winning the football pools can be very bad luck indeed. And so it proves to be for a young married couple in The Wall. In this story the vital work of detecting is done by the couple’s pet dog. A fine suspenseful episode.

The Prowler is a disturbed young man who has been attacking women. He is very careful not to hurt them - all he does it to snip off a lock of hair. But Gideon knows that there is always the danger that such crimes will escalate to something much more serious so he orders a full-scale manhunt. It ends with a fair bit of suspense and excitement. A good episode.

The Thin Red Line gets Gideon mixed up in an affair of a regimental honour. The Balaclava Silver, a fabulously valuable 543-piece dinner service, is being stolen piece by piece. It commemorates one of the highland regiment’s proudest moments, when it stood as part of the Thin Red Line at the Battle of Balaclava in 1854. Gideon has to find the thief but it has to be done discreetly - the honour of the regiment and all that. He ruffles a few feathers when he announces the he’s going to investigate the officers as well. This is obviously absurd. They’re gentlemen. An odd episode.

A Perfect Crime is the title but the perfect crime involved is like most perfect crimes. It’s very imperfect. It’s a brilliant and daring jewel robbery except that a girl is killed in the course of the theft. And the two thieves don’t trust each other. There’s good police procedural stuff in this episode but as usual in this series it’s the criminals’ own folly that brings them undone. A good episode.

The Millionaire's Daughter is a kidnapping story and to be honest the plot is fairly routine. But the execution is good and we get to see an early Donald Sutherland performance as a psycho. An average episode.

Morna is a 19-year-old girl found murdered. She was the perfect English Rose, an angel come down to dwell among mortals. Everyone loved her. No-one could possibly have wanted to harm her. At least that’s the story everyone is telling. But if all the is true there’s one problem - somebody most definitely did want to harm her. Maybe Morna wasn’t quite so perfect after all. This story is told largely through flashbacks which gives us the chance to see Morna through the eyes of various possible suspects. A good episode.

Boy with Gun bears some resemblance to Morna, being another story of Children Gone Wrong. Again it’s upper-class children. And once again it’s all the father’s fault. Chris Kirk is fifteen and he’s a nerd and he’s constantly being picked on. His father gives him a shotgun to try to encourage him to take an interest in non-nerdy activities. So next time the other kids pick on him he blows one of them away. Given that they were threatening him with knives his reaction was somewhat understandable. Now Chris is on the run. It’s an episode with an agenda, something I intensely dislike. There’s also an attempt to address class issues. A bit too contrived and much too heavy-handed.

In The Reluctant Witness the Carter brothers have been operating a number of successful criminal operations. They’ve been able to get away with these activities not because they’re smart but because nobody will dare to give evidence against them. But now it appears the brothers may have miscalculated. Gideon has a witness, although she is a very reluctant witness indeed. It’s quite a good episode and an interesting look at the viciousness of the petty London underworld.

The mid-60s was the era of street battles in Britain between Mods and Rockers as youth culture began to turn violent. It was a time of bewilderment - why are our children turning into anti-social thugs? The Rhyme and the Reason is an attempt to address this issue. Young Winnie Norton is a Good Girl Gone Bad. Going out with a loser like Bill Rose (a Mod who seems to have an immense appetite for being humiliated by his girlfriend) is bad enough but now she’s set her sights on a Rocker named Rod. He’s a sexy Bad Boy and that’s what Winnie wants. It’s no surprise that she’s going to end up getting more than she bargained for, but was the guilty party Loser Bill or Bad Boy Rod? It’s all a bit contrived and it has a social message but at least Mods and Rockers are less irritating than later youth sub-cultures. An OK episode.

The Nightlifers is another attempt to address the vexing question of youth culture. This time it’s upper-class kids with slight fascistic tendencies and a taste for violence for kicks. It’s the sort of thing that TV writers of that era liked to obsess over. It plays out fairly predictably. Anton Rodgers gives a deliciously over-ripe performance as the gang leader with serious delusions of grandeur. Not a complete success but amusing as an example of 1960s anxieties and the way the things we worry about most usually turn out to be the least of our worries.

Final Thoughts

Despite that very bad start Gideon’s Way is a top-notch police drama with some clever scripts and by mid-60s British TV standards very high production values. John Gregson gives a very sympathetic performance but he doesn’t let us forget that while Gideon is a sensitive civilised man he’s also a cop, he takes his profession seriously and he doesn’t flinch from tough decisions.

Alexander Davion as Chief Inspector David Keen is also excellent. He’s smooth and sophisticated, a bit of a college boy type, with a seeming air of carefree irresponsibility but underneath he’s a non-nonsense cop who gets the job done.

Gideon’s Way is the product of an era in which cop shows were starting to move towards greater realism and greater emphasis on detailed police procedural stuff but before the unfortunate trend towards making everything dark and edgy and cynical. It gets the balance right, whereas from the early 70s on British cop shows veered too far in the direction of violence and nihilism. Gideon’s Way is a grown-up police drama that doesn’t insist on wallowing in the gutter. Highly recommended.

Gideon’s Way was based on the series of crime novels which John Creasey wrote under the pseudonym J.J. Marric. I’ve reviewed the first of the novels, Gideon’s Day, at Vintage Pop Fictions.

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