Wednesday 5 May 2021

The Professionals season two (1978)

The Professionals, which was screened in Britain on ITV between 1977 and 1983, was another series created by Brian Clemens whose output at the time was prodigious.

At the time the series was somewhat controversial for both the levels of violence and the levels of political incorrectness. The fact that it depicts a fictional intelligence-counter terrorist agency that effectively operates above the law and uses methods of extreme ruthlessness also made some people uneasy.

In fact of course there were plenty of contemporary TV series (in both Britain and the US) that portrayed government agencies acting with a sublime disregard of both national and international law but there was a difference - series like Callan and Special Branch took a rather critical look at agencies such as MI5 and MI6 while The Professionals clearly takes the view that disregarding the laws of the land is a jolly good thing.

But that’s perhaps a bit unfair. As season two progresses we get a couple of episodes which look at the dangers of abuses of power, at both high levels and lower levels. So what seems at first to be a purely action-oriented series starts to develop a bit of nuance.

The Professionals deals with an agency called CI5 and focuses on the agency’s chief, Cowley (Gordon Jackson) and his two top operatives, Bodie (Lewis Collins) and Doyle (Martin Shaw). The take-no-prisoners attitude of Bodie and Doyle quickly made them cult favourites.

The Sweeney (and before that the final two seasons of Special Branch) had changed the face of British television. Shooting in the studio was out, location shooting was in, and the emphasis was on non-stop action heavily laced with (by the standards of the time) fairly extreme violence. The Professionals adopted the same action-oriented approach.

There’s certainly no shortage of action and the action is consistently done well. This is an adrenaline-charged series. By this time British television had broken away completely from the shot-in-the-studio look - The Professionals features lots of great location shooting.

In the 60s American television series like Mannix and Hawaii Five-O has been much more action-driven that their British counterparts but from the mid-70s to the early 80s it was British television that set the pace when it came to action and violence. American series like Police Woman were considered quite violent in the US but they seem ridiculously tame compared to The Sweeney and The Professionals. That would change when Miami Vice exploded onto American TV screens in 1984.

The formula initially appears to be that Bodie and Doyle are the tough guys, the guys who handle assignments that are dirty and dangerous, but it’s the middle-aged Cowley who turns out to be the hardest of the three. He likes nothing better than getting the opportunity to demonstrate his tough guy credentials and psychologically he’s as hard as nails. It was a major change of pace for Gordon Jackson and he does a fine job.

The Professionals
was hated by critics at the time and it attracted the ire of moral watchdogs for its celebration of violence. It was attacked for being too macho (even though it had legions of female fans who adored Bodie and Doyle) and too mindlessly action-oriented and nowadays it’s regarded as being almost as politically incorrect as The Sweeney. All the criticisms directed at it are true and that’s why it was so immensely popular and that’s why it still has a loyal following. Clemens knew what audiences wanted. Audiences knew what they wanted. British TV critics for the most part had no idea what audiences wanted and just hated anything that the public liked.

This series is disreputable and glories in its disreputable qualities. It’s outrageous fun.

But, having said all that, while some episodes are mindless escapist entertainment some do have some actual substance as well. The Professionals somehow manages to combine a roller-coaster ride of action and excitement with some surprisingly subtle and cynical scripts.

British spy series of this era (such as Callan) could be very cynical indeed with no real moral difference between the good guys and the bad guys and there’s a certain amount of that in The Professionals. Espionage and counter-espionage are very grubby games and no-one can play these games and have clean hands.

The ten episodes of the second season went to air in late 1978.

Episode Guide

In Hunter/Hunted Bodie and Doyle are testing a new sniper rifle. It has a laser gunsight which in 1978 was cutting edge technology. Unfortunately they manage to have the gun stolen from under their noses. For highly trained professionals their idea of security is pretty laughable. If they want to keep their jobs they’re going to have to get that rifle back. Given the way they conduct the case it might have been better if Cowley had simply fired them on the spot. Anthony Read’s script is as full of holes as a Swiss cheese. Bodie and Doyle are supposed to be the elite of the elite but the script relies on having them act as if they’re rookies straight out of Police College. I wouldn’t trust these two on traffic duty.

On the plus side it looks great, there’s some fine location shooting and there are a few superb action set-pieces. The acting is excellent and the repartee between Bodie and Doyle is consistently sparkling. All it needed to achieve greatness was a complete rewrite of the script.

The Rack
is an interesting episode. CI5 conduct a raid on the mansion of the notorious Coogan brothers. Unfortunately the tip-off from an informer was wrong and they don’t find the drugs they expected to find. The complete lack of evidence doesn’t bother Cowley. He has both brothers interrogated and one of them, Paul Coogan, dies in custody. A court of enquiry is set up which, if it goes badly, may mean the disbanding of CI5.

What this episode is really all about is the question of whether outfits like CI5, which effectively operate outside the law, are justified or not. There’s no doubt that in this case they don’t have a leg to stand on. CI5 conducted a raid without a search warrant and interrogated suspects without allowing them legal counsel and in the process they killed one of the suspects.

What it’s all leading up to is Cowley’s passionate closing statement to the court of enquiry in which he argues that as unpleasant as it might be society needs organisations like CI5 and that protecting society cannot be done within the confines of the law. Whether you accept Cowley’s argument or not is up to you. We’re clearly expected to accept it but some viewers might have their doubts. You do have to remember that this was the 1970s when the idea that crime was out of control and that terrorism was a deadly threat made the idea of government agencies breaking the rules to combat such threats rather popular.

Of course the tension between the need for the rule of law and the need to protect society crops up in many police shows (and spy shows) of this era. And movies as well of course.

There’s also a problem for Doyle in this episode - he’s the one who killed Paul Coogan and he doesn’t feel too good about it.

In First Night an Israeli politician is kidnapped but it doesn’t seem to be politically motivated. It seems to be all about money. There’s some good sifting through clues in this story - it’s amazing the information you can get from a single photo. There’s a nice sense of urgency and some fairly good action scenes with the kidnappers using a hovercraft and a helicopter to make their escape. And Bodie makes an entrance worthy of The A-Team. A reasonably good episode.

Man Without a Past
starts with a bombing in a London restaurant in which Bodie’s girlfriend is seriously injured. Maybe the bomb was intended for Bodie, or maybe for the couple who were supposed to have that table but cancelled at the last minute. Cowley orders Bodie off the case but of course Bodie ignores the order. The plot is a complicated spider-web of deception with multiple possible motives and three or four different sets of bad guys. A good episode.

In the Public Interest is a bit different from what you usually expect from this series - this time the bad guys are cops. Cowley has been alerted to the fact that the Chief Constable of a certain unnamed city has managed to reduce crime rates to a remarkable degree. Too remarkable. In fact this chief constable has turned his city into a miniature police state. The impressive arrest and conviction rates have been achieved by fabricating evidence and by extraordinary abuses of power. The police are also acting as moral policemen. He sends Doyle and Bodie in to find some hard evidence and they’re lucky to get out alive.

This is one of the rare occasions when the series get into some social commentary, raising interesting questions about whether law and order is worth it if means the loss of freedom and also questions about the potential for abuse of power when the police are given too much power. So it’s actually a lot more relevant today than it was in 1978. A pretty powerful episode.

In Rogue Barry Martin, CI5’s first recruit and the man who trained Bodie and Doyle, goes rogue. They’re going to have to hunt him down which won’t be easy since he’s as good as they are. Unfortunately it’s obvious from the start that Martin is a bad ’un but there’s some decent action. A so-so episode.

In Not a Very Civil Civil Servant CI5 are called in on a case involving corruption in the building industry. It’s not the sort of case they usually deal with and Cowley suspects that the government minister who called them in wants to manipulate him into helping with a cover-up. Which of course makes Cowley very annoyed indeed. So he decides that CI5 will dig a lot deeper than the minister intended. A fairly good episode with Cowley getting to do some action stuff and the script (by Edmund Ward) is pleasingly tight.

A Stirring of Dust
is a story of elderly spies. Tom Darby (obviously a fictionalised version of Kim Philby) is an MI6 man who defected to the Soviets many years earlier. He has been living in retirement in Moscow. Now he’s vanished and both Cowley and the KGB think he’s returned to England. Why would he do something so stupid? Cowley doesn’t know but gradually an awful suspicion forms in his mind. The other problem is that England is full of elderly spies who believe that Darby betrayed them. They might be inclined to look for revenge. CI5 have to find Darby before he’s found by the KGB or by a bunch of geriatric British ex-spies.

It’s a solid spy story with the stirring up of ancient scandals and hatreds and some emotional dramas to add interest. It benefits from a great performance by Robert Urquhart as the rather sympathetic Darby, a man who still sincerely believes that his actions were justified. An episode with some psychological and moral complexities and there’s plenty of action as well. Great stuff.

Blind Run starts with Bodie and Doyle being given a mysterious mission. They have to escort a visiting diplomat but they have to do it unofficially. Cowley tells them they’re on their own, they can expect no backup and that officially the mission will never have happened. From that point on it’s a constant succession of car and boat chases, sieges and shoot-outs. And a constant succession of double-crosses and deceptions. This episode combines copious quantities of extremely well-staged action with a lot of cynicism. Excellent stuff.

Fall Girl is very cynical stuff. Somebody is trying to assassinate an East German diplomat and they intend to frame Bodie. Cowley has a fair idea of what’s going on but he’s going to have a tough job getting Bodie out of this. The trouble starts when Bodie runs into an old flame, who happens to be an East German actress who may or may not be a spy. Bodie spends most of the episode on the run. This is an episode in which the British are very much the bad guys. A great season-ender.

Final Thoughts

The second season starts a little bit unevenly but finishes very strongly indeed. Maybe not the best British spy series ever but certainly the most action-packed. On the whole it’s great stuff and highly recommended.

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