Saturday, January 4, 2014

Death By Mis-Adventure on Dixon of Dock Green

There are certain series I look back on and think of them in a certain way. They hold a perception that may not really be there. Maybe it’s right or wrong but if I look back and remember a series like Diagnosis Murder, I think of it as a standard Sunday night murder drama that has a wacky doctor who roller skates through the halls of a hospital. Maybe it started out this way but by the time it ended, it was actually a some-what dark series. At least it tried to be; whether or not it succeeded is up for debate. Anyway, by the time it ended, Dr. Sloan’s (Dick Van Dyke) daughter had been murdered, the hospital blew up because of a terrorist and there was a horrible plane crash perhaps caused by terrorists too.

What does any of this have to do with Dixon of Dock Green? Possibly more than you think. Dixon of Dock Green suffered from the same identity crisis as Diagnosis Murder. Dixon of Dock Green started out life in 1955 as a live program where we followed along with the life of George Dixon. He would unofficially become the face of the Metropolitan Police in terms of how the public saw the “Bobby”. He was polite and courteous but wouldn’t let the ruffians get away with anything.
Every episode started with Dixon foreshadowing of what we would see in the following episode and then re-join us at the end and tell us, essentially, what everyone learned from it. It was a comfortable series. It wasn’t fast pace. That could be down to the fact the series was live in the 1950s but also Ted Willis, the creator of the series, created a procedural police series. We first see George Dixon in the 1950 film, The Blue Lamp, played by Jack Warner just as he would play the character in the series. Shockingly, Dixon is killed in the film. His murder is central to the plot. Five years later, Dixon is brought back to life in his own series.

The series ended up getting a reputation of being comfortable and perhaps even simple with old time values and views. It may even be perceived as naïve. I don’t think it is. I have called it comfortable and admire the time it was made in and how it portrayed some of the values. I am not sure when it changed, but the way the series was seen by the general public was going to change.
By no means have I seen all of the episodes of Dixon of Dock Green. Most people haven’t. Out of the 432 episodes made between 1955 and 1976, only 32 still exist. You don’t need to be Adric to do the math. There are 400 episodes of Dixon of Dock Green missing. Doctor Who fans are upset that 97 episodes are missing of their series. The thing about Dixon of Dock Green episodes being gone is that it appears the series does a decent job of reflecting the style of how television was made and how the general public lived. Even though I just made this statement, I am not 100% sure I believe it.

To finally get to the point I made earlier, everyone thinks of Dixon of Dock Green a certain way but in the 1970s this changed. Joe Waters became Producer of this series. He seemed to want to change the direction of the series. The series started out in 1955 with 30 minutes episode and moved to 45 minute episodes in 1961 (Series 8). The theme music changed in 1966 when the series introduced a theme by Jeff Darnell called later titled “The Ordinary Copper”. At least with the 1970s series onwards, the theme kind of took on a bizarre 1970s tone. Previously the theme had a sort of a light entertainment approach to it. That’s at least what I can find from piecing info together from what I have handy.  In the audio extract from the 1966 episode Nothing to Say, the music is very “dance hall”. I find the theme music very interesting as when I hear it, it sounds to me exactly the same as another song also released in 1966 called “Somethin’ Stupid” written by C. Carson Parks. It was covered by Frank Sinatra and Andy Williams amongst others. Seriously, does anyone else notice this?
Whether or not the series became grittier is an educated guess on my part. Joe Waters became a Programme Coordinator in 1969 but soon became Producer. From what have read online is that he was always disappointed that people thought of Dixon of Dock Green as the program from the 1950s instead of the work he had done and what the program became under his watch. Joe Waters passed away recently and I wanted to pick something that showed his skill as a Producer and Director. In the episode I looked at, he did both.

Waste Land 14/11/70
This episode begins in a very a very abstract way. The camera is moving around outside at a location that looks like abandoned factories. It’s pretty bleak. I doubt that area is there anymore. I am sure that the area has been completely redeveloped. A woman is telling someone about a dream a man she knows often has.

We find out that there is a police officer missing. The woman who is speaking about the dream is his wife and it is his dream. He has been missing since the previous day. He is a mystery to us, the viewer, but he is also a mystery to the police in some way. His surname is Norman and he had joined the Metropolitan Police about 10 weeks previous. He had been in the Police force by not in London.
As the episode unfolds more, we find out a little bit more about Norman. He was attacked in 1965 while on duty by a gang of people who jumped him and hit him over the head with a metal bar. By his wife’s own admission, he had never been the same since. From that point on, his life changed. He believed he could find the people who did this to him. It took a lot out of him and his wife believes this is why he transferred to the Metropolitan police.

The investigation on the detective side is handed by Det. Sgt. Andy Crawford. Crawford has been in the series since the first episode in 1955 titled PC Crawford’s First Pinch. Crawford is actually Dixon’s Son-in-Law. His boss is Chief Inspector Presscott played by one of my favourite actors James Grout. He plays it with a suitable amount of “common sense”. Along with Crawford is Det. Con. Lauderdale. They start going around the area having conversations with the locals. One woman who is questioned has a son who spots and keeps notes on all police car numbers. It seems very much like a hobby I would have had when I was younger. Anyway, this woman is non-other than Anna Karen who played the awesome Olive in On the Buses. Seeing her in this brings up an interesting point.
There is something to be said about actors in the UK who were in big name series but ended up in smaller roles either during or just after their big programs ended. It seemed like there was no ego. It was actors staying employed. I think nowadays, at least in the US TV, the networks would probably milk it for as much publicity as possible. On the Buses was not only still going when this episode of Dixon of Dock Green was made but was hugely popular. She is great in this. It was a nice surprise to see her.

Lauderdale ends up finding a woman who may know something. In fact, Ruth Perry not only knew something but she was with Norman the night before. She would see him on a regular basis. Immediately the other officer’s attitudes change as it appears that Norman has been cheating on his wife. It makes it even more delicate as the entire time the investigation has been going on, Mrs. Norman has been with them, mainly with Dixon.
Ruth maintains that Norman would see her only to talk to her. She says Norman’s wife was not interested in what was going on in his life and he wanted to talk with someone about it. It soon becomes academic because the trail of what happened to Norman leads to a waterworks with waterfalls. As the officers continue to look, they get a call on the radio saying they found a body downstream in the water and confirmed it was Norman. Unfortunately, this call came through the radio as Mrs. Norman was sitting in the back of one of the police cars with Dixon. I guess she found out the hard way.

It is questionable what was going on with Norman that night. What was his true relationship with Ruth Perry and was it suicide? Norman was a very complicated person that really began when he was attacked. Chief Sup Bannister decides that the official record should say it was an accident. He tripped and fell in while in the line of duty. The Coroner labels it “death by misadventure.”
It’s a lie but it would appear that this serves a dual purpose. One it saves Mrs. Norman from knowing her husband was up to questionable activities. Two it also makes the Metropolitan police comes out looking good for the same reasons. Whether it was right or wrong, that was the decision. In the epilogue, Dixon personally believed Norman died five years ago when he was attacked. A very grim way to look at it.

As for Dixon himself, he is not very young anymore. He spends the entire episode watching over Mrs. Norman and asking her if she wants to go home while other people actual do something. It’s not so much a criticism but it is a direct link to the age of this character. This episode was the season premiere for Series 17. Jack Warner was born in 1895 and was 75 by the time this episode was made. He actually looked pretty good. My great-grandmother was born in 1891 and lived to be 102. Knowing her, it’s odd to think she was born before and lived longer than Jack Warner. Just a moment of morbidity.
The episode itself has a pretty uneventful perhaps even disappointing ending. Not disappointing for me but for all the people who were looking for Norman. There is hope for a happy ending of sorts but it never happens and perhaps it felt like there wasn’t going to be a happy ending from the start. It was bleak throughout the entire episode.  

The direction is good on this, especially in the beginning. As I have not seen any of the 1960s episodes leading up to this, I can’t help but feel this had to be a shock of sorts for the viewers. Something tells me the series never portrayed itself like this but I can’t be sure. There is a real gritty quality to the locations in this episode. Being shot entirely on film help sells this feel. The lighting is minimal and everything is real. There is nothing glamorous about the setting or locations in this episode. I watched this from the Acorn R2 DVD set and I am sure the others episodes follow the same look but I haven’t seen them all yet. I have watched the episode Domino from the final series and it seems to follow suit in this regard yet that is a standard mix of video interiors and film exteriors setting.
Speaking of gritty, the film print quality of the episode is pretty awful. It looks like it was telecined through dirt. According to the Kaleidoscope book of excellence, this episode exists as a 16mm print. Disgustingly, all the other episodes from Series 17 were made on the standard 2” video masters and they are all missing. So, thankfully it exists at all. I am not sure how Acorn received the episode to put onto this release but my guess it was provided on tape and not film. If it was on film, I don’t know if they would have done anything to clean it up since they are not known to put any money into that sort of thing. If this was a Network release, that would be a different story. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad we have this release but if you look at a “popular” title made at the same time such as Spearhead from Space, made during the same period and made the same way, you get an idea of what this could have looked like.

Joe Waters produced 86 episodes of Dixon of Dock Green. What I have seen from his era has been good but will this series ever lose the stigma of what people remember from the 1950s? Even if a ton of episodes are found from Philip Morris with his searches from around the world, would that go a long way to change people’s perception of the series? Probably not, it is my belief that most of the people who remember this series who are not ardent British television archive fans want to remember this series in its former 1950s glory with a black & white George Dixon saying to us  from the TV “Good evening all!”
Next week: Acorn Media is releasing a box set of the early episodes of Midsomer Murders. I love this series! I am going to review the new box set which looks at series 1-4.

Have a great week!
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3 comments:

Shawn Cassity said...

Very interesting article, I've seen two episodes from the 2nd season, liked them, and would like to see more of the surviving episodes. I've been mulling over getting the R2 DVDs that have been coming out. Anyway, good show!

Greg said...

Hi Shawn,

Thanks for the comment. I currently only have the first R2 DVD but I plan on getting the other. The only problem I have is the film quality but there is not much Acorn can do about it unless they want to spend a considerable amount of money on restoration. So I guess I am OK with it.

Take care,
Greg

gp said...

I grew up watching Dixon of Dock green on TV. One line I always remember is the Seargant saying "get your head down Lauderdale!" when Con Lauderdale was slacking off.

Graham (ex UK)