Appellate Judge James A. Stewart never brings sausages to a stakeout.
"Threats always come from lunatics. I have to find out who the lunatics are."—Alan Craven
If you watch Special Branch, you'll notice immediately that they're not in a studio. In an interview included in the DVD set, Patrick Mower, one of the stars, explains that Thames Television put the extra effort toward location shooting on film back in the early '70s in an effort to get the show into US homes, following in the footsteps of popular shows like The Avengers and The Saint. American viewers don't remember Special Branch, of course, because it never turned up. After two seasons, Thames pulled the plug.
I suspect the main interest today is that it came from the '70s (1973-74). If you've seen either edition of Life on Mars—I've seen the American version and hope to catch up to the British version—you might be a little curious about the cops pounding a beat on British telly back then.
The premise is simple: Special Branch is London coppers, but they get involved in cases that involve spies and such.
Facts of the Case
Special Branch: Set One features thirteen episodes on four discs:
• "Round the Clock"—Craven and Haggerty (Patrick Mower, Callan) are stuck together on a stakeout, watching a gold smuggler's mother from an abandoned school. They're not getting on well, and some burnt sausages are involved.
• "Inquisition"—Craven's asking an ex-con with a forged passport a lot of questions. Craven doesn't like the answers, even though his partner Bill North (Roger Rowland, Quatermass and the Pit) thinks they're on the up-and-up.
• "Assault"—Haggerty's father is attacked at the train station. The next reported victim, who happens to be carrying official documents, gets more attention.
• "Red Herring"—A "very nasty" petrol container device claims the life of a bomb squad member.
• "Death by Drowning"—A female MP's husband washes up in the Thames, which doesn't look good for her chances of becoming the first woman PM.
• "Threat"—An actress (Stephanie Beacham, Dynasty) whose life has been threatened doesn't want Craven's protection, but warms up when he accompanies her to a country estate.
• "The Other Man"—Craven gets to know the wife of a doctor who is being investigated for communist leanings after speaking out against pollution.
• "Hostage"—An Arab group holds a German diplomat's daughter for ransom, but the expert Craven consults thinks they're going to kill the girl anyway. Guests include Michael Gambon (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) and Elisabeth Sladen (Doctor Who).
• "Blueprint for Murder"—Private Eye prints the itinerary of a South African trade rep who has been threatened with assassination.
The opening episode of Special Branch mostly serves as a bio sketch on Alan Craven: he's 42, an Army vet, makes £3,000 a year, grew up poor, and lost his parents during World War II. His wife left him and his girlfriend's in nursing. Although he's a straight arrow in most of the episodes, it's suggested he's willing to plant evidence to get information in the opener. His partner, North, is a family man, but is loyal enough to take risks to help Craven clear his name.
Later episodes add Patrick Mower's Tom Haggerty. He gives a running commentary of an irrelevant neighborhood car break-in while on stakeout duty, and he's got an eye for the ladies. Craven and Haggerty are at odds at first, but—since it's TV—seem like best buds by Haggerty's second appearance. As the season goes on, Pam, who initially seems sympathetic to Craven's long hours and rough job, shows signs of its stresses on her; my favorite is the armload of books she carries when she goes over to Craven's house.
Some episodes have plots that start out intriguing but just sort of peter out. That seems to be a side effect of emphasis on character: long hours for both Pam and Craven put a strain on their relationship; Craven blames Haggerty for his marital breakup; Haggerty deals with his feelings when his father's the victim. Craven's ruthless pressure to get information—including from an obviously innocent language teacher—is the focus of several episodes. It's a character study, and Craven—although not dirty—isn't always likable. Still, George Sewell makes him interesting enough that you keep watching.
The location filming doesn't bring that much action, but it does make for a lot of small detail, such as the warnings on posters in a police station or the goings-on in neighborhoods during stakeouts. Sometimes, these scenes add a grace note: Craven in the street, looking at a newsstand headline; the dismantling of a bomb; an evacuated street, with only a dog barking. The prints are faded and scratched, which takes away from the beautiful look of the series, but you can still see that it was well-done.
The score has a few unusual touches, like the classical music that permeates "Polonaise," but it's mostly typical '70s: pounding action music (which sounds silly when someone's just walking briskly down the street), with a touch of the light music that's the stuff of parodies. Occasionally, the ambient sound is impressive.
The interview with Sewell and Mower appears recent, with both actors looking back fondly on the series.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I suspect that while Special Branch's strong characterizations might have been a fascinating surprise in the '70s, interested modern viewers will have seen plenty of variations on the cop drama by now. The actors refer to it as a gateway to The Sweeney, a British cop drama which came soon after.
I'm not sure whether "Death by Drowning" was inspired by a pre-PM Margaret Thatcher, but the thought occurred to me. That's one that someone involved with the release should have checked on for a text-based trivia extra, at least.
In the interview, it's mentioned that Series Two brought a better-known cast addition: Paul Eddington, who played politician Jim Hacker in Yes, Prime Minister.
Special Branch: Set One starts with the third season, with George Sewell taking over from Derren Nesbitt.
Special Branch may be a minor historical footnote and a lesson for British TV execs in securing the US buyers first, but it's not a bad drama. It grew on me gradually over the course of thirteen episodes. It's not one you've gotta see, but if Life on Mars whetted your appetite for vintage British crime drama, you could be drawn in.
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