I was watching an episode of Hawaii Five-O recently and given the news reports that day the amount of gunplay seemed painfully casual. In the Five-O universe the bullets are sprayed all over the place with reckless abandon. Sometimes they even hit somebody. The way the bodies stack high, you might be forgiven for thinking this kind of behaviour is normal or acceptable.
It put me in mind of a one-off BBC2 television play that examined changing perceptions of law-enforcers and how they are portrayed in film and television drama. Even in 1988, it was a tad quirky and perhaps over reaching, but you can’t deny the ambition or the point it was making.
Providing context requires a little bit of time travel and a few cultural pointers.
We start with a movie from 1950 and an ordinary copper - PC George Dixon.
Dixon was played by Jack Warner who had a music hall and radio background, often appearing with his sisters, Elsie and Doris Walters, when performing their comedy act. He also played dramatic roles, such as Inspector Lomax in the movie The Quatermass Xperiment, remaking the classic Nigel Kneale tv series.
Dixon was one of those dramatic roles in Ealing Studios’ The Blue Lamp and the character would follow Warner for the rest of his years. The movie also provided a break out role for Dirk Bogarde as a psychotic thug.
The film starts as the firm but friendly Met veteran takes a young PC Mitchell (Jimmy Hanley) under his wing to show him the ropes on the rough West London Paddington beat. We see some of Dixon’s family life, and learn that he is due to retire. (I don’t think it is unfair to say that there were echoes of PC49, a dedicated plod played by Brian Reece in a radio series and on film between 1947 and 1953. There was also a comic strip of PC49 in the Eagle which makes entertaining reading.)
All well and good but that no-good rotter Tom Riley (Dirk Bogarde) shoots Dixon down when he interrupts him robbing the Coliseum cinema in Kilburn. Dixon is dead!
The rest of the movie is a manhunt as Riley is tracked down (allegedly the chase goes past 10 Rillington Place at a time when serial murder John Christie was still in residence). Eventually, he is tracked down to White City greyhound track where PC Mitchell gets a satisfying punch in before reinforcements arrive. The film ends with Riley being carried off to the Dock Green station.
Except that wasn’t the last we would see of PC Dixon. Writer Ted Willis thought there was more mileage in the character and pitched the idea of a television series to the BBC. For the tv show, Dixon became a widower, but gained a daughter (played by Billie Whitelaw and then Jeanette Hutchinson). He became a mentor to PC Andy Crawford (Peter Byrne) who would eventually become his son-in-law. Dock Green would be magically relocated to London’s East End. Gor blimey, guvnor!
So Jack Warner returned to life as PC Dixon and quickly established the show as an iconic and staple part of the tv diet. He appeared in 432 episodes (400 lost) of Dixon of Dock Green between 1955 and 1976. Each episode would be bookended with Warner directly addressing the audience with extra detail of that evening’s episode or some friendly moral advice.
It was a popular show and spawned several novels and comic series. It was the cover feature on Swift for a period and also in the digest-sized TV Picture Stories.
In the early years, the producers were not adverse to recasting when a regular actor left the show, but eventually the family background was removed in favour of more procedural dramas. Dixon did eventually get a promotion to Sergeant, though his son-in-law made it to Inspector. Throughout, Dixon remained a friendly figure of authority, dependable, morally upstanding and incorruptible, a virtue that was praised when the show began but mocked by the time boozing roughnecks on the edge of a nervous breakdown, such as Brian Blessed’s “Fancy” Smith drove up in Z-Cars. More so, The Sweeney had hit our screens with a rougher view of the police.
Warner was 80 when the last episode of Dixon of Dock Green was broadcast, several decades over the retirement age that would have been enforced on his character in real life. When he died five years later, police officers from around the UK provided an honour guard for the funeral procession.
Coincidentally, there is a radio remake with David (Star Cops) Calder as Dixon and David (Doctor Who) Tennant as his son-in-law, Andy Crawford. It is available on CD and on Audible.
So if we move forward to September 7, 1988, BBC2's ScreenPlay thread brought us The Black and Blue Lamp by Arthur Ellis. It starts with a black screen and the sound of a police radio advising that Dixon has been shot. “Christ, Dixon! Is nothing sacred,” says a fellow copper as we move to potted highlights of The Blue Lamp. It’s the end of the movie, but in glorious black and white we follow Tom Riley (now played by Sean Chapman) as he is taken into custody. PC Taffy Hughes (Karl Johnson), a friend of Dixon’s, accompanies the prisoner, but his head is bandaged. He has obviously suffered an injury during the chase.
While the screen is black and white and the coppers are polite, keeping their captive sedate with a fag and the promise of a cup of tea and a sticky bun. He knows his rights.
Except as we come out of the Black Mariah, it shifts to colour and attitudes are a little different. We are now in an episode of The Filth, a show about ultra ruthless super cops. John Woodvine’s Superintendent Hammond tells Kenneth Cranham’s Superintendent Cherry that Dixon’s death is great for PR. Cherry picks up a bribe on the way in.
Riley gets a little squeaky as he realises that the sticky bun might not be on the way. Cherry’s interrogation technique is quite simple. “Oh, I know who you are, and I’ll tell you this for nothing: You’re gonna put your ‘ands up to this one, son, or I’ll take your bollocks off with a Stanley knife!”
However, Taffy Hughes is worried about his colleagues as he tells his laughing superior “Something is wrong, Sir. They are using bad language!”
In the course of the play, they manage to taint Dixon with turning a blind eye to child molesters and Woodvine’s character becomes increasingly unhinged. The genteel approach of the Dock Green series is wiped away in a bloody massacre.
The ending is a bit forced as well as messy but it contrasts the developing style of police drama, something that would be flipped the other way a couple of decades later when John Simm’s Sam Tyler got knocked back through time in Life on Mars.
On the flipside of The Black and Blue Lamp, the politically correct Tyler has the culture shock of dealing with sub-Sweeney psychopomp Gene Hunt (Phillip Glenister). The mystery of Tyler’s time displacement kept viewers on the edge of their seats for two series before that mantle was picked up by Keeley Hawes in Ashes to Ashes. In the final episode, Hawes’ Alex Drake discovers that she is dying and has been existing in a copper’s purgatory before passing over.
The final scene of Ashes to Ashes is Warner’s George Dixon wishing the audience goodnight, a wink from one resurrected copper to another.
There is also a nod to Dock Green in Howard Overman’s Vexed. Miranda Riaison plays DCI Georgina Dixon who remains blissfully unaware of any irony in her name.