Even though the British have a long tradition of turning out top class crime drama, few are as insightful and gripping as Trevor Preston's late seventies series Out. The six part series, first aired on Thames Television, is a master of the slow burn, ratcheting up the tension, even while eschewing many of the standard crime drama tropes.
Frank Ross (Tom Bell) is fresh out of prison after an eight year stint, and he's bent on revenge. He wants to find the person who turned in him and his friends, allowing them to get caught red handed during a bank heist. It's unlikely that any of the gang was the snitch, as they all spent years in prison because of it, and no one else knew about the job. So, who was it? But Frank has a lot more to deal with than finding a traitor when he gets out. He also has to clean up what's left of his life.
Frank's wife Eve (Pamela Fairbrother) has been in an insane asylum since his conviction, and his son has grown from a sweet young boy to an unstable teenager living with foster parents. Frank hooks back up with his boyhood friend Chris (Brian Croucher) the day he gets out, and together they try to put the pieces back together. It's not easy. The other men on the job are since out of jail, but mostly they've moved on with their lives. With the exception of Ralph (John Junkin), they want nothing to do with Frank's quest. In addition, the local police, driven on by Detective Inspector Bryce (Norman Rodway), and both of the gang bosses in town want to shut him down.
But Out isn't just about an ex-con single mindedly tracking down a stool pigeon. Frank Ross' character is much more complex and developed than that. Frank is shown to be a man of honor (if his own brand), courage and even forgiveness at times. On the same day he can be solicitous to his very mentally disturbed wife, and then a few hours later exchanging sweet words with his married lover Anne (Lynn Farleigh). He doesn't think twice about using people for his own ends, and being quite brutal when he needs to be, but when he actually identifies the person who literally turned them in it doesn't turn out at all as one would expect in a normal revenge drama. Frank has a deep understanding of human frailty, and an appreciation for loyalty and justice. It's just that he views all of these things from a slightly different perspective from the law abiding public.
The performances are all top notch here, but especially Tom Bell as Frank. His is a very minimalist turn, but all the more effective for it. He rarely smiles or gives away what he is thinking, but when he does it is powerful. He hones in on his object without wavering, but is a recognizable human while doing it. The supporting cast, which includes a very young and very blonde Brian Cox as a gangster, is outstanding as well. Norman Rodway as the obsessed policeman. Brian Croucher as the harried businessman and loyal friend. Bryan Marshall as the corrupt former cop Hallam. They all do their bit to make this series memorable and intelligent.
A list of the episodes is below, along with the descriptive copy provided on the discs:
Episode 1: It Must be the Suit
On his first day of freedom, Frank's awkward adjustment to the outside world is made worse by devastating news. Rival villain Eddie Archer crashes his homecoming party, and old flame Anne throws off new sparks. In Brixton, Frank's search for the rat leads to a knife fight with a pimp.
Episode 2: Not Just Pennies
Frank has a disturbing reunion with his wife, Eve. Back in the city, Detective Inspector Bryce's right hand man, Rimmer, turns up the heat on Ross. Eve escapes the hospital and commits a shocking act, prompting cash strapped Frank to infiltrate a high-stakes card game.
Episode 3: Maybe He'll Bring Back a Geisha
Seeking answers, Ross takes a risky trip to the country hideout of Pretty Billy Binns, one of the bank job crew who's now on the lam. Frank gets the jump on Eddie Archer but must also come to terms with his troubled teenage son. Meanwhile, Bryce tightens the lid on a volatile secret.
Episode 4: A Little Heart to Heart with Miss Bangor
Recovering from a suicide attempt, Eve tells Frank of her twisted feelings towards their son, Paul. Ross follows a new lead to an ex-call girl in hiding and learns a dark secret about crime boss McGrath - whose henchman is leaving a wake of destruction as he pursues Frank.
Episode 5: The Moment He Opened His Envelope
McGrath hires a contract killer to eliminate Ross. The ex-con has other plans, including the shakedown of a money launderer and reconciliation with his son. An explosive turnabout brings Frank closer to the truth behind his arrest.
Episode 6: I Wouldn't Take Your Hand if I Was Drowning
As the police tighten their net around McGrath, Frank and a friend brutally beat corrupt ex-cop Hallam for vital information about Detective Inspector Bryce's secret dealings. After a shootout with Ross, McGrath makes a desperate move.
Out starts off a bit slowly, giving the audience time to get to know Frank Ross and his friends and family before much else happens. It's hard to detect exactly when, but by the middle of the third episode, the viewer is well and truly hooked. The tension increases by subtle degrees, but relentlessly. This is a very fine example of British crime drama. Highly recommended.
The video is 1.33:1 standard, and looks decent, considering the time period of the production, but does have a few issues. There's a fair amount of grain present, and the occasional film scratch or dirt, but these do little do diminish the gritty feel of the piece.
Audio is Dolby digital 2 channel, and sounds good, though there is a bit of echo and hiss from time to time. The dialogue is always clearly audible. English subtitles are included, but no alternate language track.
The only extras included are commentary tracks for Episodes 1 and 6, both with writer Trevor Preston, director Jim Goddard and producer Barry Hanson. The commentaries are fairly entertaining, and it's clear that these three respect and like one another. There a good number of anecdotes from the production, and a lot of discussion of what television production was like at the time, and how it has changed. This is quite interesting.
Out is dressed in all the trappings of a standard crime story: the ex con looking for revenge on the man who turned him in. But this is much more than a standard story. The characters are unique and sharply drawn, with a healthy dose of humanity alongside the hard boiled criminal tropes. The tale is deftly written, confidently directed and a pleasure to watch.