Well...it's not The Sweeney, but it'll do. Acorn Media has released Special Branch: Set One, a slightly misleading moniker considering this is actually the third "series" (season) reboot, from 1973, of the Thames Television U.K. police procedural/spy series that originally premiered in 1969. Starring George Sewell, Patrick Mower, Roger Rowland, and Richard Leech, Special Branch: Set One works best if you're a nostalgic fan of location-heavy 70s British television―and precisely because of shows like Special Branch, there are plenty of those kinds of enthusiastic viewers, to this day, all over the world. An interview (from 2004) with the two leads is a small but welcome bonus for these okay-looking transfers.
The "Old Bill": The Metropolitan Police Service, London, 1973. Within the various divisions of what is otherwise affectionately known as "Scotland Yard," Special Branch's turf is anything that may disrupt England's national security, so it investigates crimes ranging from political sex scandals to mad bombers threatening to blow up Great Britain's computer databases. Cynical, hard-charging Detective Chief Inspector Alan Craven (George Sewell) apparently has seen it all in his years on the force, so he doesn't suffer fools gladly...especially when they're assigned as his sidekicks. Soft-spoken, educated Detective Sergeant Bill North (Roger Rowland) has come right out of "police school" after university; he has a knack for detail but a marked hesitation when it comes to action―a drawback that worries Craven in their frequent life-or-death assignments. Cocksure, intelligent Detective Chief Inspector Tom Haggerty (Patrick Mower), on the other hand, has no problem pulling the trigger when the need arises. However, Haggerty's flash attitude and insubordinate behavior grates on the non-descript Craven, who has enough trouble already at his job and in his personal life, what with constantly complaining girlfriend, nurse Pam Sloane (Sheila Scott-Wilkenson), beefing endlessly about Craven's time-consuming career. So when Craven gets his latest touch-and-go assignment from dour, disapproving, vinegary boss Chief Superintendent Knight (Richard Leech), he's in no mood to either hold somebody's hand, or reign in a rule-breaking smartass.
To television enthusiasts and historians, Special Branch, regardless of how well it plays today, would be a noteworthy entry based solely on its historical claim to fame as the first production of the famed Euston Films division of Thames Television. In the late 60s/early 70s, Thames, a licensee of the British ITV television network―the first private competitor of the government-funded BBC network―took a page from fellow licensee ATV (better known here in the States as Sir Lew Grade's ITC, distributors of The Saint and The Prisoner series, among many others...and NOT The Avengers, by the way, as I mistakenly wrote earlier), and decided to concentrate on filmed series that could give U.K. TV audiences a "big screen" experience...while possibly appealing to international broadcast buyers like the U.S. looking for product. Euston Films, a separate division of Thames created in 1971, was primarily devoted to exploiting filmed drama and action stories on the cheap, though, since start-up costs for color television programming and increasingly intrusive government taxes had nixed the glossy, expensive 35mm film look of Grade's ITC efforts. A compromise to 16mm film stock (still better-looking than video), along with a hurried production schedule (10 days tops for a show, with minimal rehearsal and as much location work as possible to eliminate set building) was Euston Films' goal, and Special Branch was deemed a suitable trial offering.
Previously a studio-bound police procedural filmed on cheaper-looking black and white videotape, Special Branch premiered in 1969 and starred Derren Nesbitt (Where Eagles Dare) as Detective Chief Inspector Jordan of Met Pol's Special Branch. A mid-level show that ran two seasons, Special Branch was considered a safe, "known" property with the public, allowing for a smoother transition into Euston Films' proposed new production methods. Fans of the Euston Films' series already know their signature series, The Sweeney, perfectly epitomized this gritty, on-the-fly way of making television; Special Branch didn't achieve anywhere near that later series' critical or popular acclaim, nor did Special Branch fully embrace those new, breakneck production methods (it was done quick and fast...but it still has a pre-planned polish that comes from the earlier ITC era). However, it did lay the groundwork for titles like The Sweeney and Minder, and as such, it's an important entry into U.K. television history.
...which means bollocks all to most viewers today; "entertainment" trumps "history" every time, and on the whole, Special Branch works well enough. As I wrote in my Van der Valk reviews (ironically another series eventually rehabbed by Euston), coming to a judgment on a series' aesthetic worth from a nostalgia-based context is an iffy proposition at best...but there's no denying the fun in watching something like Special Branch for the clothes, the attitudes, the conventions, and particularly the location work―a central element of the show's raison d'etre, anyway. That hyperbolic credit sequence alone is worth half the show here, as a quick, blue-tinged montage of various Craven activities―spying on someone, blasting his car through some conveniently-placed cardboard boxes, watching a stripper, ventilating someone with his pistol―whip by to that zippy, catchy theme song, ending with Craven smashing someone in the face to freeze-frame. If you don't enjoy that sequence for what it is and for the times and conventions it epitomizes...you're probably not going to enjoy the rest of Special Branch.
While no doubt tame by today's standards (especially when seen, even back then, through the context of far more aggressive American network offerings), Special Branch was considered quite violent for its time, so the emphasis is first on speed. Characterizations take a back seat to the location work and the action. At the start of the series, there are some half-hearted attempts to establish and fill-out the Craven character. He's given expensive digs that are explained away by the generosity of a pretty, young police widow (a potentially intriguing wrinkle in Craven's private life that is unfortunately immediately dropped). His girlfriend, Pam, is black, leading to some hints of conflicted feelings on Craven's part in a few episodes (he jumps all over North in All the King's Men when Craven suspects him of making a racist remark). However, this potentially rewarding situation is utterly negated by the producers keeping Pam a one-dimensional whinge, forever crabbing about how neglected she is until they finally ditch her towards the end of the season. According to the interview included in this set, the producers didn't like how Rowland's North character was working out, so Mower was brought in to juice up the proceedings...and not a moment too soon, considering how laughably bland Rowland is here (his character is the very definition of "cardboard"). When you try to determine just where Special Branch lies in the evolution of the television police procedural, in terms of more nuanced character motivations, it's important to remember (according to that same interview) that in Threat, Craven's and Haggerty's parts were switched merely by penciling in each other's name...without the viewer noticing anything different. Character interest in Special Branch is generated largely by the performances, not the writing.
Luckily, those performances keep you coming back for more. Mower, a familiar face to fans of U.K. detective and spy shows (he also jumped up Edward Woodward's Callan quite nicely), has that delightfully toothy Welsh braggadocio and charm, that nervous energy that's just right for a TV project like this; his addition to Special Branch in no small part "saves" this season, offering English hardman Sewell something to bounce off of in comparison to wispy cipher Rowland. Sewell, whom American viewers probably remember from Get Carter and UFO, has, in perfect contrast to Mower, that hard-ass copper snarl and ease with vulgarities down pat. Due to the deliberately gritty, grimy look of Special Branch, Sewell is often photographed to less-than-movie-star-glamour-effect, which only heightens the harsh verisimilitude of his performance. As for the stories themselves...they're appropriately 70s in intent: trendy stabs at political and sociological concerns of the day, with unresolved endings amid cynical, downbeat messages, served up in fast-paced, violent suspenser frameworks. I didn't see one episode here that I would call "original," either in terms of conception or execution. However, that failure to really soar doesn't lessen Special Branch's more accessible, uncomplicated pleasures. Not one bit.
Here are the 13 episodes of Special Branch: Set One, as described on the on-screen episode menus:
A Copper Called Craven
Round the Clock
Death By Drowning
All the King's Men
The Other Man
You Won't Remember Me
Blueprint for Murder
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.