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DVD Review: Special Branch: Set 1

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There was a line in the recent movie Paul that reminded me how wide the cultural gap is between Great Britain and the United States. Two British tourists are talking to an American state trooper, who when being informed they are from London says,”I’ve heard of that. Isn’t that the place cops don’t have guns?” When the tourists answer in the affirmative, the cop then asks “What do they do when they want to shoot someone?” and is left speechless when told they try not to. So, if there’s one thing about British television police shows that will always make them alien to American viewers, it will be the almost complete absence of casual gun play.

Times have changed in England, and it’s probably more common for officers to carry weapons than it once was. One of the latest releases from Acorn Media is the first series of the 1970s police drama, Special Branch. 

Those were the days of the unarmed British bobby walking the beat, and even officers of the British Police force’s domestic counter intelligence agency, Special Branch, didn’t usually carry weapons. If they needed them they were available, and they were all trained in their usage. However in the series, the main characters Detective Chief Inspector Alan Craven (George Sewell) and  DCI Tom Haggerty (Patrick Mower) could go an entire 50-minute episode without once drawing or displaying a gun. Can you imagine an American show about FBI agents where guns aren’t used?

It’s ironic, therefore, that this series was shot in the hopes of selling it to the American market, as stated by  Sewell and Mower in a behind-the-scenes featurette included on the DVD. Unlike most British television shows at the time, it was shot on film instead of video and on location instead of in the studio in order to make it more appealing to American viewers. Unfortunately the producers were told it wasn’t violent enough for the American market and it was never picked up..

One of the big differences you’ll notice between this show and its American counterparts are the two lead characters. DCI Craven grew up in the rough East Side of London and freely admits to having seen the inside of many a police station when he was young. However a stint in the army straightened him up and having served in Military Intelligence on return to civilian life a job with Special Branch was a natural fit. When the show opens he’s already a 15-year veteran of the force. While DCI Haggerty is no less rough around the edges, he’s also young and brash and a recent transfer to the department. While he fancies himself a bit of a ladies’ man and gets under Craven’s skin periodically with his occasional relaxed attitude towards regulations, he’s as dedicated an officer as Craven.

While both characters have the kind of tough attitude often common in police shows during the 1970s (think Starsky & Hutch), they hardly ever go rushing into a room with guns blazing or get into knock-down drag-out fights. In fact a great deal of their work is spent sifting through evidence, trailing suspects, and  keeping people under surveillance. Even when they confront a suspect or arrest someone they very rarely employ physical violence. That’s not to say they won’t rough somebody up on occasion. However, those times are few and far between and usually only because something has happened to make the case personal for the officer. One episode sees Haggerty’s father fall victim to a mugger who is preying on elderly people just arrived in town by train. Needless to say, when they finally track down the assailant Haggerty doesn’t use kid gloves.

There are two other major differences between this show and its American counterparts from the same time period. Some of the episodes end inconclusively, without the matter under investigation being resolved. In one episode they pull a man in for questioning who had been arrested and served time for blackmail. First they want to know why he has a loaded unregistered pistol and a fake passport secreted in his apartment. However, Craven is really trying to find out how the man obtained the information which allowed him to blackmail his victim five years ago. But the episode ends inconclusively when the suspect first attempts suicide and then escapes from his hospital bed. While this might confirm he has something to hide, Craven still isn’t any closer to finding out the information he’s after.
 The other way in which this show differs, is the risks it takes with its subject matter. I doubt the topic of homosexuality would ever even have come up let alone be a factor in an American police show from this period, except maybe for bad jokes. Here the subject is raised when a high ranking civil servant has to report secret documents missing and has to cover up they were stolen from him by “gay bashers” pretending to be male prostitutes. Craven and Haggerty have to cross examine the man on a number of occasions to finally get the truth from him. While they are angry with him for misleading their investigation by not being honest in the first place they are remarkably nonjudgemental about everything else. He’s still after all a victim and on top of that his career has just been ended in scandal.

This isn’t the only time the show takes risks with its content. The number of mixed race couples on television in the early 1970s were few and far between as I remember, but Craven’s girlfriend for the majority of the first year is of Jamaican descent. As a nurse, her life is almost as hectic as his and there is a certain amount of friction between the two of them because of the demands their jobs place on them. However there’s only the occasional reference made to the race issue. During one episode Craven asks her to move in with him and she wonders what his bosses would have to say about him living with a person of colour, but most of the time nothing is made of it at all.

Obviously the show is somewhat dated; there’s not a computer to be seen anywhere, and the rest of the technology at their disposal is equally quaint to our eyes. However, that means they are still reliant on good old fashioned police work to find their answers, and we get to watch them out on the streets of London chasing down leads.

Although they were using the latest in cameras and sound equipment to film these shows, you’ll notice some flaws in both the visuals and the sound. While the job of transferring it from tape to DVD is probably as good possible that doesn’t prevent the occasional line appearing on the screen indicative of the age of the original print. However, none of these flaws are going to detract from the pleasure you’ll take in watching the episodes from the show’s first season.

Special Branch: Set 1 is an interesting artifact of television from a bygone era and fun to watch. While the episodes are probably more action-oriented than we’re used to from police shows produced by British television, they still take enough time to allow plots to unfold naturally and for characters to be properly developed. They also change up the way in which the story is told from time to time, so we’re not always following the police around. Sometimes the focus is on the subjects they have under observation and the story unfolds by following them with occasional interjections by the officers of Special Branch. All in all, this is a lot of fun to watch and well worth picking up.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.