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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.

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.