Rattling a Skeleton in the British Television Closet
Over three consecutive nights in mid-January 1981 the ITV Network broadcast a four-part police drama serial. The first British-made production to be shown in the mini-series format, it drew audiences averaging 13 million. It was called Wolcott and concerned the adventures, trials and tribulations of a Metropolitan police detective constable in North East London. The title protagonist was black. At the inception of the project there were no black officers in the Met C.I.D. By the time the programme aired we were told that there were three, all of whom were involved in undercover work relating to drug dealing.
Wolcott was co-written by Barry Wasserman and me. A few years ago I viewed a DVD of the piece (courtesy of the Granada organization and not then commercially available) for the first time since it was originally broadcast. I have recently learned – not, significantly, from anyone involved in the piece’s former history, re-packaging and distribution – that Wolcott was to become generally available in Blu-ray and DVD formats as of August 17th this year. Following my own reintroduction to the piece I was soberly gratified to say that I found the experience – over 30 years after the fact – not unduly chastening, and certainly interesting, especially in the light of the recurring furores over race relations within the Metropolitan police exemplified by recent cases such as that involving Carol Howard, to say nothing of the continuing strains and conflicts between the police and many inner-city communities dramatically demonstrated by the events following the death of Mark Duggan in 2010.
For reasons that were never entirely clear to its creators Wolcott, since its first and only network broadcast, became a skeleton pushed into the furthest recesses of the British television closet. Halliwell’s Television Companion contains no entry for Wolcott while erroneously naming the BBC series The Chinese Detective as the first police drama to feature an ethnic minority hero. Some years ago the BFI held a retrospective of television and film dealing with the British black experience. Wolcott was not included. There is some circumstantial evidence that this submersion may have been connected to the Brixton, Dalston and Toxteth riots that took place later in the year it was shown, although only a few people openly and explicitly blamed us for the disturbances. However, during that summer of 1981 the ATV independent television franchise was taken away from the Grade organization – the commissioners of Wolcott – and subsumed into Central Television. When Central were approached by the original producers, Barry Hanson and Jacky Stoller, with a view to developing a follow-up series they were told that, despite the original serial’s impressive viewing figures, the project was simply too much of a political hot potato. When Barry and Jacky brought their proposal to the BBC they were given much the same answer. I do not imagine that word from on high damning any further life for Wolcott came directly from the Thatcher government but it is, perhaps, a fact that the programme made too many different people uncomfortable for too many different reasons.
The critical reaction to Wolcott was, to put it mildly, mixed. Opinions ranged from that of a Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan police who had been asked to vet the scripts and who told us sourly that the entire enterprise was a straight forward party political broadcast for the Left, to the opinion expressed by the then television critic of the Observer that the production looked like it had been financed by the National Front. In the same column Wolcott was compared unfavourably with a show starring a pleasant, if rather anodyne, black singer of ephemeral repute named Grace Kennedy. The juxtaposition reflected a view held by many (including more than a few soi-disant liberals) that the only acceptable portrayals of blacks in popular entertainment – the usual comic and criminal stereotypes apart – should be on the lines of Sidney Poitier-manque brain surgeons with Lena Horne look-alike wives and children out of a cutting edge Rice Krispies commercial. The idea of presenting genuine (as opposed to cardboard cut-out) black villains and disaffected African-Caribbean youths was seen as provocative and, paradoxically, by some as a betrayal of the cause of racial equality. There were, of course, a few vociferous sections of the black community holding that we, as white writers – and Yanks to boot – had no right to even approach the subject and its characters. We thought at the time “the hell with that!” and I still do. Perhaps the most inane comment on the show came from Trevor Phillips on the Ludovic Kennedy-chaired television review programme Did You See… when he complained that some of the black actors’ accents were inconsistent. It didn’t seem to have occurred to Phillips that this was intentional, the writers and actors being aware – as any reasonably wide-awake school teacher could have told him – that the intonations used by an African-Caribbean adolescent when speaking to his parents, peers, pastors, police, teachers or any other authority figures were so different as to constitute separate languages. What several of the black actors who had incorporated this knowledge into their portrayals had to say about Phillips after hearing his remarks is even now unprintable. A famously left-wing woman M.P. appearing on the same programme – while decrying the idea of censorship – thought that Wolcott should have been banned outright. In contrast, John McGrath, founder of the Scottish socialist 7:84 theatre company told the executive producer, Barry Hanson, “Great. This is just what British television needs.” Although one critic dismissed the production as “nasty, brutish and long…” other critics and commentators more or less approved of the show, recognizing it as gripping, pacey popular television, and as an honest attempt to place the police drama genre in a relatively unexplored context.
The seed of Wolcott was sown at the Notting Hill Carnival of 1976. My late and much-lamented friend and co-writer, Barry Wasserman, while attending a house party in one of the Carnival streets, looked down from a second floor window and observed among a platoon of police the face of one black bobby and thought: “Where in the world is his head at?”
The first product of this question was a low-budget feature film script called Drainpipes in Babylon that eventually came to the attention of the producers Barry Hanson and Jacky Stoller at a time when a hole – fortuitously for us – had appeared in the ITV winter schedule and Barry and I were commissioned to turn the screenplay into a 4 x 50-minute serial. We were, it must be said, neophytes in TV script terms. Barry was a film man and in the intervening years had a substantial career as a 1st Assistant Director with many A-List feature films, TV shows, music videos and adverts in his CV. (In November of 2010 he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award recognizing his work as a 1st A.D.) I had previously been a song lyricist, versifier, music journalist and short story writer of modest accomplishment. As two guys who had more or less just walked in off the street most of our ideas regarding the production were dismissed out of hand. In retrospect I think we were right in some of our disregarded suggestions. We were, for instance, very keen for the West Indian-born Horace Ove to direct. As well as being highly talented, he was also very much in touch with the milieu with which we were dealing. We were over-ruled on that and another director was hired with whom we were never much in sympathy. In the event he was fired toward the end of filming in a dispute over the musical score. Our first choice for this had been UB40 who produced a demo that we liked. The director wanted Brian Eno, who also came up with a demo that we hated. In the end the score was done by Frank Ricci, an experienced TV composer whose product, I must admit, I like a good deal better now than I did then.
A characteristic example of our comparative inexperience came out during the meeting following the producers’ consideration of the initial draft script for the first episode. Barry Hanson looked at us over his desk and asked, “Do you have any idea how many characters – speaking part characters – you have in this opening script? Blank stares: we hadn’t counted. “Thirty eight!” I said that as a life-long union man I was glad we had created so much work for the people, and said to Wasserman, “Whaddaya reckon? A citation from Equity?” The production was also to use almost the entire student body of Islington’s Anna Scher Theatre School. In addition we had a sprinkling of people who were at the time making names for themselves at The Comedy Store club. Rik Mayall had a straight acting role as a virulently racist P.C., and Alexie Sayle did a wonderful turn as a Socialist Worker-type street orator being heckled by Keith Allen’s Hackney NF yob. This sequence was filmed on location in Dalston’s Ridley Road Market: a site we thought apposite, as it had been the scene of anti-fascist/Mosley-ite clashes in the 1930s. One choice of the producers that we heartily approved was the securing of Roger Deakins as lighting-cameraman. As one might expect from a future Bafta winner and several-tme Academy Award-nominee (and finally in 2018) Oscar winner some of the visuals in Wolcott are stunning and look even better in retrospect. Although even then Roger had a penchant for the zebra-stripe interior shadows cast by half-open window blinds. As with the choice of director, we were not much consulted in respect of casting and little notice was taken of our suggestions. To my lasting regret we couldn’t convince the producers that the late Irish comedian and actor Dave Allen would have been perfect for one of the most pivotal roles – that of Wolcott’s London-Irish immediate C.I.D. boss. The Abbey Theatre actor who did play the part was adequate but Allen would have been better. Of the principal black actors George Harris playing Wolcott had tremendous presence, magnetism to spare and offered some subtleties of characterisation that I appreciate more now than I did originally. Hugh Quarshie was excellent as a youth worker with conflicts between his street loyalties and spiky relationship with his boyhood friend who is now a policeman. Perhaps the most remarkable performance in the entire production was that of Raul Newney as the main black villain. He was absolutely on the money in portraying a recurring type: those who manage to clothe and rationalize their own rapaciousness and megalomania as being an integral part of “The Revolution”. Be it remembered that the Mafia began as a Sicilian national liberation organization, and other examples of revolutionary movements degenerating into gangsterism are not hard to find.
Among the principal white parts were police officers of varying ages, ranks and degrees of race prejudice; the plot-necessary white Hackney villains and, particularly, a chorus figure in the form of a woman reporter working for a Time Out-style magazine. This character was originally written as a feisty, street-wise, Cockney Sparra-type. The producers hired a then-up-and-coming young American actor, Christine Lahti, who has, of course, subsequently had a distinguished career in films and television. Christine had bags of personality and all the feistiness one could want. The writers, being both bred and buttered New Yorkers, did not find it hard to turn the character into an American ex-pat. In retrospect the performance holds up well, although at the time we did have – to use a favourite expression of her own – ‘some problems’ with Christine’s Method mannerisms and occasionally cavalier way with the text. Once, after watching the previous day’s rushes, we were constrained to send a message via line producer, Jacky Stoller, saying that, “The writers present their compliments to Ms Lahti, along with the observation that they write lots better dialogue than she does.” Warren Clark, who played the main white villain of the piece, told us frankly at the outset that the only way he could take the part seriously was to play it as a kind of East End J.R. Ewing. In saying so Warren put his finger on what I now find the worst fault of the show. It must be admitted that the white cops-and-robbers interaction and dialogue in Wolcott is rather sub-Sweeney, with a good dollop of Gordon Newman’s 1978 Law and Order serial – which we admired as ground-breaking – thrown in. All in all this aspect of Wolcott was of its time but has noticeably dated.
In making the above retrospective judgements I was, and am, in no way doing any special pleading, nor suggesting that Wolcott be shown again. Indeed, I believe it would be impossible to show the programme on British network television today. Despite the ubiquitous – and often casual – profanity heard on current television, the very raw language – not merely sexual and scatological but also racist – used by many of the characters simply wouldn’t be countenanced. Also there was some extreme violence, and not just fights, car chases and strong-arming. In one sequence an entire Hackney drinking club (with Aswad performing on stage) was trashed, and in the final episode we managed to kill off six characters and the final freeze-frame indicates that the hero is about add a seventh in the form of the corrupt detective (played by Christopher Ellison) who has caused the death of his mother.
Some years ago I had dealings with the Cornish Film Fund having applied for development money regarding a putative script set in Cornwall. The chair of the awarding board was Charles Denton. I warned the director of the Fund that, although I had never met him, I did have some ‘previous’ with Denton, as he had been the ITV Controller of Drama who had given Wolcott its green light in 1980. In the end the board turned my application down, the script eventually becoming an Afternoon Play – Evaristo’s Epitaph – for BBC Radio 4. However, it was reported to me that when Denton was told about our past connection he observed: “Yes, Wolcott, I remember it very well. Way ahead of its time.”
With some hindsight adjustments my own view, then and now, is that whatever its faults – and no one was more aware of its faults than the writers – Wolcott, in comparison with a good deal of British television of its period (not to mention before and since) did have the merit of being neither boring nor pretentious.
Note: I was very saddened to hear in July of last year (2014) that my dear friend and sometime-collaborator, Barry Wasserman, had gone under the wire. Apart from our mutual writing forays – Wolcott plus two BBC radio plays – we had some fairly hilarious times in one another’s company. At his wake, when many of us spoke of our experiences of The Bear, I was told that at the time of the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival epiphany that ultimately resulted in Wolcott, Barry was tripping. Why was I not surprised to hear that?
Sadly, Barry’s passing was not the only 2014 case of mortality among Wolcott alumni. Earlier in the year what might be called the British comedy community lost Rik Mayall. And more recently the excellent Warren Clark went the way of all flesh.