'Special Branch: Set 1'
(George Sewell, Patrick Mower, et al / 4-Disc / Not Rated / (1969) 2012 / Acorn Media)
Overview: With an exceptional cast that includes George Sewell (Get Carter) and Patrick Mower (Callan), 'Special Branch' is a suspenseful ride through the underbelly of Britain’s international affairs.
DVD Verdict: Back in the UK, back in my near-youth, I watched this wonderful The Sweeney-ish TV show on a regular late night basis. Another of those no-holds-barred police semi-procedural (based on who was the bad guy and what he deserved) shows, it focused on the Special Branch; a task force dedicated to investigating terrorist activities and basic espoinage in and England.
'Special Branch' was, simply put, a UK police show that felt real, looked real, used real language (including UK words such as bloody, wanker, tosser, the odd sh*t or three, and more importantly girlfriends are known as "birds," gay people Un-P as "queers"), and starred two now-legendary actors - George Sewell (as DCI Alan Craven) and Patrick Mower (as DCI Tom Haggerty). Mower, who is only in 7 of these 13 episodes, also starred in the UK '70s police show 'Callan,' alongside Edward Woodward, and the late Sewell starred alongside Michael Caine in 'Get Carter.'
Funnily enough, the aforementioned 'The Sweeney' - another major favorite UK police show of mine from back in the day - was produced by the same team as the one that brought us 'Special Branch'. Once it had finished, 'The Sweeney' came to our TV screens in 1975. For those that don't know, the latter focused on two members of the Flying Squad (John Thaw as DI John "Jack" Regan and Dennis Waterman as DS George Carter), a branch of the Metropolitan Police specialising in tackling armed robbery and violent crime in London.
But, I digress. 'Special Branch' ran from 1969 to 1974, but only for two seasons with Sewell in the lead role. (FYI - Sewell later had a role in 'The Sweeney' - as a villain!). Now, on to the actual show. And much like the aforementioned 'Callan,' this show actually began with the "black and white" years! Most people don't know this, or remember it, most likely. Funnily enough, 'Callan' was later released as 'Callan - The Colour Years' on DVD in the UK!
BUT, weirdly and sadly, these black and white episodes, that came together to make the first two (2) seasons, DO NOT FEATURE HERE! Nope, for some strange marketing reason, the first two (2) seasons do not exist in this so-called Set 1 of the series! Admitedly, remembering it as best as I can, it did feel like a whole other show. It even starred two different lead actors: Derren Nesbitt played the no-nonsense DI Jordan and the late, great character actor Fulton Mackay (Mr. Mackay, Porridge) starred as DS Inman. And, apart from the name, nothing carried over from the 1969 series into the later color episodes, so I guess that's why the US has decided to "start" the series with just the color set of episodes.
So, Season Three, as mentioned now here only as Set 1, is an all-out action bonanza. Mostly set outside in mid to late '70s London, the scenery; let alone the cars and suits is a delight to behold. If you remember that "flashback" show 'Life On Mars,' this is the same; except real! The "black and white" Nesbitt and Mackay are gone and replaced by Sewell and Mower. The first episode ('A Copper Called Craven')
is formalic, but for me the show really gets started in the second episode ('Round the Clock') anyway. This is when DCI Haggerty (Mower) makes his first appearance in the show.
Driving like a maniac to work (the police station), he is pursued by DCI Craven all the way. Once into the car park, and once discovered to be Haggerty, Craven "lets him have it" in the most tame of manners ie: he "shouts" at him in a tone that wouldn't even wake a sleeping baby! Using such phrases as "What do you think you're on, the flaming dodgems?" and "If you're still on the force you've no blasted right to be, you can't drive," Craven then makes the younger man aware that he's even parked in HIS reserved parking spot!
But the one thing he doesn't know about the man he hasn't seen for years is that he is no longer a lowly Sergeant (and therefore beneath him in rank), but he is now an Inspector - much like Craven currently is! Putting them on level terms! Anyway, later they are holed up alongside each other in a disused classroom. Clearly still at odds with each other, as you'd expect they slowly get to know each other over the course of the stake-out.
In truth, another main character is London itself. In the '70s we get a far dirtier, a far more decayed city than that of today. It's hard to watch the guys walk/run down the streets and back alley's without looking at the houses and buildings that surround them. I guess they weren't trying to "capture" this aspect when filming began, but today it is a journey back in time to behold. I mean even the Special Branch office itself is dull to watch, grey if you wish; which suits the way things go down in that central hub.
As for some better-than-average episodes, the third on 'Inquisition,' 'the sixth episode 'Red Herring,' and episode eight 'All the King's Men,' are all great ones, but the ninth episode 'Threat' is quite easily the worst. In the season ender, 'Blueprint for Murder,' the team is assigned to protect a visiting foreign diplomat. And it is just one of those stories that rings so true that you would swear you've heard all about such encounters on your local news broadcast many, many times since.
And, in case you find yourself wondering (as I did), come Season 4 Special Branch gets a new character. Strand, played by the always-likeable Paul Eddington is a meddling home office official getting involved in cases; and hindering Special Branch along the way! And Frederick Jaegar has a regular role as the likeable Commander Fletcher, which truly solidfies the homestead (hub) a lot more re: rules and regulations to be upheld.
Also, one other interesting moment is the follow-on character of DS North (Roger Rowland) was shunted from the fourth season. And so, in the first episode, as once I heard about it I checked it out, after suffering a nervous breakdown when confronted by and killing an armed suspect, he was written out! These are all Full Screen Presentations (1:85.1) enhanced for 16x9 TVs and comes with the Special Features of:
Bonus Interview with George Sewell and Patrick Mower (17 min.)