Recollections of the great British police dramas

Paul Welsh

Paul Welsh

First published in Paul Welsh
Last updated
Borehamwood Times: Photograph of the Author by

I must start by expressing my amazement after watching a programme that goes out every night on a satellite channel. The programme, called Hollywood Treasures, is about an auction house based in Los Angeles. In a recent programme, Todd Fisher, brother of Carrie, consigned an old Panavision film camera used at Elstree Studios in 1976 to film Star Wars. You would think it might be worth $20,000 but because of the Star Wars association it went for a staggering $520,000. If you are sitting on Star Wars memorabilia in your garage or loft, you may like to think about its potential worth.

It is sad to hear that actor Jon Finch was found dead after several days in his flat where he lived alone. In his youth, Jon looked like a ready-made star and enjoyed a string of sucessful film roles over a 30-year period. At Elstree he starred in The Vampire Killers, directed by Roman Polanski, and two Hammer horrors, The Vampire Lovers and Horror Of Frankenstein shot on stages 8 and 9.  I am told he was even offered the role of James Bond in Live And Let Die but, for whatever reason, turned it down. Jon was 70 when he died and his death may be related to the diabetes from which he suffered.

I have just watched a DVD of some 1970s colour episodes of the TV series Dixon Of Dock Green. Older readers will remember the cop series ran from 1955 until 1976 and in the 1960s was attracting 14 million viewers.
It was not a hard-hitting show and in the 1960s was challenged by more gritty police dramas such as Z Cars. The fact it survived until the mid 1970s, when more violent shows like  The Sweeney were out, is quite something.

I chatted with its star Jack Warner once and he told me: “I had originally played a copper in The Blue Lamp but was killed by the villain played by Dirk Bogarde. Years later they offered me the series playing the same role even though I was nearly the age police retire at. I never believed it would last 21 years.”

Jack played the old-fashioned police constable who actually patrolled a beat and if he saw a youth misbehaving was likely to give him a clip around the ear and take him home to his dad who would do the same. Jack died many years ago and would no doubt be astounded to find if his real life counterpart did that today he would be facing a charge and the parents would be claiming compensation.

From 1984 until 2008, I used to organise an annual get-together of old stars called the Elstree Film Evening. For the first few years it was a private affair at Elstree Studios but we eventually made it a public event, first at the old Venue theatre then at the BBC Elstree Centre. 

Over the decade, probably 100 stars supported the event, including John Mills, Honor Blackman, Trevor Howard, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Herbert Lom and Anna Neagle. I really enjoyed organising and hosting those events as I got to meet, and on occasions become friends with, some of the stars. It always amazed me how shy some of the stars were considering they spent their lives in the public eye. Each time I would ask three or four of them to address the audience. On one occasion it was Sir Nigel Hawthorne, star of Yes Minister, and pop star turned actor Adam Faith and they both agreed but were full of nerves. My bitter regret is that I never had time to sit down with each of these stars and just have a good chat as many are now gone.

Douglas Fairbanks was kind enough to invite me to his apartment overlooking Central Park when I visited New York and Trevor Howard invited me to his home in Arkley, but that was a rarity. Usually it was just a brief encounter but I never met anyone whom I disliked, although Leo McKern did tell me off for addressing him by his first name and a certain acting Dame said she preferred to be addressed by her title.

On one occasion after one of the shows at the old Venue I stood at the side entrance chatting to three character actors and I suddenly realised I was talking to three generations of TV coppers. Peter Bryne had co-starred with Jack Warner in Dixon, James Ellis was a star of Z Cars and Graham Cole was a regular as PC Stamp in The Bill.

It must have rubbed off, as in the 1980s as I used to help with the training at the Metropolitan Police college in Hendon by taking part in role plays with the students. I was a drunk driver, armed robber, pub brawler and a prison officer held hostage on a double decker bus.

On one occasion I was a judge in their courtroom in front of 100 students. I got a bit carried away. The chief instructor, who was playing a thug involved in a pub brawl, was expecting me to issue a fine. Instead I declared: “You have been found guilty of a most heinous crime and society demands an example. You will be taken to a place of lawful imprisonment and then to a place of execution where you will be hanged by the neck until you are dead. May God have mercy on your soul.” The cadets burst into laughter and I was not invited back.

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