Coppers and Spies: The Evolution of the British Action Hero
Beyond the police: The Professionals
Marking the restored DVD and Blu-ray release of The Professionals, Frank Collins revisits Britain's classic crime and spy dramas in a new six-part series. Part one focuses on the action-packed drama which introduced Bodie and Doyle to the nation.
Creator of The Professionals, writer-producer-director Brian Clemens, boasts a six-decade career making iconic crime and adventure drama. In the 1950s, as staff writer, he scripted many half-hour crime series for the Danzigers production company, he wrote the pilot episode for Danger Man in 1960 and a year later provided the same for The Avengers, the series with which he is forever associated.
While he and producer Albert Fennell oversaw ABC television’s international success with John Steed and Emma Peel in The Avengers, Clemens contributed to ITC’s The Baron, The Champions and Man In A Suitcase. He created ATV’s anthology series Thriller and, with Fennell, revived The Avengers in 1976 as The New Avengers.
As the second series of The New Avengers completed filming in October 1977, Clemens realised it was in trouble. French co-production finance failed to materialise and the prospects of making a third series evaporated. His former ABC boss Brian Tesler, by now managing director of London Weekend Television, approached Clemens and Fennell to pitch a drama to rival Euston Films’ success The Sweeney.
Recruiting The Professionals
Clemens devised The A Squad about a fictional British law enforcement agency - CI5 - briefed by the Home Secretary to combat specific crimes by any means necessary. An elite unit led by the uncompromising George Cowley, its top agents were Bodie, an ex-paratrooper, mercenary and S.A.S sergeant, and former detective constable Doyle.
Retitled The Professionals, the series’ emphasis on testosterone-fuelled action and car chases benefited from The Sweeney’s conclusion in 1978. It absorbed Euston Films’ storytelling style by hiring The Sweeney’s crew, shooting on 16mm instead of 35mm to exploit lighter, portable cameras and by increasing location filming.
When Clive Revill became unavailable to play Cowley, producers approached Gordon Jackson, who welcomed this casting against type after playing buttoned up Hudson in Upstairs Downstairs. Many British actors tested for Doyle and Martin Shaw secured the role when Jon Finch, after a successful audition, changed his mind.
Anthony Andrews was cast as Bodie but during production his lack of chemistry with Shaw led to Lewis Collins, then playing a supporting role in the first episode, replacing him. Shaw and Collins, having first appeared together in The New Avengers, were wary of each other but the producers believed this off screen animosity offered an edge to their on screen partnership.
Facing the critics
The Professionals, though hugely popular, was criticised as a brash, violent, reactionary hybrid of recent crime adventure and police dramas, albeit one decorated with the conspicuous consumerism of the latest fashions and cars.
An unsubtle extension of The Sweeney and its BBC clone Target, it eschewed the charm and sophistication of The Avengers and the travelogue tourism of the ITC shows. Mary Whitehouse vilified it as ‘violent, uncouth and unsavoury’ and LWT withdrew ‘Klansmen’, the last episode of the first series, for unclear reasons other than discomfort about a story that crudely exposed Bodie’s racism.
Permissive, sexist and pathologically insolent, Bodie and Doyle maintained a fantasy of traditional masculinity just as it underwent a major reconfiguration via feminist and queer critiques. Indeed, the ‘rough’ and ‘sensitive’ of the Bodie and Doyle pairing played into a ‘gay’ re-coding of the relationship, one not lost on the Comic Strip’s 1984 satire of the series, ‘The Bullshitters’.
As the series tried to deflect its hyper-masculinity with the more sensitive characterisation of Doyle, its solutions to terrorism, assassinations, police corruption, miscarriages of justice, inner city racism and drug smuggling reflected the harsher law and order agenda of Thatcher’s Conservative government.
Britain experienced IRA bombings, the Iranian Embassy siege, the Falklands and the Operation Countryman investigation into police corruption in the six years The Professionals was on air. It offered tough remedies for a dysfunctional Britain perceived as ‘the sick man of Europe’ and also questioned CI5’s own morals while defending the British way of life.
To emphasise this, TV Times supplemented its promotion of The Professionals with a sobering article about its inspiration, the real trouble-shooters of the S.A.S and the Metropolitan Police Special Patrol Group whose single aim was ‘to crush terrorism’.
However, the BBC scuppered Bodie and Doyle’s violent escapism with Shoestring, a drama about a sensitive private investigator recovering from a nervous breakdown. Layers of characterisation replaced kicking down doors and impressive ratings saw off ITV’s competitive scheduling of The Professionals fourth season.
The Professionals’ crime adventure format briefly endured with Dempsey and Makepeace and C.A.T.S Eyes but police procedurals and private investigators dominated the rest of the 1980s. The 1990s saw a revival, by dint of baby boomer nostalgia, on screens big and small. The Saint and The Avengers underwent dubious Hollywood remakes and the BBC produced a short-lived return of the quirky Randall And Hopkirk.
In 1999 David Wickes, who directed many episodes of The Professionals, co-produced a poorly regarded television update, CI5 - The Professionals, with Clemens. Audiences did not embrace it, investor and broadcaster Sky One heavily cut episodes and a mooted second series was cancelled.
The forthcoming restored DVD and Blu-ray re-release of The Professionals offers audiences another context to the evolution of the crime series. In a post Spooks age, how is watching The Sweeney (recently reconfigured as a film for cinema audiences) and The Professionals now informed by ironic, postmodern pastiches such as Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes?
Is the yearning for a ‘back-to-basics’ view of tackling crime in these series simply nostalgia or more relevant than ever before?
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