Review: Out – The Complete Series – Special Edition

Many people will only know of the late Tom Bell as the sexist DS Otley in Prime Suspect. But his acting career was wide and varied. Perhaps Bell’s finest hour was in Out in his BAFTA-winning lead role of Frank Ross, a former bank robber who tears up his old manor after eight years inside, trying to find out who put him behind bars.

Written by Trevor Preston, a contributor to Callan and previous Euston Films productions such as Special Branch, Out is firmly rooted in the revenge thriller genre, as well as the general Euston Films milieu. Like Walker in Point Blank (1967) and Carter in Get Carter (1971), Ross is an iconic figure, a sharply dressed gangster who’s prepared to go to almost any lengths to find out who informed on him.

While the grittiness of those films lives on in these six episodes, it would be wrong to think of Out as simply a standard crime thriller. Taking the Krays and other real-life criminals as guidance, it explores the relationships that a career criminal might make with others, including his family, his friends, other criminals and the police, as well as the rules that bound societies like that together during the 60s and 70s.

Coming home

Following a cracking black and white opening sequence, the opening episodes sees Ross return by train from prison to his South London roots. In his absence, his wife has been institutionalised and his best friend is slowly going bankrupt to pay for the psychiatric bills in his stead; his son is being looked after by another family, doesn’t know he’s been released and in slowly joining the same path as his father; the police have clearly got their eye on him from the first moment he sets foot back in his house; and society is now full of punks and other things that at first completely disorientate the just-released Ross.

For the rest of the six episodes, we see how Ross came to end up inside and how he intends to restore his fortunes. Clad in a three-piece suit and tie, Ross fights his way round London as he tries to get money together and discover who shopped him to the police.

Out is one of the better dramas of the 70s, with a taut storyline that’s a complicated series of betrayals and secrets. Living in the same pessimistic gloom of other late-70s serials, it has a misanthropic take on life as it was then: poverty, violence, misogyny are universal in Out. Anyone familiar with Special Branch and The Sweeney will recognise many of the Euston Films trademarks in everything from the directorial style to the way cars are driven to the not desperately well-shot violence. It does however have its own distinct, bleak visual style, owing much to both Carter and other films like Le Samouraï (1967).

Preston’s script is littered with great one-liners and there are times when he seems desperate to wow with his writing skills, rather than necessarily depict real life. The mentally ill Eve Ross (Pamela Fairbrother in full Victorian hysteria) seems more like a pyrotechnic piece of writer’s flamboyance than a fully rounded character, and although time changes both language and conventions, it’s hard to believe anyone in the 70s was still using Cockney rhyming slang like “reel of cotton” (rotten), particularly in South London, where the story is set.

Similarly, once the grasses learn that Ross is on to them, the economy with which Get Carter’s gangsters disposed of their nemesis is sorely missing, replaced instead by a witless car bomb plan. Nevertheless, the script shows real intelligence, resorts to few stereotypes and clichés, and does a good job of showing the corroding effects of crime and violence on everyone it touches.

Populating Out are just about every actor of the time with an East End accent (again, despite the serial being set in South London), including Brian Croucher and future stars such as Andrew Paul and Linda Robson. There’s also a host of other acting luminaries, such as Derrick O’Connor and future Hannibal Lecktor/Lecter Brian Cox, who lets loose a truly scary performance as bottle blond Scottish psychopath McGrath.

The late John Junkin, an actor best known for comedy, also gives a surprisingly adept straight performance as one of Ross’s ‘heavy’ friends. However, Lynda La Plante (then Lynda Marchal) does ruin things slightly for one episode, with perhaps the worst recorded Bangor accent in British television history.

While lacking the polish and production values of a modern show, Out does have far greater grounding and power than many of its contemporaries and its successors. It has its own peculiar 70s’ tics, but if you can ignore them – or revel in them – it’s a sophisticated work that can be appreciated at many levels.

Special features

Both the first episode and the last episode have commentaries from writer Trevor Preston, director Jim Goddard and producer Barry Hanson. They’re a surprisingly informative bunch after all these years, giving great insights into the history, writing and directing of the serial, as well as the television and local culture of the time. Must-listens for anyone interested in television dramas of the era or ‘Out’ itself.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.