Review: Redcap (season 2)

Talking of Redcap, while I’m about it, I thought I’d post this review of the second series on DVD that I wrote for Action TV when that was still being published. (Yes, that is Diana Rigg – the show was made by ABC, which also made The Avengers).

But first, here’s a whole episode, Crime Passionel, which I’ll discuss later.

Forget Morse. Forget Regan. John Thaw’s best performance as a detective was as Sergeant John Mann in Redcap. But unlike Thaw’s more famous roles, Mann wasn’t a police detective: he was a member of the red-bereted Royal Military Police’s Special Investigation Branch – the CID of the army.

Redcap, which ran for two seasons from 1964 to 1966, followed Thaw around the world as he investigated crimes in Britain, Cyprus, Germany, Borneo and Malaysia – wherever the British army was active. The second season, the surviving episodes of which have just been released on DVD, shows both the best and worst sides of the show and indeed TV of the time; but the one constant is the excellent central performance of Thaw as the tough but fair Mann.

In comparison to the relatively genteel Dixon of Dock Green and Z Cars, Redcap was gritty stuff. Made only 20 years after World War II and barely five years after the end of National Service, Redcap and its army setting would have been far more familiar to most men than Dixon and the police, so was permitted a greater degree of violence and realism. Coming from ABC, the home of The Avengers and Cathy Gale’s judo throws, the show dealt with serial killers, rapists and murderers, as well as more ordinary misdemeanours, and was perfectly happy to have Thaw engage in hand-to-hand combat with fellow soldiers.

In common with most shows of the time, little is done to give Mann background or history until the needs of the plot require it. Since he’s constantly globetrotting, we don’t even see as much as his home barracks or the occasional hobby. This would leave Mann as little more than an investigating cipher for most of the show, were it not for Thaw’s performance, which is both confident and nuanced, with none of the artifice that Thaw would occasionally give both Regan and Morse.

It’s not until midway through the season, in the episode Strictly By the Book (last on the DVDs since only a reel of it survives) where he’s investigated himself, that there’s any examination of how Mann feels about the job or his motivations for investigating his own. And it’s only in the show’s final episode, Information Received, that we learn his lack of home life stems from the death of his wife some time in the previous five years.

Nevertheless, the barebones writing of Mann is both strong and realistic. Even when it draws out a scene longer than would be natural, Mann still requires soldiers he’s questioned to march out correctly; he speaks German as well as anyone else who was stationed there during the 60s; and he has the exact amount of confidence and self-possession of someone who’s been in the army and seen action. The presence of technical advisor Lieutenant Colonel F H Elliott OBE, a former redcap, ensured the accuracy of the show’s depiction of army life, even among those actors and writers that didn’t know how to salute properly.

Of the scripts, the weakest came from Troy Kennedy Martin, a surprise for anyone familiar with his excellent work on Z Cars, The Italian Job or Edge of Darkness. Kennedy Martin, whose brother Ian was script editor for the first season of the show, conjures up a number of episodes whose resolutions make you feel like you’ve missed something, even when you haven’t.

Crime Passionel sees a soldier go into a mess tent, shoot a sergeant in front of the assembled troops, then leave to hole himself up in the jungle while Mann works out his motivation. The motivation when it comes seems so slight that you wait for the real cause to be exposed later. Instead, the episode concludes when Mann manages to extract the now-drunken soldier from his bolthole and ferries him off down the river.

Similarly, The Killer sees Mann trying to work out which member of an elite unit is murdering his colleagues on missions and why. Eventually, it’s revealed that one of them is a “textbook case” – what of, we’re not sure, other than that he has to kill someone during a firefight or else he’ll be compelled to kill one of his colleagues a few minutes afterwards. It’s the kind of hokey psychology that was popular in fiction at the time, notably with the moon-oriented manic depressive psychopath of From Russia With Love, but which in retrospect is simply laughable.

The scripts of future crime-writing guru Richard Harris (responsible for much of the goodness in Man in a Suitcase, Hazell and Shoestring) are far better, however. As well as Strictly By The Book, he’s responsible for the best of the second season’s episodes, Information Received. This has Mann forced to investigate a fellow MP and friend after receiving an anonymous note. It’s a subtle piece, with Thaw playing cat and mouse with his mentor (James Grout), who slowly becomes suspicious of Thaw’s presence on his base. Each knows the other is hiding something and uses partial revelations and calculated events to try to fool his opponent’s keen investigative senses. Grout is eventually undone only because he chooses the wrong person to frame, but there’s no denouement where Grout finally admits his guilt. Instead, he withholds all his arguments, waiting for his day in court.

Redcap was, of course, shot 40 years ago and just as the recent Life on Mars highlighted just how different policing was just 30 years ago, Redcap brings home the different morality of the army at the time. Arden Winch’s The Pride of The Regiment sees a decorated war hero picking fights in pubs with other soldiers who don’t acknowledge his VC. The show eventually concludes with the soldier getting a promotion to a more enjoyable job teaching jungle warfare, rather than the court martial you’d expect now, arguing that he just needed something that suited his talents and temperament. Indeed, the theme of looking after your own remains strong within the show, with Mann turning a blind eye to incidents that would probably get a man locked up today, simply because he understands the pressures and difficulties of the life.

The converse – that certain rules could bring harsher punishments than could be expected today – is also true. Paterson’s Private Army sees a corporal bullied by a group of privates who blame him for the deaths of some of their comrades, thanks to a botched ambush. The corporal fakes some additional acts of abuse in an attempt to get the group split up. But when Mann finds out, instead of breaking up the group, he sides with them, accuses the corporal of cowardice and tells him he needs to be stronger if he wants to command men.

While Redcap was brave for its facing of issues that the likes of Dixon of Dock Green were keen to avoid, it still wasn’t capable of directly speaking about other issues, given the culture of the time. All the same, it was able to hint and circumlocute in ways that made it clear to the audience what was actually going on. A gay solider, desperate to repress his feelings and ensure others don’t spot them, talks about “fearing women” – but not because he’s shy. An abused soldier’s wife who becomes an escort talks about “not always having to go home with” her clients.

While there are some standout episodes, most remain forgettable, however. Sometimes that’s because the plots are so tied up in the culture and mores of the time that it’s almost impossible to understand why there’s a problem or why the episode eventually reaches its eventual resolution. At other times, it’s because the story lacks any internal logic.

Buckingham Palace, another of Kennedy Martin’s, endeavours to explain why two particularly bad gamblers actually winning at cards for a change manages to lead to a professional gambler being able to photograph a top-secret installation. It fails because ultimately the plot is nonsense, albeit engrossing nonsense.

More often, though, it’s because of the monotone nature of the show, with Mann uncovering crime with little humour or anything other than professional, respectful conversations with anyone. From the business-like montage of photos that make up the title sequence to the cold closing theme, the episodes are as matter of fact as an RMP investigation report. It’s Dragnet, but with soldiers.

Overall, though, it’s Thaw that sticks with you after the show’s finished. Redcap may not have been the best show of the era, lacking the humour, plots or depth of character for it really to stick in the memory. But with Thaw, it had a superstar in the making.