Time for this weekend’s Hammer movie – Dick Barton Special Agent.
Dick Barton may not be a name familiar to you, but between 1946 and 1951, he was as well known in British popular culture as, well, Doctor Who is now. Every weekday evening on BBC Radio’s Light Programme, for 15 minutes at a time, Captain Richard Barton, a former marine commando, together with his bestest pals Jock Anderson and Snowey White solved all sorts of crimes, escaped from dangerous situations and saved the nation from disaster. And the nation loved him: at its peak, 15 million people listened to Dick’s adventures every day.
Even if you haven’t heard of Dick Barton, you’ll have heard his theme tune, possibly on That Mitchell and Webb Look: ‘The Devil’s Gallop’. That’s how ingrained he became in popular culture.
To say the plots were slightly implausible, hackneyed and even cliched would be understate the case. There was literally no cliffhanger, no situation so dangerous, that Dick Barton couldn’t get out of it in a trice, prompting the national catchphrase “With one bound, Dick was free!”
Dick did die a death eventually – at the hands of BBC politics. When The Archers came along in 1951, the establishment breathed a sigh of relief since they could finally get rid of the very un-BBC sensationalism of Barton and his friends. Dick lost his time slot and that was that.
Nevertheless, he was much loved and for the BBC’s golden jubilee in 1972, it broadcast a new, abridged 10-episode version of the very first Barton serial, which featured many members of the original cast: Noel Johnson as Dick Barton, John Mann as Snowey, William Fox as Colonel Gardiner, Alex McCrindle as Jock and Margaret Robertson as Jean Hunter.
ITV eventually picked up Barton’s baton, and in 1979 made a series called Dick Barton – Special Agent, which aired in an early evening slot at the weekends. Available again in 15-minute chunks, the four stories broken down into 32 episodes starred Tony Vogel as Dick Barton, Anthony Heaton as Snowey, James Cosmo as Jock and John Gantrel as Sir Richard Marley. It’s now available on DVD, in case you’re interested, and here’s the title sequence.
Dick and his chums have also been revived yearly in a series of musicals that have toured Britain and lasted an impressive 11 years – last year was the first year that there wasn’t a new Barton musical.
But back when Dick was at the peak of his popularity, Hammer Films obtained the rights to make a movie featuring Dick called Dick Barton Special Agent. So successful was this movie that Hammer went on to make two more movies, Dick Barton: Strikes Back (1949) and Dick Barton at Bay (1950), and had it not been for untimely death of the star Don Stannard, there would have been a fourth, Dick Barton in Africa. Nevertheless, it was the popularity of the movies that encouraged Hammer to look at other BBC properties, including The Quatermass Experiment.
It’s only an hour or so long, it’s deeply, spiffingly thrilling, so enjoy Dick Barton: Special Agent in glorious HD below or all three movies on DVD! It’s preceded by an introduction from Robert JE Simpson.