Wednesday, 20 April 2011

'Evenin' all' Dixon of Dock Green: 1955 - 1976


Beginning in 1955 and finally ending in 1976, Dixon of Dock Green was a popular series although its homeliness would later become a benchmark to measure the "realism" of police series such as Z-Cars and The Bill. The series was set in a suburban Police Station in the East End of London and concerned uniformed police engaged with routine tasks and low-level crime. The ordinary, everyday nature of the people and the setting was emphasised in early episodes by the British music-hall song "Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner" with its sentimental evocations of a cosy community, being used as the series theme song. This was composed by Jeff Darnell. Unlike later police series, Dixon focused less on crime and policing and more on the family-like nature of life in the station (and at home) with Dixon, a warm, paternal and frequently moralising presence, being the central focus where crime was little more than petty larceny. Dixon lived in a small mid-terraced house on a busy road. He liked a drink, as did his police friends.

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However as the 1960s and the early 1970s brought more realistic police series from both sides of the Atlantic to the British public, Dixon of Dock Green seemed increasingly unrealistic, a rosy view of the police that grew out of touch with the times. Yet the writer of the series always maintained to the end of the programme's time that stories were based on fact, and that Dixon was an accurate reflection of what goes on in an ordinary police station. One exception was the 1956 episode The Rotten Apple where Policeman Tom Carr (Paul Eddington) was found to have been burgling houses while on his beat. (A furious Dixon declares there to be nothing worse on Earth than a policeman who commits crimes, and forces Carr to take off the uniform jacket he is "not fit to wear".)

The police station featured in the opening titles was the previous Ealing police station, located at number 5 High Street, just north of Ealing Green.

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The main character, Police Constable George Dixon, played by Jack Warner, was an old-style British "bobby" (Police Man). The character first appeared in a 1950 British film by Ealing, The Blue Lamp, in which he was shot and killed by a criminal played by Dirk Bogarde. However, it was decided to bring him back to life for a television series, written by Ted Willis. Designer was Laurence Broadhouse.

If Dixon was known to the public, the actor Jack Warner was even better known. Born in London in 1896, Warner had been a Comedian in radio and in his early film career. Starting in the early 1940s, he broadened his range to include dramatic roles, becoming a warmly human character actor in the process. But as well as playing in films with dramatic themes, such as The Blue Lamp, Warner continued to play in comedies such as the successful Huggett family programmes on BBC Radio and films made between 1948 and 1953.

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In Dixon of Dock Green, Dixon is a "bobby" on the beat - lowest-ranking policeman on foot patrol. With the inevitable heart of gold, Dixon was a widower raising an only daughter Mary (Billie Whitelaw in early episodes, later replaced by Jeanette Hutchinson).

Subtitled in the early days: Some Stories of a London Policeman, each episode started with Dixon speaking to the camera. He began with a salute and the greeting "Good evening all", which was changed to "Evening all" in the early 1970s, which has lived on in Britain as a jocular greeting. In similar fashion, episodes finished with a few words to camera from Dixon in the form of philosophy on the evils of crime.

Initially, Dixon continued in the same role as in the film The Blue Lamp, a constable based at the fictitious Dock Green police station in the East End of London. The character of Andy Mitchell (played by Jimmy Hanley), the young constable in the film, became a detective named Andy Crawford (played by Peter Byrne), in the CID at Dock Green, and he was married to Dixon's 23 year old daughter, Mary (who did not appear in the film) in the 19th episode, Father in Law (1st Sept 1956). Dixon sings a few songs at the wedding and wishes the viewers goodbye at the end of the episode (this was the end of series 2 and series 3 was four months away). The couple moved to a flat in Chelmsford.

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By the final years of the series in the 1970s, Warner was getting elderly and looking increasingly implausible even in a desk job (as he had increasing difficulty moving about, helped slightly by a treatment involving bee stings). In the final series, when Warner was 80, George Dixon was shown as retired from the police and being re-employed as a civilian collator.

In 2005, the series was revived for BBC radio, adapted by Sue Rodwell, with David Calder as George Dixon, David Tennant as Andy Crawford, and Charlie Brooks as Mary Dixon. A second series followed in 2006, with Hamish Clark replacing Tennant owing to the latter's Doctor Who recording commitments.

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The BBC scheduled Dixon in the family time slot of 6:30 on Saturday night. At the time it started on air in 1955, the drama schedule of the BBC was mostly restricted to television plays so that Dixon of Dock Green had little trouble in building and maintaining a large and loyal audience. In 1961, the series was voted second most popular programme on British television with an estimated audience of 13.85 million. Even in 1965 after three years of the gritty and grimy procedural police-work of Z-Cars, the audience for Dixon stood at 11.5 million. However as the 1960s wore on, ratings began to fall and this, with health questions around Jack Warner, led the BBC to end the series in 1976.

The series was the creation of writer Ted Willis, who not only wrote the series over its 20 years on British television but had a controlling hand in production. Longtime producer of the series was Douglas Moodie whose other television credits include The Inch Man and The Airbase. Dixon was originally produced at the BBC's studios at Lime Grove. Altogether some 430 episodes were made, at first running 30 minutes and later 45 minutes.

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In 1988, a screenplay called The Black and Blue Lamp was shown on BBC TV. In it two identical criminals named Tom Riley, one from the 1950 film (in which Dixon dies) and one from the 1980s, swap places in time. The one from the 80's experiences the soft policing of the Dixon TV series. Meanwhile, the one from 1950 experiences the very harsh policing of the 80's, represented by a parody of violent police procedurals called The Filth. There he discovers that the Dixon of the divergent Dock Green timeline, who has also just been killed, was as bad as any copper could be.

One of Dixon's closing monologues from Dixon of Dock Green was recycled for the final scene of Ashes to Ashes in 2010. Like The Black and Blue Lamp, characters in Ashes to Ashes and its predecessor, Life on Mars, were seemingly sent into different eras of policing. Moreover, Dixon's 'resurrection' for Dixon of Dock Green, after having been killed in The Blue Lamp, parallels the stories of the principal characters in Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, having been explained in the final episode.

Remembering Sarah Jane: Elisabeth Sladen. 1948 - 2011

Elisabeth Sladen(BBC)

Doctor Who actress Elisabeth Sladen has died of cancer at the age of 63, the BBC has confirmed.

Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen (PA)
[Elisabeth Sladen is pictured alongside fourth Doctor Tom Baker after he was announced as the new Time Lord. Roger Carey, who represented Lis for many years, said. "She couldn't believe her luck when her career was resurrected in her own series." Lis had been suffering from cancer. She leaves behind a husband, actor Brian Miller, and her daughter Sadie.]

Steven Moffat, Doctor Who's executive producer said: "'Never meet your heroes wise people say. They weren't thinking of Lis Sladen." He added: "Sarah Jane Smith was everybody's hero when I was younger, and as brave and funny and brilliant as people only ever are in stories. But many years later, when I met the real Sarah-Jane - Lis Sladen herself - she was exactly as any child ever have wanted her to be."

Elisabeth Sladen (BBC)

Elisabeth Sladen was born in Liverpool in 1948. She's best known as the companion to the third and fourth Doctors, played by Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker. She left the part on a full-time basis in 1976, but returned to the role on numerous occasions over the years. The Sarah Jane Adventures brought Lis a whole new generation of fans.

Steven Moffat continued: "Kind and gentle and clever, and a ferociously talented actress, of course, but in that perfectly English unassuming way. There are a blessed few who can carry a whole television show on their talent and charisma - but I can't think of one other who's done it quite so politely."

Cast of The Sarah Jane Adventures including Elisabeth Sladen (Image © BBC)
[Elisabeth Sladen is pictured with the cast of The Sarah Jane Adventures. The show's creator Russell T Davies said: "I absolutely loved Lis. She was funny and cheeky and clever and just simply wonderful. The universe was lucky to have Sarah Jane Smith; the world world was lucky to have Lis."]

Moffat added: "I once showed my son Joshua an old episode of Doctor Who, in which Lis appeared. 'But that's Sarah Jane,' he said, confused. 'In old Doctor Who. From years ago. How come she always looks exactly the same?' It's not a comfort today, of course, but children will still be saying that 50 years from now."

Elisabeth Sladen (PA)
Elisabeth Sladen appeared in numerous shows outside of the Doctor Who universe. One of her early roles came in 1970; she featured in six episodes of Coronation Street as a barmaid. Her CV included guest roles in Z-Cars, Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em and Special Branch. She was also an accomplished stage actress. She will be missed...

Elisabeth Sladen had been suffering from cancer. She leaves behind a husband - actor Brian Miller - and her daughter, Sadie.