Network on Air (studio)
549min approx (length)
13 February 2017 (released)
07 March 2017
Calling this series groundbreaking by nowadays standards surely would leave viewers bewildered. However, bearing in mind that PROBATION OFFICER launched in 1959 and screened on British TVs until 1962 it is probably fair to say that this once popular ITV drama series was groundbreaking for its time.
The series was written by Julian Bond, now almost forgotten and possibly best known for the 1985 drama film The Shooting Party, starring James Mason. PROBATION OFFICER is without doubt a well-intentioned insight into the work that probation officers provided though to modern audiences the series will come across as incredibly dated. That said, this Network release starring John Paul and Honor Blackman in the lead roles is aimed at connoisseurs of nostalgic and vintage TV, which makes it an appreciated rarity.
The main protagonists are Philip Main (John Paul), a man with what looks like a whole jar brylcreem applied to his scalp, his senior officer Jim Blake (David Davies) who likes like a boxing cornerman, and the glamorous Iris Cope (Honor Blackman) as his assistant (for whom he has the hots). Another probation officer is played by John Scott (Bert Bellman), whose character is that of a narrow-minded reactionary racist.
In the first episode the overly sympathetic Main is assigned to the case of a disturbed young man who has a totally shocking problem! The young lad is on the point of madness because ... wait for it... he is a marijuana addict! Just look at Louis Armstrong and Robert Mitchum… who knows to what great heights they may have gone had it not been for this vile weed… tsss! The young man even starts 'tripping' in the police cell and suffers terrible withdrawal symptoms. It would be safe to say that whoever wrote this episode, which borders on the ridiculously naïve, didn’t undertake any medical or factual research before putting pen to paper, or perhaps such things were simply not done back then. The good news is that the unfortunate dope fiend managed to get off the drug with the help of our probation officers and we can only hope he didn't become an alcoholic instead (though at least that's legal).
Equally shocking is another episode in which a black man (played by Earl Cameron) goes to see probation officer Main to ask him if he could have a word with his son. The problem is that the boy (a mulatto) is dating a white girl, no need to say more. Cameron himself actually uses the dreaded word 'half-caste'. His son (Lloyd Reckord) is an intelligent young man but is accused by the well-meaning Main of 'having a chip on his shoulder'. Oh yes, work hard to get educational qualifications only to find the best job you can get is that of a bus conductor. Can we actually blame him the man for having a chip on his shoulder? We simply know he is going to ask Main “How would you like your daughter to go out with a black man?” Main answers that he wouldn't, so there you have it. It gets worse when the young man is eventually attacked by white racist yobs and slashed with a razor. He retaliates as anyone would and finds himself in court on an assault charge. Although there is a happy ending to this episode which I won’t give away won’t can’t help getting the impression that this episode comes over as deeply insulting though as mentioned before, the series is a product of its time and its interesting to see how social stigmas and opinions have changed over the decades.
Some of the later episodes fare a little better. The funniest features an army officer who likes kids (not in the way that Jimmy Saville did!) and who throws his metal headed walking stick at the windscreens of bad motorists in order to make sure the kids can cross the city’s streets unharmed. In another episode, a young Charles Gray also delivers a tour de force performance as an alcoholic and inwardly insecure businessman.
The series is positively pedestrian on a technical level, considering that other series like Danger Man and The Avengers started not long after that. Still, if you are interested in vintage TV drama and it's development then this might be for you, though various episodes on this 3-disc set are missing, presumed lost or incomplete.