Damp Patch

Spooner’s Patch on DVD

In the 1970s, the public’s perception of the police began to suffer. The revelations about corruption in the Metropolitan Police in particular were very damaging, and this was reinforced by an increasingly harder edge to the fictionalised representations of the force on television. The Sweeney is an obvious example, but while its lead characters Regan and Carter sailed close to the wind, they generally came good in the end, and indeed the climax of the series featured Regan trying to clear his name of corruption.

It was Les Blair and GF Newman’s controversial 1978 series Law and Order that, if not the first, was the most high-profile show to portray police corruption as a widespread fact of life, but its influence led to a number of programmes in a similar vein. The most surprising of these, Spooner’s Patch, was first transmitted in July 1979 just a year after Law and Order and right from the start of the first episode the influence of the earlier show is clear. As the episode unfolds, the Inspector of a small town police station becomes desperate to jail the person who vandalised his property, and as a result one of his violent constables promptly arrests an innocent Irishman. No-one would have batted an eyelid at that in Law and Order.

But of course, Spooner’s Patch isn’t a hard hitting drama about police corruption – it’s a sitcom written by Ray Galton and Johnny Speight. Galton’s previous writing partner Alan Simpson had just quit the business, and neither Galton nor Speight were in the best part of their respective careers. Speight was famous for Till Death Us Do Part and had made a career from making comedy about politically and culturally sensitive topics, whereas Galton, in writing Steptoe and Son was 50% responsible for one of the great comedies about class and society. I can imagine that both men jumped at the idea of a sitcom about a small town police force (even if it was more Hunters Walk than Law and Order) as that would offer a lot of mileage for both writers to produce a mildly satirical character-based comedy. But whatever their original concept, Spooner’s Patch ended up a dreadful but grimly fascinating series, which has been given a fantastic release by Network. Regardless of dire quality of the comedy on offer, Network has gone the extra mile to provide both the complete series and lengthy extras that allows the viewer to trace the torturous gestation of this benighted production.

Spooner’s Patch is so much more interesting as a case study than a comedy, so I’m going to start with the extras and get round to the actual programme later. Firstly, not all of the episodes survive unscathed in the archive. The missing episodes have been replaced from Ray Galton’s personal video collection, and they are ‘The Share-Out’, ‘High Noon’ and ‘The Lock Up’. These are transfers from U-matic tapes and are of pretty
good quality; the last of those episodes also has some hidden treasures if you use your rewind button judiciously. Another episode ‘Vote for Mrs Cantaford’ is also represented by one of Galton’s recordings, but in this case because the 1″ tape in the archive is a faulty dub from the original quad. Astonishingly, Network have included the faulty 1″ as an extra for insane completists. It’s quite hypnotic – gradually the interference on the picture gets worse and worse but because it’s an episode of Spooner’s Patch you learn to love the interference as a welcome distraction.

Genuinely fascinating though, is the untransmitted pilot starring Ian Bannen as the eponymous Spooner. Bannen was not exactly famous for his comedy roles (there weren’t a lot of laughs in The Hill or The Offence for example) but as both Galton and Speight were famous for comedies featuring dramatic actors such as Harry H Corbett and Warren Mitchell, it’s not that big a leap of casting. Bannen plays Spooner dead straight as a CID officer, with a somewhat embittered manner as he moves towards the end of his career hoping for a quiet life. Bannen’s upright yet world-weary bearing makes him a convincing detective, but he moves through each scene as if he’s constantly ignoring what’s going on around him, which is a nice idea in the circumstances, but makes for an odd viewing experience.

As can be seen in another extra, what’s going on around Bannen is complete chaos, unfunny madness and, worst of all, an unhinged Irene Handl. The studio recording session for the pilot is featured fully on this release – it’s 78 minutes long – and it’s both the most fascinating but grim part of the set. I won’t spoilt it all, but when Handl gets to Take Seven of a scene and stares once more into the camera with her dead shark eyes, you will probably never again feel such a combination of terror laced with boredom.

I suspect the role of Spooner was recast because with Bannen, the police setting might have just seemed that little bit too real. Similarly, Norman Rossington’s character PC Goatman is a terrifyingly violent man portrayed so physically that I was constantly worried poor old Norman was going to have a heart attack. In the series proper, Goatman is much more of a clown and his regular gurns to the camera remove the harder edge seen in the pilot, but it’s unclear exactly what the casting of Ronald Fraser in the title role was supposed to achieve other than turn an already shambolic series into an embarrassment.

On the face of it, bringing in Fraser (well-remembered for his role as a post-colonial gentleman in The Misfit) as the now-in-uniform Spooner should have lightened the mood. Instead Fraser doesn’t so much perform as scream and snarl his way incoherently through the script. And although in the case of this script we’re not likely to be missing much, I’m old-fashioned enough to want to watch a programme, hear the lines and not worry that the lead actor is suddenly going to attack the cameraman. There’s no doubt in my mind that Fraser was falling apart through drink when he recorded Spooner’s Patch and it’s not a pretty sight. I can understand that after having already recast the lead once there would no appetite to go through the process again, but Fraser is so bad that they should have scrapped the show after the first episode was in the can.

It’s around this time that Spooner’s Patch becomes so disaster prone that you almost start feeling sorry for it. The series was premiered on July 9th 1979 and after just a few episodes was taken off air by the ITV strike. After the strike was over, the remaining episodes were shown regionally, often in late-night slots, and any impetus the show had was lost. The critics were scathing, and when the show came back, with Donald Churchill (the Jon Pertwee of the series) as the new Spooner, a preview sniffily but accurately said “The level of coarseness is effortlessly maintained.”

With Churchill in the role, at least the constant sense of imminent collapse had gone, and his Spooner, while still unpleasant, was more of a bumbling oaf constantly being conned by a series of unlikely villains. Norman Rossington had been written out, and effectively replaced by Patricia Hayes as the traffic warden Mrs Cantaford, which led to a much cosier police station even if every episode seemed to end with Spooner being humiliated in some improbably nasty fashion. Despite all this, the show just isn’t funny, and although you can enjoy the familiar guest stars that show up – Jack Douglas, Bill Treacher, Roy Barraclough, Ballard Berkeley and Amanda Barrie all make an appearance -it’s no substitute for laughing. I can’t remember laughing once – even A Serbian Film did better than that. Come to think of it, Yus, My Dear did better than that.

Another series was made, but again disaster struck in the form of the production company ATV changing its name to Central. Very few programmes (Crossroads, Bullseye, any more from the audience?) survived that transition, and although Speight announced that he wanted to move on, it was a case of getting your retaliation in early. It’s hard to believe that anyone mourned the passing of Spooner’s Patch, but it’s even more incredible that the series has had such a comprehensive DVD release. Ultimately it’s depressing, because Galton (with Simpson) was a writer of genius, and Speight had a real talent in his early days, but neither did much work of note after this aside from Speight’s return to Garnett with In Sickness and In Health.

And it’s almost certainly Speight’s contribution to Spooner’s Patch that makes a bad show even worse, although Ray Galton can’t be absolved of blame either. Even during the appalling Curry and Chips, Speight could have just about argued that the programme was explicitly about race relations and so the use of racist language was relevant rather than a lazy way of getting cheap laughs. That argument didn’t cut much ice even in 1969, but there’s no argument for the recurrent flurries of racist material in Spooner’s Patch – they’re entirely arbitrary. The remade pilot episode ‘Par for the Course’ ends with Spooner getting his revenge on the police dog by leading it out of the station and putting it in the back of a van from the local Indian curry house. Spooner laughs madly as they drive away. It’s that kind of show.

Spooner’s Patch is available from Network.

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