Blog : Special Branch

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While browsing the EPG on my Sky box I stumbled across a station called Forces TV just after 9.00pm. To my delight, the station was re-running old episodes on a now long-forgotten Thames Television show called Special Branch, which ran from 1969 to 1974. This series was last aired on UK Gold in the late 1990s.

The series began in 1969 and starred Derren Nesbitt, fresh from his role as a Nazi in Where Eagles Dare, for its first two seasons, which were recorded on videotape. Then, in 1973, it was revamped by Thames subsidiary Euston Films, who filmed the remaining two series on 16mm film.

It was the sixth episode of the 1973 series that I stumbled upon. For the 1973 series Derren Nesbitt was replaced by George Sewell as Detective Chief Inspector Alan Craven and was later augmented by Patrick Mower as Detective Chief Inspector Tom Haggerty. What makes watching re-runs of Special Branch so interesting are the street scenes of a London which no longer exists – drab looking and run down, as if the place had never recovered from the Blitz, and devoid of congestion and commercialism. Were these really the good old days?

This is London just as Britain joined the Common Market, so foreign cars are few and far between and even Austin A35s are still in everyday use. Quite clearly, from the episode I watched, British Leyland were the prime suppliers of new cars for the production, with Rover P6s and a K-reg Morris Marina (above). George Sewell’s car of choice was a Wolseley Six, the upmarket Landcrab, complete with Rostyle wheels.

Special Branch ended in 1974 and Thames TV decided to replace it on the Euston Films production lot with a series developed from a one off television film called Regan. That series became The Sweeney, with cars supplied by Ford. Special Branch can be seen at 9.00pm weekdays on Forces TV, Sky Channel 181, Virgin 277, Freesat 165 and Freeview 96. You can also view the programme’s cars on IMCDB.

Tune into 1973!

Ian Nicholls

Born in Bedfordshire but now residing in Norfolk, Ian Nicholls is an ardent BL enthusiast. Currently he owns a Jaguar and two classic Minis. A stalwart of the Norfolk Mini Owners Club for nearly a decade he is an enthusiast for all things Issigonis. A stickler for historical accuracy he has recently performed the marathon task of mining the online newspaper articles for all BMC>MG related stories. Ian is unable to help with technical queries – he pays other people to fix his cars!

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38 Comments

  1. From Wikipedia: “The first Special Branch historically recorded, or Special Irish Branch, as it was then known, was a unit of London’s Metropolitan Police formed in March 1883 to combat the Irish Republican Brotherhood. The name became Special Branch as the unit’s remit widened to include more than just IRA-related counterespionage.”

    If you want to see other vintage British police and crime series, and films using cars of the era, have a look at Channel 81, Talking Pictures TV. Plenty of 1950s, 1960s, 1970s British cars roaring around the streets of London and the roads of England.

    My wife was born in Winslow, Bucks, and with film studios such as Elstree in the area, she was always saying, “Look that’s so and so”, a Bucks village or town used as the location for country scenes.

    I once delivered some items needed for The Bill, and had a wander round the set.

  2. I too stumbled across this and have been doing some investigation. It’s obvoously a pre-cursor to the aweeney wurh the action titles, but what rally interested me was Craven’s girlfriend. A well rounded, intelligent black woman who is a nurse. That must have been a helluva shock back in 1973 but is just refreshing and welcome! Not much seems to have been written about this that I can find. Were there any comments at the time?

  3. Love to watch re-runs of these older TV shows. Plus some of the more recent ones too as they feature lots of the nice cars I well remember as a schoolboy and during my early adult life.

    BBC last week were running “Father Brown” episodes which included lots of 1940s and 1950s UK Built cars. The beautiful red Sunbeam Talbot drop-head coupe carried a distinctive Gloucestershire registration. My junior school playground in 1951-3 was directly opposite the Sunbeam Dealership showrooms and as a schoolboy, I saw a succession of newly purchased new cars carrying that series number plates. I may even have seen that very car when it was in the showroom.

    Re-runs of the more recent George Gently cop show based in the 1960s North East ( DRAMA Channel 20 on Freview based in the Durham area ) has lots of interesting car content. Rover P5, P6, Wolseley 4/44s ( like MG Magnette ), Ford Corsairs and even an Iris Blue MGB with wire wheels just like the one I had in the mid 1960s. Good strong story lines too. I missed most of those when first shown so good opportunity to catch those missed episodes.

  4. Re Craven’s girlfriend, through my wife I had a Trinidad born actor friend – Frank Singuineau – who appeared in many films and several TV series including Z Cars; plenty of Ford action (of sorts!) there. He also acted on the stage. Looking up Frank’s filmography, I have just discovered that he was married at one time to an Irish actress – Doreen Keogh – who also appeared in Coronation Street. When my wife and I knew him, his livewith was a charming French woman, Therese Rouselet (not sure of surname spelling), whom we always thought had some role in the French Resistance during WWII, but it was never discussed. Thanks, Angus, for what you wrote – it opened a can of caviar!

  5. This is a show I’ve vaguely heard of but don’t really know much about.

    For a few years ITV didn’t make many one the beat crime dramas after the likes of No Hiding Place ended, as the trend in the late 1960s was for glossy transatlantic styled shows.

    My Dad has a few books on transport in London with pictures taken about a decade earlier, & are interesting to look at, as many parts of London at the start of the 1960s looked like Victorian built town centres than part of a metropolis.

  6. Certainly concur with Talking Pictures, especially the prewar/post war documentaries/home movies with very empty streets and 1960’s films with bright pastel shaded cars. What is also a bit sobering is how empty the streets often are. Big shout also for Lovejoy reruns with early 90’s motors.

  7. Thanks, Chris – about Talking Pictures; also plenty of scenes with people taking (steam) trains – in the days when car ownership was in the minority. Re empty streets, my parents had a guest house in Devon from the early fifties to the early sixties. Guests would come from London, the Midlands, even the North – for their summer week or two in “Devon, Glorious Devon”, generally arriving and leaving on a Saturday. Often my parents would get a phone call (from a call box, no mobiles!) saying guests were stuck on the Honiton bypass or on the outskirts of Exeter. From memories of Exeter: “Through the 1950s and 60s traffic jams on the Exeter by-pass were legend, and were, like the swallows, an indication that summer had arrived. When the by-pass was particularly busy, a line of traffic several miles long could back up both the A30 and the A38, while the High Street would still have streams of cars passing along it, trying to avoid the by-pass to join the Okehampton Road in St Thomas. In August 1959 an experimental scheme where a policeman stood on a raised platform in the centre of the Countess Wear roundabout to manually control four sets of temporary traffic lights, was introduced. It was hoped that holiday traffic flow on the Exeter By Pass would be improved.” Ah, the days of the joys of the “open road”!!

  8. I didn’t mention this in the original article, but Derren Nesbitt was convicted of domestic violence in January 1973, which probably explains why he was dropped from Special Branch. He appears to have been a major TV star up until this point, but then largely dissappeared from view after this conviction, apart from the usual screenings of Where Eagles Dare.

    • It was just the media then following up tips, normally when the police were raiding public toilets for any cottaging.

  9. I seem to remember that Special Branch at some stage ran FE Victors. I’m sure there are some who think we will return to these good old days after Brexit. We’ll certainly have streets devoid of commercialisation that look as if they haven’t recovered from the blitz if we end up with no deal. Heaven help us if the average motorist can only aspire to a home grown product like that beige Marina.

  10. At least you could get parked on London streets in those days, with maybe 5 pence to put in a parking meter in the busiest streets, and a Marina was something a lot of people trading in their old Morris Minors and 1100s wanted to buy at the time.

    • The Harvest Gold Marina 1.8 HYV 800K was taxed until 31 January 1985 per DVLA. A life of 13 years, not bad for a BL car from the 1970’s. Move on a decade, I doubt the average Montego would have lasted as long.

  11. IFO which follows “Special Branch” has been a guilty pleasure of mine since I was a kid. That’s got some interesting cars in it. I read somewhere (on here? If not, why not?!) that Ed’s aerodynamic brown turd of a car was based on a Granada, and the little troop transporter things are based on Hillman Imps.

  12. Oh, and that steering wheel is a “potential deathtrap”. It would be a mess in a crash! you’ve seen it, you’ll know what I mean.

  13. My favourite memory of 60s cop shows was on Z Cars (I think) where two coppers visited a notorious block of flats in a new Marina saloon. The local oiks let their tyres down and set fire to the car – as it burned, it turned into a Mark 2 Ford Zephyr – cheaper to write off!

    • There are a few good “stunt double” cars in TV & film where a car was switched for something cheaper to smash up.

    • @ Ken Strachan, location filming done in Kirkby, the supposed Newtown of the series, later to become one of the most notorious council estates in Britain. Don’t have huge memories of Z Cars, as it ended when I was 10, but do recall the last series the police using Mark 2 Escorts, maybe a plug for the nearby Halewood factory.

  14. I love all the old programs on the box – even if I remember them from when they were on the first time! The professionals when they stop on what looks like the Westway – could do that today! Bergerac, Lovejoy, The Persuaders (think that’s on True TV?) – some brilliant old motors in the background. Hadn’t seen Special Branch on Forces TV (to early for me and don’t think it was ever repeated like The Sweeney) – normally see Starsky and Hutch and Airwolf when I get down that far on the EPG!

  15. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy & Smiley’s People have a lot of good street scenes with plenty of cars of the time.

    CHiPs unsurprisingly has lots of driving sequences, as does the Rockford Files.

  16. I have been watching the original series of The Professionals from 1977, where Bodie and Doyle drive a Dolomite Sprint and Cowley has a Rover 3500. Also there are several Rover P6 police cars in this series, as the car was just ending production. Then, apart from the occasional appearance of Rover SD1s as patrol cars, the series is dominated by Ford, who took over the contract to supply the cars to the main characters due to reliability issues with British Leyland.

    • I was wondering if the amount of Vauxhall Victors used by villains in The Professionals is as much as suggested.

      I think there’s an episode of the New Avengers where an Austin Cambridge is used as an unlikely getaway car & later smashed up in a chase.

      • @ richardpd, I think the Victors feature the most in the third series. By then these were almost worthless, but in 2 litre form could go quite quickly and were good for chase scenes. I suppose some worn out car that was bought for £ 100 or less and was going to be run ragged and destroyed was good value.

      • @ richardpd, I think the Victors feature the most in the third series. By then these were almost worthless, but in 2 litre form could go quite quickly and were good for chase scenes. I suppose some worn out car that was bought for £ 100 or less and was going to be run ragged and destroyed was good value.

  17. The famous line “Get your trousers on. You’re nicked!” was actually used first in this very show by Patrick Mower. It was so good Euston Films reused it in “The Sweeney”.

  18. There are some 60s/70s gems on ForcesTV.
    With me as the only Patrick in school, the only Patricks on TV were Mower, Troughton, Cargill and Campbell.
    I was born in ’65 and vaguely remember watching Patrick Mower in Special Branch, who proved that Patricks could be macho !
    I must remember to watch it again…

    • Patrick Mower was also in the controversial BBC series Target, which was their attempt at making s show like The Sweeney.

      • I think Target might have worked better if it was made a few years later. BBC1 still had the gritty Z Cars, but this was coming to the end of its life, and a year before Target started still had the woefully outdated Dixon Of Dock Green, where an elderly police sergeant was still giving his mind as you go advice. Might have been true if George Dixon was based in Somerset at the time, but certainly not seventies London.

  19. Another little remembered police series on ITV in the early seventies was New Scotland Yard, starring John Woodvine. This was another tough series, with storylines based around political extremism, organised crime and terrorism, and is best remembered for the revolving New Scotland Yard sign and Met Rover 2000s driving along the Westway in the credits.

  20. Scotland Yard [no New} is on Talking Pictures TV, with Edgar Lustgarten. Plenty of cars of the era – and vans, lorries, buses, ambulances, trains.

    • Think RVC425H was the number displayed on the Stag used in ‘Diamonds are Forever’ when JB assumes the identity of Peter Franks. Was also used as a getaway car in the 1978 episode of ‘The Sweeney’, called ‘Latin Lady’.

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