Since 1955 a policeman's lot had been depicted as a happy one by the BBC's 'community copper' series Dixon of Dock Green. But when Z Cars came along in 1962, television finally got the chance to show the British public a different outlook altogether.
When in 1962 the writer Troy Kennedy Martin was confined to bed with mumps, he decided to pass his time listening in to the police wavelength on his radio. What he heard was a far cry from what was being depicted on television. As a result he created Z Cars, a series set on Merseyside at a time when Liverpool was on the verge of significant social changes. To combat the growing crime wave policemen were taken off the beat and placed in fast response vehicles, the 'Z Cars' of the series title (so called because the cars were Ford Zephyrs), and put on patrol around the old district of Seaport and the modern 'high rise' development of Kirkby Newtown.
Developed with the help of documentarists Elwyn Jones and Robert Barr the programme didn't simply concern itself with the cops versus robbers format, but showed the day to day lives of the policemen themselves, depicting them as fallible human beings capable of gambling, drinking, and most controversially of all, wife beating. Like The Sweeney over a decade later, Z-Cars mirrored the social changes of its era and bravely dared to push the envelope of the dramatic depiction of the police and their role in a rapidly changing society, to starkly realistic new heights. It was a brave move on the part of both Kennedy Martin and the BBC, but one which paid off handsomely. The Police Federation complained bitterly about the content, but within two months of the show going on air it was attracting an average audience of 14 million viewers.
The stars of the show became household names, Brian Blessed as PC 'Fancy Smith' drove Z-Victor 1, whilst later additions to the regular cast included Colin Welland and Leonard Rossiter. Stratford Johns as the no-nonsense Charlie Barlow, a superior officer not adverse to pounding his suspects into submission, and Frank Windsor as his gentler sidekick John Watt, were given their own series in 1966, Softly, Softly, which saw them head off to form the Regional Crime Squad. Guest stars also went on to successful careers and included John Thaw, Judi Dench, Alison Steadman, Kenneth Cope, George Sewell, Joss Ackland, Ralph Bates and Patrick Troughton.
The series continued until 1978 but by this time it was beginning to face competition from US imports such as Kojak, Hawaii Five-0, and Starsky and Hutch. The new generation of all action, car chasing, door kicking format was in vogue, and in Britain the new kids on the block were the men of the Flying Squad; The Sweeney. Somewhat ironically, given that Z Cars had undoubtedly paved the way for the brutally realistic success of his cousin's (Ian Kennedy Martin) later creation, Troy Kennedy Martin branded The Sweeney in his book Crimewriters, as: "...a world of vanity and self-mockery." Accusations similar to those that he himself had experienced during the early days of his own creation's success.
Just like Z Cars had made 'Dixon' look old and dated so The Sweeney had the same effect on a show that had, by the late 1970's, very much outlived what public taste was now demanding, and in 1978 it became a case of 'Z-Victor One, out!'
Published on February 13th, 2019. Written by Laurence Marcus "Z Victor One, are you receiving?" (2000) for Television Heaven.