Dixon of Dock Green Episode Review: Waste Land

Continuing our series of reviews of surviving episodes of Dixon of Dock Green currently being broadcast on Talking Pictures TV, this week we are discussing Waste Land.

As soon as the episode opens, there is one glaring difference from any previous episodes aired on Talking Pictures: we are now into the colour era. The opening titles and music also feel much more aggressive. Although Dixon (Jack Warner) still has his opening monologue, the next scene is far from a gentle introduction.

In episodes from previous eras, there was also a B-story going on, and the episode would often begin with the introduction of this usually lighter fare. But in Waste Land, first broadcast in 1970, the vibe is totally different. I think it would be unjust to say that it is like a different show. At the root of it, Jack Warner’s presence and the unwavering character of Andy Crawford (Peter Byrne) ground this newly gritty era of Dixon. It clearly belongs to the same world. It would be easy to assume that the transition could seem clumsy in some way. Actually, it just makes sense. It feels like the natural growth and progression that does happen to the world around us constantly.

I have seen comparisons between late-1960s/1970s Dixon of Dock Green and the slicker and more action-based Z-Cars. This is almost as inaccurate as the assumption that the programme was ever sleepy and innocent. It is a pleasing hybrid between serious policing, a small portion of sensationalism and the reassurance of familiar characters whom we know and trust. We know that Sgt Dixon, DS Crawford and DC Lauderdale (Geoffrey Adams) will do their best. These characters are fair, loyal, trustworthy and good.

It is worth noting that the show had gone 100% Police procedural by this point. In this episode, for example, we spend hardly any time inside Dock Green Police station, and none at all at Dixon’s home. There will be no further appearances now of George’s daughter Mary. It would feel superfluous and clunky, in this slicker style, to break away. These domestic scenes were often used as exposition to advance plot points. The style of filming and pacing of the show is now such that these are unnecessary.

With many outdoor scenes and location shots, everything we need to understand about the progression of the investigation is explored on screen, or in thrillingly claustrophobic conversations between Policeman and member of the public.

This brings me to what I feel is an unexpected but fair comparison. Waste Land indicates to me perhaps the beginning–or close to it–of the modern detective drama. There were moments in this episode, certain narrative techniques, cutting, language and pacing, which felt like carbon copies of what would later be the standard. Shows such as Morse, A Touch of Frost, Lewis and countless others, seem to be following a play-book set down by a programme that would probably not be credited as having much influence at all. Nobody would think that these gritty, serious detective dramas, filled with shocking murders and chilling crimes, would owe anything to Dixon of Dock Green. Surely Dixon was too sleepy and quaint for that? But we know different, don’t we?

I won’t pretend I wasn’t shocked when the idea first occurred to me, following a scene transition in which Dixon gets news on the phone, looks up and tells others in the scene “They’ve found something”, then the shot immediately cuts and we are taken outside to an action shot.

The Story…

The plot of Waste Land involves PC Norman, recently transferred to Dock Green from Kent. To begin with, he can’t be raised on his personal radio while out on his beat. Then his “Panda” car is found off the beaten track at an abandoned dock, empty with no sign of him.

It turns out that he was attacked by unknown assailants five years previously in the course of duty and has been haunted by the desire for justice or vengeance ever since. Gradually the Dock Green CID, consisting in this episode of DS Crawford, DC Lauderdale and DCI Prescott (played by James Grout), find out that PC Norman has been keeping some strange habits. He has a female confidante, a Nurse who had cared for him in hospital after his attack. He frequents this abandoned dock, believing it the key to finding the gang who ambushed him in a darkened dock warehouse five years ago.

Andy gradually begins to agree with Mrs Norman: perhaps he was wrongly assessed as fit for duty. Andy even has a line which implies he thinks that no care for a member of the force’s mental well-being is paid at all. This seems a fairly forward-thinking idea, considering that we are only really just starting to have meaningful conversations around mental health, over 50 years later.

With Dixon’s wrapping up at the end of the episode, we learn that the case was never really solved. There is no clear moral to pass on to us this time. It leaves us to draw our own conclusions, and as such is pretty thought-provoking and very effective.

In Conclusion…

Dixon of Dock Green has become thrilling and exciting in a way I wasn’t ready for. Yet I am definitely here for it. I, for one, will still be hungrily waiting for the next week’s broadcast. I miss Sgt Flint and the humour used to balance the drama. However, the programme has transcended it remarkably, as far as I’m concerned. It maintains a familiarity without being too comfortable. The trademark commitment to justice brought to George Dixon by Jack Warner is still very strongly present, despite his advancing years really being unsuited to the role. The action and suspense is used to great effect, without being too fantastical or overdone. As ever, the writers are so economical with language and pacing, the actors bringing such subtlety and skill, that every scene is satisfying, compelling and moving.

If you missed it, you can catch up with Waste Land on Talking Pictures TV Encore until 13th April 2024. Dixon of Dock Green airs every Saturday evening on Talking Pictures TV at 7 pm.

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