people will only know of the late Tom Bell as the sexist DS
Otley in 'Prime Suspect'. But his acting career was wide and
varied. Perhaps Bell's finest hour was in 'Out' in his BAFTA-winning
lead role of Frank Ross, a former bank robber who tears up his
old manor after eight years inside, trying to find out who put
him behind bars.
Written by Trevor Preston, a contributor to 'Callan' and previous
Euston Films productions such as 'Special Branch', 'Out' is
firmly rooted in the revenge thriller genre, as well as the
general Euston Films milieu. Like Walker in 'Point Blank' and
Carter in 'Get Carter', Ross is an iconic figure, a sharply
dressed gangster who's prepared to go to almost any lengths
to find out who informed on him.
While the grittiness of those films lives on in these six episodes,
it would be wrong to think of 'Out' as simply a standard crime
thriller. Taking the Krays and other real-life criminals as
guidance, it explores the relationships that a career criminal
might make with others, including his family, his friends, other
criminals and the police, as well as the rules that bound societies
like that together during the 60s and 70s.
Following a cracking black and white opening sequence, the opening
episodes sees Ross return by train from prison to his South
London roots. In his absence, his wife has been institutionalised
and his best friend is slowly going bankrupt to pay for the
psychiatric bills in his sted; his son is being looked after
by another family, doesn't know he's been released and in slowly
joining the same path as his father; the police have clearly
got their eye on him from the first moment he sets foot back
in his house; and society is now full of punks and other things
that at first completely disorientate the just-released Ross.
For the rest of the six episodes, we see how Ross came to end
up inside and how he intends to restore his fortunes. Clad in
a three-piece suit and tie, Ross fights his way round London
as he tries to get money together and discover who shopped him
to the police.
'Out' is one of the better dramas of the 70s, with a taut storyline
that's a complicated series of betrayals and secrets. Living
in the same pessimistic gloom of other late-70s serials, it
has a misanthropic take on life as it was then: poverty, violence,
misogyny are universal in 'Out'. Anyone familiar with 'Special
Branch' and 'The Sweeney' will recognise many of the Euston
Films trademarks in everything from the directorial style to
the way cars are driven to the not desperately well-shot violence.
It does however have its own distinct, bleak visual style, owing
much to both 'Carter' and other films like 'Le Samouraï'.
Preston's script is littered with great one-liners and there
are times when he seems desperate to wow with his writing skills,
rather than necessarily depict real life. The mentally ill Eve
Ross (Pamela Fairbrother in full Victorian hysteria) seems more
like a pyrotechnic piece of writer's flamboyance than a fully
rounded character, and although time changes both language and
conventions, it's hard to believe anyone in the 70s was still
using Cockney rhyming slang like "reel of cotton"
(rotten), particularly in South London, where the story is set.
Similarly, once the grasses learn that Ross is on to them, the
economy with which 'Get Carter's gangsters disposed of their
nemesis is sorely missing, replaced instead by a witless car
bomb plan. Nevertheless, the script shows real intelligence,
resorts to few stereotypes and clichés, and does a good
job of showing the corroding effects of crime and violence on
everyone it touches.
Populating 'Out' are just about every actor of the time with
an East End accent (again, despite the serial being set in South
London), including Brian Croucher and future stars such as Andrew
Paul and Linda Robson. There's also a host of other acting luminaries,
such as Derrick O'Connor and future Hannibal Lecktor/Lecter
Brian Cox, who lets loose a truly scary performance as bottle
blond Scottish psychopath McGrath. The late John Junkin, an
actor best known for comedy, also gives a surprisingly adept
straight performance as one of Ross's 'heavy' friends. However,
Lynda La Plante (then Lynda Marchal) does ruin things slightly
for one episode, with perhaps the worst recorded Bangor accent
in British television history.
While lacking the polish and production values of a modern show,
'Out' does have far greater grounding and power than many of
its contemporaries and its successors. It has its own peculiar
70s' tics, but if you can ignore them - or revel in them - it's
a sophisticated work that can be appreciated at many levels.
Both the first episode and the last episode have commentaries
from writer Trevor Preston, director Jim Goddard and producer
Barry Hanson. They're a surprisingly informative bunch after
all these years, giving great insights into the history, writing
and directing of the serial, as well as the television and local
culture of the time. Must-listens for anyone interested in television
dramas of the era or 'Out' itself.