ACTION TV ONLINE DVD REVIEW
Forget Morse. Forget Regan. John Thaw's best performance as a detective was as Sergeant John Mann in 'Redcap'. But unlike Thaw's more famous roles, Mann wasn't a police detective: he was a member of the red-bereted Royal Military Police's Special Investigation Branch - the CID of the army.
which ran for two seasons from 1964 to 1966, followed Thaw around
the world as he investigated crimes in Britain, Cyprus, Germany,
Borneo and Malaysia - wherever the British army was active.
The second season, the surviving episodes of which have just
been released on DVD, shows both the best and worst sides of
the show and indeed TV of the time; but the one constant is
the excellent central performance of Thaw as the tough but fair
common with most shows of the time, little is done to give Mann
background or history until the needs of the plot require it.
Since he's constantly globetrotting, we don't even see as much
as his home barracks or the occasional hobby. This would leave
Mann as little more than an investigating cipher for most of
the show, were it not for Thaw's performance, which is both
confident and nuanced, with none of the artifice that Thaw would
occasionally give both Regan and Morse.
Nevertheless, the barebones writing of Mann is both strong and realistic. Even when it draws out a scene longer than would be natural, Mann still requires soldiers he's questioned to march out correctly; he speaks German as well as anyone else who was stationed there during the 60s; and he has the exact amount of confidence and self-possession of someone who's been in the army and seen action. The presence of technical advisor Lieutenant Colonel F H Elliott OBE, a former redcap, ensured the accuracy of the show's depiction of army life, even among those actors and writers that didn't know how to salute properly.
Of the scripts, the weakest came from Troy Kennedy Martin, a surprise for anyone familiar with his excellent work on Z Cars, The Italian Job or Edge of Darkness. Kennedy Martin, whose brother Ian was script editor for the first season of the show, conjures up a number of episodes whose resolutions make you feel like you've missed something, even when you haven't.
'Crime Passionel' sees a soldier go into a mess tent, shoot a sergeant in front of the assembled troops, then leave to hole himself up in the jungle while Mann works out his motivation. The motivation when it comes seems so slight that you wait for the real cause to be exposed later. Instead, the episode concludes when Mann manages to extract the now-drunken soldier from his bolthole and ferries him off down the river.
Similarly, 'The Killer' sees Mann trying to work out which member of an elite unit is murdering his colleagues on missions and why. Eventually, it's revealed that one of them is a "textbook case" - what of, we're not sure, other than that he has to kill someone during a firefight or else he'll be compelled to kill one of his colleagues a few minutes afterwards. It's the kind of hokey psychology that was popular in fiction at the time, notably with the moon-oriented manic depressive psychopath of "From Russia With love", but which in retrospect is simply laughable.
scripts of future crime-writing guru Richard Harris (responsible
for much of the goodness in Man in a Suitcase, Hazell and Shoestring)
are far better, however. As well as 'Strictly By The Book',
he's responsible for the best of the second season's episodes,
'Information Received'. This has Mann forced to investigate
a fellow MP and friend after receiving an anonymous note. It's
a subtle piece, with Thaw playing cat and mouse with his mentor
(James Grout), who slowly becomes suspicious of Thaw's presence
on his base. Each knows the other is hiding something and uses
partial revelations and calculated events to try to fool his
opponent's keen investigative senses. Grout is eventually undone
only because he chooses the wrong person to frame, but there's
no denouement where Grout finally admits his guilt. Instead,
he withholds all his arguments, waiting for his day in court.
converse - that certain rules could bring harsher punishments
than could be expected today - is also true. 'Paterson's Private
Army' sees a corporal bullied by a group of privates who blame
him for the deaths of some of their comrades, thanks to a botched
ambush. The corporal fakes some additional acts of abuse in
an attempt to get the group split up. But when Mann finds out,
instead of breaking up the group, he sides with them, accuses
the corporal of cowardice and tells him he needs to be stronger
if he wants to command men.
While there are some standout episodes, most remain forgettable, however. Sometimes that's because the plots are so tied up in the culture and mores of the time that it's almost impossible to understand why there's a problem or why the episode eventually reaches its eventual resolution. At other times, it's because the story lacks any internal logic.
'Buckingham Palace', another of Kennedy Martin's, endeavours to explain why two particularly bad gamblers actually winning at cards for a change manages to lead to a professional gambler being able to photograph a top-secret installation. It fails because ultimately the plot is nonsense, albeit engrossing nonsense.
More often, though, it's because of the monotone nature of the show, with Mann uncovering crime with little humour or anything other than professional, respectful conversations with anyone. From the business-like montage of photos that make up the title sequence to the cold closing theme, the episodes are as matter of fact as an RMP investigation report. It's Dragnet, but with soldiers.
Overall, though, it's Thaw that sticks with you after the show's finished. Redcap may not have been the best show of the era, lacking the humour, plots or depth of character for it really to stick in the memory. But with Thaw, it had a superstar in the making.