Bird Of Prey
BBC 1982 - 1984
A four-part thriller for the electronic age
Input Classified
TX : 22nd April 1982

Publicity : A Terminal Case - This new four-part thriller tells the tale of the innocuous clerk Henry Jay (played by Richard Griffiths) who stumbles across a massive computer-based conspiracy. Hardly in the gang-buster mould, Henry proves to be a dogged adversary of crime. Here Nicki Household inputs the data: As everyone who has ever had a gas bill for five billion pounds instead of fifty pounds knows, computers are not infallible. But their most interesting failing is not so much that they can make mistakes as that they can be tampered with. According to one statistic, one-thousand-five-hundred pounds is pocketed each minute of every day in a giant electronic swindle. In Europe alone, around one-point-four-billion-pounds a year is electronically misappropriated, though this may be a gross underestimate since computer frauds are not always reported. Many companies prefer to shuffle an "inside" offender out though the back door, rather than risk a public loss of confidence in their security system.

"Within ten years," says an American computer fraud expert, "the real threat to world stability will not be nuclear power, but the ability of one nation to enslave another by parlaysing its computers". It is against this intriguing background of electronic skullduggery that Ron Hutchinson has set his new four-part thriller Bird Of Prey. In the course of compiling a long and boring report on "Computer Fraud in the Age of Electronic Accounting", an innocuous, not to say stodgy, civil servant in the Department of Commercial Development stumbles upon something fishy. The more he looks into it, the fishier it gets, until dead bodies start falling out of lifts and he realises that unless he acts quickly the best one will be his. He doesn't actually know very much at that stage, but very soon our hero, Henry, who is subtly portrayed by Richard Griffiths, is pitting his wits against a vast and
corrupt network of businessmen and politicians - Le Pouvoir - who are extremely anxious to eliminate him. In order to stay alive, he holes up in a bedsit with only a portable computer for company. There, using his newly-acquired technological know-how, he links in to Le Pouvoir's computer system and uncovers a gigantic political and criminal Euro-conspiracy. With its crooked Euro-MP, it's huge Common Market construction project and its computer jargon, Bird Of Prey couldn't be more up-to-the-minute if it tried. It's all pure fiction, of course, but is any of it possible? "You never know," says financial writer Colleen Toomey who, as series adviser, provided Ron Hutchinson with much of his background information. "I'm not saying things could happen exactly as they do in the story, but there have been lots of well-publicised computer frauds. A bank employee in the United States regularly docked one cent off every customer's computerised account, and put all the accumulated money - which was a considerable sum - into his own account under a false name. He continued undetected for a long time, because no one questions a half-penny discrepancy in their account. He was caught in the end, but only because his non-existent account-holder won the bank's prize draw and had to collect in person!".

The EEC is currently seeking to establish new data protection laws because of the vast banks of confidential information stored in computers. In theory, no one can get at stored information unless they "key in" with special secret passwords, and even then there are security trip-wires designed to catch out spies. Nevertheless, Colleen ascertained that it is just technically possible for an unauthorised expert to link in to a system illegally. Indeed, the anti-computer pressure-group, CRANK, has cracked some university computer codes to prove their point that computers are a dangerous invasion of privacy. But universities use a simpler computer code than government and industry. "We wanted the series to be as authentic as possible, which meant researching everything from computer-talk to the pubs where someone like Henry would go for lunch. Most official bodies were extremely helpful once they realised the information was only to be used in a work of fiction". The Home Office drew the line, however, when she asked how a very determined person could tap the Police national computer. No way, they said, could that ever possibly be done. End of conversation. Dogged, bespectacled Henry finds a way to do it but then, as the plot unravels, old Henry proves to be a surprisingly resourceful fellow. Even his wife, who at the beginning refers somewhat bitterly to the boring predictability of life with a middle-ranking civil servant, begins to wonder, between visits from the vice squad and nameless thugs, why she ever opened her mouth. When we first meet Henry he is putting the finishing touches to his "red-hot" (as it turns out) report, somewhere in the bowels of the Department of Commercial Development.

No such department exists, of course, so Colleen Toomey visited the Department of Trade instead to find out where Henry would be in the civil service hierarchy, how his office would be furnished and what he would wear - grey overcoat, grey suit, suede shoes and a felt-tip pen in his top pocket. The Department even allowed some of the actors playing civil servants to drop in and chat to their real-life counterparts. And Jim Broadbent, who plays Detective Inspector Richardson, paid a similar visit to the City of London Fraud Squad. Brains were picked at merchant banks (how do you raise five billion pounds?), computer companies (how much would Henry need to know about daisy wheels, floppy disks and bytes?), the House of Commons and the European Parliament. Ron Hutchinson even went down the East End to find out how difficult it might be to buy a gun from "a man in a pub".

The security adviser to a major oil company explained, with helpful diagrams, just how Henry (with a bit of poetic licence) could penetrate the security barriers as he linked into an outside computer system. With absolutely nothing of the James Bond about him, Henry Jay makes a delightfully ordinary hero. Had he not been given the job of compiling this report, he would have spent the next twenty years in the Department, earning occasional promotions, and regularly catching the 6:15pm from Waterloo to his nice semi in the suburbs. He is pedantic and thorough to the point of fussiness - as his immediate superior remarks somewhat scathingly in the first episode. Henry is a man without any noticeable flair. But when he finds himself a marked man, without a friend in the world, it is his single-minded persistence that keeps him going. Dead bodies proliferate, bombs explode in the suburbs and he is all but seduced by sophisticated ladies of easy virtue. An astonishing note of realism crept into the proceedings while the opening sequences were being filmed on location near Smithfield Market. Just as "gangster" Louis Vacheron, played by Nicolas Chagrin, tried to escape from the scene of his crime clutching a suitcase full of banknotes, a real-life smash-and-grab raid occurred just yards away at a local jewellery shop. The real and imaginary villains almost tripped over each other as fact and fiction became momentarily entangled. (Radio Times, April 17, 1982 - Article by Nicki Household).

Synopsis :
Henry Jay: Civil Servant, mid-thirties. Good Head for Detail. Prospects: Steady promotion. Index-linked pension. Hobbies: Philately, Hi-fi. Current Project: Computer Fraud Report for Whitehall Trade Ministry. Altogether a seemingly puny obstacle to a massive financial conspiracy - with the bureaucratic clout to silence the inquisitive.

Additional Cast :
Roger Sloman, Jim Broadbent (Detective Inspector Richardson), Nicholas Chagrin (Louis Vacheron), Stephen Thorne, Richard Ireson, Trevor Martin, Michael O'Hagan, Billy Hamon and Simeon Andrews.

Notes :
This episode was originally transmitted 9:25pm to 10:20pm on BBC 1.

Mode Murder
TX : 29th April 1982

Synopsis :
Murder and the power to subvert officialdom: Henry Jay has good reason to believe in "Le Pouvior" and its likes with the growing evidence of a financial conspiracy. A dead detective's legacy - a file pointing to a Euro MP and a girl in Brussels - leaves Henry no option but to pick up the trail.

Additional Cast :
Roger Sloman, Richard Ireson, Trevor Martin, Sally Faulkner, Rudi Delhem, Wolfe Morris, Pamela Moiseiwitsch, Henry Stamper, Guido Adorni (Mario) and Eddie Mineo (Dino).

Notes :
The rest of the series was originally transmitted 9:25pm to 10:15pm on BBC 1.

Process Priority
TX : 6th May 1982

Synopsis : One name recurs in Henry Jay's single-handed investigation into the affairs of "Le Pouvoir" - Euro MP Hugo Jardine. With British Intelligence now implicated in the cover-up, Henry has a story to sell - if he can stay alive long enough.

Additional Cast : Ann Pennington (Rochelle Halliday), Roger Sloman, Mandy Rice-Davies, Edmund Pegge, Guido Adorni (Mario), Eddie Mineo (Dino), Laurence Rew and P H Moriarty (The Security Guard).

Printout Urgent
TX : 13th May 1982

Synopsis : Henry at bay. His home in ruins, his allies and hard-won.

Additional Cast : Nigel Davenport (Charles Bridgnorth), Christopher Logue (Hugo Jardine), Guido Adorni (Mario), Eddie Mineo (Dino), P H Moriarty (The Security Guard) and Alexander John (Potter).

TX : 6th September 1984

Publicity : Bird Of Prey 2 (BBC-1, 9:25pm) has a perfectly comprehensible opening title sequence: a computer game in which a fox gobbles up every farmyard animal in sight except a fleeing piglet. Taking the piglet to be the portly civil servant Henry Jay (again played by Richard Griffiths) we can safely assume that Jay is still the target of a multi-national crime syndicate engages in computer fraud. So far, so clear. Thereafter, I'm afraid I lost contact with the hideous electronic complexities of Bird Of Prey 2, though it is evident that Jay is having mother-in-law problems, and that, despite what they say about him, he is far from being a meat and two veg husband.

Synopsis : Richard Griffiths again stars as the reluctant hero, Henry Jay, the mild-mannered civil servant.

Additional Cast : Hugh Fraser (Kellner), Lee Montague (Roche) and Bob Peck (The Minister).

TX : 13th September 1984

Synopsis : Henry Jay and his wife, Anne, go undercover in St.Leonards-on-Sea. His recent promotion means that he has to be vetted and what is uncovered is passed straight to the political head of Henry's department.

TX : 20th September 1984

Synopsis : Henry Jay continues to be threatened by the sinister Le Pouvier computer-crime syndicate.

TX : 27th September 1984

Synopsis : Henry discovers that he is on the hit list of Le Pouvier's hired assassin.

Some nineteen years separates Ron Hutchison's conspiracy thriller series Bird Of Prey and Paul Abbott's conspiracy thriller series State Of Play, and these two landmark series serve to underline how times have changed in nearly two decades (both in terms of the nature of a conspiracy and the presentation of a thriller serial).

The emergence of computers as a labour-saving device and means of storing complicated or confidential information in the early 1980s proved to be palpable fodder for Hutchison's drama serial, which concerned the relatively mundane and workmanlike civil servant Henry Jay (Richard Griffiths) discovering a computer-based conspiracy involving the highest echelons of British politics and the mysterious organisation known as "Le Pouvior" whilst working at the Department of Commercial Development, the programme preyed on the "techno-fear" element which pervaded society at the time and proved to be gripping viewing over the course of a month. So popular, in fact, did the series prove that a sequel was churned out barely two years later (billed as Bird Of Prey 2) in which Jay, having uncovered the conspiracy at the risk of the lives of himself and his wife Anne (Carole Nimmons), is now running for his life as the villainous operatives of "Le Pouvior" track him down.

As in the first series, the final climactic episode of what was effectively an eight-part serial (in two four-episode instalments) proved to be the most gripping chapter of the entire production - boasting a completely unexpected twist concerning his wife's involvement in the entire affair. State Of Play, conversely, whilst embracing the political aspects which helped Bird Of Prey to flourish, proved perhaps more diverting in terms of the labrynthine plotlines and strength of performances Paul Abbott's script provided (and which contemporary audiences now demand).

This is not to dispute the fact that Bird Of Prey was an addictive, gripping and extremely high-calibre thriller serial - merely to highlight the fact that the series itself was a product of its time, which in hindsight is quaint in terms of its approach to chunky computers (the portable computer Henry uses whilst holed-up in a bedsit for his own protection is laughably enormous by comparison to the laptop-and-mobile telephone brigade which featured predominately in State Of Play).

The series, produced by notable BBC figure Michael Waring and directed by Michael Rolfe, is considered as one of the stronger dramatic entries in BBC Television's 1980s output, and is fondly recalled by archive television enthusiasts and fans of the work of Richard Griffiths (who would later return to the network in Pie In The Sky).

The programme enjoyed global exporation, but the commercial realisation for Bird Of Prey was limited to a television tie-in novelisation of the same title which accompanied the transmission of each season. The series was released on DVD in 2006.

Portrayed By
Henry Jay
Richard Griffiths
Tony Hendersly
Jeremy Child
Anne Jay
Carole Nimmons

The series was created and written by Ron Hutchinson. The series was directed by Michael Rolfe and produced by Michael Waring.

Text © Matthew Lee 2004.