Play Review

by Peter Raite © 1990

The Radio Times is often misleading about the true nature of a programme or play. With comedy, a totally ficticious write-up has become an in-joke, but The Black and Blue Lamp was a very different case:

In 1949 Tom Riley is arrested for the murder of PC George Dixon. As he awaits interrogation at the station he is mysteriously transported into an episode of The Filth - a 1988 police series where the hard men rule. This black comedy questions whether the police have changed or the way film and television present them.

For the benefit of the uninitiated, PC (later Sgt) George Dixon (Jack Warner) - the friendly and human bobby of the BBC's long-running Dixon of Dock Green series, began life in a 1949 Ealing film entitled The Blue Lamp. In it, Dixon was shot during a robbery on a cinema by a young thug named Tom Riley (a very young Dirk Bogarde), and the latter part of the film revolved around the tracking down of the killer by his fellow brave bobbies, with a little help from local crooks (horrified at the killing, honour amongst thieves, etc...). The Beeb saw potential for a series and so resurrected Dixon. But The Black and Blue Lamp is concerned not with the series, but the original film, and challenging the 1949 image of policing it presented. The route chosen by writer Arthur Ellis was both highly original and often hilariously executed. The Radio Times "black comedy," was the understatement of the closing decade...

The play opens black on black, sound only. A police car radio babbles over the sound of loud music, it's driver yelling "Oi!" and the music is turned down. He continues, polite but with an edge of forceful sarcasm: "Thank you, sir, would you mind keeping it that way. It's not everyone who enjoys five thousand watts of jazz rock fusion on a Saturday night." The plain white title "THE BLUE LAMP" fades in and "BLACK AND" is added in blue as if sprayed on with an aerosol can. A message comes through: an officer has been shot during a bingo hall robbery and the car speeds off as a second voice asks who it was. "I'm afraid it's PC Dixon," control replies, "George Dixon." "Christ, Dixon..." the policeman mutters incredulously, "Isn't anything sacred?" But this is not the George Dixon of The Blue Lamp, nor of Dioxon of Dock Green, for that matter...

The blaring of a modern American-style police siren gives way to the clanging of its 1949 counter-part as we lead into an essential, if over-long (4m 30s) précis of the original film. We see Dixon about his normal duties: giving directions to badly-accented Scotsmen and teaching new young coppers the secrets, such as the little boys who pretend they are lost so they get taken to the police station and are given a jam bun while they wait for their mothers. "Saucy little devil!" the young PC chuckles, when nowadays he'd give the kid a clip round the ear with his truncheon...). Then, over newly-added, but perfectly melodramatic music, we see Tom Riley (Bodarde), armed with an ex-army service revolver, and his mate, 'Spud' Murply holding up the Coleleseum Picture House. As he runs out, Riley find himself face to face with Dixon:

RILEY [uncertainly]: Get back!
DIXON [calmly]: Drop that and don't be a fool. Drop it, I say!
RILEY: I'll drop you!
Dixon walks slowly forward, despite Riley's rising hysteria.

RILEY: Get back! This thing works! Get back!! Get back, I say!! Get back!!!

Riley fires twice, a look of surprise crossing Dixon's face as he falls.

After a car chase which - at the time - must have seemed like The French Connection, Riley is cornered at White City Dog Stadium and bundled off to meet his cumuppance. Or is he..?

To the rattling of a police bell, the medium changes from black and white 35mm cinema film to monochrome video in the back of the black maria taking Riley to the police station. Among the accompanying officers is PC Taffy Hughes (Karl Johnson - seen recently in the telefantasy-borderline ITV serial Rules of Engagement), a close friend of the deceased PC Dixon, whose head is bandaged. Another policeman, PC Totley (Ian Brimble) asks him is he's alright, to which Hughes half-cynically replies: "It's nothing the hangman won't cure."

Riley scrounges a reluctant cigarette and, after lighting it, throws the matches back to Totley, saying, "I should hang on to that, if I were you. Something to show the kids - cast your eyes on that: box of matches what got touched by Tom Riley, cop-killer." All three officers half jump forwards, fists raised, but can't bring themselves to follow through the urge for vengeance:

TOTLEY: I ought to...
RILEY: You ought to what? You can't so much a lay a finger on me. You bogies think I'm stupid or something? I know me rights, see? So lay off... all of you. Let me finish me fag.

Hughes points out that while Dixon was once of the best friends he ever had, he would have, "run to the ends of the Earth to protect any man's rights. Even his own murderer." That said, Hughes rubs his bandage in irritation and professes an occasional urge, "to get angry, see. But it's my heart I must listen to... and that's the difference between them and us."

The van arrives at the police station, met by Superintendant Hammond (John Armageddon Factor/Knights of God Woodvine) in full uniform and extreme Home Counties accent. He tells Hughes to, "take laddie here through to interview room 1 and wait for DDI Cherry." Then, when he realises that Riley has been smoking:

HAMMOND: Who lit this man's cigarette.
TOTLEY: I did, Sir. Sorry, Sir.
RILEY: Three bags full, Sir!
HAMMOND: Alright, off you go, Hughes.
Hughes leads Riley off, and strident patriotic music strikes up.

HAMMOND: ... and 8-3-9...
HAMMOND: Well done. I don't think I'd've had the decency to light that chap's cigarette!

The station is crowded with officers ("'Ere, I've never seen so much busy in all me life," Riley jokes, "Still, don't look quite right, though, somehow. You know, like one of 'em's missing...), all waiting to see Riley, who is taken to the interview room, while Sgt Brooks (Nick Stringer) is giving a decency lecture to a flustered young PC Sneed (Peter Lovestrom). "A good bobby is a human being," he says, "I can laugh, cry, get angry, be just an vulnerable as any on the outside. The difference between them and me is that I can't let my emotions run away with me. We don't react, 6-1-3 - we simply accept what comes our way."

Most cynical viewers could have been forgiven for reaching for the sick bag and/or the 'OFF' switch by this point, since all we had seen was a twee extension of the original film, with jolly upright bobbies and (apparently) ruthless thugs. But that was the whole point...

Inside the interview room, Supt. Hammond continues his upper middle class patronisation of Riley. "Oh, and Totley," he says, "You'd better get old chummie here a cup of tea and a jam bun - he looks like he could use it. Besides, we don't want his solicitor barking all over the shop that we haven't taken good care of him, do we?"

Riley and Hughes are left alone in the interview room... and this is where the fun starts. The catch apparently faulty, the door creaks open and Hughes stands up and slams it shut again. Instantly the colour snaps in. The ringing of a 1940s telephone turns to the warbling of a trimphone. The furniture is 1980s style and graffiti covers the walls. Riley and Hughes both become uneasy, hearing screams and scuffles outside the door, when only moments before there have been the sounds of calm normality. Hughes removes his helmet, revealing that his bandage alone has stayed in monochrome. "I could murder a two Scotch," Riley mutters nervously, before trying to convince Hughes that he didn't shoot Dixon:

HUGHES: And I suppose it wasn't you who gave me this with the back end of a cosh when I disturbed you doing the Jordan job.
RILEY: You're dead right it wasn't. Besides, I've got better things to do than knock off a ruddy jewellers at ten past one of a... Tuesday... morning... [he trails off, realising his faux pas too late]

The breaking of glass, another scream rings out and Riley - more nervous and worried than ever - asks what's holding up the tea and jam bun, while Hughes glances round more closely at their surroundings, his puzzlement turning to outright disbelief. The ring of footsteps outsides takes us to wonderfully clichéd low tracking shot of the feet of Superintendent Cherry (Kenneth Cranham, of Shine on Harvey Moon fame and also recently seen in Rules of Engagement) and Inspector Drury (played to slimey perfection by Ralph Brown) as they make their way to the interview room. When they step inside, Hughes takes the cigarette from Riley's mouth and stamps it out as Cherry slumps into the chair opposite them:

CHERRY [tiredly]: I'm Superintendant Cherry.
RILEY [arrogantly]: Yeah? And I suppose you'll be wanting to know who I am.
CHERRY [voice rising from disinterest to menace]: Oh, I know who you are, and I'll tell you this for nothing: You're gonna put your 'ands up to this one, son, or I'll take your bollocks off with a Stanley knife!

Melodramnatic chords crash in as the camera zooms in, first on Cherry and then the looks of utter astonishment on the faces of both Hughes and especially Riley. There then follows the title sequence proper for The Filth, which features Inspector Drury collecting a bribe hidden in a lavatory cistern. Cherry suddenly taps him on the shoulder and Drury grins and hands over most of the money. While Cherry is counting his share, Superintendent Hammond's hand reaches out for his cut (again larger than Cherry's). The whole thing finishes on a logo not dissimilar to The Bill (complete with reflected police light flashing across it!)...

Now firmly established in a 1989 that is the antithesis of the 1949 he has left (in which everyone seen "then" has an equivalent "now"), Riley is propelled, in an arm-lock, by Sgt Brooks, into the corridor. He stares round is disbelief at the modern-uniformed officers, including a Sikh in police-issue turban, before Brooks forces him along to the charge room. "What do you reckon?" asks Drury, "Don't look too tough to me." To which Cherry replies: "How long's a piece of string?" In the charge room, Riley proceeds to cause confusion all round, demanding his "jam bun" when Brooks tries to read him his rights:

DRURY: Your what?
RILEY: Me jam bun. I'm entitled to one, aren't I?
ROGERS: Of course you are, as Sergeant Brooks has already indicated. Now, do you have a phone number where we can contact your "jam bun?"
RILEY: Well try Joe Lyons, he's in the book - corner of the Strand and Charing Cross.
BROOKS: Do you wish to make a statement?
RILEY: Yeh, matter of fact I do. After I've eaten me jam bun, I wanna see me solicitor.

Meanwhile, Hughes - while writing up his report of Riley's arrest - is seeing the medical officer (Garrick Hagon), who gives him some tablets and tells him to take, "two of these every eight hours." He confesses that Hughes injury is one of the most interesting he has ever seen, while the bemused PC asks him if it could be responsible for him, "seeing things." The surgeon replies: "If you mean, by 'seeing things', some kind of distortion in your perception of reality, then yes." He adds that this is common with concussion and they will pass quite quickly. Hughes is still worried, because he is "hearing things as well," but is rather coy as to the exact nature of what he is hearing:

HUGHES: It's just that... since I arrived back at the station...
SURGEON: Uh huh?
HUGHES: I... well, I keep thinking I hear people around me using...
SURGEON [gently]: Go on.
HUGHES: Using... rude words, Sir.

The surgeon stares hard at him for a few moments and then starts to rewrite the label on the bottle of tablets;

SURGEON: On considered reflection, I want you to take eight of these every two hours...

He then asks Hughes to change back into his "proper uniform," and says he'll have the PC's report typed up and passed on to Supt. Cherry. Back in one of the corridors, the senior officers are pondering on Dixon's shooting:

HAMMOND: Good PR, Dixon getting shot like that. Couldn't have come at a better time - all the school-leavers, it's appeal to their sense of... something. Over the next three months, the training schools'll have 'em in and out quicker than a pork sword in a knocking-shop! Well look at the figures, Ron - for every copper who gets topped on the job, Hendon gets three hundred extra applicants.
CHERRY: Well, on that basis, Harry, all we'll have to do is kill another two hundred uniforms and we'll have the Force up to strength.

They then try to sort out exactly what led to Dixon's shooting. The previous Wednesday night, Riley and Murphy robbed "Jordan's off-licence" of £2,500, which they assume was used to buy the guns for "the bingo hall blag.":

HAMMOND: You've had Riley pulled before, haven't you? Wasn't he one of the drivers on that cigarette warehouse job - Corn Street, '81... '82?
CHERRY: You mean the fag blag?
HAMMOND [obviously tired of the joke]: Right, Ron, "the fag blag!" I don't mind telling you, when I retire in four years time, I'll be well happy to put all this CID semaphore right behind me. Janet hasn't understood a word I've been saying for twenty-three years! So... the bingo blag went wrong. Riley gave Dixon both barrels, then Riley and Eric Murphy legged it. [snort of derision] Huh! Twenty-five years a pissing woodentop, and old George still didn't learn anything, did he? Wouldn't catch me trying to win an award with some wanker aiming a 12-gauge at me meat 'n' two veg!

Drury takes up the story, telling how that day Riley was spotted by Hughes and followed to a basement flat. Despite the lack of back-up, Hughes decided to tackle Riley alone, but Murphy turned up. After a fight, Riley and Murphy fled in a stolen car, which they crashed at White City, after which Riley managed to escape on a train:

HAMMOND: What's the SP on Murphy?
CHERRY: Dead from the neck down.
HAMMOND: Being Irish, that doesn't leave him with a lot of anything, does it?

Cherry and Drury then went to search the flat:

HAMMOND: Who's flat is it?
DRURY: One Victor Lewis - Riley's boyfriend.
HAMMOND: Blimey! Riley bent? I thought Riley was a man's man.
DRURY: With the vices Riley's got, it's a wonder he's not a Conservative MP...

According to Lewis, "Riley likes to work out on the dancefloor now and again - especially after having had one away with a shooter." So, he got dressed up for an Edger Lustgarten nostalgia night at Stringfellows.

HAMMOND: Edgar Lustgarten! There's a name from the past - remember Scotland Yard Mysteries? So what did Riley go as?
DRURY: Sort of a cosh-boy. The only other choice was one of them old-fashioned PCs, but having just killed one, maybe he didn't appreciate the irony.
HAMMOND: What's an old-fashioned PC, Ron?
CHERRY: A man of experience; unswerving in his desire to serve the public; polite, yet chirpy; consiliatory, but always ethical; a bastion of moral fibre and a power of example.... and then we join the Filth!
DRURY: So, dressed as a fancy dress policeman, PC Hughes nicked Riley on the dancefloor. Took him a couple of minutes to realise the 'cuffs weren't part of some... sexual ritual. And here we are, Sir.
HAMMOND: Anything else?
DRURY: In Victor's flat we found 170 quid which we think we can probably tie in as having come from the bingo hall, and there were a few snorts of coke in the kitchen drawer. We also found about eighteen inches of a sawn-off barrel in the dustbin.
HAMMOND: There's professionalism. Any prints?
CHERRY: There will be.

Hammond then asks Drury to get him a cup of hot chocolate. Once left alone, Hammond asks Cherry if he knew that Dixon had been under internal investigation for allegedly turning a blind eye to "a child-swapping party.":

CHERRY: What's achild-swapping party?
HAMMOND: It's where one paedophile couple baby-sit for another. Dixon was a grandad himself, you know? Two lovely grandaughters - four and seven.
CHERRY: What?! Are you saying... Dixon was actually... involved?
HAMMOND: If word ever crept out that Dixon - our brave bobbie on the beat - took an unswerving desire to serve the welfare of minors, bang goes our PR! Not to mention how Riley's jury might feel - they just might see his shooting Dixon as a favour to the metropolis!
CHERRY: Blimey, The Case of PC Paedophile! Don't remember this one on Scotland Yard Mysteries!!

In the locker-room, after suffering a flashback voice-over of Dixon's gardening tips, Hughes opens 'his' locker and is horrified to find the door covered with photos cut out of Mayfair (at least, I assume they're from Mayfair!). After staring at them, half-appalled and half-fascinated, for a few seconds, he is accosted by PC Sneed - whose 1949 persona was last seen being lectured by Sgt Brooks earlier. He tells Hughes he had a 'phone call earlier from, "Mrs Hughes." Confused, Hughes asks if he means his mother, but Sneed says it was his wife. "But I'm a confirmed batchelor," he protests, to which Sneed replies: "Of course you are, Taff. And you've also had a very very very nasty blow on the head!" and hands Hughes 'his' uniform. Left alone, he turns back to the locker and finds a photograph of 'himself', a pregnant woman and three children. "My own family," he mutters it himself in disbelief.

Back in Cherry's office, the detective is growing tired with Riley's 'story':

CHERRY: Yeah, yeah, you didn't blag Jordan's the off-licence, you blagged Jordan's the jewellers. You didn't blag the Colleseum Bingo Hall, you blagged the Colleseum Picture House.
RILEY: What's a blag?
CHERRY: I'll blag you in a minute, now shut your gob! You weren't arrested at Stringfellows discotheque, you were swamped by five division of the Met, in collusion with the underworld at White City Dog Stadium!
RILEY: Well, it's the true, I say.
DRURY [sarcastically]: Yeah, an' my daughter's grow a dick!

Riley turns away, his normal quick-fire repartie unable to cope with such foulmouthed and indecent bluebags, while Cherry carries on, saying even if that's true, it's the bit about Dixon that puzzles him:

TOTLEY [reading from Riley's statement]: Me an' Spud run out the Pictures and there was this bloomin' great bogey, see? 'E said, "Gimme the gun, I say." So I give it 'im, an' 'e shot 'imself in the stomach... twice.
CHERRY: We hadn't considered suicide, had we, George?
DRURY: No, no. You see we thought you shot him.
RILEY: Well, can I go now?
CHERRY: Look, I can see why you're worried - you killed a policeman, but that's not the end of the world, Tom Things could be a lot worse.
CHERRY: You could be black.

Cherry suggests that Riley's whole act is part of a plan to cop an insanity plea at the trial, "Well that's not on," he says, "'Cause you're as sane as I am." To which Riley replies: "Yeah? And you're bonkers!":

CHERRY: Bonkers! Bogies! Jam buns! [leafing through Riley's effects on the table] Threepenny bits, farthings... a vintage five pound note! You really think you can pull this one off?


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