Hunks Punch Lunks: The Fascist Sex Cult Of The Professionals
, April 1st, 2014 07:38
Taylor Parkes celebrates the strange and sometimes unsophisticated, yet hypnotically rewarding, representation of "the hardest men in the world": The Professionals
I once lived above a shop in Archway. You reached the flats through a door from the street, with a lock which often got stuck; sometimes the only way to get it open was with a good, solid flying kick. On those occasions – as a grown man of 23 – it was impossible not to then go charging up the concrete stairwell firing an imaginary pistol, sending imaginary terrorists tumbling from on high, always flipping over neatly so that they'd land on their backs. Most likely I'd have been wearing a leather jacket with epaulettes and a pair of slim-fit cords at the time. Infected, I was, at an early age; some things stay with you.
Like The Professionals. Yeah, it's schlock. It's also the most peculiar, the most surprising, the most grotesquely fascinating programme of its day. What's more, it constitutes some of the funniest television ever made – and that's not laughter of derision, either, it's laughter of delight. Because The Professionals isn't just crap. If that were the case it'd be fun for fifteen minutes and then punishingly dull, like The Young Doctors, or one of those Fifties sci-fi movies about Communists from outer space. It's not just crap – it's much more than that.
The Professionals is not art, but neither is it purely kitsch. Rather, it's that most hypnotic and strangely rewarding of phenomena, the good-bad TV show. Aesthetically atrocious, morally questionable, ludicrous from top to bottom... and yet so hugely entertaining on its own terms, you can't look away. At root, a rollicking action show. Then, beyond that: worlds of wonder. A unique synthesis of lowbrow flash, outrageous violence and dumbfounding, mind-poaching implausibility that's more enjoyable than it has any right to be; more enjoyable than almost anything. Genuine thrills, ridiculous spills, and a vanished Britain on display. Laurie Johnson's devastating theme tune; the fact that Bodie runs like a girl. The Professionals, surely, is the very epitome of the good-bad TV show – has there ever been a better, shitter one?
(It's also a conduit for some pretty appalling but very interesting right-wing propaganda, but we'll get to all that stuff in a bit.)
Anyway, as of today, series 1 of The Professionals is available on Blu-ray, which for longtime fans is a somewhat bigger deal than it sounds. The Pros has looked ghastly for a very long time – rather like old US Army footage of nuclear tests in the Nevada desert. There's a simple reason for this: all previous video and DVD releases, as well as those heavily-edited ITV4 repeats, were sourced from copies of gnarly old broadcast prints, made in the early 90s using a now-obsolete film-to-video conversion system which didn't work properly – darkening the picture, smearing the detail, tinting everything a nauseous green.
Properly restored for the first time ever, from negatives once thought lost, it now looks every bit as lovely as you'd hope, if not a little lovelier. There are all the usual issues with HD remasters of very old shows (a wash of grain when you get up close, colour grading so extreme that when the boys don matching scarlet tracksuits in 'Long Shot' your eyeballs melt down your cheeks), but otherwise this looks fantastic, an improvement so absurdly huge you could laugh out loud – though not half so loudly as you'll laugh at that rarely-seen first-series title sequence, Bodie and Doyle hurling themselves around an assault course like a couple of eight-year-olds playing army... such exhilaration! Such a total lack of coordination! Right there: the magic of The Professionals.
Ahh, that unyielding machismo, worn so painfully tight... so tight, in fact, that the very fabric of reality is distorted. Only in The Professionals could you hear a line like "Mr Cowley, I'm the secretary of the National Gay Youth Organisation. I'm not a homosexual myself, but many of my friends are." This stuff is dizzying, incomparable. Camp, yes, but camp does not cover it. This is something else.
Bodie and Doyle: the hardest men in the world. The hardest – indisputably. Over the course of the series we meet international terrorists, underworld enforcers, leather-coated killers from the Eastern Bloc... none of them leave a scratch on these bastards. The casting, then, is quite extraordinary. Brawny Lewis Collins at least looks like he could handle himself in a pub fight, but poor Martin Shaw looks exactly what he was: a pretty-boy actor, rattlesnake skinny and five foot eight when he stood up straight. Shaw hurling seven-foot Yardies around the room without breaking sweat is one of the most bizarre things ever seen on a screen – but then, part of the programme's charm is that we're expected to take so much on trust. Yet to upgrade to the Ford Capri, the boys are, in several of these episodes, chasing the world's most dangerous men in an off-white Triumph Dolomite. Anything is possible.
This first series isn't the best, particularly not if you're looking for things like sharp dialogue, careful plotting and long-term character development, but then if you're looking for these things you've already wandered quite some way off course. We're talking about dialogue like this:
"Where's the raid?"
"It's tomorrow night. At Barrowsby."
"What, the nuclear fission waste recycling plant?"
...and an approach to character development which leaves the end credits looking like this:
Pretty Girl – Suzanne Danielle
Handsome Negro – Tony Osoba
But series 1 has a batshit flair the programme never quite recaptured. Check out those squealing shifts of gear between ham-fisted humour and attempts to be "gritty": one minute we're supposed to be laughing at Bodie and Doyle's surreally witless banter, the next a cosy middle-class family are taken hostage and a terrorist punches mum in the face in front of little Billy. Since they couldn't yet afford to shoot on location in central London, things keep kicking off in leafy corners of the Home Counties: Amersham, Rickmansworth, Burnham Beeches. You can barely move on the mean streets of Marlow for left-wing extremists with fluttering accents, hanging out the side of Cortinas, pumping bullets into startled golfers.
It looks different to the later series, too – curiously static, unnervingly old-fashioned. Most bizarrely of all, half of it's dubbed like a kung-fu movie: Roger Lloyd Pack, Trigger from Only Fools And Horses, turns up as a sinister Carlos-The-Jackal-like assassin, and is something of a hoot with his shades, medallion and Iggy Pop haircut... then when he opens his mouth and somebody else's voice comes out, good luck with breathing.
There are all sorts of reasons why The Professionals is so unexpectedly strange and mesmeric, but the main one is its creator: the semi-legendary Brian Clemens, exemplar of a certain breed of talented hack now all but extinct.
Clemens began as a jobbing scriptwriter on British B-movies, rattling off screenplays for the famously parsimonious Danziger Brothers ("For a long time the Danzigers didn't have any studios of their own... they'd move in anywhere there were still sets standing around from big movies. They'd come to me and say 'Look, we've got two weeks to shoot, so we want you to write something for these sets, and it must have the Old Bailey, a submarine and a mummy's tomb in it.' So I'd write it to order. And nobody believes that they made movies like this once, but it's absolutely true"). By the late Fifties he'd made the inevitable move into television, involved in the creation of the Patrick McGoohan series Danger Man, and then The Avengers, the show which made his name. Approached in 1977 by Brian Tesler, head of London Weekend Television, to come up with a weekly adventure series, Clemens devised The A Squad, a show about an elite anti-terrorist unit. This would be streamlined into The Professionals, following the fortunes of a shady and suspiciously handsome Home Office department with carte blanche to kill or fuck anything they felt like: the very imaginary CI5.
Clemens' formula for the new show was so beautifully bizarre because – like the Danzigers – he used whichever bits of other people's stuff just happened to be lying around. In line with Tesler's request, he sketched out a tough and superficially realistic post-Sweeney world, filled with terrorism and urban violence... then within that world he placed the unnatural dialogue and unlikely bad guys of the 1960s action series on which he'd cut his teeth. He threw in an awkward approximation of the wisecracking gunplay of American cop shows, very big at the time... then, by necessity, set the result in south-east England's sleepiest suburbs. So it is that Doyle – trying to look like a hard nut – forces a shotgun under the chin of a mobster on a high street in Windsor, in front of a takeaway called Mr Chippy. So it is that Britain is saved – in the nick of time! – from a nuclear bomb in a bowling alley in Hemel Hempstead. (This episode, 'Stake Out', also features one of the series' greatest ever lines, as Cowley swings into action: "We'll need a Chopper – and the nuclear bomb squad!" One imagines the nuclear bomb squad sat around with their feet up, swigging from cans of lager: "Is that the phone ringing?" "Nahhh... can't be.")
Casting was rushed, but they got lucky. For the role of George Cowley, CI5's peppery supremo, Clemens wanted Clive Revill, but was more than happy to settle for reliable old pro Gordon Jackson. The other two leads were cast and recast: until surprisingly late in the day, Bodie and Doyle were to be Anthony Andrews and Jon Finch.
Finch was a proper Shakespearian actor with a good, flinty screen presence, but he was an awkward bugger; even Alfred Hitchcock struggled to keep him in line on the set of Frenzy. Clemens had a great deal less time and a great deal less patience, so when Finch, having already accepted the part of Doyle, announced that of course he could never play an ex-policeman, so that bit would obviously have to be changed, he was sacked on the spot and replaced with Martin Shaw – though if Clemens thought this relative unknown would be so glad of the work that he'd shut up and get on with it, he was sorely mistaken. The dashing Anthony Andrews suited Clemens' original concept of Bodie as a smooth ex-military man, but he and Shaw were mates, and their chummy relationship gave their scenes an inappropriately cosy feel. A few days into filming on the first episode, Andrews got the elbow.
In came former Merseybeat drummer and ladies' hairdresser Lewis Collins, a somewhat limited actor – his "range" being more of an oscillation between smirking and glowering – who'd recently appeared with Shaw in an episode of The New Avengers, Clemens' iffy 70s reboot with Joanna Lumley and Gareth Hunt. The two had got on very badly. Clemens remembered this personality clash – or "spark", as he preferred to call it – and, deciding it was just what he was after, signed the pair to a four-year contract. And incredibly, he was right: while Collins and Shaw would never be friends, and their acting styles clashed horribly, somehow the partnership worked to perfection. In the show's five-series run, there's not a single scene in which Bodie and Doyle are both onscreen which is not wonderfully watchable.
These early episodes are Clemens in excelsis. Not one line of the dialogue bears the slightest resemblance to anything anyone would ever actually say; logic and reason are abandoned; a strange kind of excitement is the only thing that matters. In 'Close Quarters', Bodie has a fortnight off because he's been shot in the hand, so he takes Nick Drake's sister out on the river at Marlow – only to chance upon the very boathouse in which the leaders of the Baader-Meinhof gang are staying whilst on a jolly to Britain. Despite only being able to use one hand, and having to wet-nurse a terrified woman who looks like Nick Drake, Bodie captures Andreas Baader (the gang have all been given false names – perhaps the producers were worried they'd write in and complain? – but it's not hard to work out who's meant to be who). He flees to a nearby vicarage, pursued by three angry RAFers all toting machine guns which they must have found lying around somewhere. In a subtly symbolic moment, the vicar tries to make peace with the terrorists and is shot to smithereens – although, as ever when people die in The Professionals, nobody gives a shit. Anyway, a thrilling siege ensues, and Bodie sees off the whole Baader-Meinhof gang, quite literally single-handedly – although of course, the task of dispatching the lady terrorist falls to Ms Drake, because we couldn't possibly see Bodie do that. A nice day out for her, then. Unsurprisingly, we don't see her again. Still, she learnt a valuable lesson: hot lead is the only language Marxists understand.
Equally awesome is 'Heroes,' written by Sapphire & Steel creator PJ Hammond, but tweaked by Clemens to the point where PJ insisted his name be removed from the credits. There's an assassination: thugs hold up a van, blasting off the doors with plastic explosive and taking out the bloke who wanted a Waldorf salad in Fawlty Towers with a sawn-off shotgun from point-blank range. This happens on the Tring bypass, in broad daylight, with traffic backed up for 500 yards. As you'd imagine, everyone immediately gets out of their cars and walks towards the killers: an old man goes up to the one with the gun and pulls off his mask for no particular reason. Someone gets out a cine camera and starts filming them; a couple of lorry drivers pinch a bulldozer from a nearby roadworks and shunt their car down a grassy bank. So the assassins run away, firing the sawn-off shotgun randomly into the air as they go – someone picks up one of the lamps from the roadworks and throws it after them. It's all a bit peculiar. Anyway, these have-a-go heroes make it onto the Nine O'Clock News, and are all set to testify in court. But Doyle reads the paper one morning and sees that – oh dear – the press have published their names and full addresses. They've somehow resisted the temptation to include detailed floor plans of their homes with dodgy window latches circled, but hey – it's bad enough as it is. The lads are sent on a bodyguard job, which climaxes with Mad Tommy (the CI5 agent whose extraordinary zeal is explained by the fact that "his whole family were wiped out by terrorists") blowing two of the baddies out of a dinghy with a grenade launcher, while Bodie shoots the other two from behind a motorised lawnmower. Having watched the whole of Sapphire & Steel, every surviving episode of Ace Of Wands and his contribution to the children's supernatural series Shadows, I can say without hesitation that 'Heroes' is by far the least realistic thing that PJ Hammond has ever written.
But there's so much depth; a depth of horseshit half the time, but depth nonetheless. In every episode I watch – and this is probably the fifth or sixth time I've seen most of these – I'll notice something new and have to rewind the disc to double check that I didn't just imagine it. Near the start of 'The Female Factor', Doyle picks up a framed photograph of Cowley which is lying around in his front room. A framed photo of his boss. He's also got an album by Magma. Yes, Magma. Because that's the kind of music people like him listen to. Doyle out of The Professionals, Steve Davis... you know, those kind of people.
The Professionals is not just a laugh-at-the-trousers programme – if it were, I'd not bother with it – but its strong sense of time and place is certainly part of the appeal. Like most programmes shot on location it is, aside from anything else, a fascinating time capsule. What The Sweeney is to worn-out mid-1970s Britain (tin ashtrays, floral headscarves, bent-faced men in grey slacks and platform shoes kicking each other in the bollocks), so The Professionals is to the very late 70s and very early 80s: huge microwaves, Harrington jackets, Eddie Kidd in a neon nightclub drinking Harp from a glass with a handle. This first series was shot in the second half of 1977, but in a Britain already setting up for the 1980s: sleek and bleak.
This short-lived aesthetic is arguably the 20th Century's ugliest, but it's dear to me, because it informed my first imaginings of adult life. At this most impressionable age I was impressed upon by prime-time television, aspirational advertising and the cosy certainties of school, in which Britain was a neatly-ordered social democracy where bakers baked, butchers butchered and filled-in forms would sort out anything untoward. I could see my future already: living a life of luxury with Imperial Leather soap, smoking cigarettes in airports or behind the wheel of a TR7. Drinking spirits and wearing rings in warmly-lit low-ceilinged bars, ministered to from cradle to grave by the wholly benevolent hand of The State. It's no wonder I went fucking mental.
The main thing I learnt from television of this period, though – and this most certainly applies to The Pros – is that whenever one man walks into a room in which another man is sitting, the second man will get up and pour them both a large neat whisky, in the middle of the day. Often the first man will down it in one, and then hold out his glass for another. Were people just half-pissed all the time in those days? How did anyone get anything done? Yet this is one of the trappings of late 70s and early 80s manhood which is still very much within reach. I might start keeping Scotch in a decanter on a silver tray on my sideboard for the next time someone visits me in the early afternoon. The rent assessment officer would appreciate that, I think.
Something else which makes The Professionals so fascinating is its passionate embrace of what we might call the swinging right wing. These days, the popular perception of 1970s television scriptwriting is that from Play For Today to Doctor Who, it was the preserve of the rock-hard Left. In fact, there were plenty of prominent writers whose work leant steeply to the Right: Wilfred Greatorex, Ian Mackintosh, Charles Gidley Wheeler. By the second half of the decade, in television as in life, those voices were getting louder.
Practically the first thing you hear in Channel 4's 1996 documentary about The Professionals – included in the extras here – is some shit-fool TV critic guffawing: "The best thing about The Professionals was that it was politically incorrect!!!" This may well have sounded reasonable (if not terribly insightful) at the time, when not being Ben Elton was the most important thing in the world. These days, worn down by Little Britain and Ricky Gervais and Jimmy Carr, the steady thickening of troll culture and concomitant erosion of human decency, that smugness and lack of foresight inspires impotent fury. You want to scream back: "It's you – it's your fucking fault! You fucking Nineties idiot!" (For some of us, it must be said, this reaction does involve an element of Caliban's rage.)
Anyway, "politically incorrect" is a rather misleading term here, because The Professionals isn't trying to get a rise out of anyone, nor does it think of itself as transgressive. Rather, it's set in a deeply peculiar right-wing fantasy world, where this is just how things are. A world where everyone – but absolutely everyone – seems to read the Daily Express. Where the only people with left-wing sympathies are naïve rich kids trying to be clever and foreigners with machine guns. Where you can earn your very own file at CI5 by being "photographed on an anti-National Front march... signatory of a petition against the Ecuadorian military dictatorship... nothing much else".
In this world, you can spot the bad 'uns a mile off: they all have Che Guevara posters. Keith Barron's army-jacketed eco-terrorist has worse than that. He has CND posters. Naturally, it's not long before he's holding the country to ransom, threatening to release a powerful hallucinogen into the water supply unless the government acquiesce to his evil demands. "What does he want?" asks Bodie. Cowley sucks his teeth and scowls. "Cease manufacture of chemicals for biological warfare, and destroy all stocks. Yes, a nutty idealist..."
This is a strange world. In it, a millionaire's young daughter, who thinks she's been abducted, sits in a car with Doyle – her apparent kidnapper – and hitches up the skirt of her school uniform: "Aren't you going to ravish me?" Small wonder that on the subject of women Bodie and Doyle, both in their thirties, talk to each other like teenage virgins. Phil Davis out of Quadrophenia takes Pamela Stephenson hostage, holding a gun to her head with one hand and an unpinned grenade down her bra with the other. Bodie surveys the scene through binoculars, reporting back: "He's holding a Webley .44 and... (whistles) a 38B cup!"
In 'Killer With A Long Arm', Greek terrorists plan to assassinate King Constantine II at the Wimbledon Men's Singles Final with some kind of super-gun fired from the window of a block of flats two miles away. You can tell they're Greek because on their hideout wall they've got a picture of the Acropolis, and a poster from a travel agents with "GREECE" written on it, in English. Of course, the whole thing's really an excuse for cracks about homosexuality and plate-smashing, and to cast Diane Keen as a terrorist's moll, lasciviously running her fingers along the barrel of their enormous gun. In the final scene, having confiscated the weapon, the lads set it up in Cowley's office and use its telescopic sight to spy on a woman undressing in a distant flat. "She's about five foot seven, heavily freckled... and a natural blonde!" leers Cowley, knocking back a glass of Scotch. Fade to black on those three old dogs, with their stupid, chortling faces.
Yeah, the swinging right wing. The brutal law enforcers of 70s telly weren't just shorter, scruffier versions of John Wayne – they were more interesting than that. They were both here and there, the past and the future; part of the backlash against the 60s – or what they came to mean, culturally – yet unmistakably a product of that great collective loosening of ties. Already it was becoming clear which parts of what we now think of as "the 60s" were to be accepted by – and assimilated into – the British mainstream (harmless insolence, silly clothes, sex before marriage, lack of piety, funky basslines, television violence), and which were to be suppressed by any means necessary (basically, anything which posed an actual threat to anything else). The Professionals – like the vast majority of Western popular culture since – uses that first set of freedoms as a tool with which to close down the second.
Still, there was something unusual about The Professionals, something out of time. One reason why The Sweeney was a vastly more mature programme – I mean, apart from the obvious – is that it understood another of those 60s innovations, one which would prove the most useful tool of all: the total eclipse of deference by cynicism. In Cowley's office there's a photo of the Queen; in his head, the incorruptibility of British justice ("Perfect – or as damn near perfect as we can make it!"). Bodie and Doyle are hard-boiled but soft-headed: jaded and mercenary, they still do what they do out of some kind of patriotic impulse, some inarticulate ideal of nobility. Jack Regan would laugh in their faces, even before he clocked the perm.
None of this quite fits together, dramatically, and yet it has to be this way, because things like nobility and patriotism are very important to this programme. You see, The Professionals is more than "politically incorrect", it's... well, it's a little bit fascist. You'd have to be a very strange person to be unduly bothered by this, I think, because that would mean taking the programme seriously. Still, it can give you a little chill. In this endless struggle against terror, we're told, nothing is more useless nor more dangerous to innocent people than civil liberties and human rights. Certain things must not be questioned; neither must the violence used to safeguard them. Nothing is discussed. There are only certainties, and blind faith, and the patriotic subtext: don't think, feel. "I've no idea what your fight is about," Bodie's girlfriend says to the revolutionary in 'Close Quarters'. "I just know that somebody's got to stop you."
(By the way, for a man who's just been gloating about his intellectual superiority, his response is surprisingly petulant: "You vill die. All of you." Typically, he's wrong.)
Throughout this first series and occasionally beyond, the main characters lapse into awkward, sermonising speeches, hymning the glory of the British army and the rectitude of the British police: "Someone kills a cop, they stick two fingers up at the rest of us!" Inside a tower block, one of the production team has scrawled some fake graffiti (the quaint "ALL FUZZ ARE PIGS"), purely so that Doyle can react to it angrily. When a demonstration turns nasty and hapless coppers come under attack, the boys snort ruefully: "They'll get their heads kicked in... then the next day the papers will be full of 'police brutality'!" It's all decidedly creepy. Having shot and wounded a mentally-ill gunman, CI5 interrogate him using the authority of a doctor's note on which Cowley has faked the doctor's signature. "I want a lawyer", the teenager pleads, as Bodie and Doyle advance on him. "Why, son?" sneers Bodie. "Do you want to make a will?"
Even more explicitly than most action shows, The Professionals is steeped in the fascist conviction that the true test of manhood is to face other men in battle... and my goodness, doesn't it look sexy? Fantasy bleeds into reality here: politics and sado-masochism, the law of the jungle and the law of the land. These boys pound their opponents into the ground as a display of personal and ideological virility. Who could possibly resist?
And in The Professionals, every woman really does adore a fascist. Sure, those are two great-looking boys. But – with the exception of the cold-eyed left-wing lawyer from 'The Rack', who seems to have been built from the contents of Richard Littlejohn's wastepaper basket and is almost certainly a lesbian anyway – what gets the ladies going are beatdowns, being property, being anything other than free. See how fast they turn against their spotty left-wing eunuchs, for these beautiful boys and their fascist sex cult!
(Isn't this all a bit worrying? No. At least not while we continue to live in a society which finds The Professionals' brand of fascist machismo outrageously camp. To this day, plenty of women still fantasise about Bodie and Doyle – have a look online. But it's hard to say what Bodie and Doyle themselves would make of this, once someone had explained to them exactly what "slash fiction" is.)
Intriguingly, if not surprisingly, some effort seems to have been made from the start to balance – or at least obscure – the programme's shall-we-say tendencies. In the very first episode, which acts as a pilot, Cowley gives an introductory speech to a roomful of CI5 recruits, explaining to them – and us – just what this organisation is about. "Kick him in the goolies first; do unto others now what they're still thinking about. Oh, there'll be squeals, and once in a while you'll turn a law-abiding citizen into an authority-hating anarchist. Theeeeere'll be squeals, and letters to MPs... but that's the price they have and we have to pay to keep this island clean, and smelling – even if ever so faintly – of roses and lavender." Out in the corridor, he's teased by a chuckling Bodie; the speech was "a bit heavy," he jibes. "Fascist overtones, sir." Bad move – Cowley blows his top at him, and hobbles away on his gammy leg. Doyle gives Bodie a withering look. "Where do you think he got that leg?" he asks his partner. "Spain!" Oh yes. Of course. It's so easy to forget that in the 1970s the upper echelons of the British security services were packed with veterans of the International Brigades.
(The plot of that first episode, by the way, is beyond brilliant: a bunch of gangsters have hatched a plan to kidnap the Home Secretary, but CI5 figure that they won't know what the Home Secretary looks like, based on the fact that Bodie and Doyle don't know what the Home Secretary looks like. So Cowley puts on a hat and pretends to be the Home Secretary, and they try to kidnap him instead. "He'd arrive in a car pretty much like this, wouldn't he?" muses Cowley, sitting in a mustard-yellow Rover 3500.)
Occasionally, in a simulation of neutrality (like Question Time), the battle must be taken to the far Right. In 'Stake Out' the baddies are white supremacists from an unnamed African country, one of whom has a Yorkshire accent, and whose slogan – Keep Africa White – is perhaps a trifle optimistic. More memorably, in would-be season finale 'Klansmen', the boys take on a British Ku Klux Klan, and Bodie learns to stop being quite so viciously racist. Yes that's right, the guy you've been rooting for these past 12 weeks was a massive bigot all along, but don't worry, he's just changed his mind (and all it took was for a black doctor to save his life after a near-fatal stabbing). Cowley and Doyle, of course, are passionately anti-racist, like most people working for British intelligence at the time – although earlier in the series Doyle did solve a case with this razor-sharp bit of reasoning: "A big flash car, driven by a black guy... add 'em together and what have you got? A high class pimp!" So yeah, thanks very much for that, former Detective Constable Doyle).
Anyway, for one week only, The Professionals' world is full of black people who aren't pimps, or drug pushers, or visiting African royalty. These include a black nurse who Bodie racially abuses at great length while delirious, but it's OK, because at the end of the episode he saunters off with her on a date. A jealous Doyle turns to the conveniently-black CI5 agent standing next to him, and quips that they should start a new campaign, "to get rid of some of these damned whites!" Fans defend 'Klansmen' as "well-intentioned"; in truth its only intention is to attract publicity with controversial themes, in the crassest way imaginable. True, it takes the daring position that racism is bad. But as you watch a young black teenager, sympathetic but simple-minded, tending a wounded Doyle with the words "You're gonna have an eye blacker than my arse," you sense you're not in the hands of experts. It made uneasy viewing even at the time – ITV refused to show it. It's probably fair to say, though, that you'll never have seen anything quite like it. It's very definitely worth watching once, which may well be enough.
The principal cast were uncomfortable with 'Klansmen', but Martin Shaw was in uncommonly high spirits on the shoot, because the series, which he hated, was now almost over. The curly-headed malcontent could finally relax – as soon as the public saw how ludicrously bad this programme was, he thought, it would bomb, his contract would dissolve and he could go back to "serious" acting at last. Unfortunately for him, The Professionals turned out to be the smash hit of 1978. By the end of its first run it was pulling in seventeen and a half million viewers. For Shaw, there would be no escape... ever.
The thing is, Martin Shaw is not an easy man with whom to sympathise. Here's a quote from him: "The character's nature, pain and experience were all derived from my own. Every person has the fake inside him, and desires to be self-sufficient, and has the element of the mass murderer inside him." Yeah man. And here's another: "They say there are Cossacks who've lived to 140, and had over thirty children on a diet of yoghurt and milk."
He'll tell you that he's proved himself as a "serious" actor since – perhaps in Judge John Deed, a lunatic's propaganda vehicle, or maybe in Anglia Television's fondly-remembered The Chief – but he's remained so closely identified with Doyle that when in 1998 the driver of a London sightseeing bus climbed down from the cab and beat him up in the street in front of 30 startled Japanese tourists, most newspaper reports seemed genuinely confused as to why the 53-year-old Shaw had not just done a forward roll then shot the bloke three times in the chest.
It's easier to feel for Lewis Collins, whose post-Pros career went nowhere once he'd been rejected as the next James Bond. His one big hit was Who Dares Wins, a semen-splattered love note to the SAS so witlessly violent and thunderously right-wing that next to it The Professionals might have been scripted by Brecht; following that, he spent a decade running out of jungles with machine guns, straight to video. It was a sad decline for a man who'd always made a pretty likeable uber-macho government thug. Bodie was so clearly the man that Collins always wanted to be, he managed to redeem what should have been a loathsome character with sheer enthusiasm, like a big happy Alsatian. His death last year, at the age of only 67, was sad news indeed.
Here's another quote from Martin Shaw: "I don't find much in The Professionals to make me explore myself as an artist." The source for that one? Ummm... the 1979 Professionals annual.
A Professionals annual? Absolutely. It may have been broadcast after the watershed, but this was very much a family show. It's strange to watch these episodes now, with their '15' certificate, and think that this is the programme me and my mates loved so much in a year I know was 1980, making me eight years old. Everybody watched The Pros, and no one's parents seemed to mind. Boys' own adventure; good clean fun. Yet nothing on terrestrial television these days is one half so violent – the rough stuff in The Professionals isn't as brutal as the toughest Sweeney episodes (e.g. the stomach-churning 'Taste Of Fear'), and can't always be taken 100% seriously, but it's so gleeful, and so relentless. The body count is stratospheric. When in a later episode, Bodie has a moment of reflection after blowing away another bastard, and mutters "It's not every day I kill someone I don't know", even eight year olds couldn't keep a straight face.
It's hard to communicate just how popular this programme was. None of it means very much now: TV Times awards, cheap plastic merchandise, shirtless centre spreads in My Guy and Patches. But this was a truly massive show. Every Monday, playgrounds would seethe with re-enacted mayhem; even summer repeats topped the ratings. Still, a couple of modifications were made for series 2. LWT complained that "fields and barns" were not the ideal backdrop for a hard-hitting action series – the incoming producer and script editor, too, felt those early episodes were "a bit highways and byways of Ruislip" – so they agreed a budget hike and the action moved to the rotting docklands, burnt-out warehouses and damp streets of London. New crew members were drafted in from Euston Films, experts in urban location filming; dialogue was now recorded live, actually spoken by the actor who appeared on screen.
And so, like many long-running series, The Professionals peaked with its second season. It's slicker, smarter and faster than the first, but retains that spark of absurdity. Here we find my own favourite episode, 'First Night': an Israeli diplomat is kidnapped outside the Royal Festival Hall, and CI5 receive a fuzzy black and white photo of him tied up to a chair. Analysis reveals that a blurry diagonal shadow in the corner of the frame is a bus trundling past the window – amazing what they can do these days – so CI5 agents are dispatched to the top deck of every single bus in London to study the passing houses, just in case they spot a kidnapped Israeli diplomat in somebody's front room. Bodie's in a foul mood, though, because he's just been rebuffed by a couple of girls he was chatting up in the CI5 canteen: "That blonde piece," he snarls, not looking out of the window. "I could have fixed her! This equality business – it doesn't do much for what the Spanish call cojones!" By the end of the episode he's much happier, as he gets to smash through the upstairs window of a suburban house in an armoured cherry-picker, machine guns a-blazing. Spare a thought for Doyle's latest squeeze, though, turfed out of the car when her beau gets an emergency call. "But we were going to the rock concert!" she wails.
The later series are still a lot of fun, but over time the campiness was surgically drained, and in its place came an unconvincing dourness, as though the writers would rather have been writing something else entirely. They couldn't have stuck with the feel of that first series forever – it was hopelessly dated even in 1978, with its improbable terrorist masterminds operating out of Borehamwood. But convoluted plots and downbeat endings never did mix that well with the programme's winning formula – hunks punch lunks – and besides, anyone trying to turn The Professionals into serious drama was onto a loser.
Always intended as an international hit, the show had taken off in a few other countries (it was a smash in West Germany, which had a near-insatiable demand for polizeidrama) but America wasn't answering the phone, which meant The Professionals could never do much more than break even financially, much to Clemens' chagrin. Already, its days were numbered. Collins and Shaw had begun to play up – especially Shaw, who trashed the show in an interview with the Daily Mail: "It's all been done before," he moaned, "so why bother to do it again?"
Both leads were becoming increasing frustrated with the lack of "character stuff" in the scripts, which was understandable. And yet, had it ever been credible that these never-off-duty, three-kills-a-week kinda guys would be laid-back charmers, cracking jokes and pulling chicks, rather than uncommunicative psychopaths, glassy-eyed and emotionally dead? Anything approaching realism was clearly out of bounds, so all attempts to "develop" the characters would inevitably end in farce. Bodie, a thug who spent time as a mercenary in Angola before joining up with the Paras and being seconded to the SAS, suddenly starts quoting lines from Keats into his radio transmitter ("Keats at seven in the morning, Bodie?" splutters an exasperated Cowley). Then he starts referring to Doyle by the pet name "D'oyly Carte".
Doyle, meanwhile, metamorphoses from lairy ex-copper into Guardianista – taking art classes, drinking wine and talking about Luis Bunuel in those occasional lulls between punching and killing people. "Listen, there are certain aspects of my job I'm not entirely happy with," he tells another short-term girlfriend (at last, a line that Martin Shaw could put his heart and soul into). Best of all is his shrugging excuse for lapsing into social worker jargon: "I read the Guardian!" Of course you do, mate. It's the paper of choice for teachers, public sector workers and employees of unaccountable Home Office departments which specialise in the extrajudicial killing of foreign nationals.
By the final series in 1982, the car's still speeding but there's no one at the wheel. It has indeed "all been done before", and while the quality's still quite high, its brave attempts to expand the format feel a little desperate. 'Discovered In A Graveyard' is a mini-Matter Of Life And Death: Doyle gets shot and lapses into a forty-minute dream sequence (Vaseline a-plenty on the fisheye lens). 'Lawson's Last Stand' is practically a comedy (crazy Colonel Lawson threatens to let off a canister of nerve gas in a Battersea park: "He wants the national anthem played on Radio 2, on the hour, every hour... forever"). It's all gone a bit too Buffy – maybe they should have thrown caution to the wind and tried a musical episode? Or perhaps a crossover episode, where Bodie and Doyle met Sapphire and Steel? The possibilities were endless, really.
Instead, with Martin Shaw now practically chewing through the bars of the cage, and even Lewis Collins sick of it all, the programme expired. Unlike most of its supporting characters, The Professionals came to a natural end.
The Two Ronnies: 'Tinker Tailor Smiley Doyle' (breathtakingly unfunny, yes – but still ten times funnier than The Comic Strip Presents: The Bullshitters)
I can't justify my lifelong love of The Professionals in terms of art, or whatever – it's schlock, it's camp, it's fascist nonsense – but that's of no interest to me. I can justify it in terms of fun, in terms of joy, in terms of what the unexpected does to the imagination. This is discomfiting comfort food, a certain kind of wonderful, the weirdest programme ever made. An antidote to everything; fabulous despite itself. Creepy and nasty and painfully funny – bewilderingly good television.
You can keep The Wire, man. You can keep that thing with the dragons. Give me something stranger and less sophisticated, something which does things it doesn't know it's doing, in ways it doesn't understand. I think it's more fun like that. Give me something good and bad; give me The Professionals. Give it the kind of praise it deserves.
The Professionals Mk1/ Available now on Blu-ray & DVD, and on iTunes in SD & HD Network Distributing