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The Cuckoo Waltz (1975–1977)
5/10
Good opportunity for Lewis Collins but short on ideas
14 December 2013
Warning: Spoilers
Although 'The Cuckoo Waltz' appeared to be an inferior rival to Thames Television's 'Man About the House', the Granada series had a rather different underlying theme: the contrasting lifestyles between two best friends. Chris Hawthorne is a "Mr Average", recently married with kids and struggling with impecunity, whereas Gavin Rumsey is a snappily-dressed ladies' man, about to become blissfully divorced, no dependents and well-heeled. The premise is heightened when Gavin becomes a long-term lodger at the Hawthorne residence. Prima facie this aspect doesn't make sense: given Gavin's financial situation, surely he'd look for a place of his own. However his string of post-marital female companions are merely passing fancies as he doesn't want to commit to a long-term relationship after the somewhat acrimonious split from his wife. Yet he finds comfort in and somewhat envies Chris' domestic stability.

Never intended as thought-provoking drama, the series relies on gentle humour, peppered with a reasonable dose of witty banter in its early seasons. (Chris, visiting Gavin's workplace during a quiet morning: "Doing nothing?" / Gavin, his amorous advances snubbed by his latest secretary: "Nothing doing!").

Diane Keen as Felicity "Fliss" Hawthorne appeared to struggle with a Northern accent as her delivery was generally stilted and one-note. On the few occasions that she unintentionally slipped back to a more neutral tone, she improved. David Roper handled his role as Chris in a workmanlike manner: competent but of limited "range". Clare Kelly made the best of a stereotypically disapproving and caustic mother-in-law. John McKelvey as the retired neighbour was generally let down by scripts that gave the character little of importance to say. However, although slightly over-acting occasionally, Lewis Collins as Gavin greatly enlivened proceedings and was easily the highlight of the show.

The second season opened with an uncharacteristically superb script illuminated by guest Joanna Lumley and her on-screen chemistry with Collins. They made a tremendous double-act and it was the series' and audience's loss that her character was but a one-off appearance. (By coincidence, within a couple of months of filming, both actors were being considered for starring roles in The New Avengers).

Previously we learnt that Gavin owned a Lotus sportscar but we never actually saw it. He traded it in for the American/Italian supercar De Tomaso Pantera and many of the subsequent episodes afforded us shots of him driving it. The car may well have been more costly for Granada to hire than the actors! The third season, filmed during the summer of '76, concentrated more on Gavin. However the scripts failed to develop the character and his shallowness rather limited the plots to predictable, well-worn themes seen in many other sitcoms.

With a burgeoning feeling of being trapped in domestic tedium, occasional episodes saw Fliss dally with the idea of extramarital affairs. In one rather startling episode she appears to try to seduce Gavin while Chris slept in the next room. Whether this was intended to make the series "edgy" isn't clear: even in 1976 it was hardly taboo.

Many episodes from all three seasons drifted by with little of substance happening, the most obvious example spending half its time looking around Belle Vue funfair with neither plot nor comedy.

Granada wisely chose to halt the series at this point. However it was revived four years later in a surprising move given that Collins had moved on (to long-running action/adventure series The Professionals). His replacement was Ian Saynor as a new - but unmemorable - lodger. This time Diane Keen was given a somewhat meatier role but this tended to lapse into stupid situations such as Fliss joining a naff dance troupe. This final season lacked direction and substance, becoming lost amongst so many other dreary sitcoms.

While 'The Cuckoo Waltz' has some notable moments in its first two seasons, overall it is rendered an also-ran. Had Granada brought in additional writers rather than relying solely on Geoffrey Lancashire, the series may have been more inventive and varied. If nothing else, though, it's well worth catching by fans of Lewis Collins who will enjoy seeing him in a role very different to those he would later play.
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Saracen (1989)
Reasonable attempt at recreating "The Professionals"
13 September 2010
Produced by ITV's regional broadcaster London Weekend Television, 1977's action adventure series "The Professionals" attracted huge worldwide popularity (that continues in repeats and DVD releases to this day). After the cancellation of the programme in 1981, the remainder of the decade witnessed a number of attempts to recreate its magic, notably LWT's own "Dempsey and Makepeace" and Television South's (TVS) "CATS Eyes"…

In 1988 ITV's new Midlands-based broadcaster Central Television launched "Saracen" and arguably came artistically closest to reviving "The Professionals". However the series remains largely forgotten, a problem exacerbated by a curious lack of repeat screenings (at least in the UK). Does it deserve its obscurity?…

The series was created by Chris Kelly, best known to viewers as the presenter of Granada Television's 1970s film review series "Clapperboard". He teamed up with Ted Childs, producer on the classic 1970s cop show "The Sweeney". Opening with a 90-minute pilot feature entitled 'The Zero Option', the action concentrated on SAS Major David Barber (played by Stephen Hattersley) who resigns his commission after being forced to undertake a badly-planned hostage rescue. Headhunted by private security company Saracen Systems he is partnered with Australian ex-Army sergeant Jack Carne (John Walton). Barber's first mission for his new employer is to recover diamonds which were stolen during a fake aircraft siege. Assisted by fellow Saracen employees, intelligence officer Alice Kavanagh (Joanna Phillips-Lane), technical expert Eric Nugent (David Moss) and company founder Colonel Patrick Ansell (Eric Flynn), the combination of tension, action and humour promised much…

It isn't clear what Central Television's intention was when the pilot was followed up by a regular series of 50-minute episodes. The entire main cast had been ditched - with one exception all the lead characters remained but now played by different actors. In stepped Chistian Burgess as Barber, Ingrid Lacey as Alice, John Bennett as Nugent and Michael Byrne as Ansell. The character of Carne was replaced completely by that of Tom Duffy, an American ex-Delta Force commando, played by the little-known Patrick James Clarke. Also gone was Barber's wife, who had died off-screen, although no explanation was ever given. One assumes this was a move to allow Barber to become romantically involved with various guest characters… aka "dead girlfriend of the week". Another notable change was the budget: there would be no money for the large-scale action set pieces seen in 'The Zero Option'. (In one episode Alice's car was crashed into from front and rear by the villains, yet none of the cars appeared to suffer any damage!)

Involving some of British television's top genre writers and directors, the series was well-scripted with likable characters and solid acting… but lacked any real "Unique Selling Point" and generally came across as an utterly average offering. The absence of high-octane thrills and rousing musical themes (Barrington Pheloung providing the utterly forgettable score) didn't help. Some episodes involved genuine overseas locations but this did nothing to heighten the series' appeal.

On the plus side Patrick James Clarke made the most of his role and is essentially the programme's sole source of humour. (It's somewhat of a mystery as to why Clarke's acting career came to an end shortly afterwards).

Most episodes revolved around the bodyguard protection of a Saracen client or the rescue of a kidnapping victim. Indeed part of the problem for the show – a flaw in the programme's very concept – was that the range of situations that Saracen would tackle was very narrow, leaving writers to struggle to come up with new twists and spins in their plots. Too often Saracen's remit was exhausted and Ansell would have to order his team to hand over to the police. The better episodes were usually those which had a personal impact on our heroes…

In 'Starcross' Barber gets unwittingly involved in a family with IRA connections who recognise him as the man who shot dead one of their own during an SAS raid in the 1970s.

In 'Next Year in Jerusalem' an ageing Nazi hunter, Frankel, finds a lead to the man who executed his wife and daughter during WW2. In a counter move, Frankel himself becomes the target and seeks protection from Saracen. However Barber and Duffy find the apparently frail old man is surprisingly sprightly, resourceful and cunning.

In 'Reaper' a psychotic mercenary kidnaps Barber's young son, offering to release him in exchange for access to a group of Arabs whom the hit-man has been hired to kill.

On the whole "Saracen" failed to live up to its pilot. Given the burgeoning obsession with ratings at the time – and the looming up of broadcasting license renewals - it's no too difficult to understand why Central did not commission further series. Yet had they poured more money into it in the first place, it may have had more success amongst viewers. Either way it's a shame because a second season would almost certainly have offered improvements.

Other than rare repeats on cable and satellite channels, "Saracen" slipped from people's memories. Fortunately the pilot and all thirteen regular episodes are now available on DVD. For fans of the genre it's worth picking up - as an interesting obscurity if nothing else… although it's in danger of simply serving as a reminder of how superior "The Professionals" was!
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Dempsey and Makepeace (1985–1986)
3/10
A sad indictment of what television executives think of their viewers!
23 August 2008
Although the "buddy/buddy" cop show genre of the 1970s (in which "Starsky and Hutch", "The Sweeney" and "The Professionals" were prime exponents) had been hugely successful, most such shows utilised a male/male pairing. In 1983 Britain's southern ITV member company London Weekend Television sought to redress the balance. Additionally, despite sales to almost sixty other countries, no major US broadcaster had ever bought their previous series "The Professionals" (which had ended its six-year run earlier that year), so LWT took the view that they needed an American actor for one of the lead roles. (Despite the fact that the idea had never done Lew Grade's ITC organisation much good!)...

The result was "Dempsey and Makepeace". The pilot episode laid down the show's raison d'etre: a New York cop, Lieutenant ("Lootenant!") James Dempsey has to take flight when forced to kill his partner after discovering he and one of the city's most senior police officers are embroiled with the Mob. Arriving in England, ostensibly as part of an exchange deal between the two countries, Dempsey is assigned to a police unit named SI10 (the acronym is never explained), set up to tackle major organised crime. The squad is headed by gruff boss Gordon Spikings and Dempsey is partnered with Lady Harriet Makepeace, an aristocrat who oddly chose a career in the force, Mutual antagonism ensued and the series proceeded to show the difficulties of how such different people could work together.

After an interesting start, the series immediately ran into difficulties. It wasn't clear why SI10 actually existed, when its brief seemed so similar to that of the (real-life) Flying Squad. The plots themselves were usually paper-thin. Undoubtedly inspired by the 1975 film "Brannigan", Michael Brandon's Dempsey was a poor man's John Wayne and simply unlikeable, while Glynis Barber's character hardly developed at all throughout the show's three seasons. The friction between the two characters became predictable and boring, not helped by the inane dialogue. Dempsey's frustration at British Police's procedural approach to villain-taking would have been an interesting angle to explore but the character's response was consistently unrealistically macho and knuckle-headed. Ray Smith's Spikings was a poorly-observed, over-the-top and one-dimensional interpretation of Gordon Jackson's Cowley role in "The Professionals". Tony Osoba played the support role of Sergeant Chas Jarvis but was woefully underused. Other "buddy" series had relied on the two leads sharing and haranguing each other with pithy, witty dialogue - in this show, however, the humour fell flat.

Overall the series was frustratingly shallow and mindless.

In the second season Dempsey and Makepeace's relationship started to gel but it led to many episodes culminating in them looking dewy-eyed at each other while exchanging toe-curlingly saccharine dialogue. The plots were little better, even when "highbrow" writers such as Murray Smith were drafted in. Perhaps the "hightlight" of the season was its final episode in which Dempsey embarked on a personal crusade to catch a psychotic villain, with Chas warning Spikings about the American's obsessive behaviour and Makepeace noting that he and the villain are remarkably alike in some ways. That's how deep the "pathos" ever got in this show! At least Ray Smith was allowed to tone down Spikings: he became the most likable character in the show! The third season was an improvement overall. The opener saw the New York mob finally catch up with Dempsey. (Oddly it had taken them three years yet one of Dempsey's ex-girlfriends had tracked him down easily enough in a previous season: "I just called your mom!"). Another story dealt, albeit with little depth, with a mentally-subnormal man being dragged into the world of armed crime and weapons dealing.

But there were still problems with plotting. One episode relied on endless injections of footage of the villains driving in to London to fulfill the 50-minute timeslot.

In fairness to the series, it was reasonably popular in its day but seasons comprising of just ten episodes each - the minimum other ITV regions would accept - seemed to demonstrate LWT's unwillingness to commit to the show. Indeed they elected to drop it at this point and, tellingly, a repeat run on the ITV network just two years later was pulled after just three episodes with low ratings. (Contrast that with reruns of "The Professionals" which, five years after original transmission, were still achieving a position in the weekly top twenty.) Since then the series has made occasional appearances on minor UK satellite stations.

Given many of its antecedents, "Dempsey and Makepeace" should have been better. Considering the sexual chemistry, wit and sophistication of "The Avengers"/"The New Avengers", the grit and depth of characterisation of "The Sweeney" and the humorously acidic banter, clipped dialogue, complex plotting and stylised action of "The Professionals", it's a mystery why "Dempsey and Makepeace" was so deficient in these attributes. Almost certainly had it been produced by the likes of Euston Films ("The Sweeney") or Mark 1 Productions ("The New Avengers" and "The Professionals"), the results would have been far superior.

To its credit the show mostly avoided the inclusion of shots of London tourist traps - a sure sign that producers are desperate to sell a series overseas! - and Brandon performed much of his own stuntwork. On the other hand his presence did nothing to attract a major American broadcaster.

Britain had a reputation for producing the best television in the world. If this show's shortcomings came about due to a misguided desire to appeal to American audiences, it's a terrible indictment of television executives' opinions of viewers on both sides of the Atlantic, As it is "Dempsey and Makepeace" remains an aberration that not only failed to live up to its own potential but also gave the genre a bad name. But perhaps the biggest tragedy is that it is the only show for which the late Ray Smith will be remembered.
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Condorman (1981)
Underrated sub-Bond fun
25 December 2000
Primarily aimed at a younger audience, this movie is nevertheless great fun for kids of all ages. Many stunts are performed by Crawford himself and the various action sequences are splendidly executed - particularly the breathtaking car chase.

Apart from Crawford's appalling attempt at an American accent, performances are good - particularly from Barbara Carrera. Oliver Reed seems to take his role very seriously - maybe he wanted to be considered as a future Bond villain?

The weakest aspect is the special effects - clearly the big money went on the wrecking of several Porsches and motor boats!

Overall, though, this delighful little pic is highly entertaining, quite amusing and moves along at a splendid lick. Odd how it has rarely been screened on British television.
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The Professionals (1977–1983)
9/10
Anarchy, acts of terror, crimes against the public - yes, it's Martin Shaw's haircut!
15 November 2000
On the surface the success of The Professionals is something of an enigma. Two characters with embarrassing haircuts, dreadful dress-sense, little respect for birds... err, women, in a show almost universally panned by the critics...

Yet the Professionals not only succeeded in its day but continues to do so in repeat runs almost 25 years on.

Bodie and Doyle's characteristics arguably had near-plagiaristic similarities to that of Starsky & Hutch. The action and (more particularly) violence depicted was essentially a continuation of the "rules" laid down by The Sweeney. Yet The Professionals still carved out a niche for itself. What sets it apart from the other shows is the firework chemistry between the two leads (as much down to the good fortune of casting Shaw and Collins together - two completely different actors) and the jibing, black humour they share and harangue each other with.

Gordon Jackson's searing performance as Cowley, meanwhile, proved to be a formidable boss for the two reprobates.

The humour also extended to the situations and the show was not afraid to make fun of itself occasionally.

In the early years the exciting, varied plots were a bonus, too (Contrary to other remarks, they were often quite complex). Action-wise, Collins and Shaw gamely tackled much of their own stuntwork.

Although characterisation was never the primary objective of the show, the characters were given a reasonable opportunity to add facets to their personae. Doyle, in particular, emerged as a surprisingly rounded, unpredictable and constantly surprising character - due mainly to Shaw's splendid acting skills.

Unlike other British action shows, the Professionals gained an immense female following - indeed its fandom is probably split 50:50 between the sexes.

In the meantime London Weekend Television exported the show massively to eager overseas broadcasters (and continues to do so to this day).

However the programme was not without faults. By the fourth season (1980) the writing team were struggling to find new ideas and the boys of CI5 often found themselves lumbered with jobs that more traditional law forces would normally take on.

By 1981 the show was clearly running out of steam and with Shaw and Collins keen to move on to other things, LWT decided to call it a day after a grand total of 57 episodes.

Today it's easy to say the whole reason it's such a success again is because of its refreshingly un-PC image. Yet there is more to it than that and, indeed, what were seen as the strengths of the show in 1977 are being appreciated by new audiences the world over.
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The New Avengers (1976–1977)
Undervalued follow-up to the all-time classic show
13 November 2000
Neo-nazis maquerading as Trappist Monks, killer robots, a man carrying every deadly disease yet remaining immune, a shooting range that fires back, a machine that steals minds, government ministers programmed to self-destruct, a deadly Russian computer disguised as the Canadian National Security building!! Yes the Avengers were back in a big way. Well, they would have been were it not for terrible scheduling in the UK and the anti-violence lobby in the USA...

The New Avengers was a laudable attempt to recapture past glories with plots as offbeat as its classic 1960s ancestor. With many of the original crew, higher production values and a determination to make the stories even pacier, The New Avengers couldn't fail... could it?

Patrick Macnee was back as suave top agent John Steed and old fans eagerly anticipated the return of their favourite female partner, Diana Rigg's Emma Peel. However it was not to be - the actress having made it clear she had had quite enough of the show a decade previously. The Avengers without Mrs Peel?! Surely it could never work...?

In her place came Joanna Lumley as the tough, resourceful, witty, beautiful and ultra-feminine Purdey. Easily a worthy successor to Emma.... though most old fans would never admit it!

In an unexpected move, a third member of the team was introduced. As Patrick Macnee was now that much older, the producers understandably felt a younger man was required to carry out much of Steed's "heavy duty" work. Gareth Hunt, relatively new to acting at the time, was introduced as tough but quiet ex-Para Mike Gambit. The presence of the third character has probably caused more debate than any other element of The New Avengers!

In some ways the use of a three players put paid to any believable sexual tension between the characters. Clearly Steed was too old for Purdey and, unfortunately, the humorous sexual subtlety he had shared with previous co-stars was replaced by rather obvious, belaboured innuendo between Gambit and Purdey.

Perhaps the biggest fault of the series in terms of the characterisations was that previously Steed had known he didn't have to worry about his partners when they went into battle. With the new series, although Purdey was portrayed as being independent and deadly as her predecessors, Steed always seemed to feel he needed to protect her.

Nevertheless all three actors clearly shared a marvellous bond of friendship working together and handled their roles with conviction, invention and style... though, of course, never taking themselves too seriously!

As this was the 1970s, it was felt the action scenes needed to be toughened up and the knockabout fun of the original show was replaced with deadly jousts - particularly when Gambit was involved. Nevertheless Purdey's lethal fighting style (essentially based on the French 'Panache' technique) imbued many of her own fight scenes with a good dose of humour. Unfortunately this tougher nature would later prove to be a handicap to American sales.

Either way it has to be said that the action scenes were superbly staged - particularly with its use of crafty camera angles and clipped editing - and, twenty-five years on, we have still to see a British show surpass it in this area. And all credit to Lumley and Hunt who insisted on handling much of their own tremendous stuntwork. (Indeed the original show's use of stunt doubles was often embarrassingly obvious!)

With excellent storylines and good exposure in the UK media, the first season did very well, despite ITV's inability to find the programme a proper networked slot.

However The New Avengers was ultimately doomed. Part-financed by French company IDTV ("A load of crooks" as producer Brian Clemens described them), promised money never appeared and a Canadian company was brought in to prop up the production. Somewhat inevitably this led to demands for several episodes to be filmed in Canada. At this point Brian Clemens found himself virtually forced to hand over the series to a Canadian team who promptly demonstrated they didn't have a clue about what The Avengers was about. After just twenty-six episodes the show was brought to a halt. And when American broadcasters deemed the programme too violent to be screened in a primetime slot, clearly the series would be gone for good.

Looking back now, although The New Avengers will never be seen as an outright improvement over its forebear, it largely succeeded in its own right. In many ways, though, it was a victim of its times, particularly that of the British economy and the appalling fashions of the day. Although it undeniably had some poor episodes, when The New Avengers was good (as it often was), it was GREAT! Play that funky music, white boy!
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The Equalizer (1985–1989)
A breath of fresh air amid 1980s gloss-dross.
12 November 2000
Amid designer-superficiality like "Miami Vice" and myriad juvenile Glen Larson productions, "The Equalizer" came as a breath of fresh air when first broadcast in 1985. After many years in the wilderness, American studios recognised the intelligence of their audience and produced a well-scripted, well-acted action drama with character, depth and real bite.

The central premise was of a British military officer named Robert McCall who had served the latter half of his career with an American intelligence agency nickednamed "The Company" (although it approximated the real-life CIA) but had grown disillusioned with its methods. The series starts with McCall having resigned and decided to use his espionage, intelligence-gathering and combat skills on a lone crusade to champion the victims of crime, apparently as some form of atonement for his shady past.

But McCall could never fully escape The Company. Occasionally he needed some of its resources to help him tackle the job at hand. While his ex-superior, known only as "Control" (played by Robert Lansing), was sympathetic to McCall's reasons for quitting, he was never fully prepared to let him go, both because of his skills and the sensitive secrets he carried with him. Indeed many episodes saw McCall being drawn back into Company operations. The two men remained friends but their relationship was on a constant knife-edge (and often led to some of the series' best "stand off" dialogue moments).

The first two seasons wrought a tremendous variety in interesting story lines, had good dialogue and the performances of Edward Woodward, his regular co-stars and the often-abrasive interplay between their characters lifted the show further.

Location shooting in New York was used highly effectively and Stewart Copeland's startling, unique musical style lent the show a sparky, effervescent, slightly off-beat air.

The staging of action scenes was reasonable, though would never match the sensational jousts witnessed in Brit series such as The Sweeney and The Professionals. In fairness, though, The Equalizer trod a more realistic path in this respect.

The series' sole fault, during the first three seasons, was that the scripts became rather formulaic. With a few notable exceptions, the plots tended to revolve around a well-established, predictable pattern: McCall would receive a call from some distressed individual being terrorised; they would meet to discuss the problem at hand; McCall would then use his dubious contacts to dig up some dirt on the aggressor, who McCall would then threaten and, ultimately, end up having to kill - though all imbued with a liberal dose of pathos, of course!

The production schedule on the series was frenetic and with most scenes requiring the involvement of Woodward, it maybe shouldn't have been a surprise that he, a heavy smoker, suffered a heart attack during filming on the third season in 1987. Actor Richard Jordan was brought in to lighten McCall's load for several episodes. While a perfectly understandable move, in many viewers' minds it appeared that Jordan was taking over.

By the time of the fourth season Woodward had returned full-time and Jordan was phased out. But a necessary reduction in the strenuous exercise regime Woodward had previously followed meant he was far from the dynamic powerhouse he had once been. The show took on a new direction and embraced socially-sensitive themes. (In one episode a small boy is dying of AIDS and being harassed by frightened, ignorant neighbours.) Although audience rating were not as strong as before, they remained high...

Unfortunately CBS was apparently suffering from internal power struggles and some of its senior staff wanted to launch new series at the expense of existing ones. "The Equalizer" was axed after completing its usual 22-episode production. Neither Woodward nor a huge campaign of public support could convince CBS to change its mind.

The situation for the UK was actually worse. For reasons that have never been clear, proper peak-time screenings (on the ITV network) of the final season stalled after a few episodes. Naturally many Brits assumed the show had been cancelled mid-season. The remaining eventually aired via regional syndication in late-night "graveyard" slots with no publicity. In fact some ITV regions opted out completely, the affected editions being buried amongst repeat runs in the 1990s. It was an astonishing attitide to adopt as the show had actually been even more successful in the UK than its home country! Once can only suppose that denial of a complete network run was due to CBS.

The series had to wait for many years until it was made available on videocassette and even then only nine episodes from the first season were issued. Yet - probably to CBS' embarrassment - repeat runs continued to demonstrate the show's enduring appeal. In early 2008 the first season was issued on DVD in the US and UK. But even then problems continued. The American set has a welcome addition of an audio commentary by the series' creator Michael Sloan but the episodes suffer from several mysterious substitutions of incidental music. The picture quality on the UK set is notably "scratchy" and has been overly compressed for digitisation.

However with efforts under way to launch a movie version in 2009, there is clearly still an audience for this show... and deservedly so.
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Special Squad (1984)
Australian attempt at "The Professionals"
28 December 1999
"Special Squad" was essentially an Australian variation on the classic British action show "The Professionals" (1977-1983). Indeed Raymond Menmuir acted as producer on both series and other similarities included a triumvirate of lead characters, fast-moving plots, car chases, shootouts and other rough stuff. The junior characters even used similar two-digit call-signs.

However "Special Squad" was largely happy to concentrate on straightforward "street level" crime rather than than the nice variety of villainry, espionage and political intrigue of the Brit show. "Squad" also lacked the flair, biting humour and character rapport that had been key to The Professionals' success. Nevertheless it was reasonably entertaining and probably deserved to last longer than its single season.
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