(by George Cheyne – Glasgow, Feb 2021)
There seemed to be a disproportionate amount of TV cop shows around in the Seventies – and by my reckoning there could be only three reasons for that.
One: I’ve somehow blocked out all the tat from that era so that any good stuff gets more prominence in my memory.
Two: My dad must have liked the genre because he had full control of the telly scheduling in our house.
Three: Erm, there WAS a disproportionate amount of TV cop shows around back then.
Whatever the reason, it worked out well for me. There were more cop shows on in our house than you could shake a police baton at.
Like a lot of people in the late 60s and early 70s, I was introduced to police dramas via Dixon of Dock Green and Z-Cars. Well, when I say dramas…there didn’t seem to be anything dramatic going on.
Nonetheless, I remember being fairly excited to be sitting down to watch the programmes. Well, when I say sit down…I had to get up and change the channel first as my dad issued instructions from his chair which, incidentally, was slap-bang in front of the telly and the nearest to it.
Peering up from the telly pages of his paper, he’d say: “Z-Cars is coming on, son. Turn it over to BBC1.” Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed the word “please” missing from that sentence. Welcome to my world as a human remote.
I plodded along (see what I did there?) with Dixon and Z-Cars, but the tame, procedural stuff was beginning to lose its appeal for a 16-year-old looking for a TV adrenaline rush.
Whoosh! Along came The Sweeney in the mid-70s and blew me away, along with any villains who dared stand in the way of Inspector Jack Regan and Sergeant George Carter.
There were dramatic car chases, shoot-outs, sex scenes, punch-ups and dawn raids. One of which spawned the classic line: “Get your trousers on, you’re nicked.”
This was more like it – you never saw this sort of stuff on Dixon or Z-Cars. The bar had been raised and, for a while, I was content to follow Regan and Carter as they took a battering ram to London’s underworld on ITV every week.
But I was hankering for something else, something different. So I turned my attention to some of the Seventies American cop shows which were flooding in to Britain at the time.
There was so much to choose from. Using my human doofer skills, I was soon turning through the channels to check out episodes of Ironside, Hawaii Five-0, Cannon, Police Woman, The Streets of San Francisco, Shaft, Charlie’s Angels, McCloud, Starsky and Hutch, The Rockford Files, Columbo and Kojak.
Using my own detective prowess, I quickly sussed there were different templates being used to make these shows successful.
First you had solo maverick cops – with a gimmick – who paid little or no attention to their superiors but still managed to catch the bad guys (McCloud, Shaft, Columbo and Kojak).
The double-act maverick cops who would go above and beyond to catch the bad guys (Hawaii Five-0, Starsky and Hutch, Police Woman and The Streets of San Francisco)
Then the former cops who still love to catch the bad guys (Charlie’s Angels and Ironside) and finally the former cops/cons-turned-private-investigators who always seemed to get a right doing before they managed to – you’ve guessed it – catch the bad guys (Cannon and The Rockford Files).
It took me a while, but I eventually whittled down my favourites to The Rockford Files, Columbo and Kojak. So props to James Garner, Peter Falk and Telly Savalas for bringing the characters to life.
It only took a few bars of the Mike Post-Pete Carpenter theme tune for the Rockford Files to draw you in, but you were hooked a few seconds later when the answer-machine kicked into life with the words: “This is Jim Rockford. At the tone, leave your name and message. I’ll get back to you.”
It was the same for every episode, a neat gimmick to grab your attention right from the start.
And Columbo wasn’t short of a gimmick or two himself. Apart from his crumpled raincoat, his cigar and his dragged-through-a-hedge-backwards demeanour, the show went the opposite way from most conventional cop programmes.
There was no “whodunnit” value because it started off by showing you the crime and the perpetrator – so the value came from watching Columbo piece the crime together.
And you knew, you just knew, he was about to catch his killer when he turned on his heels as he was leaving a room to say: “Oh, just one more thing…” Busted!
If Columbo looked like something the cat dragged in, then Kojak was top dog in the sharp-dressing stakes. The bald detective was always suited and booted and sucking on a lollipop as he tracked down the baddies on New York’s mean streets.
Sometimes bending the rules – but ALWAYS using his wisecrack one-liner “Who loves ya, baby?” – Kojak would invariably ferret out the perps and bring them to justice.
Rockford, Columbo, Kojak…these guys were certainly top of the cops. The telly detectives of the Seventies were held in high esteem and even featured in novelty records.
Whodunit by R&B band Tavares is a song about a guy searching for the love-rat who nicked his girl and name-checks McCloud, Ironside, Baretta and Kojak amongst others.
Then there’s King of the Cops by comedy impersonator Billy Howard. It’s a load of tosh, but it still reached number 6 in the charts back in 1975.
Howard’s song, which features impressions of McCloud, Columbo, Frank Cannon, Ironside and Steve McGarrett, ends with his Kojak character busting them all and, with tongue in cheek, saying: “How do you like that.. police officers making records.”
Yeah, that would never happen – eh, Telly? As If!