1 9 6 2 – 1 9 7 8 (UK)
801 x 25/50 minute episodes
Writer Troy Kennedy Martin was confined to bed with a bout of mumps and passed his time listening to a police radio. It was then he realised that Dixon of Dock Green was out of date. He set out to create a realistic, new police series for the sixties, and thus was born Z Cars.
The location was the tough dockland area of Liverpool in the north of England. He renamed Kirkby to Newtown and Seaforth to Seaport.
The fictional Lancashire town of Newtown was an overspill estate without amenities or any sense of community.
The series opened on 2 January 1962 with the burial of PC Reginald Farrow who had been shot on duty.
The answer was to introduce “modern” Ford Zephyr patrol cars and ‘Z Victor One’ (the ‘Z’ stood for Zulu not Zephyr) was soon cruising around with Northerner PC William “Fancy” Smith (Brian Blessed) and Scotsman PC Jock Weir (Joseph Brady) onboard. ‘Z Victor Two’ contained Irishman PC Bert Lynch (James Ellis) and redhead PC Bob Steele (Jeremy Kemp).
And in Z Cars, Liverpool had the type of policemen it deserved. These bobbies were no angels.
PC Lynch liked a flutter on the horses while Constable Steele was not above a spot of wife-beating. Violence on the beat was rewarded with violence from the coppers on the beat as they encountered harsh urban realities very different from those on Dixon’s patch.
Stories were confined to small social or criminal happenings and the series maintained an air of reality.
Episode titles emphasised the documentary flavour: ‘Affray’, ‘Policework’, ‘A Place of Safety’, ‘Friday Night’.
The series was transmitted live to air (with some pre-filmed inserts) from studio six at the BBC Television Centre. The live transmission gave an edge to performances and technique, and productions enjoyed the verve of an adrenaline rush. There could be as many as 15 sets per episode with actors racing between them. Men sat in half-cars with a street projected onto a screen behind them.
Within two months, Z Cars was attracting 14 million viewers.
In 1967, Pandas zoomed around the Newtown streets instead of Zephyrs and the series switched to colour in January 1970, with the 300th episode airing a week later.
The two characters who created the most impact were Detective Inspector Charlie Barlow (Stratford Johns) and Detective John Watt (Frank Windsor). Barlow was a huge man, prone to the occasional spot of verbal or physical violence, while the gentler Watt was his ideal foil.
The pair were so successful that they departed for the Regional Crime Squad and their own spin-off show, Softly Softly (1966 -1970).
Barlow eventually gained two more series’ of his own: Barlow at Large (1971 – 1973) and Barlow (1974 – 1976) in which he was promoted eventually to Detective Chief Superintendent.
The Police Association, the viewers (and even Jack Warner, old Dixon himself) all complained, but Z Cars ran for 16 years until 1978 when it, in turn, seemed dated when compared with shows like The Sweeney.
This series moved British Television police drama into a new era of realism. Superb casting and scripts were coupled with the BBC’s drama-documentary experience
The late Elwyn Jones, then BBC TV Head of Series and Executive Producer of Z Cars, turned down The Beatles, before they became famous, for a background band appearance in an episode. Michael Caine turned down the part of PC Steele and future Monkees star Davy Jones appeared in three episodes. John Thaw played a detective constable who had to leave the force because he couldn’t drink hard enough in four episodes.
The series’ memorable theme tune was adapted from a folk song called Johnny Todd (“Johnny Todd, he took a notion/For to sail the ocean wide”). The Everton football team adopted the anthem in 1963.
DI Charlie Barlow
DS John Watt
PC ‘Fancy’ Smith
PC Jock Weir
PC/Sgt Herbert ‘Bert’ Lynch
PC Bob Steele
PC Ian Sweet
Sgt Percy Twentyman
PC David Graham
Detective Supt. Miller
DI Sam Hudson
PC Ken Baker
PC Raymond Walker
DS Tom Stone
PC Owen Culshaw
PC Alec May
WPC Jane Shepherd
PC Steve Tate
WPC Jane Beck
WPC Jill Howarth
PC Roger Stevens