1 9 7 1 (UK)
3 x 25 minute episodes
Joe Darling (Dennis Lingard) is an apprentice on the Newcastle shipyards who – to his surprise – befriends old rag and bone man Ted Prodhurst (James Garbutt) and his horse, Gladiator.
Joe has a number of problems in his life: Gran living in the family home is upsetting his Dad (Richard Steele) against his Mam (Ursula Smith) and his parents are threatening to separate, and at work, he has to put up with the bullying ways of his boss and the daft banter of fairweather friend Willie Styles (Ken Purvis).
When Old Ted dies he leaves Gladiator to Joe and – though he can’t really afford to – he selflessly devotes his time to looking after the old nag. By doing so, he earns the respect of many in the community.
This was one of the earliest modern dramas to be made by the BBC’s children’s department and the budget was so low that the crew had to double up as costume and design.
Surprisingly, for what was really no more than a toe in the water, the crew did not stay in the Shepherd’s Bush area around Television Centre but ventured to the book’s real locations of South Shields, Tyneside and Wallsend to film the three episodes.
The short run was all they could afford. A narrator’s commentary (also by James Garbutt) filled in the scenes that they couldn’t afford to include in the short runtime.
The genuine locations added hugely to the working-class realism, although Dennis Lingard was asked to moderate his Geordie accent for the sake of the wider viewing audience.
Lingard was certainly authentic and was back working on the docks and on the buses after his starring role.
The sentimental and unlikely ending shows that Old Ted has in fact set Joe a test. When Joe keeps the horse safe and well for two months, a solicitor advises him that the poor old rag and bone man has left more than £2,000 to Joe in his will should this condition be met.
The short series was based on a novel by Catherine Cookson.