Tuesday, 18 November 2014

DOM-DA-DOM-DOMM! – the most fascinating detective drama on TV at the moment is Dragnet, and it’s 60 years old

Now this is what I call an opening sequence:

I don't remember seeing Dragnet on TV after we moved here in 1959 (and certainly not before, as television wasn't introduced in Norway until 1960). Its creator, producer, director and star, Jack Webb, brought it to a halt that year after nine years of extraordinary success – its only genuine rival on US television was I Love Lucy. I can remember seeing Lee Marvin in M Squad, Broderick Crawford in Highway Patrol and John Cassevetes in Johnny Staccato, but my first exposure to Dragnet was courtesy of two brilliant parodies - Mad Magazine’s Dragged Net, and the 1953 Stan Freberg recording, “St. George and the Dragonet”. Here’s a page from the Mad item:

And here’s Stan Freberg:

I’ve caught  episodes from the original 1950s Dragnet (Webb resurrected it in the ‘60s) when it’s been used as filler on various Sky channels - the early episodes are now out of copyright. It’s currently being shown regularly on the Bonanza channel – and, as a slice of social history, it’s fascinating. Jack Webb bucked the trend of tough-guy private eyes and melodramatically unlikely storylines and went instead for a semi-documentary approach, featuring actual cases from police files. His fictional Los Angeles police detectives were ordinary cops doing the plodding, routine things that ordinary cops do – there are no sudden flashes of insight or acts of deranged bravery: criminals are trapped by routine police procedures. There’s no attempt whatever to glamourise cops’ lives – much of their work is shown to be dull and the programme sets are dingy and humdrum. There’s an occasional exchange of gunfire – but it’s distinctly underplayed, and the cops don't need counselling afterwards. The criminals are as they are in real life – mostly sad, stupid, incompetent failures: there are no criminal masterminds in Dragnet. Mercifully, we hear almost nothing of the detectives’ private lives, because – let’s face it – the public is more interested in seeing the police do their jobs than in hearing about the psychological pressures they face, no matter how real those might be.

Because of its super-realism, what’s interesting about Dragnet is the way ordinary lives are depicted – how the citizenry react to the police, the sorts of jobs they do, their attitudes to crime, how they live, what they eat and drink etc. The programme doesn’t give us the full picture (for instance, the police never beat a confession out of a suspect or strong-arm a witness, and there’s obviously no reference to the fact that the LAPD at the time was racially segregated) but I suspect that, given the restrictions on network television content at the time, it’s offers a fairly realistic depiction of life in 1950s Los Angeles.

Apart from his documentary approach, Webb did one other extraordinary thing with Dragnet: he stopped actors from "acting". The one thing both of the above parodies got wrong is the charge of over-acting. If you watch any episode, there’s very little emoting going on – the policemen and most of the bit-part players are utterly deadpan throughout. One actor tells the story of Webb halting a take to order him to tone down his performance. This happened several times, until the actor asked Webb to explain exactly what he wanted, because he just wasn't getting it. Webb handed him a newspaper and told him to read out the lead story in as flat a tone as possible - that was how he wanted the lines delivered. Watching two episodes last night, it struck me that at most two characters in each episode are allowed to give it any traditional thespian welly – usually one victim and one suspect: everyone else sounds heavily sedated. If circumstances call for a detective to display heightened emotion, this is achieved by showing their faces sweating heavily in extreme close-up (there are an awful lot of close-ups in Dragnet).

This general impression of affectlessness was no doubt aided by another of Webb’s innovations: actors were forbidden from learning their lines in advance – they had to perform using cue cards (you can often see their eyes moving as they read their lines). Apparently this enabled them to knock off three episodes in the time it would normally have taken to film one.

My favourite bit in each episode is the end sequence, where we see a pair of sweaty hands hammer out the “VII” part of the legend: A Mark VII Production. Needless to say, Jack Webb owned the company. And, inevitably, the hands belong to Jack Webb as well. I can’t help suspecting he might have been a bit of a control freak.

And if all that isn't enough to tempt you, an episode will occasionally include the original  US TV commercials - the last one I watched advertised the delights of LG cigarettes and Post grape-nuts: for some odd reason, this delighted me.

I'll leave you with the episode entitled The Big Cast, which features a chilling performance by Lee Marvin as a conscienceless killer: the matter-of-factness of his performance turns this into a little masterpiece:


  1. Yes, the stone-faced Joe Friday was a regular in my life during the short-trouser years - when I wasn't busy collecting spit in a bottle. The probing sleuth puts into even sharper relief the ongoing appalling performance of our own crew, raddled as they are with corruption and operational shortcomings, and blaming it on 'underfunding'. So the £2 Billion we sink into their pension funds every year isn't enough? The latest I see, yesterday, is the 800,000 reported crimes a year that get pushed under the carpet, including the one in four rapes that, because they are 'difficult', and rarely produce 'a result' are deemed unworthy of close scrutiny. Fit for purpose? I think not.

    1. I hope you're not suggesting, mahlerman, that the police ignore serious crimes while wasting their time on laughably trivial matters! This from the BBC News wesbite today:

      "Broadcaster Jeremy Vine has been stopped by police in London's Hyde Park for speeding on his bicycle.
      The BBC Radio 2 presenter said he had been caught travelling at 16mph (25km/h) in a 5mph (8km/h) zone.
      He apologised after an officer tracked his speed using a radar gun..."

      Well, I'll certainly sleep soundly in my bed after reading that. Speeding cyclists and internet trolls - that's who we need protection from.

  2. In the '50s and '60's we had our own answer to Joe Friday - step forward Det Chief Superintendent Tom Lockhart of "No Hiding Place" fame. Raymond Francis [for it was he] went crashing into the props and forgot his lines for well over 200 episodes and crinkled up his eyes to indicate amusement.. And there was something called "Interpol" with some smoothie-chops Hungarian. All priceless and never matched.

    1. It was pure Acorn Antiques - but I'd never realised that the whole thing was broadcast LIVE - no wonder poor old Raymond Francis was always in such a dither!

      "Interpol Calling", starring smoothie-chops Charles Korvin. Apparently it only ran for one seires of 39 episodes - this suprisied me, because it seemed to go on forever.

      I reckon they should rebroadcast those old Edgar Lustgarten drime reconstruction programmes (if they've still got them). You might enjoy this Stanley Baxter parody: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lRpOg-sdn9I