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Wolcott (1981)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Wolcott (1981)
Black Lion Films for ATV/ITV, 13-15/1/1981
2 x 60, 1 x 110 minute episodes, colour
DirectorColin Bucksey
ProducerJacky Stoller
WritersBarry Wasserman
 Patrick Carroll

Cast: George William Harris (Winston Churchill Wolcott); Warren Clarke (Terry Rowe); Martin Dempsey (Det. Insp. Gilligan); Clive Merrison (Jeremy Godden); Christine Lahti (Melinda Marin); Merdel Jordine (Cynthia Jerome)

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Newly promoted to the CID, black policeman Winston Churchill Wolcott becomes embroiled in a drug war between rival black and white gangs in London's East End.

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Hoping to match the impact of US mini-series like Roots (1977), ITV screened Wolcott over three consecutive nights in January 1981. The serial broke new ground for a British cop drama by having a black actor in the lead role. TV Times hailed its arrival by invoking its Hollywood antecedents, saying of its charismatic star George William Harris, "He's Big. He's Black... our answer to Sydney Poitier's Mr Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night." In fact the blunt, in-your-face style, strong language and extreme violence (the story is bookended by the grisly deaths of two elderly women) actually follows quite closely in the footsteps of such home-grown hits as The Sweeney (ITV, 1975-78).

The comparison with American films and mini-series is not incidental, though, as Wolcott was produced by ITC, which specialised in glossy fare made in a transatlantic style to maximise its export value. Roger Deakins' fluid and sumptuous cinematography is certainly much closer to glossy American aesthetics than to the harsh look of British thrillers shot on grainy 16mm film. In addition, two Americans wrote the script, Christine Lahti was imported from Hollywood to play a crusading reporter and US playwright Howard Schuman provides a humorous cameo.

The rest of the cast, however, offers a fascinating mixture of up and coming British talent; Hugh Quarshie, as Wolcott's black conscience, stands out, as do alternative comedians Rik Mayall, Alexei Sayle and Keith Allen, appearing respectively as a racist policeman, a Socialist Worker spokesman and a National Front heckler. Christopher Ellison's sneering cop on the take now seems to be a dry-run for his later role as DI Burnside on The Bill (ITV, 1984- ).

Filmed over eight weeks in and around Hackney, Wolcott actually downplays some of the racial elements of its story, finding villainy and corruption equally in the black and white communities, and building to a bleak and nihilistic conclusion. Harris gives a powerful performance as a tough, short-tempered copper who seemingly has no problems with being a black policeman, unlike practically everyone else he meets. He is prone to violence and insolence, just like The Sweeney's Jack Regan, and is as old-fashioned in his views as his first two names, Winston Churchill, would tend to imply. Originally designed as a pilot for a thirteen-part series, as this failed to materialise the story ends on an ambiguous note, with Wolcott's survival left unclear.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. Promotion (3:53)
2. Contacts (4:08)
3. The market place (3:53)
Complete first episode - Part 1 (20:15)
Part 2 (19:17)
Part 3 (10:47)
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Othello (2001)
Clarke, Warren (1947-)
Hammond, Mona
Mayall, Rik (1958-)
Sayle, Alexei (1952-)
TV Police Drama
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