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Tap on the Shoulder (1965)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Tap on the Shoulder (1965)
For The Wednesday Play, BBC1, tx. 6/1/1965
75 minutes, black & white
DirectorKen Loach
ProducerJames MacTaggart
ScriptJames O'Connor

Cast: Richard Shaw (Ronnie); Lee Montague (Archibald Cooper); Judith Smith (Hazel); Griffith Davies (Terry); George Tovey (Patsy); Tony Selby (Tim)

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A group of criminals plan a robbery, with the unwitting aid of a wealthy, well-connected society acquaintance. But who is the greater villain?

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1965's second series of The Wednesday Play (BBC, 1964-70) is often thought of as the first: it was here that it began to fulfil its remit for new and aggressively contemporary drama. The series launched with 'Tap on the Shoulder', setting out the anthology's stall for modern drama that challenged cosy conventional beliefs.

Although the play's main storyline, about a gold bullion heist, is routine enough, it also exposes the hypocrisy of high society and corruption through all levels of the establishment. It suggests that the greatest criminality is perpetrated not by the conventional lowlife villains of much crime fiction, but by people in positions of privilege or authority. 'Tap on the Shoulder' starts with a publican using Masonic connections to arrange a minor convenience with the police and ends with the thieves recognising that 'white collar' crime is where the real money is to be made.

At the centre of the story is Archibald Cooper, MBE, a self-made man who has attained a position of respectability and honour thanks to the riches he has amassed through bribery and judicious donations to "old people's charities and the Conservative party". The dialogue implicates bishops, journalists, politicians and the police in various levels of corruption. The thieves are only half joking when they suggest they could bribe peers, even the prime minister. The title playfully alludes to both the touch of the Queen's sword upon ennoblement and the policeman making an arrest, suggesting that these apparent extremes are not so far apart as traditionally assumed.

Although the thieves appear to escape, there's the hint that they will be caught later, whereas corruption amongst the respectable classes goes unpunished and Cooper receives a knighthood. The play's open attack on the integrity of authority figures chimes with the 'death of deference' associated with the 1960s' satire boom, as exemplified by Beyond the Fringe, Private Eye and That Was the Week that Was (BBC, 19623-63).

Directing his first full television play, Ken Loach provides a largely straightforward production. But the heist scene itself, captured on film and featuring lengthy periods without dialogue, is unusual for a time when television drama was heavily dialogue-based, and hints at Loach's later use of film to challenge the conventional methods of the medium. In many ways, then, 'Tap on the Shoulder' was a harbinger of things to come for Loach and The Wednesday Play.

Oliver Wake

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Video Clips
1. 'The greatest tickle of them all' (3:23)
2. Archibald Cooper MBE (2:24)
3. The heist (3:47)
4. The getaway (1:30)
Coming Out Party, The (1965)
Loach, Ken (1936-)
MacTaggart, James (1928-74)
O'Connor, James (1918-2001)
Ken Loach: Television Drama
Wednesday Play, The (1964-70)