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Happy 60th, Z Cars! - Sara Wheeler

Blog | By Sara Wheeler | Aug 11, 2022

The Z Cars crew. Left to right: Detective Sergeant John Watt (Frank Windsor), Detective Chief Inspector Charlie Barlow (Stratford Johns), PC Bert Lynch (James Ellis), PC Bob Steele (Jeremy Kemp)

The vintage series is still gripping, says Sara Wheeler. It depicts a lost, dark world of capital punishment and smoking, boozing cops

If my childhood had a theme tune, it was Johnny Todd. Don’t know it? Yes, you do. It was the Z Cars music.

The BBC detective series first beamed into our cold living rooms 60 years ago, on 2nd January 1962. Within two months, it drew in 14 million viewers. It went on to run for 801 episodes over 12 series.

Glasgow-born screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin conceived Z Cars while in bed with mumps. To stave off boredom, he listened to local police messages on his transistor. Why not, he thought, bring police to life on the small screen? Why not depict bobbies as real, flawed human beings, like us?

Police presence on TV was at the time limited to the cosy Dixon of Dock Green, which had been running for seven years when Z Cars revved up. In the title role, at the start of every show, avuncular Jack Warner looked straight at the camera and greeted viewers, saying, ‘Evening, all.’ We thought he was talking to us.

To heighten the realism, Kennedy Martin set the series in Lancashire. TV drama seldom depicted the north. The fictional Newtown was based on Kirkby, now in Merseyside, around estates that had replaced Victorian slums and blitzed housing. Whaling ships put in at nearby Seaport, and consequences of the sailors’ ‘fighting beer’ became a series regular. Z Cars folk were working class.

In the first episode, Detective Chief Inspector Charlie Barlow (Stratford Johns) and sidekick Detective Sergeant John Watt (Frank Windsor) set up a motorised unit. ‘If we had crime patrols [in cars] like other divisions,’ Barlow reckons, ‘Reginald Farrow [a murdered colleague] would be alive today.’

In the fourth minute, this line sets out the premise of the next 800 episodes. Not everyone approved. On the front desk, tetchy Sergeant Percy Twentyman ridiculed the plan to ‘take the best men off the beat and put them in those fancy cars’.

After that, storylines revolved around pairs of officers patrolling in the cars. They bet on horses, drank beer and chased women. The dapper Brian Blessed (‘’e ought to be in Rome’) makes his first appearance as PC ‘Fancy’ Smith, gyrating nimbly in a dockland dance-hall doorway and leering at a girl who says she is 15. (Sadly, Bernard Holley, who played PC Newcombe, died in November, aged 81.) No wonder the Police Federation made an official complaint. The programmes were too true to life.

The series took its name from the radio call signs given to Lancashire police divisions. A Division was based in Ulverston; B Division in Lancaster. The TV series took the fictional call signs Z-Victor 1 and Z-Victor 2. The Ford Zephyr was the standard traffic-patrol car in Lancashire – the Z stood for Zulu, not Zephyr. The cars on set were primrose yellow at first, as the colour showed up better than black-and-white.

For the first three years, programmes went out live – among the last British dramas to do so. When a gloop of fried egg slithered out of PC Bert Lynch’s mouth mid-sentence in the Steeles’ living room as pinny-wearing Janey Steele (Dorothy White) put coal on the fire, it did so in front of 14 million viewers quietly consuming their own tea.

There could be as many as 15 sets an episode, with actors racing between them. Men sat in half-cars with a street projected onto a screen behind them.

Left to right: James Ellis (Lynch), Frank Windsor (Watt), Stratford Johns (Barlow), Joseph Brady (PC Jock Weir), Colin Welland (PC Dave Graham), Robert Keegan (Sergeant Bob Blackitt), Donald Gee (PC Ray Walker)

I was just one when Z Cars began, and left home the year it ended. When I watched some episodes recently on YouTube, I was amazed, after the Proustian rush of Johnny Todd, at how good it remains – and how much it reveals about Britain in the early sixties. Everyone smokes. Capital punishment is still on the statute books.

‘If he’s a nutcase,’ says Barlow when he hears a suspect has been arrested for murdering a police colleague, ‘they won’t top him.’

Barlow looks the way my dad looked, though I soon realised all the men do. Besides the standard haircut, a blanched and creased postwar mien lingers.

Early on, PC Bob Steele (Jeremy Kemp) only semi-apologises for giving his wife a black eye. She responds that, at least, ‘I get some respect from the neighbours now.’ In other words, domestic abuse was a badge of honour and ‘better’, to local eyes, than a husband’s ‘stretch in Strangeways’.

As for the theme tune, Austrian-born Fritz Spiegl and his first wife, Bridget Fry, arranged the Liverpudlian folk ballad (‘Johnny Todd, he took a notion/For to sail the ocean wide’). When the Liverpool Music Group recorded it, with Spiegl himself conducting, it reached number two in the charts.

Another set of boys in blue, the Everton football team, adopted the anthem midway through the 1963-64 season. The Toffees won the league in 1963 and PC Ian Sweet (Terence Edmond) was an Evertonian. He suggested players run on to the tune. Thirty years later, during the 1994-95 season, club officials replaced it with Fanfare for the Common Man. But not for long. The Goodison faithful made their opinion clear – and back marched Johnny Todd.

Everyone seemed to be involved in Z Cars. Michael Caine turned down the role of Steele, but future Monkee Davy Jones appeared in three episodes, Leonard Rossiter in eight, and in four John Thaw played a detective constable who had to leave the force because he couldn’t drink hard enough with the crims – part of the job description then.

When the original run ended in 1965, BBC executives hived off Barlow and Watt into Softly, Softly. After a two-year hiatus, in March 1967 Z Cars roared back in a twice-weekly soap format, with two 25-minute episodes forming one story.

Four years later, the BBC put both together as a single 50-minute show, and thereafter Z Cars alternated between two shorts and one long until settling permanently to one 50-minute episode a week. In 1967, Pandas zoomed around the Newtown streets instead of Zephyrs, as they did in real-life Kirkby.

Kennedy Martin left the show after three episodes. Auntie felt he was going too far, and that villains had to be caught.

He was too left-wing, really – ahead of his time at the corporation. He went on to write the screenplay for The Italian Job in 1969 and had a hand in the fabled Cathy Come Home. By the late seventies, US imports Kojak, Hawaii Five-O and Starsky and Hutch were ushering in a new era for police shows, and Z Cars parked up for the last time.

For the final episode, which went out on 20th September 1978, the BBC brought Kennedy Martin back, as well as original director John McGrath and several early cast members. The one character who remained throughout was Irishman Bert Lynch.

In a 2000 BFI poll to find the 100 greatest British TV programmes of the 20th century, the voting public put Z Cars at 63, between Ready Steady Go! and Culloden.

In my opinion, it should be higher.