I watched all 5 seasons of Strangers (1978-1982). This centres around the actions of the detective George Bulman, played by Don Henderson. I wanted to see it all as I had dim memories of seeing an episode long ago, and also some of the follow-up series Bulman (1985-7), featuring the character after he retired from the force but continued to solve crimes.
However I was surprised to find out that Bulman had originated in the earlier series The XYY Man (1976-7). I’d heard of that but always had an idea of it as a rather silly sci-fi crime caper. I watched it to see more of the Bulman backstory alluded to in Strangers. It’s a startling series in its own right, and it’s rather to odd to realise it is in the same fictional universe as some of the quieter parts of Strangers, although the latter has some equally extreme plots.
The XYY Man was derived from a series of books by Kenneth Royce. Series 1 adapts the title story in 3 episodes, series 2 had 10 episodes covering 3 stories. We start with the mysterious opening credits, which show the silhouette of our anti-hero sliding about and climbing up walls, as we see him breaking and entering throughout the show. The backdrops revealed from his transparent body are the worlds he passes through: prison, outer London, Scotland Yard, and finally Whitehall and Westminster.
This sequence is used in both the 1976 and 1977 runs. The original theme music is smooth and funky but a year later it is more portentous and cinematic. We start with William “Spider” Scott being released from prison. He has been dubbed “the XYY man” because medical testing and psychological profiling during his detention identified him as having an extra Y chromosome, which is believed to make him more inclined to endless recidivism and inability to control his criminal urges. Despite the fact that this pseudoscientific bilge gives the show its name, it is barely mentioned or taken seriously by anyone. We see that Scott is quite capable of controlling his urges and acting rationally on the opportunities available. This is borne out when the morally ambiguous grand old men in Whitehall meet to hatch their secret illegal plan. They need Scott to be the deniable, discardable tool of their schemes, and they have a useful idiot in the form of Detective Sergeant Bulman to do the job of constantly harassing Scott and preventing him finding any employment other than their offer.
Bulman is entirely unlikeable and unsympathetic in his first appearance, and Scott is entirely correct to describe his behaviour as “victimisation”. In fact the dislike between the 2 characters is held so well throughout the 13 episodes I have to wonder if Don Henderson and Stephen Yardley didn’t get on with each other when the camera wasn’t running. He will use anything as a weapon, noting that Scott’s girlfriend Maggie Parsons has been tearing strips off a paperback as evidence that she uses it for roach material in joints.
The London that Scott has returned to, like the rest of the country, is in a bad way. Strikes, inflation, and miscellaneous crises have worn down everyone’s morale, even the criminal fraternity. Spider meets up with Bluey Palmer, another veteran of “the heavy mob” who packed it in and went legit after training as a photographer. He’s got a nice clean income and nothing dodgy except a bit of porn on the side, but everyone does that in this game, eh?
BLUEY PALMER: Oh crime’s gone down. Finished as football. There’s no laughs anymore, no fun. It’s a load of madmen running about with shooters, being chased by the law, with shooters. All yer villains are politicos. IRAs are robbing the banks, and the Freedom Brigade, whoever they are, captured a pay – you read that in the Standard yesterday?
BLUEY PALMER: Two Jock nationalists held up a chippy in Camberwell with a hand grenade.
BLUEY PALMER: Well where’s the joke in that then? Cos what it all comes down to is Old Bill can’t distinguish. He collars you climbing in through some toff MP’s window and you find yourself being beaten up by the political ticket.
The plot that Scott is press-ganged into requires him to break in to the Chinese Legation to steal the negative of an incriminating photo they have. The photo shows a South African diplomat caught in bed with a black hostess; this will discredit him in his new role as negotiator in Rhodesia between “the Marxist rebels” and the Ian Smith government. Also chasing after this scheme are 2 agents of BOSS (the South African Bureau Of State Security, which had a run of appearances in western spy thrillers in the 70s and 80s, including Graham Greene’s The Human Factor). There’s also Scott’s mate Ray, who met him out of prison, and is himself a not-nice South African (reckons apartheid isn’t “racialist”; believes in a “federal Africa”). There are also representatives of the Marxist rebels in London, and when one of them rescues Scott he clearly states he’s “Zimbabwean, not Rhodesian”. As you should have realised, there are moments when characters use racist epithets in this and the other series.
Because Bulman does his job too well, the planned arrest and disposal of Scott is fluffed and he is free to take his pay-off, and then set up his own air courier service with a washed-out airline pilot. That’s how we meet him at the beginning of the second series, in the 4 episodes adapting the Royce novel The Concrete Boot (the sources are stated in the end credits). The title of the novel refers to the disposal method used by the baddies to put unwanted parties at the bottom of the Thames and leave them there. Unfortunately one of them floated to the surface because the mixture wasn’t set properly. The action of this story is definitely contemporary, as we see a plaque unveiled in one scene, and it gives the year as 1977.
Bulman and his sidekick Derek Willis investigate, and are already softening into the semi-comic partnership they will be forevermore. Bulman’s traits, as established in the first series, are repeated: he wears gloves as often as possible (it’s only in series 4 of Strangers that someone states out loud that this is to preserve the integrity of crime scene fingerprint evidence); he asks for “Nigerian lager” in pubs, and usually has to explain that he means draught Guinness; he is regularly sniffing at a Vicks inhaler; he is often reading highbrow books, although the drift to Marxist texts from religious ones is gradual across series 2 and only at the end does he announce he’s enrolling as an Open University student in politics and philosophy, which he remains for most of the next decade.
Spider himself already got a degree in Art History while he was in prison, but Bulman’s pursuit won’t allow him to use it by getting a job in the antiques business. Prisoners getting degrees was a big thing once, given the fame of John McVicar, which is mentioned in a Strangers series 4 episode set in a prison; it was also lampooned in an episode of the 1990 sitcom Morning Sarge, where a convict is furious at being paroled and losing his chance at PhD funding. As he is not stupid he soon makes more progress than Bulman in realising that the baddie is Colonel Laidlaw, the Roman Catholic reactionary campaigner, whose organisation ECHO is really recruiting a secret army of agents placed in key industries in order to fight the Left when necessary.
LAIDLAW: The robberies we do, we do for Britain, for the democratic majority now and for the Britain of the future. To be great again, Britain must be free from the atheistic grasp of communism, racialism, and the civil strife that endangers the development of our true Christian characteristic –
To fund this project they are pulling off major robberies as well as inciting race riots around the country in order to influence public opinion. One of Scott’s old gangland buddies Riesen is linked to the latest caper, involving a light aircraft on fire at an airport and a grab of a diamond shipment in the confusion.
Laidlaw’s army has a fair share of outright mercenaries and deadbeat fighting men, including a complete psychopath who fancies robbing a bank using a mobile howitzer, and meanwhile wonders about joining “the chaps in Algeria”.
The story is notable also for including an errant civil servant in charge of the transfer of criminal records in to a new computer system. Of course our top criminals have found a way to pay him to dispose of their records. So this would be an early example of data security being an issue. We also hear a little about Scott’s politics, at least his view that most criminals are “right-wing capitalists” themselves.
Scott survives this run of chaos (and Bulman saves his life, but they don’t become pals as a result). Next is The Miniatures Frame, 3 episodes derived from another Royce novel. Scott’s controller in Whitehall wants him to join a new committee headed by a top businessman, all as part of a scheme to sniff out what the respectable man’s dirty secrets might be. This premise doesn’t make a great deal of sense, but we get some reasonably exciting cliffhangers out of it. There are scenes in which our man is sneered at for his rough, working class manner and he tries to establish himself as a literate prole.
Scott wants out after that farrago, but the puppet-master in Whitehall has one last job for him, for which he has to go back to prison. These final 3 episodes are simply credited with “The XYY Man Books Are Written By Kenneth Royce”, and are presumably a free invention by Eddie Boyd, who also wrote some of the more complex conspiracy episodes of Strangers. This sequence involves the most ambitious, preposterous plot, with a bogus prison escape of a bogus ex-CIA agent arranged as a snare for an international hitman who seems to be based on Carlos The Jackal, with Mossad and the KGB both trying to get in to the game. I admit I don’t fully get the storyline myself, though it reminded me of the similarly convoluted middle story of Chessgame (1983). However, offsetting the fantastic story we have some of the most unusual and interesting camerawork in the series. We have the best car chase. Then there’s the claustrophobic close-ups on Langton during his freakout in the art room:
And the odd filming of Scott from above when he enters the derelict house.
That scrawled reference to PUNK is not the only one in The XYY Man. A hitman Scott came up against in London claimed to be a fan of the music; when the boys are practicing on the shooting range in this story, they are first working on a target of a poster of The Clash, which is then changed for one of The Ramones. As these episodes were broadcast in August 1977 that’s excellent work by the team.
Scott walks off at the end, and Bulman and Willis are disgusted by what they’ve seen. They’re not the only ones: one of the Manchester detectives was so angry at his treatment from the fancy DI5 people from down South that he decided to quit and tell all to the local anarchist underground free press paper… though he doesn’t get a chance to do it.
By now it was 1978. Bulman is sent up North to Manchester to work on attachment as a new undercover man, since as an outsider he will be a “stranger” in the city. Within minutes of arriving, we’ve had a car chase in a multi-storey carpark and discovered that his old sideman Derek Willis is already working undercover and has got himself well inside a gang. Then it’s over to the station to trick the suspect into a false confession and not yet be totally straight about who knew what and when.
The first Northern criminal conspiracy we have to deal with is a rather camp organisation involving some old variety stars ruling from a guest house.
Strangers changes quite a bit over its run. The first 2 series in 1978-9 have Bulman and Willis embedded with the team in the North, coming up against some of the resentments against overbearing Met boys that were seen in the final XYY Man story. They are also working at ground level in sometimes unfamiliar territory, although we saw some of this world when Scott was on the run from prison. There are derelict terraced streets still awaiting demolition to be replaced with new tower blocks, and there are the new tower blocks and brutalist buildings that have already been put up. There are all the old warehouses and docks and factories, many already defunct and now repurposed by criminals. We get plenty of remarks from Bulman and others about how the country is on its knees and we need to buck up to get Britain moving again. There are also references to scandals in the Met, and increased public awareness and political scrutiny of police corruption and incompetence. To offset the bleakness we get more of the comic double-act moment, and Bulman’s increasing predilection for making grand (usually Shakespearean) quotations, which seems to be encouraged by his deep immersion in his Open University degree. He is reading more Marx but at one point we have him insisting that communists misunderstood the old boy.
Getting a degree would be useful for rising further up the ranks, as he’s still stuck at Sergeant level. It’s not just his education, there are also all the complaints and bad reports made against him. His new chief, Inspector Rainbow, encourages him to try harder. Rainbow is played by the same actor who was the posh secret service man Shayne-Wentworth who wrapped everything up at the end of The XYY Man, but they aren’t the same; we get a few recurring incidental characters over these 5 series, but also quite a few actors returning in different roles and the regulars gamely fail to recognise them.
Near the end of Series 2 the female character is changed to Vanessa Bennett:
Series 2 ends with Bulman’s career problems getting unblocked due to a higher-placed opponent moving on in London, and so from series 3 onwards he is based back in the capital as part of Inter-City Detective Squad, a national crime unit lead by Jack Lambie (Mark McManus, who played the title role in Taggart in its early years).
The operations the team deal with are mainly targeted at organised national gangs and rackets, but they often come into contact with the bigger concerns of other, more secretive agencies. There is also a move into international affairs when having to deal with the Moscow detective Pushkin, who turns up in London to track a serial killer who has extended his activities to the West.
Detective work is not yet computerised, although electronic pagers have been available since the 70s, and answering machines and tape recorders are handy extra devices for both police and slick crooks like the professional gambler played by Hywel Bennett.
The title sequence for the first 2 series is a montage of exciting action scenes involving the regulars. Series 3 introduces the odd notion of them all prowling around in the vicinity of a black cat in night time; this alters in the final 2 series to a daytime sequence of them all caught in various states of surprise or urgency in a derelict zone, still being provoked by a solitary moggy.
Most stories are contained in single 50 minute instalments, which does squash things in comparison with the previous show. Here is a selection of 11 episodes from the whole run of 32.
Accidental Death (Series 1 Episode 4, broadcast 26th June 1978)
A local reporter dies when his car goes off a cliff edge. He had been sacked after his misreporting an inquest caused his paper to be sued by the coroner and had to settle out of court. Inspector Rainbow is suspicious because he knew the reporter in his earlier career as a policeman, and doesn’t believe the story about him getting the inquest wrong. So Doran goes to work in the local paper’s office, encountering disgruntled old hacks who seem to resent anyone under 30, whilst Willis gets in position working with coroner Bamford Harker.
Harker turns out to have sympathies with old Colonel Laidlaw that we heard of previously, although that old warrior’s name is not mentioned.
HARKER: The way things were going it seemed to some of us that it was only a matter of time before they’d be stitching the hammer and sickle into the bottom left hand corner of the Union Jack. The government didn’t seem to be able to do anything about the situation, so… well, there was this organisation, you see, a sort of unofficial watchdog. Oh you’d be surprised at the people we had with us. And then, when Brezhnev wasn’t actually invited to open Parliament after all, it all sort of faded quietly into the wallpaper.
Bringing the culprit to justice involves some rather dubious business of tricking his bank into supplying a statement when there is no grounds for requesting one in a formal investigation. Ah well, at least he turned out to be a wrong’un.
Briscoe (Series 1 Episode 5, broadcast 3rd July 1978)
Bulman wasn’t involved in the case of the reporter’s death, so we can infer that this solo mission was occurring concurrently. He is back in uniform out on the beat in Prestwich, his actual mission to keep an eye on Sergeant Briscoe. To see whether he’s an honest copper he’s broken open a warehouse full of goodies that could be easily pilfered during a night’s patrol.
Of course Briscoe isn’t bloody stupid, he can tell what’s going on and he’s not going to lose his nerve over it. He knows what the real problems are at a station where the senior officers are hopelessly incompetent and the youngsters would prefer to cruise around in Panda cars instead of doing the job. Action settles down in to a verbal poker game between the 2 uniformed men as the night goes on.
This episode has none of the high stakes and crash-bang-wallop of many of the others, but it is one of the finest moments of Strangers. There is a little continuity glitch near the end, as we switch to early dawn light and then back to pitch black, but that’s the only minor blemish.
Right And Wrong (Series 1 Episode 6, broadcast 10th July 1978)
Councillor Roy Stephens is a successful businessman and also a committed socialist who wants a fully comprehensive educational system and an end to the de facto segregation and limited opportunities that have existed unchanged since the 1930s. Meanwhile Rainbow and Singer have been trying to find evidence of his corruption for ages and decide on a “last desperate throw to get something on him” by putting Willis and Doran in as a surveillance team in a vacant property near the wealthy egalitarian’s home. Here he is, chatting to a political comrade after driving up at a local school in his Mercedes:
STEPHENS: There’s one middle class kid in a whole school of over 300. After all the fighting we’ve done in this country for some kind of equality, we’ve still got that. It’s still happening. Y’know, we’re supposed to be running the authority…. All over the city, it’s just like this.
COUNCIL CHAIRMAN: Yes, it’s a problem, Roy, we know the whole educational geography of the city’s got to change.
Doran is sympathetic to the old boy’s politics, and Willis gets off on a bad foot when they have to play at being friendly new neighbours, by espousing a crassly insensitive Devil-take-the-hindmost viewpoint to their hosts (Mrs Stephens works at a school for children with learning difficulties). The pretend-couple don’t get on too well amongst themselves either. Of course Stephens spotted they were after him right away, he knows what’s going on in the 70s.
Then again, maybe the socialists deserve to lose if they’re going to put up bloody awful buildings like this. If Bulman was in this episode he would have said it illustrated the clash of incommensurable values in liberal late capitalism.
The Wheeler Dealers (Series 2 Episode 1, broadcast 9th January 1979)
Willis, Bulman and Doran are undercover at the Docks, trying to get a lead on a gang who are shipping stolen bicycle parts for assembly and export abroad.
This brings them into collision with a Special Branch operation also watching what’s going on at the Docks, and things get very nasty for our heroes until they can convince that they’re on the side of law and order as well. During their investigations one of the smuggling gang has also noted that he recognised Doran from her earlier career in the RUC.
Pursuit of the bicycle thieves leads to a rather chaotic finale at a derelict industrial site out in the countryside. Not for the first time, the tone flickers rapidly between tense and comic.
Friends In High Places (Series 2 Episode 4, broadcast 30th January 1979)
This is the only Strangers episode I saw on TV, and it was in an afternoon repeat some time in the mid 80s. Those lovable scamps the “punk rockers” are at it again, this time one of them got badly beaten up when he tried to rob the wealthy industrialist Sir Harry Adams in a hotel men’s room.
The helpful passerby who rescued Sir Harry is of course not who he seems, and there is a Deep State plot at work to frustrate a business deal that the higher powers don’t want him to make. Bulman admits he is not a fan of the “safety-pin and green hair set” but still can see a case that needs investigating more carefully. Our heroes get caught up in the twists of the plot and decide to spoil the fun.
Still it’s all just a jolly old game since all these old boys went to school together and are best mates really. It’s only the lower ranks that get thrown on the scrapheap.
CHARLIE: So what do you want from me?
EFFINGHAM: Your resignation, dear boy. You see, none of us is above the law, Charlie, people like us in particular.
CHARLIE: You mean I got found out.
EFFINGHAM: Well, that’s just unforgiveable.
You Can’t Win Them All (Series 3 Episode 2, broadcast 21st October 1980)
Now we’re in the Inter-City Detective Squad, based in London but with a remit across the country. Noodly electronic pop music can be heard on the radios in the background. Meanwhile, very clever people are now doing sophisticated financial crimes that relies on their specialised knowledge of computer networks.
Our lads have to get over to Cambridge to try to figure it all out. At the same time, the rather mysterious Whitehall fixer Bill Dugdale (played by Thorley Waters) makes his first appearance, with his own scheme in progress to unmask some deeper threat to national security.
Tom Thumb And Other Stories (Series 3 Episode 6, broadcast 18th November 1980)
Bulman is working undercover again, this time at what looks like the Docks near Wapping. He’s posing as a tramp and trying to make contact with “Tom Thumb”, the kingpin of a smuggling business between Dublin and London. Meanwhile Willis and Doran are trying to give him backup but they’re colliding with another operation in the area that nobody told them about.
There’s a lot of capering about in cars with guns, but the most powerful scenes here are the one-to-one encounters between Bulman and his mysterious quarry, set off against the very eerie backdrop of the wharves and warehouse interiors. This is very clearly a zone just outside society, where men can kill and die and never be located or identified.
The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Copper (Series 4 Episode 2, broadcast 2nd October 1981)
The episode titles do start to decline in quality in the later series. The stories are still good, and in this one we have a very rough ride. First of all, Britain’s most ineffectual liberal prison governor has the shock of his life when his star inmate turns out to have been planning a pretty awesome escape all along.
A nasty car chase and shoot-out follows, although one interesting aspect of this 4th series is that the biggest crashes and bangs are kept off-screen and we only see their aftermath. Obviously the production budget was a factor, but it does also tighten up the story.
It all works around to a confrontation between Lambie and the fugitive, who has a grudge against him since he put him away originally. They end up scrapping in one of the semi-derelict streets of 80s London, with burned-out cars and National Front graffiti in the background.
The Flowers Of Edinburgh (Series 4 Episode 5, broadcast 23rd October 1981)
Vanessa is on holiday in Edinburgh and she is falling in to a relationship with louche young aristocrat Ludo Leishman. What she doesn’t know about is that he is bisexual and also involved with Brenda/Brendan and an elaborate blackmailing ring, as well as connections to a militant Scottish Nationalist group called the Sons Of Alba.
There’s a bigger plot involving Bill Dugdale and other powerful people in London, as well as Fulton Mackay as a spurned lover and the secret dad of one of the innocents murdered after they get caught up in this largely incomprehensible web of deceit.
A Swift And Evil Rozzer (Series 5 Episode 2, broadcast 15th September 1982)
We start dramatically not just with an armed robbery on the highway, but also with Bulman getting investigated by A10 and tendering his resignation.
It turns out that some very posh men are feeling a bit short of funds what with paying for their sons to go to Harrow and so on, and so have taken to high-value crime. After intercepting various loads in transit, they decide to go for kidnapping as a new line.
Bulman works the case on the inside, but the way we get to a resolution here involves the most morally dubious storyline he’s involved in. He can’t even plead that a higher force in Whitehall made him do it.
The Lost Chord (Series 5 Episode 4, broadcast 29th September 1982)
We haven’t heard from Britain’s political extremists in a while, have we? Time to sort that out with some direct action directed at both ends of the spectrum. Firstly, the leader of the Marxist Rejectionist Tendency gets decapitated with piano wire whilst going down the helter-skelter at his own funfair.
Secondly, the leader of an “English Purity” movement is planning to drop “one thousand miniature Union Jacks over the immigrant population of Wallasey” but instead his balloon is blown up.
The evil genius behind these direct actions is Britain’s angriest liberal moral philosopher, played by Michael Gough, who was test-driving the version of Bertrand Russell he would present in Derek Jarman’s Wittgenstein later on.
Also making their debuts in this dance-of-the-mad are Mark Strickson (Turlough in Doctor Who) and Rupert Everett in his first ever screen role, as young Lord Plural.
And then there’s Graeme Garden making a rare appearance as a Baddie, in this case a crooked QC. In an earlier episode we had a jazz saxophonist break into a version of the theme tune to The Sweeney when Bulman admitted he was a detective; in this story Dugdale mentions that “Le Carre’s Sarratt” was based on some secret service training centre that our killer must have attended. So both the Smileyverse and the Sweeneyverse are fictions in the Bulmanverse.
And so that was Strangers. Those of you who like Play For Today will find the more interesting material in the first 2 series; if you just want convoluted conspiracy plots then the later runs will be more appealing. There were also 2 series of Bulman after this, which I have not watched yet, though I do remember seeing one episode on broadcast. It started with our hero surprising a toff with a display of erudition in his lower-class accent, and ended with him surprising the gent again by turning out to be the lecturer at a lecture he attended. So he did get that OU degree in the end after all.