Bang To Rights

I watched all 39 episodes of Dial 999, which was originally broadcast 1958-9.

It stars Robert Beatty as Detective Inspector Mike Maguire. He is employed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police but he’s on secondment to the Metropolitan Police in London to learn about UK policing. So that premise allows for him to move around between many different divisions of the Met, working on many different kinds of crime. Along the way he is filling in viewers on details of British life, since this was an ABC production made with an eye to sales on both sides of the Atlantic. Cockney rhyming slang is demonstrated and explained, along with other bits of British diction, though there are some oddities: in one episode characters consistently refer to “vacation” instead of “holiday”, and they’re not students.

The episodes run to no more than 30 minutes, with many points for ad breaks, so we need to get through things briskly and the cases are never too difficult. We also know who the baddies are, having seen them at work from the outset, and are just watching the cops catch up with them. There are no surprise twists at the end where we discover some apparently regular person was in fact the baddie all along.

The title sequence gets us in the mood and introduces the narrator who will be explaining things as we go along.

We see the Thames in the dusk, with mournful sounds giving way to the dramatic music as a hand dials the show’s name in a call box.

V/O: Dial 9 -9 – 9. When in London that’s what you do to call the police.

Cut to our narrator lighting another fag and looking at Piccadilly Circus.

V/O: I know – I’m a policeman from Canada attached to Scotland Yard. My name’s Mike Maguire.

Although this is contemporary London there is little in the way of topical connections. The Cold War comes in with one storyline about a plot to kill an “atomic scientist”, and there is another story about a different atomic scientist getting careless. The war and the experience of it affects just a few people. The Army only make a brief appearance in “Mined Area”, in which an ex-convict played by Bill Owen wants to retrieve the stolen fortune he hid before getting arrested; it’s now an experimental testing ground and highly dangerous.


London itself still has the scars of war in the many bombsites that still haven’t been cleared up.

But there is reconstruction going on, we see building sites and some of the new architecture – the Royal Festival Hall, as well as a modern secondary school. Maguire’s roving commission takes in a wide range of locations, from the docklands to grim East End slums and warehouses, to the dreaming suburbs, and the tourist centres. He gets out in to the country when he gets assigned to placements in Hertfordshire, and also when Scotland Yard are called in to review a case in Stratford-on-Avon. Most of the action is in the city and we get some striking vistas of 50s London during chase sequences.

Technology is changing, and Scotland Yard are ahead of the game with some advanced radio communications and co-ordinators, as well as their enormous filing capacity which apparently includes details on the quirks and tendencies of every crook they encountered. Forensic labs can ascertain all kinds of useful details, fingerprinting is rapid and reliable. When necessary the Met uses undercover “Q cars” for concealment. But gadgets are available to other people as well. Shops are using new “mechanical watchman” devices to automatically put in a 999 call using a recorded message on a disc when a break-in is detected by an intruder crossing an infra-red beam. Criminals are also using listening technology to find out the deals being made in businesses; industrial espionage is being done with miniature cameras.

One aspect of British life that needs to be explained carefully is that the police do not regularly carry guns, and senior officers are reluctant to issue them unless strictly necessary. Some criminals have them, and they can be quite wild and reckless. In later episodes we often have a baddie firing at pursuers when it’s not going to achieve anything except add a lot of years on to their sentence when they inevitably get captured. It’s rare for the bad guy to get killed in action, and nasty events are usually kept out of view, with only the reactions of survivors visible. Some of these criminals are foreigners – there are a few Americans over here, but also someone has a racket to bring in Europeans to do robberies for which Scotland Yard won’t be able to check the fingerprints.

The police are of course incorruptible and there is no suggestion that they might plant evidence. The criminals however can include respectable well-spoken members of society, sometimes relying on their self-presentation to avoid suspicion. There are also common thugs and some organised gangs running rackets, but there are no really big conspiracies. Thieves are mostly loyal and honourable amongst themselves, with only one story turning on a double-cross. The most violent offenders are seemingly possessed, rather psychotic characters, feared even by their fellows. This show does not wonder too much after motivations. Greed is the usual temptation identified in the peremptory and often rather smug little lessons at the end, such as in the story “Night Mail”, about a racket stealing valuable mail being moved on the Glasgow-London train:

JIM ATKINS: Looks as if he spent it all on his wife.

MAGUIRE: Yes, but that doesn’t make it any less dishonest. Smiler was a hardened criminal, Williams just a petty thief. You can draw a line between them but it’s easy enough to step over it, too easy.

JIM ATKINS: Yeah, once you start you’re liable to be pushed all the way.

MAGUIRE: You’re right, Jim – there’s no dabbling in crime.

No one’s bothered much about lawyers or civil liberties, and Maguire is often throwing punches at people before properly introducing himself as an officer of the law. Getting evidence and taking statements can be a pretty casual affair at times. Even though gangsters use guns and can get killed, there’s almost no mention of the death penalty. A released convict who plots revenge on the prosecuting counsel at his trial never even insinuates that the original verdict wasn’t correct. There are a few willing females helping out in these crimes, and in the first episode we see a woman amongst the special meeting convened for the heads of the capital’s biggest gangs.

Detective work is usually a man’s work, but a WPC is called in to do some undercover investigation of blackmail involving a fashion model.

The cute little chitchats that end each episode usually climax in some forced jokiness of the sort later lampooned by Police Squad. Nobody minds or notices that many actors appear regularly, playing different baddies. Sydney Tafler plays 3 different crooks, with slightly different facial hair; Patrick Troughton is also in 3 episodes, but he only plays a harmless tramp in one of them. That particular story also includes William Hartnell in one of his 2 appearances; there are a few Police Boxes visible in this series but sadly not with those 2 together.

Amongst the police, there are a few regulars that work with Maguire on several cases when he is assigned to their divisions. We never hear much about his background life other than his very occasional comments on the similarities with cases he dealt with back in Canada. Continuity and consistency within episodes is not always perfect: a character has his jacket torn getting away from one room, and it is restored again outside; a corpse is found on the other side of a garage to where its living form was shot dead. As is usual with TV in that era, nearly all scenes filmed in public places include members of the public noticing the film crews, in some cases forming crowds that clearly wouldn’t exist if this action was occurring without cameras.

The original transmission dates are not mentioned on the disc release. IMDB has a slightly different sequence and gives them dates, but that may for the US market. These stories are self-contained, apart from the first one giving his arrival in London. Since it is stated that he does multiple separate assignments to some units, it is possible this is all a straight chronological sequence, but most of these instalments could be re-ordered without making the show any less coherent.

Here are 13 notable stories, a third of the total. Every episode has a title but none of them appear on screen. Every episode ends with these details, and also Sidney Torch’s jazz theme tune.

The Killing Job

Maguire arrives in London from Montreal, finding the city “in the middle of a heatwave”. Even before he’s reported for duty he witnesses the first case he will have to deal with: a stabbing near Piccadilly Circus.

At the Yard, the commissioner puts him on the case.

Dandy Evans, a well-known crook, was being menaced, but he’s not talking to the Yard.

Our main suspect is Colletta, a rising new piece of nastiness. When confronted by the new Canadian detective in town he insinuates that they can come to an “arrangement”, rather implying he has done this previously – this is the only time we hear a suggestion of police corruption in the series.

Colletta is trying to make himself the criminal King of London, pushing into other gangs’ territories. This is of course unpopular with the other gangs, and a big meet is called, chaired by Joss Crawford (William Hartnell). They decide to run him out of town.

It all gets nasty but the Yard wins in the end.

Thames Division

“The port of London is practically free of major crime” Maguire claims at the start of this instalment when he is assigned to Thames Division.

The Rangoon Maid is being used to smuggle heroin in to the country, but one of the crew wants to make a bigger cut of the deal. That wasn’t a clever thing to do with the people running the show.

“Every policeman in London is after you” asserts the chief crook, somewhat implausibly.

Maguire is quite casual about identifying heroin, and apparently unaffected by the stuff.

Patrick Troughton plays one of the gang’s enforcers.

Robbery With Violence

A gang try to rob a pawn shop.

The operation is bungled as the getaway car gets boxed in. In the getaway, the leader Frank shoots a motorcyclist.

“Police work is procedure, routine, step-by-step.  First, the witnesses. Unfortunately their stories were confused and contradictory.” Maguire explains to us as we see some bystanders leaving his office having failed to agree on what the killers looked like.

Frank is cold, devoid of conscience, and telling the gang to get ready to move North to Manchester and start over there.

He tells Strummer to sell the jewels they have to his musician friends in the clubs. Luckily Maguire has already had a lead that a skiffle player called Strummer may be involved and is trawling through the back-street clubs (“…where the guitars beat out an all-day rhythm”) as well. “In London, skiffle was all the rage.”

Eventually Frank gets seized before he can throw himself off Tower Bridge.

Missing Person

Although the term isn’t used, this is a story about a serial killer.

“London is the world’s biggest city, a giant heart throbbing to the rhythm of its traffic, the endless movement of its crowds. Pulsing with life then suddenly, strangely silent. An intense quiet, the quiet of loneliness in a big city. A loneliness from which many seek escape. Sometimes an escape that leads to danger.”

Three women have now been found killed, strangled with a similar pattern indicating the same killer.

“Leads? Where do you find leads with a case like this? The second girl hasn’t even been identified.”

Maguire has some inspiration: “Let’s play it the other way, the way the murderer does – look for likely victims…. Where does he find them? Lonely girls, looking for someone to show them around? Girls no one would miss, who’ve run off from their families?”

One example would be Toni Miller, who has had a row with her mum, causing her to lose her job as a dancer at the club Cyrano’s. So she runs away from home and stays with her friend June, who tells her she can get work at the Escort Agency. “It’s a cinch for a girl who can take care of herself, like you. All you have to do is date up a man who’s a little lonely, takes you to a show or a dance, and then the agency splits with you fifty-fifty.” Of course the killer has also just found out about them as well.

Luckily her mum filed a missing person report, which was passed on to Maguire following his hunch about the victims. Meanwhile Toni has gone to Escorts Ltd, which is run by an old spiv called Jimmy Walters.

Maguire follows the trail and gets the assistance of Scotland Yard’s electronic communications and criminal intelligence records, just in time to catch up with the murderous old psychopath.

Special Edition

“Fleet Street – a narrow, crowded thoroughfare in the very heart of London, the heart of the British newspaper business. Here, and in the dozens of little streets in the area, the writing and printing of news is the primary concern.”

Posh man and 2 plebs have got a plan – they’re going to do a robbery, then quickly change into the uniforms of the decorators working on the building, passing on the loot later to their friend, who will send it out to the suburbs with the daily deliveries, so he can grab it again later. The cops will be looking the wrong way all the time and never realise how the getaway was achieved.

It’s a pretty good plan, and Maguire only figures out who the robbers are by a fluke. Also the final car chase isn’t as thrilling as might have been hoped. But this is a good example of the show working a story around a particular London institution, which doesn’t exist any more.

Old Soldiers Sometimes Die

One of two stories about American tourists being the targets of London criminals. In this one, some posh con-men pull a scam by posing as honest gentlemen and then getting a grateful visitor to invest in a bogus scheme. The other story is about pickpockets.

“A bogus Major in the Coldstream Guards” (it never seems to be settled whether he was a genuine officer at any time) and his pal are working “the Lost Wallet racket”, which is an old game familiar to detectives like Maguire. It turns out they’re just the front of a larger crew, which includes a young woman who has access to smart flats that can be used as fake addresses, and also a few young toughs. It’s never explained how this gang came together.

Maguire goes out around Trafalgar Square, playing the part of a naïve American. Soon he gets caught up by the scammers, and is on his way to set them up. But unfortunately the gang get wise quickly as their young lady realises it’s the detective she met earlier. Worse still, it isn’t so easy to prove a phoney deal was going down when they were given a genuine share certificate. This gang is also pretty nasty, as it moves to kill off the only witness that Scotland Yard have to hold the case together.

At the climax, the 2 con men themselves set off to finish the job by killing the witness as he watches the Trooping Of The Colour. This sinister sequence is a wonderfully strange interlude, with the respectable men in bowler hats revealing themselves as cold and ruthless killers amongst the jolly tourist images of great British tradition, almost anticipating a countercultural film from 10 or 12 years later.

“Any moment now the Queen will ride by back there…”

As usual, Maguire finds the depth psychology unfathomable.

MAGUIRE: It’s a pity, y’know, with his intelligence and manner, the Major could have gone a long way in an honest business. Why does a man like that turn to crime?

SGT FREEMAN: That’s one for the psychiatrists.

MAGUIRE: He tried for the easy money and ended up doing hard labour.

Fun fact: this is one of 2 episodes featuring Ray Cooney, writer of numerous popular successes including Run For Your Wife.

Commando Crook

Early in the morning, a watchman is knocked out by a masked safecracker. We see the robber has a tattoo on the back of his hand.

The only really good lead is that the thief was whistling “Pop Goes The Weasel”. Also, it seems this safecracker is very good at the job (this is just the latest in a string of robberies with the same MO). There’s a perfect suspect in police records: Bill Randolph, convicted in 1939… but “he’s been going straight since he got out of the Commandos”. Against his British colleague, who clearly can’t take a distinguished veteran seriously as a criminal, Maguire insists on following up this lead. It seems Randolph is working as a mechanic at a repair shop run by a former police officer. We can see he has the tattoo that was visible on the hand using the detonator at the start, so there’s never any doubt that he’s the real culprit.

Randolph makes phone calls to ensure the cops run into trouble – Sergeant Quigley is at home with Stacey’s wife when Stacey storms back again, primed with the suggestion she’s cheating on him.

Maguire runs into a gang who sound curiously American.

However our detectives figure it out in the end.

QUIGLEY: I was certainly wrong about Randolph. I suppose they never change – once a crook, always a crook.

MAGUIRE: I think you’re wrong, Sergeant. Most men when they get in trouble for the first time want to go straight. They will go straight if they get a break. I’m all for giving them that break.

QUIGLEY: Randolph had all the breaks and he stayed a crook.

MAGUIRE: Oh sure, some of them are like that. That’s why we’re in this business – no crooks, no cops.

That is the only discussion of the topic of rehabilitation, and the evidence presented in this series shows that ex-convicts are not inclined to go straight.

Special Branch

Maguire gets to work with Special Branch on a top-level security operation: protecting visiting American scientist Dr Stafford from the moment he arrives at London Airport until he is delivered at Harwell Laboratory. Meanwhile a gang have seized control of Heaton Radio Taxis so they can use their 6 cabs fitted with 2-way radios as part of a plot they helpfully explain to us right at the start.

“The death of an American scientist on British soil will achieve our main purpose which is, let’s face it, to strain relations between Britain and the United States.” Unfortunately a plucky British taxi driver overhears this scheme and gets to a phonebox to warn Scotland Yard, but he gets shot before he can repeat all the words. This is enough of a clue for our boys to foil the whole scheme, which has some pretty exciting car chases and ambushes. Quite why these people want to strain UK-US relations and why their backers don’t give them more resources is never really explored. We were told though that Dr Stafford was involved in “vital developments in connection with a new theory of ballistic missile interception” and that “the death of Dr Stafford could deprive the West of a valuable means of defence against nuclear attack”. So really we have no idea who could be behind it all.

50,000 Hands

Two crooks are trying to rob a factory when Jeff Richards accidentally shoots himself whilst struggling with the security guard.

His accomplice Jack Bingham makes the quick decision to call an ambulance and then just steal it as a getaway for the two of them.

He has to leave Jeff by himself out in the country while he gets more assistance. While he is away, a tramp played by Patrick Troughton is nearby.

The relationship between Richards and Bingham is the strangest of all the unexplained criminal joint enterprises in this series. Bingham is certainly pretty ruthless, and he has the means and opportunity to simply dispose of the dead weight Richards, but he never does. Richards isn’t simply a hired hand. Bingham is also happily married, so it’s not as simple as supposing that there is an unmentionable secret relationship – there is only one time, in the episode “Payroll Job”, that this series goes anywhere near having a character who might be queer. The class difference between the two is also noticeable but never remarked on.

“Haven’t forgotten my distinguished war record? Medical orderly Grade 1.”

Bingham is pretty smart and careful but he gets careless about leaving his fingerprints around. The title of the story comes from Maguire’s preposterous idea that the way to find the owner of the untraceable fingerprints is to take samples from every adult in Letchworth, which is where he is hiding and all roads are blocked so he can’t get out.

“Certainly an usual step. However there’s a first time for everything.”

Maguire notes that “It was explained to them that under the law they could not be compelled to render this service”. And so eventually the robbers are uncovered.

This is a very strange and sad story, not least because it could have expanded to a much bigger feature with the background leading up to the bungled robbery, and all that has been trimmed down to a very lean pursuit. Fun fact: as well as having two Doctors Who, this episode is the second time Bill Fraser and Dorinda Stevens are working together in a criminal gang in this series.

Rat Trap

In Limehouse and Whitechapel there has suddenly been “an outbreak of terrorism” and it seems a gang is trying to take over all crime in the area. But of course no one’s talking to the cops.

One of the detectives thinks he’s got a new lead…

…but it’s all a big trick leading to a nasty ambush.

Nasty business, and this is Sydney Tafler’s nastiest gangster out of the three he plays in this series. Him and his brother are running a night club as their legit business front, but it’s unlikely at this point that a TV show would be alluding to the Kray Twins.

There’s some grim street brawling and ambushes but in the end the baddies get brought down and the Docklands people can return to the jolly old life they must have been enjoying previously.


The silly old atomic scientist John Forbes lets his car get nicked outside the UKAEA offices with a load of dangerous isotopes in the boot.

Of course the petty little gang who take the car have no idea what it is, and for obscure reasons their leader breaks open the canister but doesn’t throw anything away. Even more obscure is why his sidekick, played by a young Peter Bowles, fiddles with the number plate but doesn’t actually change it.

The boys use the car while grabbing and robbing a diamond courier. Maguire has already been alerted that this is a critical issue and thousands of lives could be at risk. So the first lead is when the courier’s body is found and he has a radiation burn. But the gang members are also getting weakened by their proximity to the rods in the boot. They are desperate to get medical help, but their leader won’t allow it.

In the end they finally get located and the cargo recovered, of course, by our men who are properly suited up.

Deadly Blackmail

Leading criminal barrister Baxter has a sick daughter who will die unless she receives the new anti-toxin developed in America and being brought in by special courier.

However the courier is intercepted. A crook who went to prison after Baxter successfully presented the case against him has seized it and wants blackmail money.

After the crooks bungle the job of grabbing the money, Maguire has the idea of handing it over in a case with a special radio transmitter, so they can find it in the same way that the Post Office have detector vans to find radios being used without a licence. Thanks to new developments in electronics and transistors it’s now possible for the police boffin to make such a device in a quite compact way. Microelectronics along with new microbiology are important new frontiers in technology.

Top baddie Willard (whose name is never spoken in the episode) still wants the deal. He’s another cold psycho who wants to make things worse just for the hell of it, in addition to getting a few quid.

It’s slightly obscure how Maguire is able to spot the baddies’ car, unless they never bothered to get rid of the one they had earlier, contrary to what he seems to be told just before he sees the boffin… but he wins the round anyway.

Ghost Squad

Ghost Squad are the special undercover unit keeping an eye out for crimes in progress or planned around the docks. One of them figures out something is going on, but he’s killed off in a staged accident.

So it’s Maguire’s job to go undercover once more to get the info again. He does well at convincing that he’s a tough, taciturn Canadian who has his own reasons for coming to London that he doesn’t want to talk about. He can use his fists, which gets him attention as a possible recruit to the gang planning warehouse jobs.

Of course it’s the smart well-spoken men who are in charge of the robberies. We get a tense and violent climax as the gang face the final showdown.

Good riddance to the fat old creep. What a pity we couldn’t see the actual lorry going in the water, just a cut to some crates floating to the surface afterwards.

“Bang to rights” is of course the expression that Derek Raymond’s detective sneered at when he heard it from provincial PCs in 1985 (How The Dead Live).

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