The Professionals – which ran on British TV from 1977 to 1983 – has always been a show that the chattering classes have loved to hate. Or, more accurately, to sneer at with undisguised disdain for both the show and the people who enjoyed it. Even when it was on the air and pulling in huge ratings, critics couldn’t help but scoff – after all, this was unashamedly escapist stuff, boys own action adventure, and the tastes of teenage boys and working class males in general have always been fair game to the elitist critical establishment. When not being scoffed at for the bad acting, bad dialogue and clichéd ideas, The Professionals was being condemned as excessively violent (there’s a lot of shooting), sexist (the main characters like a pretty girl), right wing and reactionary. In 1984, the Comic Strip team satirized the series as The Bullshitters – imagine the indignity of having someone like Keith Allen mocking you? Even some of those involved in the show were dismissive. Star Martin Shaw – very much the theatrical luvvie – made no bones about the fact that he hated the show that had made him famous, and for years kept re-runs off the air thanks to clauses in his contract.
But of course, those critics – and Shaw – were all woefully, idiotically wrong. Not only is this series the best thing he’s ever done (no one will be collecting box sets in Judge John Deed or The Chief in twenty years time, I’d gamble) but it’s also one of the highlights of that television era – a time when ITV could still make decent shows and producers like Brian Clemens were willing to invest in ambitious, expensive, populist entertainment. It took British TV thirty years to even start to get back to that way of thinking, and even now, the airwaves are still dominated by dour, lifeless soaps and Serious Drama.
Clemens, who produced this show straight after The New Avengers, certainly knew how to please an audience. The Professionals takes a bit of Starsky and Hutch (two hunky leading men, fast cars, shoot outs), a touch of The Sweeney (the combination of crime action, gritty violence and that bleak concrete jungle view of the UK) and threw in spy and espionage thrillers to create a thrilling, fast-paced series that eschewed the fantasy elements of The Avengers in favour of political intrigue, international terrorism and organised crime. As such, it has dated rather less than many of its contemporaries – these stories of Middle Eastern terrorist groups, dodgy deals with international dictators, home grown extremism and political corruption could easily be lifted out of today’s headlines.
The central characters in the series are Bodie (Lewis Collins) and Doyle (Shaw), agents with CI5, a unit set up to bridge the gap between the regular police and MI5. Headed by gruff George Cowley (Gordon Jackson), CI5 mostly investigates political and terrorist crime, but is also involved in combating major drugs and arms dealers as well as sometimes getting caught up in smaller scale events.
Shot on film, and with a decent budget, at its best The Professionals looks and feels like a feature film (especially in these restored editions). There are several episodes that you could easily imagine being movies if they were expanded by half an hour – and at its best, the show pretty much outstrips many of the crime / action movies of the era. We perhaps shouldn’t be surprised that The Professionals is excellent and cinematic. After all, look at some of the names writing and directing episodes – Martin Campbell, Christopher Wicking, Don Houghton, Ted Childs, Gerry O’Hara and Clemens himself – none of them exactly slouches. And there are episodes – even in the last three series under review, where the official line is that the show had gone off the boil – that are quite brilliant. Series 3’s The Madness of Mickey Hamilton, written by Wicking, is exceptional – a sympathetic look at a man driven to desperate measures by circumstances outside his control. Similarly, Mixed Doubles does a neat job of showing how a pair of assassins are more than just cold-blooded killers, cleverly contrasting their lives with that of Bodie and Doyle in the build up to the assassination attempt.
Of course, there are weak points too. After a while, the stories inevitably start to be a bit repetitive, and some are just too weak. And at times, the supporting cast are not up to the job – the usually reliable Linda Hayden makes a pig’s ear out of a German accent in Blackout, for instance. But on the whole, the individual episodes are solid, sometimes exceptional, and the guest cast is a list of impressive names, some before they were famous – Alice Krige, Charles Dance, Sarah Douglas and Pierce Brosnan amongst them. As for the main cast – in hindsight, you can tell that Shaw thinks this is beneath him, which is a pity – but he’s professional enough to hide it for the most part. Collins is an impressive action hero (and one of many would-be James Bonds – in a different time and place, he probably would’ve gone on to an impressive career as an action movie star) and a better actor than he is given credit for. Jackson – who’s presence in this show was shamefully mocked at the time – is the rock that holds it all together. Cowley could just be a shouty boss, but in Jackson’s hands, he is a crafty manipulator, as comfortable in the private clubs of Whitehall as he is in combat, and willing to blackmail, threaten and turn dubious deals for the greater good.
Of course, elements of the show have dated – the fashions, for one thing – and there are ridiculous moments. The fact that Bodie and Doyle have to screech cars to a halt ALL THE TIME is ludicrous, especially when supposedly trying to surprise their enemies – I’m sure a car skidding round the corner might be a bit of a giveaway that things are going down. But compare these to the good stuff – not least of which is Laurie Johnson’s brilliant, iconic theme tune and music score – and they soon stop seeming to be important.
The Professionals is unlikely to ever get mainstream critical reassessment – if anything, the elements that critics hated then are even more amplified in a thoroughly PC world. But for the more open minded – or simply anyone who enjoys well crafted espionage action adventure – then these collections are highly recommended.
Note: The Network blu-ray sets are released in production, not transmission order. The Professionals, like many an ITV show or the time, was subject to the whims of regional controllers, and also had runs chopped into shorter series. The show stopped shooting in 1981, but was broadcast until 1983. Mk III contains series 3 and part of Series 4, while MKIV features the remainder of Series 4 and Series 5.