Big Breadwinner Hog/Spindoe Review

On the box it says “Robin Chapman’s Big Breadwinner Hog”. It’s his Spindoe as well, in that he acted as producer as well as writer. Chapman is something of a mysterious figure which this DVD set goes some way to elucidate. One look at the IMDB shows that he’s clearly a writer of considerable experience and a very solid CV: these two serials in the 1960s, some thirty episodes of Tales of the Unexpected in the 1970s, a couple of Play for Todays, plus assignments on Dalgleish, Dalziel and Pascoe and the 90s iterations of Sherlock Holmes and Maigret. (He began as an actor and appeared in the 1962 Maigret series, Rupert Davies’s interpretation of the title character being definitive to those of a certain age.) Some film work as well: the interesting if flawed 1972 film The Triple Echo (where he worked again with the co-director of Big Breadwinner Hog, Michael Apted) and Force Ten from Navarone. His writing career began on the stage and he has also written novels. Yet somehow he’s not a “name” writer to the general public in the same way as Dennis Potter or David Mercer, to name two who also began their TV careers in the Sixties, or (more recently) the likes of Jimmy McGovern, Paul Abbott or Russell T. Davies.

Some of this may be due to Chapman being a genre specialist, rarely straying far from crime, mystery and suspense. (Of the names mentioned above, Davies has certainly done well out of the SF/fantasy genre, though many would suggest his best work is non-genre: Queer as Folk, Bob & Rose, though allowing The Second Coming.) I certainly wouldn’t put Chapman up there with Potter or Mercer, but on the evidence of these two serials, his is a name worth looking out for.

The two serials, broadcast on the ITV network a year apart, share several characteristics. There’s a strong emphasis on London in both, which paradoxically are productions of the Manchester-based Granada (“From the North” as its logo proudly says). There’s an eye for emerging talent, on both sides of the camera. (I’ve mentioned Michael Apted, but ten of the fourteen episodes here are directed by Mike Newell, or “Cormac Newell” as he is billed on Spindoe. Wonder what happened to them?) There’s a fondness for jazz scores (by Derek Hilton). There’s a gritty, unapologetic quality to them: both centre on amoral, sometimes violent men and makes them interesting, though in part that’s because we’re waiting for them to fall. Big Breadwinner Hog caused the controversy, but Spindoe isn’t far behind in that respect, both pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable at the time. This was the late Sixties, when violent criminals rubbed shoulders with pop stars, and old moral certainties were being overturned. You can see this in Big Breadwinner Hog especially, where flash young mod Hogarth aka Hog (Peter Egan) challenges the old guard, represented by Lennox (Timothy West). It’s something that would soon manifest itself in the cinema, with its greater licence for violence, but also its longer gestation period, with such films as Performance, Get Carter and Villain.

To watch both these serials now is to go back to an earlier time in TV production methods. I don’t just mean the fact that they’re both made in black and white, in a mixture of videotape for interiors and 16mm film for locations. Television drama was no longer broadcast live, but was still recorded “as live” in the studio, with multiple cameras. That was an aesthetic that aligned television with the theatre; more contemporary methods, with single cameras and more editing, are closer to film. With that came pacing which viewers nowadays need to adjust to, and dialogue which is distinctly stylised and would not be out of place on a stage. It’s very obviously “written” dialogue, highly literate and somewhat at odds with the realism displayed elsewhere. (A good example is the pig metaphor in Big Breadwinner Hog, from the protagonist’s name onwards, right up until his final defiant speech.) In Chapman’s defence, he couldn’t have written the dialogue in the way that London criminals would have spoken: strong language was only just being allowed for adult ears in the cinema, and Kenneth Tynan’s saying “fuck” on live television back in 1965, while perfectly in context when you read what he said (the programme itself does not survive) caused a furore with questions in Parliament. (Leaving aside the unscripted utterances of Felix Dennis, Peregrine Worsthorne and the Sex Pistols, scripted strong language didn’t start appearing until the late 1970s, with the ITV and later Channel 4 being notably more liberal than the BBC.)

Towards the end of episode one of Big Breadwinner Hog, Hog has defrauded Ryan (Godfrey Quigley) of £200 and is beaten up for it. He takes his revenge by throwing acid in the face of Spicer (Barry Linehan). The fallout was considerable. Tabloids screamed, and Granada had to broadcast an apology before the start of the next episode. They also made cuts to future episodes. Some regions shunted the programme to a late-night slot while some regions dropped the programme entirely, the first time this had ever happened in British television. (The 1977 Target, starring Patrick Mower and produced by a fresh-off-Doctor Who Philip Hinchcliffe, also had its first series truncated after complaints about its violence. It may well be worth a reappraisal now.) Big Breadwinner Hog, although it survived in the archives, has never been repeated. Its notoriety may have had much to do with that, though being a black and white production in the year when ITV started broadcasting in colour wouldn’t have helped either. Nowadays, what was beyond the pale now seems unremarkable, with only the acid attack really stretching the bounds of the 12 certificate. More startling nowadays is the scene in Episode Two of Spindoe where a woman is killed: her body lies with her head by the camera, her breasts (with a bullet hole in one of them) all but spilling out of her top – not far away from the sort of thing the BBFC under James Ferman routinely used to cut as “rape trigger imagery”.

Big Breadwinner Hog follows the classic Little Caesar plotline of a gangster’s rise to the top, given a Swinging Sixties youth-versus-age twist. (It’s no accident that Hog’s girlfriend Edgeworth (Rosemary McHale) works in a boutique.) Also along for the ride is Hog’s accomplice Grange (played by a future writer and director, David Leland). Opposing them is the company informally known as “Scotyanks”, headed by Lennox while its chairman Gould is in prison. Also involved are depressed mercenary Ackerman (Donald Burton), who has some skeletons in his own cupboard, and Gould’s daughter Moira (Priscilla Morgan). Eight episodes is perhaps over-extending this a bit, especially given my comments on pacing above, but now that the furore has long since died away it’s an absorbing drama and well worth re-evaluating, especially for those (like me) too young to have seen it first time round.

Spindoe, though much less notorious, is, I think, its equal. First there was a series called The Man in Room 17 in 1965, which Chapman had written for. In 1967, Chapman produced a spin-off series called The Fellows, which involved two academics, Oldenshaw (Richard Vernon) and Dimmock (Michael Aldridge) who solved crimes without leaving their office. One of their adversaries was a London crimelord called Alec Spindoe (Ray McAnally). Not all of the twelve episodes of The Fellows survive, but number nine does, and it’s included in this DVD set: it’s the one where Spindoe is put away. Chapman didn’t write this one – Michael Sullivan did – and it’s fair to say that Spindoe seems a different character here than he does in the subsequent series that bears his name.

Spindoe begins five years later, with Spindoe’s release from jail. Beforehand, he used to be in charge of crime south of the river, his northern London counterpart being Mackleson (Richard Hurndall). But in five years, things have changed. Eddie Edwards (Anthony Bate) has taken over Spindoe’s empire, not to mention his wife. Over six episodes, Spindoe has to recover his former position and as with Big Breadwinner Hog most of the principal cast do not survive to the end credits of the final episode. As with the later serial, it’s the criminals who hold the interest: the police (led here by a very young Bryan Marshall) don’t get much of a look in. With Spindoe you do have to adjust to 60s pacing and production methods, but the results are worth it, with Ray McAnally’s performance as Spindoe, on the surface a mild-mannered accountant type, but with considerable steel underneath, dominating proceedings.

Episode Lists

Big Breadwinner Hog
Disc One:
“A Promising if Impulsive Pupil” (52:20)
“Hogarth Can Do Better” (49:16)
“Improving, But He Must Not Flout Authority” (50:02)
Disc Two:
“Immature, Unsatisfactory Work” (51:09)
“Hogarth Accepts Responsibility” (52:07)
“Self-Discipline is Its Own Reward” (52:16)
Disc Three:
“Hogarth Cannot Rest on His Laurels” (53:42)
“A Credit to Us All” (48:19)

Disc Four:
“You Come Out From Nothing” (53:03)
“And the Blood Starts Flowing” (52:11)
“But You’re Back and Fighting” (52:26)
Disc Five:
“You Start Winning” (52:08)
“How Is It You’re Losing?” (49:44)
“Now You’re Running” (52:19)

This Network release comprises five DVD-9 discs and is encoded for Region 2 only. As this was a production of commercial television, each episode is subdivided into three parts, with the advertisements filling the rest of an hour’s slot. Each disc has a “Play All” option.

As you would expect from vintage television programmes, each episode is in 4:3 format and anamorphic enhancement is unnecessary. As for the picture quality, it’s fair to say that this looks a lot better via an interlaced viewing device – in my case, a 28-inch widescreen CRT television set – than via a progressive-scan one. Fair enough, the former is how it would have been intended to be seen anyway. Even so, these episodes look distinctly unrestored, with scratches abounding. The film inserts are washed out and distinctly grainy. Compared to what can be done with vintage television material – such as the range of Doctor Who DVDs – this is watchable but nothing more than that.

The soundtrack is the original mono, and none the worse for that. Dialogue is always clear, which is just as well as Network have regrettably not provided any subtitles.

The two main extras are two further pieces of TV drama. Episode Nine of The Fellows has already been mentioned: it suffers a little from being seen in isolation – and a DVD release of the series is hardly likely, especially as four episodes of the twelve no longer exist – but it’s appropriately placed on Disc Four and should be watched as a curtain-raiser to Spindoe itself. The episode runs 47:20.

On Disc Four is “Knocker” (51:41). This was part of a 1972 series made for London Weekend Television called Villains. Knocker (Bob Hoskins) is a small-time csafecracker who has just left prison. He’s looking for love, but other villains are after him. The theatricality I mentioned earlier is very much present here, and second-lead Pam Scotcher suffers from it: a combination of mannered performance and underwritten character. On the other hand, Hoskins manages to breathe life into his role and make it seem real.. More of a comedy than the two serials, this is a pleasant enough short play, and a well-chosen extra. Unlike everything else on these DVDs it’s in colour, though its mixture of over-bright video interiors and grainy 16mm exteriors is just as dated.

A printed booklet contains programme notes by Ian Greaves. This is impeccably detailed, including a long essay on Chapman's background, the making of the two serials and the controversy over Big Breadwinner Hog. This contains transmission details for both serials and for The Fellows and The Men from Room 17, a biography of Chapman and a comparison of Big Breadwinner Hog the serial and Chapman's 1970 novelisation. This booklet is a model of its kind.

On Disc One can be found the scripts and the "bible" for Big Breadwinner Hog in PDF format; the same for Spindoe on Disc Five. (This review is from a set of checkdiscs and may not reflect the final release: for example, Ian Greaves's programme notes are included on my copy as a PDF. Also, my copy of Disc Two contains PDFs of press releases for The Sandbaggers which is surely an error.)

The extras are concluded with stills galleries for Big Breadwinner Hog on Disc One and for Spindoe on Disc Five. Oddly for monochrome productions, some of the stills are in colour. As for the Easter Egg, if you play Episode One of Spindoe, it begins at Chapter Two and twenty-three seconds in. Go back to the start and you’ll see the studio countdown clock.

Big Breadwinner Hog and Spindoe are two Sixties serials which deserve re-evaluation and further attention. If the picture quality could have been better, you can't complain about the care that Network have put into the extras on this set.

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