The Professionals: Mk I

The Show

Prolific TV and film writer Brian Clemens, most renowned for his work on classic adventure series The Avengers (Steed and Peel, not Stark and Potts) came up with another smash-hit for British TV in the form of The Professionals. It focuses on the fictional Criminal Intelligence 5 agency which operates in the judicial hinterland between the police and the armed forces to combat “anarchy, acts of terror [and] crimes against the public”. Words spoken by CI5's controller George Cowley who, along with a squad of hand-picked operatives, strives to get the job done using whatever means are necessary, no matter how legally unsound they might be. Saving lives is all that matters to Cowley, who usually puts his two best men – former cop Ray Doyle and ex-merc William Bodie – on the case.

Running for 57 episodes from 1977 to 1983, The Professionals exchanged the jaunty eccentricities of Clemens' signature series for gritty violence and birds, booze and Browning Hi-Powers. The show's supporters will defend its questionable attitudes towards sex and race along the lines of it being "a product of its time", but even back in the late ‘70s its depiction of women (including schoolgirls!) as lust-crazed sex objects was highly questionable, and it becomes ever more misogynistic with each passing year. Black men tend to get represented as either smackheads or pimps, and in the infamous episode which does tackle race head-on (the permanently banned-from-UK-broadcast Klansmen) Bodie's bigoted nature comes to the fore, which makes for an uncomfortable viewing experience at best. However, as this first season progresses (in terms of production order, anyway) the writing starts to even itself out and we do begin to see more positive portrayals of women and minorities. And for all the charges of racism and sexism, the villains are usually middle-aged white men living in big houses, so who's to say which demographic is insulted the most?

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The subject matter itself isn’t too far-fetched though. In this first season, Bodie and Doyle deal with bad guys from various political and social strata, including local gangsters, Middle Eastern hitmen, East German anarchists, Russian agitators, White Supremacists and so on. Some of these are outdated but some still seem entirely relevant; as with fashion trends, adversaries who were considered to be passé are now all the rage again. Bodie even remarks that Britain's "become a funny old place", a sentiment that some people share nearly 40 years hence. The plots can sometimes get a bit knotty and are often resolved all too quickly, but that's episodic TV in a nutshell, and the 'race against time' nature of the series usually makes for truly nail-biting entertainment. In that regard it's got more in common with contemporary efforts like 24 than you might think - not least because each show features a government agency that's specifically designed to do what the police and security services cannot: to work between the lines. It’s just that Bodie and Doyle have a bit more fun doing it than poor old Jack Bauer.

Central to the success of The Professionals was the wonderful chemistry between the two leads. Bodie and Doyle are friends as well as colleagues, their jokey banter giving the show an injection of much-needed humour, and their devil-may-care approach to their work (and their love lives!) gives their actions a thrilling sense of ethical ambiguity that’s largely absent from film and TV today. Yes, there are lots of new shows which focus exclusively on the villains and set out to humanise them (call it The Sopranos Effect, if you will) but there are precious few that examine the grey area of what happens when the good guys need to get their hands dirty. CI5 aren’t simply guns for hire though, as Cowley has a steely sense of moral righteousness (he has a bullet in his leg to prove it) which ensures that his people are just as devoted to the cause as he is. It doesn't matter whether the subject under investigation is a Government minister or a lowly gangland enforcer, if they're compromising the safety of the British public then they'll answer to CI5.

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Lewis Collins put in a deceptively laidback performance as former military man Bodie, being able to switch from smooth-talking lover to hard-hitting action man in the blink of an eye. He's got a dry wit and a snappy sartorial sense equal to that of any British superspy - indeed, it’s that blend which saw Collins audition for James Bond in the early ‘80s. Martin Shaw's ex-beat cop Doyle is more of a hustler, usually dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt and he's always leaning on his contacts on the street. The trio is rounded off with Gordon Jackson as Cowley, playing against type by delivering a battle-scarred, no-nonsense leader with a twinkle in his eye and plenty of Scotch in his drinks cabinet. The guest cast is littered with an array of familiar faces from British film and TV like Phil Davis, Geoffrey Palmer, Diane Keen, Keith Barron and David Suchet, to name but a few. And the appearance of Roger Lloyd Pack as a ‘Carlos The Jackal’ type assassin is truly a sight to behold. They didn't call him 'Trigger' for nothing...

Gordon Jackson was already well known to TV viewers as butler Mr. Hudson in Upstairs, Downstairs but The Professionals made stars out of its two leading men, Shaw going on to become one of Britain’s best-known stage and TV actors, whereas Collins’ career rapidly became bogged down playing military types in low-rent movies and he gradually withdrew from the industry; sadly he died from cancer in late 2013. Gordon Jackson passed away in 1990. All the while, Shaw was busy decrying the show to all who would listen, moaning about how one-note it was and how he hated working on it, going so far as to block repeats on UK terrestrial television from 1988 onwards in what he has always maintained was a dispute over money.

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Thankfully the advent of satellite TV broadcasting allowed Shaw’s wishes to be neatly sidestepped because his powers of veto only extended to terrestrial repeats, and the series quickly became a staple on the likes of the defunct Granada Plus channel and latterly ITV4, gaining a new generation of fans in the process. Even though there were eventual video releases on VHS and DVD (Shaw having been made aware that his reticence was costing his co-stars money), such is the continued interest in the show that Network have remastered it from the ground up for this new high-definition release - and not before time, given the sorry state of the extant video masters.

All that's left to do is dust off those flares, make sure those sideburns are nice and long and get the Capri out of storage; it’s time to revisit The Professionals.

The Blu-ray

Network presents the thirteen episodes of Season 1 (including Klansmen) in production order on three all-region Blu-ray discs, with a fourth platter reserved for special features. They come housed in a G1-sized slipcase along with a book of viewing notes.

Using the original A and B roll 16mm camera negatives, the show’s been scanned at 2K and given a thorough digital clean-up, involving the removal of dirt and scratches, repairing damaged sections and balancing grain and contrast from shot to shot. It’s in the original 4:3 aspect ratio, pillarboxed within Blu-ray’s native 16:9 frame, and has been encoded at 1080i50. Network confirmed to me that it was shot at 25fps, intended as it was for PAL TV broadcast, and yet the book that comes with this set states that the show was shot at 24fps so that the producers "did not need to edit for the overseas market". If the latter is true, it's strange that the episodes are presented at their correct running time of 50 minutes apiece and the audio doesn't have any pitch problems. This is a 50Hz presentation, so why isn't it sped up if it's derived from 24fps material?

Revision 08/07/2014: Network were kind enough to do some digging for me and replied with the following message: "All the information that came with the film and the tests we carried out on the materials themselves suggested The Professionals was shot 25fps, as with nearly all 16mm TV series e.g. The Sweeney. However some of the tens of thousands of documents that we and Andrew Pixley have had access to may have been contradictory, or it is possible that the series was originally intended to be shot 24fps and later changed. Andrew Pixley would not have stated in his notes that it was 24fps unless there had been reference to this somewhere amongst the production paperwork, however, the show was of course broadcast at 25 fps PAL and we believe we have achieved the best result possible for this release using this frame rate."

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Frame rate questions aside, the image is very stable and finely detailed, allowing minute beads of sweat and the intricate weave on clothing to come through unhindered, with no moiré or shimmering, and nor is there any edge enhancement. The opticals display a noticeable drop in quality, with things like wipes and title cards appearing very fuzzy and indistinct, however that’s entirely normal. (The title sequence looks superb even with the credit text overlaid, so I’m presuming that those specific credits are a new digital composite.) Contrast is tightly controlled, rarely looking too washed out or too blown out, with very solid blacks which was a nice surprise.

The rendition of the colour is a little less successful; while the primaries look nice enough, with rich greens and reds, the secondaries don't fare so well, owing to a distinct oversaturation of magenta in some shots which corrupts the skin tones, making them look quite orangey and artificial. Whether it's a fault of the remastering process or simply a problem with a faded colour layer in the negative is unclear. On an accurately calibrated display it can be a slight distraction, but the effect comes and goes so it's not nearly enough to derail the presentation.

Grain is ever-present, as well it should coming from a 16mm source (albeit with what look like 35mm segments here and there) but it seems ever so slightly sluggish to me, as if they’ve processed it just a shade too much. It’s not a problem though. The image isn't spotlessly clean, as there's still some infrequent white specks and hairs in the gate, plus a bit of density flutter - yet these minor artefacts serve as a subtle reminder that this was shot on film, rather than the anodyne cleanliness of digital. But overall my impression of the HD remaster is that it’s very well done, and there's no contest when compared with the atrociously dull and dingy SD masters that have been doing the rounds for years. If anyone tells you that 16mm isn’t worth transferring in HD, spin one of these episodes for them and watch their jaw drop.

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Network has also done a good job with the sound. They were able to locate the original 35mm magnetic three-track masters (dialogue, music, effects or DME) and have cleaned them up beautifully, presenting the audio in two flavours: original mono or remixed 5.1. As an unashamed purist I can’t help but default to the mono mix, which is encoded in lossy Dolby Digital 2.0 at a healthy 320 kb/s, and it's pleasantly rich and full bodied with no hiss or crackles to speak of. Dialogue might sometimes be a little low, and the large amounts of ADR (creator Clemens insisted that strong regional accents be dubbed over) have that typical disembodied quality, but the sound effects have real bite and it's a treat to have Laurie Johnson’s Schifrin-esque music sound this lively.

For the 5.1 remix, encoded in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio, Network took those separate DME tracks and rejigged them for a naturalistic expansion of the audio experience. Everything tends to stay locked to the front speakers, with only an occasional discrete effect zinging off to screen right or left and very sporadic use of the surrounds, like the reverberation of the gunshots in the teaser of the first episode. The music isn’t in stereo, so it can seem a little strained when artificially distended across the front sound field, although the LFE channel is used to support it which adds a nice amount of bass to the funkadelic score. While the 5.1 is very respectful, it can only do so much with the source material so it tends to sound a touch hollow, and I prefer the mono because it's got more vibrancy and attack to it. There's also a music-only DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track, which appears to use the '5.1'-ised music mix rather than straight dual-mono.

The extras on disc might seem numerous but they’re somewhat ephemeral. They include: three sets of CI5 End Credits with the green background, the Series 1 Ad Bumper used for commercial breaks, a 17-second shot of a car driving past a roundabout which was mercifully shortened for the episode Look After Annie, and outtakes of an incomplete VFX shot of a girl falling to her doom in Everest Was Also Conquered (they used a mannequin in the final episode, which was much cheaper, though Network has also done a quick composite of what the VFX shot might've looked like). Of slightly more interest is a split-screen demonstration of the classic “car crash” title sequence which compares the old SD master to the new HD transfer. Those titles were filmed for Season 2, but were subsequently attached to repeats of Season 1 by LWT and they've stayed there ever since.

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Network has also restored the original “assault course” title sequence and put it back in its rightful place for all the episodes of this Season 1 release (even going so far as to retain Gordon Jackson’s voiceover which was only used for the first few episodes as broadcast). It's here in a ‘Raw’, i.e. textless, form on the extras disc, but it’s not as boring a feature as it might seem because it’s presented as a ‘fullap’ scan, sprocket holes and all, from what appears to be a 35mm source. I say that because there’s a leader on the footage indicating it was shot on 5247, a common 35mm stock of the period, as opposed to the 7247 16mm stock used on the series proper. This isn’t a great surprise, as it’s readily apparent that this sequence looks even better than the actual show, and it confirms my earlier suspicion that the title text itself has been freshly composited over this 'raw' footage.

There’s lots of HD stills material on the disc, in the form of photo galleries of each episode – including rare images of Anthony Andrews as Bodie before he was canned – plus merchandise galleries, portraits etc. These you can view on your Blu-ray player, but more information is stored in the form of PDFs which you can access on your computer, providing it has a Blu-ray drive. There are scripts, call sheets, classic poster magazines, the CI5 Annual and various other print articles, all of them a goldmine of vintage coverage. I find it baffling that Network persists with these PDFs because there’s no reason why this stuff can't be made viewable on a regular TV screen through a Blu-ray player. Sure, the text might be small on an average TV, so why not show it half a page at a time or something like that?

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The crown jewel of this set's extras is the inclusion of a 1996 instalment of the Channel 4 arts program Without Walls, which looked back at The Professionals. Running for 25 minutes, it’s got priceless interviews with Shaw, Collins and Clemens. Shaw comes across as a total luvvie who hated every second of it, Collins is as easygoing as ever and Clemens just wanted a good, entertaining product. The show doesn't skirt around the issue of the lack of repeats on TV (which was up to 8 years at that point!), and when Collins is asked he cracks a wry grin and says: “Ask Martin”. The show is presented in 4:3 576i as per the original broadcast, and aside from some combing at edit points it looks very respectable indeed.

The package is rounded off with a paperback book simply titled The Professionals Viewing Notes by Andrew Pixley. No mere promotional fluff-piece is this, as it’s a densely-packed 180-page narrative of the making of the first series, chronicling the lives and careers of all the major players and the day-to-day mechanics of getting the show out of the door. The tiny font is hard on the eyes but the book is well worth persevering with.

Overall

The Professionals doesn’t stand the test of time as far as political correctness is concerned, but as a screen partnership Bodie and Doyle have endured for nearly 40 years because of their easygoing rapport and their laddish attitudes, and the uncompromising nature of the show means that it still stands out. There was nothing quite like it on British TV back then and there certainly isn’t now! This "Mk I" Blu-ray release of Season 1 is a revelation in terms of A/V quality compared to the hideous TV broadcasts - special kudos to Network for respecting the original 4:3 aspect ratio and mono sound mix - and with the inclusion of some decent extras and an exhaustively detailed book, it comes highly recommended for fans of CI5’s finest.

Overall

8

out of 10

Last updated: 04/05/2018 07:05:26

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