Police dramas are one of the staples of our TV diet – with coppers tackling drugs, violence and murder as part of their daily routine.
But long before The Bill, Frost, Morse and the rest, an East End constable was dispensing justice and wisdom every Saturday night – and there was hardly a fight to be seen.
Beginning in 1955 and ending in 1976, Dixon Of Dock Green was the longest running police series on British television. And central character George Dixon was almost inseparable in the minds of the public from the man who played him – veteran East End actor Jack Warner.
Warner was a pseudonym of course. He had actually been born Horace John Waters. His place of birth was 1 Rounton Road Bow in 1895. But by the time Horace was trying to make a name for himself as an actor, his sisters were already famous, as the theatre and radio comedy and music act, Elsie and Doris Waters, and he had to adopt a stage name of this own.
Jack was to taste his greatest success later in life. He cornered the role of strict but fair father figure in a succession of post-World War II British films.
An appearance in Holiday Camp in 1947 gave rise to a series of films featuring the Huggett family, with Jack as the head. He played his share of bad guys too, appearing as an embittered and heartless killer in My Brother’s Keeper in 1948, and later as the secret boss of a criminal ring in Hue and Cry, a classic set among the bomb sites of the post-war East End.
But it was his role as PC George Dixon in the 1949 Ealing Studios film The Blue Lamp which was to change Jack’s life and career for ever.
He played the East End policeman as a friendly uncle figure – and his death at the end of the film at the hands of a young thug, played by Dirk Bogarde, was not only tragic but deeply shocking for a British audience.
Screenwriter Ted Willis (later to become Lord Willis) subsequently revived the figure of Dixon for a stage play and then wrote a series of six television plays about the bobby. Little was he to know that he was soon to have a Dixon industry on his hands.
In Dixon Of Dock Green, Jack Warner was miraculously raised from the dead to play George Dixon once more – a widower raising an only daughter Mary (Billie Whitelaw in the early episodes, later replaced by Jeannette Hutchinson). Other regular characters included Sergeant Flint (Arthur Rigby), PC Andy Crawford (Peter Byrne), and Sergeant Grace Millard (Moira Mannon). From 1964 Dixon was promoted to Sergeant.
Dixon focused less on crime and policing and more on the family-like nature of life in the station. And George Dixon, a warm, paternal and frequently moralising presence, was the central focus.
However as the 1960s and the early 1970s brought ever more realistic and violent police series from both sides of the Atlantic to the British public, Dixon Of Dock Green seemed increasingly out of touch. The Sweeney may have been set in a different part of London, but it might as well have been in a different world – and a different decade.
Altogether some 307 episodes were made, at first running 30 minutes and later clocking in at 45 minutes. And of course the early episodes were in black and white while the later ones were in colour.
And Dixon of Dock Green, with its peak Saturday night slot of 6.30pm, was a huge hit. In 1961, the series was voted the second most popular programme on British television with an estimated audience of 13.85 million. Even in 1965 after three years of the far more gritty and ground-breaking Z Cars, the audience for Dixon still stood at 11.5 million.
But as the 1960s drew on, ratings began to fall and this, together with Jack’s failing health, led the BBC to finally end the series in 1976. An affectionate public ignored the fact that – well into his seventies – Jack would have been retired from the Force for a good 30 years by the time the programme ended.
In fact he was to live just five years longer, and died in 1981.
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