Wolcott – Hackney’s Black TV Cop Series (1981)

Wolcott was a four-part TV drama produced by Black Lion Films. 13 million people watched when it was broadcast – on ITV, 13th-15th of January 1981. There were no repeats.

The show was shot in and around Hackney. Its locations and cast of up and coming Brit actors give it a certain cachet for middle aged nostalgics like myself. (Black Lion Films also produced the better known Bob Hoskins gentification-of-old-London feature film The Long Good Friday, released in the same year.)

Detective Constable Winston Churchill Wolcott is a recently decorated plain clothes copper who has been reassigned to a troubled, but unnamed, London borough. He’s played by George William Harris (now best known for his role as Kingsley Shacklebolt in the Harry Potter franchise). The police station is “played” by, er, Hackney Town Hall, disorientatingly:

The series was directed by Colin Bucksey (later to direct some episodes of Breaking Bad) and written by Patrick Carroll and Barry Wasserman (who would later be a huge figure in music videos – see the link for a 2014 obituary). All three were white, and both writers were American, which raised some eyebrows – but more of that later.

Plot & Locations

Wolcott is promoted to Detective Constable after single-handedly foiling an armed robbery. His reward is also to be transferred to an all-white police station in inner London. On the way to the station, he walks past Caribbean House and is admired by some young women:

Wolcott’s reception by his new colleagues varies from cold, to out and out hostility. He finds a toy monkey bearing a racist slogan in his locker. Christopher Ellison (later The Bill’s DI Burnside) plays a sneaky bent cop. Rik Mayall plays a thick racist cop. In an early scene, an Asian man at the is interrogated by the station’s reception desk officers whilst bearing a head injury – in a chilling echo of the death of Michael Ferreira in 1978.

There is a brittle relationship in the district between established white gangsters and newer black criminals – who in turn have a complicated relationship with the local black community: “I don’t know if you want to be Malcolm X – or Fagin!”

The main Black baddie Reuben Warre is played expertly by Raul Newney, assisted by a flamboyant rollerskating character named “Headphones” played by Archie Pool, who was a fixture of classic Black British films like Pressure and Babylon.

There are also some not-so-great portrayals of Jewish nightclub owners and betting office managers. In Wolcott, young women are mainly decorative and old women mainly victims of violence, as was fairly typical of TV of the era. The female lead is a sassy American liberal journalist played by Christine Lahti, who operates as Wolcott’s fractious sidekick and local guide.

Episode one features some local street politics:

Alexei Sayle did a wonderful turn as a Socialist Worker-type street orator being heckled by Keith Allen’s Hackney NF yob.  This sequence was filmed on location in Dalston’s Ridley Road Market: a site we thought apposite, as it had been the scene of anti-fascist/Mosley-ite clashes in the 1930s.  

Patrick carroll

(As far as I know, the NF never dared sell papers in Ridley Road in the 1980s, favouring Brick Lane and Islington’s Chapel Market instead).

Episode two includes cricket action on Hackney Marshes and crown green bowling action which might be in Clissold Park or Springfield Park? The Shiloh Pentecostal Church on Ashwin Street, Dalston also features with its distinctive red exterior.

A blues party on “Albion Road” is raided by the cops whilst Mikey Dread’s classic “Break Down The Walls” is playing on the soundsystem. Brit reggae legends Aswad play a live set in a Dalston Junction nightclub.

Episode three has a scene at a posh garden party in Hampstead with some conspicuous anarchist squatter punks:

There’s also a large carnival procession which I assume was a real event that the TV crew tail-ended? You also get a scene in F Cooke Eels of Hoxton Street.

Episode four is set mainly at night, which make it quite difficult to discern the locations. There is some action by the canal though.

Throughout the series there are various estates (Haggerston West?), pubs, streets and lock ups that I’ve not been able to identify – if you can: please leave a comment below!

Wolcott: The Verdict

Producing groundbreaking TV in the midst of a culture war will win you few friends.

The critical reaction to Wolcott was, to put it mildly, mixed.  Opinions ranged from that of a Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan police who had been asked to vet the scripts and who told us sourly that the entire enterprise was a straight forward party political broadcast for the Left, to the opinion expressed by the then television critic of the Observer that the production looked like it had been financed by the National Front. 

patrick carroll
TV Times

Listings magazine the TV Times was characteristically uncritical and gushing:

“He’s big, he’s black. In his own unequivocal terms he’s a ‘classy dude’. The name is Winston Churchill Wolcott and he is Britain’s first black television detective to get a show of his own.”

Brenda Polan in The Guardian noted that “The storyline… is slightly slowed by the necessity to fill in the sociological details for a television audience mostly used to seeing black actors as shallow stereotypes.”

Hackney Peoples Press didn’t really agree, pointing out that in the show “the black population of Hackney was seen to be almost entirely composed of drug-dealers, muggers and criminals – and other racist stereotypes”. The same article reported that Hackney Council for Racial Equality would be taking the matter up with the production company, ATV.

A more in depth critique came from four black film makers – Imruh Caeser, Henry Martin, Colin Prescoed and Menelik Shabazz. Their initiial thoughts appeared in this review:

Free Press #6 March 1981

A longer piece by the four appeared in Grass Roots: Black Community News – this was then reprinted in two books dealing with black representation and racism in the British media:

“For years we’ve complained that we are grossly under-represented in TV drama, documentary and popular entertainment. And for years our actors have complained that they should be offered full character parts, rather than female servants, studs, and crowd fillers. But if Wolcott is a sign of the band-wagons being offered for exposure and stardom – we must refuse and so must our actors.

Wolcott was written and produced to a formula, and although it looked as though it was shot on location in London’s black community, it was really not about nor in the interests of any part of the black communities in Britain. Black viewers will have recognised the faces, but not the lines – black youth don’t sit in parks chanting ‘pig, pig, pig, pig…’ when police, black or white, walk past.”

Patrick Carroll’s addresses some of these concerns in his essay:

“The idea of presenting genuine (as opposed to cardboard cut-out) black villains and disaffected African-Caribbean youths was seen as provocative and, paradoxically, by some as a betrayal of the cause of racial equality.  There were, of course, a few vociferous sections of the black community holding that we, as white writers – and Yanks to boot – had no right to even approach the subject and its characters.  We thought at the time ‘the hell with that!’ and I still do.”

Carroll goes on to suggest that the black actors on the show had more agency than its critics might have believed:

“Perhaps the most inane comment on the show came from Trevor Phillips when he complained that some of the black actors’ accents were inconsistent.  It didn’t seem to have occurred to Phillips that this was intentional, the writers and actors being aware – as any reasonably wide-awake school teacher could have told him – that the intonations used by an African-Caribbean adolescent when speaking to his parents, peers, pastors, police, teachers or any other authority figures were so different as to constitute separate languages.  What several of the black actors who had incorporated this knowledge into their portrayals had to say about Phillips after hearing his remarks is even now unprintable.” 

Aftermath

The original plan for a 13 part series never came to fruition. Carroll suggests, plausiblly, that this was partly because of the wide-ranging negative responses to the pilot, with some secondary issues around the restructuring of ATV’s franchise.

Wolcott, since its first and only network broadcast, became a skeleton pushed into the furthest recesses of the British television closet.  Halliwell’s Television Companion contains no entry for Wolcott while erroneously naming the BBC series The Chinese Detective as the first police drama to feature an ethnic minority hero.

patrick carroll

A no-frills Wolcott DVD and Blu-Ray was released in 2015, with the publicity majoring on Rik Mayall’s involvement. Mayall had died the year before, but only had a minor role in the series. A Sight and Sound review by Robert Hanks noted:

“The American writers… bring an awareness of the interaction of policing and politics rarely found in British cop dramas, even if the detail is not always convincing. The sexual politics have dated worse than the racial; towards the end the plot feels rushed and illogical. But it is still a very welcome rediscovery.”

My own view is that Wolcott is an incredible curiousity. It has merit simply on the basis of being a visual document of Hackney in the early 1980s. Its problems – and there are many of them – are partly balanced out by the discussions it provoked. The criticisms of well-meaning white liberals by black radicals are essential reading and an indication of a generation finding its own voice and not taking any shit. I don’t wholeheartedly agree with all of Patrick Carroll’s reflections, but his sincerity and affection for a bold project he was involved with 40 years ago is compelling.

But you can make up your own mind, dear reader. At the time of writing all four episodes of Wolcott are available to watch for free on Youtube, or very cheap on the British Film Institute site.

Sources and further reading

Patrick Carroll – Wolcott Revisited: Rattling a Skeleton in the British Television Closet (2011) – One of Wolcott’s writers reflects on the show following its release on DVD and Blu-Ray.

“Wolcott Offends” – Hackney Peoples Press #65 February 1981 p7. (Here).

Phil Cohen & Carl Gardner (eds) It Ain’t Half Racist Mum: Fighting racism in the media (Comedia/CARM 1982) p34-41

Therese Daniels & Jane Gerson (eds) The Colour Black: Black Images In British Television (British Film Institute, 1989) p76-84

Imruh Caesar, Henry Martin, Colin Prescod, Melenik Shabaz – “Wolcott: Meet The First Black Prince of the Police” (reprinted in the two books above along with a Guardian piece on the show)

Free Press: Bulletin of the Campaign for Press Freedom #6 March 1981 [PDF Here]

Sergio Angelini – Wolcott (1981) BFI Screenonline

Robert Hanks – Wolcott DVD review (Sight & Sound, October 2015, p108)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.