A series about a notorious highwayman yet aimed towards a family audience is not an obvious idea for a drama but for writer Richard Carpenter it was a typically left field choice. After all he’d already written shows about smugglers, an eleventh century wizard, a group of ghosts and a boy from space. He liked outsiders and the way they interpreted their surroundings, his work packed with rich characters and a sense of place that means they’ve not dated as much as other contemporaneous programmes have done. Often made for younger viewers they have a sophistication and a refusal to talk down to the viewer that makes them easily accessible to people of all ages. Though this series is named after an infamous historical figure the series is not telling that real story at all but one that actually begins with the hanging of Dick Turpin…
Set in eighteenth century England it sees farmer’s son
Turpin returning home after three years military service to find his parents
have died after being cheated out of their farm by local landowner Sir John
Glutton and the now penniless Turpin becomes a highwayman basically to survive.
Of course this is not the true story with writer Richard Carpenter setting the
series after the real Turpin had been hanged. This frees the series from having
to navigate any of the more difficult or less savoury aspects of the real
person’s life. The first episode does acknowledge the 1739 hanging to say it
was of someone who claimed to be Turpin and the more heroically inclined
character we then see battling a corrupt establishment sits more easily with a
This palatable version of the story originated in a nineteenth century novel by William Ainsworth called Rockwood in which the highwayman appears as a more sympathetic character on his horse Black Bess. Subsequent iterations of the story have all drawn from and embellished this mythos creating a Robin Hood style persona removed from the ruthless reality. Richard Carpenter does redress the balance towards real life to some extent portraying Turpin as largely without scruples and very much a loner setting him apart from other innocent heroes that kids television offered at this time. Turpin robs indiscriminately and while he has his own code of good and bad his aim is generally to make money for himself; there is little redistribution of wealth except to people he personally knows. On a wider scale several episodes paint a picture of a population struggling to get by hence the appeal of highwaymen is greater than you’d imagine.
The writer also tries to offer at least a flavour of the rough and tumble of the time. While there may have been no blood and Turpin isn’t seen to kill anyone, there is a harshness to the setting where mud, drunken brawls, buxom barmaids and dangerous chases on horseback are shown as the norm. The characters are mainly a collection of thieves and rogues, some loveable but many black hearted and duplicitous. There is even an attempt at what sounds like some authentic period language, for example horses are “prancers” and “nags”, girls “doxys” or “trollops” while people don’t hang, they “swing”. In 1979 Richard Carpenter describes this version of the outlaw. “Our Turpin is mid career and living dangerously. He is impudent, daring and a clever judge of human weakness with nerves of steel.” He goes on to describe someone who has a sense of humour and is also a gambler. “he is always getting mixed up in other people’s troubles for under his tough exterior he had a warm heart.”
Talking about playing Turpin in the 1979 Annual, Richard O’Sullivan described it as “a chance to do some proper acting.” He might have seemed an unlikely choice at the time having become well known as a light comedy actor in several sitcoms during the Seventies including Man About The House and Robin’s Nest. Yet he seemed to relish the part. “Yes, he’s a rogue..he robs the rich to keep himself. But if there’s somebody in a spot of bother he can prove quite charitable.” The actor had to go through considerable training when he got the role including fencing, fighting, riding and falling most of which feature in every episode! He even had to stop playing football during filming lest he injure himself. “I hadn’t been on a horse for nearly twenty years,” he said, “I had to start all over again.” He spent a month taking lessons but when he took his first ride on Fury, the Spanish stallion used for Black Bess he couldn’t stop the horse. ”Then at the last minute he stopped….he had been testing me!” He spent two weeks with renowned stuntman Peter Diamond learning how to fight, jump and fall including a fifteen foot leap from a gallery that features in one episode.
His accomplice Swiftnick aka Nick Smith is described by Richard Carpenter as “an ordinary boy, cheerful, impetuous and willing. He will do anything for Turpin but generally does everything wrong” though initially Turpin believes Nick is too young to accompany him being “naïve, reckless and over keen.” Swiftnick is played by Michael Deeks who became an actor almost by accident when a change remark led his mother to take him to a drama school. He made his stage debut aged fifteen at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. Further roles included Champions, about Manchester United supporters. He was 23 when cast as Swifnick and in 1979 said of the role; “He’s not particularly brilliant at anything. He tries….but he keeps messing things up. He’ll improve though.” The on screen rapport between Richard O’Sullivan and Michael Deeks really makes the series tick and reflects their off screen banter often revolving around their support for rival London football teams Chelsea (O’Sullivan) and Spurs (Deeks).
The series has two recurring antagonists who make continuous trouble for Turpin and you can tell exactly by their surnames what they are like! Sir John Glutton is described by Carpenter as “voraciously greedy… wealth and power are his abuse… Turpin is his enemy because he stands for freedom from tyranny,” The role is played with glee by RADA trained Christopher Benjamin with the character rarely seen not chomping away at some item of rich food. He was an established actor when cast with a varied career both on stage at Bristol Old Vic and the Royal Shakespeare Company and on the small screen. He’d guested in roles on series including The Avengers, Doctor Who and The Forsythe Saga amongst many. Sir John’s henchman Nathan Spiker is, according to Carpenter, “tall, stiff, sardonic and vain. He’s middle class and wishes he wasn’t…he is an eighteenth century fascist…he believes in the status quo.” However he is also something of a coward, witnessed by Turpin in the war in Flanders when they served together. David Daker who played Nathan Spiker was another familiar face with theatre roles in the West End and with the Royal Shakespeare Company and guest roles in various tv series including All Creatures Great and Small, Doctor Who, Strangers, Hazell and Two People.
Episodes are also packed with familiar tv actors of the day all of them more than willing to give broader performances and have fun. It is also a good series for stunts with plenty of sword fights and horse chases. Shot on film and directed with a cinematic feel there were two 13 episode length series produced by Gatetarn, Secastle Productions for London Weekend Television and a feature length special made in association with RKO Pictures intended for cinema distribution. This was later cut up into five episodes and oddly shown on TV in between a split season two. The episode length does prove to be an issue with a number of stories begging for more time than the twenty three minutes (half an hour with a mid episode ad break) allotted. The feature length season does show the broader potential with more time for a story.
Much of the series was filmed in and around a fifteenth century house near Maidenhead called Ockwells Manor. Once described as “the most refined and most sophisticated timber framed mansion in England”, Ockwells Manor was originally built for Sir John Norrey, the High Sherriff of Berkshire between 1446-66 and is part of a forty two acre estate that includes fields, forest and even a river. It was discovered when the production team were looking for a house to use as Rookham Hall, home of Sir John Glutton and they quickly realised it could actually be used for everything! In 1979 producer Sydney Cole said: “Our series is set in 1740..but of course we can use a house built before that time.” The building had been empty for eight years but did have all the required electrical and drainage facilities a production of the time would require. “Its absolutely ideal,” said art director Martin Atkinson in 1979, “It could have been made for us. A lot of the furniture inside is authentic.”
If you look carefully you’ll see the same buildings remounted as several different inns as well as countless rooms and chambers. Because rooms from that period tended to be large there was plenty of space for cameras as well as actors. Its period décor meant that less work was needed to alter most of the fittings and it was a lot cheaper than building sets. Subtle alterations included fake ceilings or window frames to alter the appearance of a room
Outside the gardens and stables were also used as different locations. The place was also used as the production base housing wardrobe, props, make up and the office. Directed by Gerry Poulson, the opening titles are very atmospheric, shot at night in silhouette lit by large spotlights just out of view. With swirling smoke and a blue tint it looks like a clip from a pop video of the day. The rousing theme tune by Denis King and orchestra was even released as a single.
The series proved popular and there were two tie in novelisations Dick Turpin (1979) and Turpin & Swiftnick (1980) both published by Armada, three Annuals and the `junior TV Times` magazine Look-In ran a comic strip by artist Martin Asbury and writer Angus Allan in conjunction with the first season. The series was also featured on the cover of the actual TV Times. So without further ado let us climb on our prancers and get out on the road..
06/01/79 W Richard
Carpenter / D Charles Crichton
I’ll have you hanged.” “I’ve been hanged already!”
When old flame and landlady Mary Smith finds her pub und threat from the greedy Sir John Glutton, Turpin reluctantly becomes involved and agrees to take on her son Nick as his apprentice. While longer episodes may eventually have been to the show’s benefit this opener clocking in at around 25 minutes shows off all the advantages of compact storytelling, something Richard Carpenter was always skilled in. If you look at what happens there’s a fair amount of material and the pace is brisk yet nothing is rushed and everything we need to know we do. Sometimes just a couple of lines is enough- like telling us that Dick and the landlady have a romantic past or giving us summaries both of Turpin’s history and also the recent hanging of what turned out to be a false Turpin.
Charles Chrichton’s’ cinematic style really suits the series as the director takes full advantage of the fantastic location. There is enough surface period detail to take us into this world with Carpenter dropping in what seems like proper eighteenth century slang like “shooters” for guns. Meanwhile Chrichton keeps the cameras busy moving from place to place or in dialogue scenes face to face. The rich wood finishes of Sir John Glutton’s house contrast with the dusty wood of the tavern. Several well composed action sequences tilt towards spontaneity even if they were no doubt fully rehearsed and the stunts impress.
One thing that strikes you is what a surprise this must have been for Richard O’Sullivan fans back in the day. Though he retains the charm that saw him succeed in a series of lightly comic roles he brings a hard edge to Turpin as well. Carpenter’s dialogue interprets Turpin as heroic yet O’Sullivan does it on his own terms though and also delivers an amusing scene pretending to be a Scottish doctor. Christopher Benjamin and David Daker are like kids in a playground adding a theatrical relish to every one of Carpenter’s juicy lines. There is no doubt they are villains yet for us to want to see them each episode there has to be something to interest the viewer and in the hands of these actors there definitely is. The performances are rich and some modern viewers may find them over the top but they really suit the production. Michael Deeks’ Nick is enthusiastic and there is an immediate chemistry with O’Sullivan.
As with everything Richard Carpenter wrote the script is a gift to the actors allowing them the space to create larger than life characters and not without some humour either.
13/01/79 W Richard
Carpenter / D Gerry Poulson
"Lord, what a noisy trollop”
After Swiftnick’s reckless behaviour risks their capture Turpin offloads him onto a blacksmith. He’s got a point, no sooner has the lad promised to keep his mouth shut than he’s blabbering on about Turpin to the serving girl, Kate. Then Turpin is tricked and captured by Spiker which means Swiftnick has to come to his rescue. In truth this is a slightly awkward plot that relies on people recognising each other at convenient moments and hinges on another man Turpin used to ride with who was hanged. His daughter the self same Kate we saw earlier becomes the plots’ enabler but how come she never acknowledges Turpin at the start? It works partly because the viewer feels sorry for Swiftnick and Michael Deeks’ sad face plays up to this so well. Also there are some fun scenes between Glutton and Spiker including a gag about knocking on the door. Guesting Annabelle Lee gives a lively performance as a travelling actress Jane Kelsey whom Spiker uses to trap Turpin and Lesley Dunlop plays the lively and practical Kate.
Gerry Poulson directs keeping close in on the action and on Sir John’s continual eating! There are a couple of fantastic action scenes with a lively ruckus in the pub and later n explosive climax as Switnick and Kate use rather a lot of gunpowder to rescue Turpin as he’s taken to be hung.
The episode underlines how the scripts walk rather elegantly between comedy and drama with neither upsetting the other. Foe example Glutton’s punishment of three years in jail for stealing a couple of apples is harsh and shows how uncontrolled his power is yet Christopher Benjamin delivers it with such comedic timing. In the end its not made totally clear whether Turpin is trying to protect Swftnick or is just fed up with him but I like to think it’s the former.
20/01/79 W Richard
Carpenter / D James Allen
“You’ll fall down your own mouth one of these days”
Turpin and Swiftnick pitch up in Mudbury for a rest (and a bath!) but it seems the village is under the thumb of fervent preacher and avid tax collector Nightingale. Once again Swiftnick’s loose tongue ends up getting Turpin into big trouble fighting Nightingale’s champion in the boxing ring. The staged competition was a standard plot device in many a Seventies tv series and followed a familiar ritual wherein the main character somehow ends up an unlikely pugilist and ultimately victor against a seemingly impossible opponent. In this case writer Richard Carpenter plays it for laughs enabling the comedic side of both Richard O’Sullivan and Michael Deeks to the fore. It livens up what is otherwise somewhat standard fare.
At times the episode plays very lightly- one scene shows the villagers buttering up Turpin by giving him a hearty breakfast and then they all watch as he starts eating. Later Turpin’s responses to Nightingale’s rhetoric are great. The only slight issue is that because the mood has been so frivolous by the time we get to the fight you’re inclined not to take it too seriously especially as it makes that cardinal filmic error of going on far too long. In real life nobody would survive the thumping he gets in these scenes. Burly Robert Russell, a familiar face in this sort of role, gives it his best straight face as Nightingale’s hardman Hogg but you still feel he’d make mincemeat of Turpin however much the latter dances like a butterfly.
What is really cooking now is the banter between Turpin and Swiftnick which both actors excel in performing – their timing in several scenes is impeccable. There’s also a rich turn from John Grillo as the Bible quoting Nightingale. A somewhat underused Don Henderson is the old mate of Turpin’s, Tom Bracewell who is supposed to fight Hogg but somewhat improbably has been tied up and placed in a box in the same barn as the fight! How and by whom is never explained but in the end Turpin wins the fight. The fact that you just about believe it is down to director James Allen’s fleet footed handling of the uneven contest and O’Sullivan’s willingness to do as much of his own stunt work as possible.