Dick Turpin's Greatest Adventure

Five episodes first shown 16 May to 13 June 1981 W Richard Carpenter / D Gerry Poulson 

Back in the days when only scheduled television existed and there weren’t even videos the audience was very much at the mercy of schedulers and they sometimes made the oddest decisions. Two seasons of the regular Dick Turpin tv series had already been made but only half of the second broadcast when ITV decided to show what has since come to be called Season 3. The other half of season 2 thus became season 4. This is a larger scale co- production with RKO Pictures intended to be shown as a single feature length story in US cinemas. Instead ITV decided to break it up into a five episode serial only they tacked on the atmospheric (but rather lengthy) opening sequence to each episode. While Richard O’Sullivan and Michael Deeks are still on board, a raft of familiar faces take guest roles meaning there is no place for Christopher Benjamin or David Daker whose presence the production sorely needs.

So in episode one you can see the difference right away with a glossier more atmospheric title sequence and initially no music. The tone is broader with cinematic picture quality and clearly considerably increased resources. This allows the production to use new locations including a dockside, narrow town alleys and two large country houses plus crowd scenes are noticeably more populated. 

Luxuriating in the expanded time when he used to have to tell a whole story in twenty three minutes, Richard Carpenter may have over indulged at the start. With large stretches not featuring Dick Turpin at all – and just one with Swiftnick and Isaac Rag- the initial narrative is largely focussed on American Jane Harding. When her father becomes the latest victim of a rogue landlord called Appleyard she travels to England with documents that will discredit the tyrant though she does not know that her boyfriend Noll Bridger is secretly working for Appleyard to obtain the papers. Oh and he’s also, for reasons that will presumably become relevant, training a prize fighter.

Turpin meanwhile is having an affair with Lady Melford in what could best be described as a right Carry On. A scene where they scramble to get Turpin out of the bedroom before Lord Melford enters is pure farce which lightens the episode’s otherwise more serious countenance. There are a slew of familiar guest actors including Wilfrid Hyde White sporting an odd looking white wig, Oliver Tobias sounding incredibly posh and Susan Hampshire looking somewhat out of place. The impression I get from this opener is that in an attempt to live up to the production’s name it takes away some of what makes the previous episodes special.

The true cinematic scope of the production becomes apparent in episode two which is home to an impressively staged boxing match that contains hundreds of rowdy extras and an excellent palette of brown clothes and brickwork. There’s even a bonus appearance from the always good value Roy Kinnear. His character though is somewhat superfluous to the plot as moments after Turpin has asked him to help find Jane she is brought into the arena for no clear reason other than to progress the plot. Nonetheless it is a well rendered sequence in itself. Gerry Poulson, who helmed some of the earlier episodes, directs with an eye to the big screen that adds another layer of stylishness. It’s also good to see the return of banter between Turpin and Switfnick here.

It is such a pity that the narrative lets the side down. The normally sure footed Richard Carpenter may still be able to create lyrical dialogue but the storytelling is rather leaden. The way characters move around, the unlikely coincidence that of all the places in Bristol, Turpin would find exactly the right one and then that Jane would be brought in seem like gauche moves from a rookie scriptwriter instead of someone of Carpenter’s experience. As for the way she finds out about Bridger’s true allegiance it’s right out of a sitcom script.  It even ends with another silly development wherein Turpin challenges Bridger over his use of a slave as his prizefighter. For someone with Turpin’s background this seems more like a 1980s viewpoint than one a character from this time- not to mention a highwayman- would hold or even think about.

The real star of this production is Gerry Poulson whose work in episode three is exemplary. Completely without incidental music, a six minute segment features  a fencing duel between Turpin and Bridger. Shot from a multitude of interesting angles in a large hall with a watching crowd gasping at some of the moments it has the feeling of authenticity to the point where you see additional onlookers running up to see what is going on. Carts are upturned, things are thrown and the two keep doggedly battling it out. This looks tough work for the characters who become more ragged as it goes on. Presumably the actors felt the strain too as it looks as if Richard O’Sullivan and Oliver Tobias did the whole thing without stunt men. It’s a thrilling sequence and the episode is not done with atmospherics after this either. It closes with the arrival of a troupe of masked, drum beating strangers whose headgear is like a punked up Klu Klux Klan and whose arrival comes after Switfnick has been spooked by old ruins in the woods. Both Richard O’Sullivan and Michael Deeks are on top form here.

Even the plot gets a bit better with a funny albeit breif reunion with old Isaac incarcerated again this time for taking lead from a church roof and an extremely arch performance from Patrick Ryecart. There are still too many characters whose position in the scheme of things is unclear but the momentum is much stronger now. Even though Jane explains things to Dick, and us, again it still sounds a bit woolly. Does she imagine the British will send an army to unseat Appleyard? In fact this is addressed in episode four when Turpin suggests that all government officials are taking money from the Crown so I suppose it show’s Jane’s naivety.

The fourth episode is home to a couple of ripe guest performances in which well known actors play very much to type. Donald Pleasance is the splendidly named Ignatious Slake who only lasts ten minutes of the narrative but it’s a crazy ten minutes! A religious fanatic with no handle on reality, Slake leads the Knights of St Catherine. He puts Turpin on trial and when he concludes Dick is not mad as he claims to be sentences him to “the running”. This involves strapping him to a water wheel which is then set aflame and rolled off into the woods. The sequence is certainly striking though the fire is so intense that we can see nobody is really on the wheel and if they were they would not survive.  Amusingly Turpin emerges with only some burnt fingers! Pleasance’s time on screen may be short but it is memorable as he slinks about repeating phrases and wearing a pair of spectacles too small for his face. Later Diana Dors turns up as a brassy washer woman which is precisely what you would expect Diana Dors to turn up as. Her appearance is even shorter than Pleasance’s but there is more on view!

Isaac Rag must also travel on a rolling water wheel- how else do you explain how he is always around just when needed but it’s a strong episode for both Alfie Bass and Michael Deeks while Richard O’Sullivan has fun at the trial and, later, at the wash house. Its an episode that pivots from mild horror to action to comedy to romance and never settles down. By now we’ve sort of lost interest in the plot so it’s a surprise when Bridger shows up at the end only to be out manouvered by Swiftnick enabling their escape.

As Richard Carpenter was something of a stickler for historical accuracy one can only assume that people really did indulge in pillow fights during masked balls. There’s one here in the midst of a dance  at which all the principal characters turn up. To be honest it’s a bit of an anti climax with much of episode five taken up by dancing and prancing while Turpin, Swiftnick and Mary plan the best way to get the information to Lord Melford. After the excellent duel earlier a couple of sword fights don’t really provide a suitable climax for what is really a film though in episodic context they work better. Its rather rushed and hectic with a chase and a final confrontation in a lake.

All told this might work better as a single drama as originally intended. It is very well staged and has an impressive cast of well- known actors of the day but lacks something that the tv series had. For all their efforts the assembled guest characters are nowhere near as engaging as Glutton and Spiker while the central plot isn’t really very interesting as a hook. Being the last Turpin story filmed it suggests that there were no ideas left to carry the series forward.

Postscript- After Dick Turpin

Richard O’Sullivan was also filming Robin’s Nest at the same time and after both series ended he went on to Me and My Girl which ran until 1988. After this his career seemed to fade with just a handful of roles, the last of which was in a golfing film called Holed in 1996. In 2003 he suffered a major stroke and since then has lived in Brinsworth House, a home for retired entertainers. Though there have been tabloid stories showing the worst of his condition there’s also footage of a visit to the home by none other than Megan Markle on YouTube in which he is seen chatting to her with same charm he always had.

Michael Deeks continued to appear on such series as Hammer House of Horror, The Last Song and Galloping Galaxies until the roles dried up.  He later ran the Royal Standard pub in Buckinghamshire for several years making local news headlines in 2000 when he won a legal battle with police after they dropped an attempt to revoke his licence for offences allegedly committed in the pub.

Now 86, Christopher Benjamin is still working! His career continued into the 2000s and he still acts occasionally in audio productions. David Daker also continued a varied career in television and film until retiring in 2014 and now lives in France.

Richard Carpenter subsequently created or adapted tv shows including Robin of Sherwood, Adventurer, The Borrowers, Stanley’s Dragon, True Tilda, The Scarlet Pimpernel and I Was A Rat until his death in 2012.

Paul Knight had collaborated with Richard Carpenter on a number of his shows and continued to do so on Robin of Sherwoold and Stanley`s Dragon and produced other series including Pulazki, Murder  in Mind as well as all 73 episodes of London’s Burning. He died last year with Dick Turpin highlighted in obituaries of his work. Sidney Cole was already in his seventies when he produced Dick Turpin and also worked with Richard Carpenter on Adventurer. He died aged 89 in 1998.

New restoration work was carried out on Ockwells Manor in 1986. In 2019 it was listed for sale for a price of offers in excess of £10 million!



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