The actor Jack Warner was already well known to the public. Born Horace John Waters in London in 1895, he had been a comedian in radio and in his early film career. Starting in the early 1940s, he broadened his range to include dramatic roles, becoming a warmly human character actor in the process. But as well as playing in films with dramatic themes (such as The Blue Lamp (1950), in which the character George Dixon first appeared), Warner – by now hugely popular – continued to play in comedies such as the successful Huggett family programmes on BBC Radio and films made between 1948 and 1953.
Warner's success as Dixon was popular amongst various police forces. He was made an honorary member of both the Margate and Ramsgate Police Forces in the 1950s. Warner said of Dixon of Dock Green: "It has been a very good meal ticket for twenty-one years – although the taxman has never been far behind." In his autobiography, Jack of All Trades, Warner tells of a visit by the Queen to the studios where the series was made, where she commented "that she thought Dixon of Dock Green had become part of the British way of life".
The regard in which Warner's portrayal of a fictional policeman was held was seen at the actor's funeral at Margate Crematorium on 1 June 1981. Six Margate Constables stood as guards-of-honour outside the chapel, where hundreds of fans gathered to pay their respects. Among the mourners were officers from the Kensington District, where Warner had lived in London, and Paddington Green, where the Dixon series was based. Delegations of policemen attended (some coming from as far away as Wales and Newcastle), including a sixteen-man representation from the Metropolitan Police, led by Deputy Assistant Commissioner George Rushbrook and Commander John Atkins.
The character of Police Constable George Dixon was based on an old-style British "bobby" (policeman). He first appeared in the iconic British film The Blue Lamp (1950) as a typical "bobby" on the beat, an experienced constable working out of the Paddington Green police station. The film was produced by Michael Balcon, who had been educated at George Dixon School in Birmingham, named after a local politician: this inspired the character name.
In The Blue Lamp Dixon has a wife named Em (Gladys Henson). It is mentioned that their only son, Bert, was killed in the Second World War – hence Dixon adopts a paternal aspect towards PC Andy Mitchell (Jimmy Hanley), a young policeman on his first day. Dixon comes across a raid and is shot. The rest of the film centres on catching the perpetrator, a thug named Tom Riley (played by Dirk Bogarde). This gears up hugely once Dixon, who was said to be rallying in hospital, unexpectedly and suddenly dies, and Mitchell embarks on a perilous quest to find and bring Tom Riley to justice.
In 1955, the BBC Television Service was preparing to face competition from the forthcoming launch of the ITV independent television network. The BBC therefore resurrected George Dixon for a new series featuring "everyday stories of a London policeman". The series came with an already familiar hero, played (as in the film) by a much-loved entertainer. The image of Jack Warner in police uniform with helmet made for an effective symbol of policing in Britain.
The series was the creation of writer Ted Willis, who not only wrote the series over its 20 years on television but also had a controlling hand in production. This helped ensure that radical changes were few. The designer was Laurence Broadhouse. Long-time producer was Douglas Moodie, whose other television credits include The Inch Man and The Airbase. Despite being a drama, the series was produced in its early years by the BBC's light entertainment department. It was originally produced at the BBC's Riverside and Lime Grove studios. Episodes in series 1 to 7 ran to 30 minutes. From series 3 to 7 each final series' episode was extended to 45 minutes. From series 8 (1961) onwards all episodes were 45 then 50 minutes in duration.
There were some changes made before the first series aired. Paddington Green police station became the fictitious Dock Green police station in the East End of London. The character of PC Andy Mitchell became raw new constable PC Andy Crawford (Peter Byrne). According to the first series episode "Needle in a Haystack" Dixon is a widower, his wife having died in an air raid during the Second World War, though they had an only daughter Mary (played by Billie Whitelaw in early episodes, later replaced by Jeanette Hutchinson). They lived in a small mid-terrace house on a busy road. Dixon would remain basically the same character as in the film; he could be relied on to be friendly with a lot of heart, a cornerstone of which was his honesty with which you knew he would be absolutely dependable and cool in a crisis. The actor's age meant Dixon was always an older bobby and the viewer was left to wonder why promotion never seemed to come his way.
Dixon's mentoring of Crawford was seen from Dixon of Dock Green's first series opener, "PC Crawford's first Pinch", broadcast on Saturday 9 July 1955. Dixon was portrayed as having a paternal and steadying influence on his colleagues and episodes often highlighted the family-like nature of life in the station as well as Dixon's actual family life at home. With his experience as a police constable frequently in evidence, he was often shown as being able to solve crimes and to keep the peace using his knowledge of human behaviour and of the Dock Green area. The initial run of six episodes ended on 13 August with the "London Pride" segment and was deemed a success; a further series of thirteen episodes was commissioned to start broadcasting on 9 June 1956. Plots often focused on the role of the police in dealing with low-level, community-based crimes.
The last five episodes from series two are the earliest episodes of Dixon known to exist. One of those is "The Rotten Apple" (broadcast 11 August 1956), a story which illustrates Dixon's belief in the honour of wearing the police uniform. A young constables, Tom Carr (Paul Eddington) appears to be enjoying a lifestyle that was more lavish than would be expected on his salary. His life begins to unravel after Dixon gets a visit from a local (legal) horse bookie, Harry Ross, to whom Carr owes a lot of money: Ross needs it back, but knows Carr will lose his job if he makes his complaint official. With the force's reputation at stake, Dixon visits a nervous Carr in his flat changing into his uniform. Carr agrees to settle the debt, but as Dixon prepares to leave, accidentally knocks over a box, sending silverware clattering across the floor. The items, it transpires, are stolen, and the proceeds of a series of mysterious burglaries in the area. Dixon is affronted by this betrayal of trust, and orders the disgraced Carr to remove his uniform before he will escort him in through the streets to Dock Green Station.
Series two ended on 1 September 1956 with the episode "Father-in-Law". Dixon is the father-in-law of the title, with Andy Crawford marrying his 23-year-old daughter, Mary. Dixon gets to sing a few songs at the wedding but a small matter of a missing wallet emerges. At the end of the episode, with the mystery solved, Dixon wishes the viewers goodbye while the happy couple go off, to move to a flat in Chelmsford. An indicator of the series' success is that the start of series three was a mere four months away.
In the early days, a subtitle declared the series to be "Some Stories of a London Policeman", with each episode starting with Dixon speaking directly to the camera (breaking the "fourth wall"). He begins with a salute and the greeting "Good evening all", which was changed to "Evening all" in the early 1970s, which has lived on in Britain as a jocular greeting. In similar fashion, episodes finished with a few words to camera from Dixon in the form of philosophy on the evils of crime, before saluting and wishing the viewers "Goodnight, all". Some felt Dixon to be a real person; at the end of a series, he would inform the audience that he was "going on holiday for a few weeks" so they shouldn't worry about not seeing him around.
As Ted Willis noted, in bringing Dixon to the small screen, he sought to portray "an ordinary, working-class policeman on the beat" with focus more on people, with the tendency to "concentrate on the smaller everyday type of crime, and put the emphasis on people rather than problems." Willis talked in 1957 about seeking "to break away from the accepted formula for police and crime stories […] The average policeman might go through a life-time of service without being involved in one murder-case. His life is one of routine […] Would [viewers] take simple, human stories about a simple ordinary copper and the people he meets?" Change for the central character was slow, and it took until the opening episode of series 11 before George Dixon earned his stripes and was promoted to sergeant in "Facing the Music" (S11, E01, 19 September 1964).
The BBC scheduled Dixon of Dock Green in the family time slot of 6:30pm on Saturday night. At the time it started on air in 1955, the drama schedule of the BBC was mostly restricted to television plays so that Dixon had little trouble in building and maintaining a large and loyal audience. In 1961, the series was voted second most popular programme on British television with an estimated audience of 13.85 million. Even in 1965 after three years of the gritty and grimy procedural police-work of Z-Cars, the audience for Dixon stood at 11.5 million. However, as the 1960s wore on, ratings began to fall and this and health questions were asked around Jack Warner.
The series evolved, though slowly, Ted Willis ensuring that the familiarity of the format remained its greatest strength for many years. The procedural detail formed a backbone on top of which the dramatic story played out, allowing the whole to make perfect sense. Often delivered at a genteel pace, this approach led to criticism from some quarters in the face of faster-paced (and sometimes more violent) contemporaries such as The Sweeney and even Z Cars. Overall, the show ran for twenty-two series. Fans continued their support for the character with each new series. When Dixon was shot in one episode, the BBC received 4,000 letters of anxious inquiry and had announced on television that Jack was alright. Other characters weren't forgotten; indeed, PC Andy Crawford - as well as being the main character's son-in-law would go on to rise through the ranks of the CID to become chief Inspector in Dock Green.
Dixon of Dock Green is sometimes unfavourably compared with later police procedural series (such as Z-Cars in the 1960s, The Sweeney in the 1970s and The Bill in the 1980s) which were seen as having a higher degree of realism due to their harder hitting and more dynamic nature. However the style of the programme did evolve over time and some of the 1970s episodes which have been preserved demonstrate little of the homely nature for which the show was often criticised. Plot lines in this period included the suspected suicide of a police officer, a gangland killing, and the shooting of a suspect by police officers using firearms. (In the 1970s, guns were rarely ever seen in the hands of the police.)
"Firearms Were Issued" (20 April 1974, one of the surviving episodes) examines that last point. A notorious gang of bank robbers had performed a raid locally and Dock Green police were tipped off "from a reliable source" that they had retreated into a suburban house on their patch. Taking no chances, the go-ahead for a raid was given and Sergeant George Dixon issued firearms to D.I. Andy Crawford and his team. With the gang attempting to flee under cover of darkness, shots were fired including two from Crawford. At least one of these apparently hit and killed the target in the dark, the truth of which only came to light later during the investigation that was quickly launched back at Dock Green police station. All officers were quizzed and re-quizzed by a senior external CID officer, going over the rights and wrongs of each step, looking for accountability. Everyone involved were left in no doubt as to the consequences of their actions, should they proved to be truthfully theirs. In retrospect, the process can be seen as primitive compared to the in-depth procedural investigations of the 21st century, but was rarely touched on in contemporary productions. The detail ensured the characters nor viewers could be completely sure about the outcome, ensuring gripping television drama.
By the final years of the series in the 1970s, Warner was getting elderly and looking increasingly implausible in uniform. He had increasing difficulty moving about, which was helped slightly by a treatment involving bee stings. When it became known that the 1976 series of 8 episodes would be the last, some changes saw familiar faces, including long-standing and popular cast member Peter Byrne leave, bringing in some new blood. The final series was shown in 1976 when Warner was 80 and the producers saw the opportunity to make some changes to the format. George Dixon was shown as retired from the police and being re-employed as a civilian as the collator, a temporary appointment which allowed him to train up who would be the next permanent Collator. The introductory monologue and winding-up speech continued to be delivered by George Dixon, now out of uniform and behind his collator's desk. There was an increase in action whilst retaining detailed storytelling with Dixon's values at the core.
The last series of eight episodes ended on Saturday 1 May 1976 with "Reunion", with Dixon retiring completely from Dock Green. Lord Willis said, "I knew it had to come to an end sometime and I thought something was in the wind. "They usually renew my Dock Green Contract in February and it hasn't been renewed this time". There were thoughts about continuing with the current cast using the revamped format, though any continuation would have been under a different title. Any ideas and plans were never seriously followed up and after 21 years of Dixon of Dock Green with its lead character out of the picture the series came to a natural end.
Over the two-decades-plus that Dixon was broadcast, it came in for increasing criticism, especially in its later years. The "Guinness Book of classic Television" described the programme as "...an anachronism by the time it ended and a dangerous one at that". Ted Willis summarised the changing critical reception for Dixon in an article published in the TV Times in 1983. "In the first years, the critics were almost unanimous in their acclaim for Dock Green, hailing it as a breakthrough, praising its realism. But slowly, the view began to change. We were accused of being too cosy and the good word was reserved for series like No Hiding Place, Z Cars and Softly, Softly. These, in turn, were superseded by the violent, all-action type of police drama like The Sweeney, ... Strangers and Killer." He also stated that: "Eighty per cent of police work is ordinary and unsensational".
Ted Willis made some observations. He found that, in fact and fiction, characters akin to Jack Regan ("The Sweeney") were to be underplayed by the police who sought to restore their place in modern communities. The surviving episodes (with an emphasis on the latter years of the programme) which saw DVD releases allowed Dixon to be seen less deserving of its reputation as a "cosy" stereotype, and more as a programme that tells the stories honestly and entertainingly. Willis noted that it would be harder for the police to build relationships with the public if they were continually to go around beating up every suspect.
Indeed, Alan Plater, who wrote police drama as well as in any other avenue of drama he contributed to, made this argument in 1976 (published in the police publication 'Context'); "It is just as irresponsible to portray the police as always chasing murderers and big-time criminals as it is to show them as boy scouts like George Dixon. The Sweeney is ridiculous. It's James Cagney and the Sundance Kid rolled into one and given a British background." With a more enlightened view over a longer period of time possible from the 21st century than it was from the 1990s even, the chance to review some of those existing episodes has allowed some refinement of views on the series.
The police station featured in the original opening titles was the old Ealing Police Station, at number 5 High Street, just north of Ealing Green.
The opening and closing moments of each episode originally had PC Dixon deliver the famous lines "Evening, all" and "Goodnight, all", and a suitably moral homily, from outside Dock Green police station. However most of these sequences were not filmed on the steps of Ealing police station (then still operational) but on the front steps of the (1902) Ealing Grammar School for Boys on Ealing Green. The BBC would attach a blue lamp next to the double doors, and the front oak-floored vestibule of the old school would warmly glow behind. During later series, Dixon addressed the audience standing in front of a painted backdrop of a London skyline.
The 1973 episode "Eye Witness" shows a shot of a derelict warehouse complex with a sign identifying it as part of the 'Metropolitan & New Crane Wharves'; these are located in Wapping Wall. This episode also shows the bascule bridge across the entrance to Shadwell Basin in Wapping.
At the end of the 1975 episode "Conspiracy", the exterior of Dock Green police station is represented by the Metropolitan Police's (then recently built) Chiswick police station, on Chiswick High Road in west London.
(1955-1976, 22 series, 432 episodes)
Other cast members
Most of the original 432 episodes of Dixon of Dock Green are still missing due both to the show being broadcast live in the early days and the BBC's policy of wiping videotape for re-use. Only 32 episodes still exist in full and extracts exist for a further 19.
The existing episodes are as follows:
An out-take sequence also exists from It's a Gift (Series 21, Episode 3 – 1 March 1975) involving two criminals in which one of them, played by Victor Maddern, finds himself unable to deliver correctly the required line "It's down at Dock Green nick!" – referring to a stolen necklace. After two failed attempts, in which the line is spoken both as "It's down at Dock Green dick!" and "It's down at Dick Green dock!", Maddern asks the unseen director (Vere Lorrimer) "Couldn't I just say 'It's down at the nick'?"
The public appeal campaign the BBC Archive Treasure Hunt continues to search for lost episodes.
The ordinary, everyday nature of the people and the setting was emphasised in early episodes by the British music hall song "Maybe It's Because I'm a Londoner" with its sentimental evocations, being used as the series theme song. It was composed by Hubert Gregg, but this was replaced with an instrumental theme composed by Jeff Darnell later released as a single under the name "An Ordinary Copper". Original incidental music for the early (1950s) series was written by Alan Yates (1912-1991).
A collection of the first six available colour episodes was released by Acorn Media UK on DVD in July 2012, with the following episodes;1. Waste Land (Series 17, Episode 1 – 14/11/70)2. Jig-Saw (Series 18, Episode 1 – 20/11/71)3. Eye Witness (Series 20, Episode 1 – 29/12/73)4. Harry's Back (Series 20, Episode 3 – 12/01/74)5. Sounds (Series 20, Episode 16 – 13/04/74)6. Firearms Were Issued (Series 20, Episode 17 – 20/04/74)
A second collection of six episodes was released by Acorn Media UK on DVD in July 2013, with the following episodes: 1. Target (Series 21, Episode 1 – 15/02/75)2. Seven for a Secret – Never To Be Told (Series 21, Episode 2 – 22/02/75)3. Baubles, Bangles & Beads (Series 21, Episode 5 – 15/03/75)4. Looters Ltd (Series 21, Episode 7 – 29/03/75)5. A Slight Case of Love (Series 21, Episode 10 – 19/04/75)6. Conspiracy (Series 21, Episode 13 – 10/05/75)
A third collection of eight episodes, comprising the entire final season, was released by Acorn Media UK on DVD in March 2015, with the following episodes:1. Domino (Series 22, Episode 1 – 13/03/76)2. The Job (Series 22, Episode 2 – 20/03/76)3. Vagrant (Series 22, Episode 3 – 27/03/76)4. Everybody's Business (Series 22, Episode 4 – 03/04/76)5. Alice (Series 22, Episode 5 – 10/04/76)6. Jackpot (Series 22, Episode 6 – 17/04/76)7. Legacy (Series 22, Episode 7 – 24/04/76)8. Reunion (Series 22, Episode 8 – 01/05/76)
This release also includes the following special features:-Picture galleryAudio Commentary on "Domino" with actor Stephen Marsh [P.C. Harry Dunne]Audio Commentary on "Legacy" with actor Ben Howard [D.C. Len Clayton]Audio Commentary on "Alice" with director Michael E. BriantThe Final Cases: Documentary on the making of this last series, with actors Nicholas Donnelly [Sgt. Johnny Wills], Richard Heffer [D.S. Alan Bruton], Stephen Marsh [P.C. Harry Dunne], Gregory de Polnay [D.S. Mike Brewer] and production assistant Vivienne Cozens.Good Evening All: A tribute to Jack Warner, with Nicholas Donnelly, Richard Heffer, Stephen Marsh, Gregory de Polnay and Vivenne Cozens.Personnel Files: Extended Interviews with Nicholas Donnelly, Richard Heffer and Gregory de Polnay.
In 2005, the series was revived for BBC Radio, adapted by Sue Rodwell, with David Calder as George Dixon, David Tennant as Andy Crawford, and Charlie Brooks as Mary Dixon:1. London Pride2. Needle in a Haystack3. Crawford's First Pinch4. Dixie5. Rock, Roll and Rattle6. Roaring Boy
A second series followed in 2006, with Hamish Clark replacing Tennant owing to the latter's Doctor Who recording commitments:1. Little Boy Blue2. The Gentle Scratcher3. The Captain (based on the episode "The Rotten Apple")4. Andy Steps Up5. Give a Dog a Good Name6. The Key of the Nick
The Black and Blue Lamp by Arthur Ellis was screened in the BBC2 Screenplay series of drama plays on 7 September 1988. In the play – which begins with a montage of key scenes from The Blue Lamp – Tom Riley (Sean Chapman) and Police Constable Hughes (Karl Johnson) are projected forwards into a violent parody of 1980s police procedurals called The Filth. Once there, they meet the corrupt Superintendent Cherry (Kenneth Cranham) and Superintendent Hammond (John Woodvine), and discover just how much policing has changed between the two periods.
One of Dixon's closing monologues from Dixon of Dock Green was recycled for the final scene of Ashes to Ashes in 2010. Like The Black and Blue Lamp, characters in Ashes to Ashes and its predecessor, Life on Mars, were seemingly sent into different eras of policing. Moreover, Dixon's 'resurrection' for Dixon of Dock Green, after having been killed in The Blue Lamp, parallels the stories of the principal characters in Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, having been explained in the final episode.