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Z Cars

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No. of series

First episode date
2 January 1962


Country of origin
United Kingdom

No. of episodes
803 + 1 un-broadcast

Final episode date
20 September 1978

Z-Cars httpsimagesnasslimagesamazoncomimagesMM

Created by
Troy Kennedy MartinAllan Prior

James EllisBrian BlessedStratford JohnsFrank WindsorJeremy KempJoseph BradyColin Welland

Running time
25 minutes & 45 minutes


This is your life stratford johns 1963 barlow z cars

Z-Cars or Z Cars /ˈzɛd ˌkɑːrz/ was a British television drama series centred on the work of mobile uniformed police in the fictional town of Newtown, based on Kirkby, Lancashire (now Merseyside). Produced by the BBC, it debuted in January 1962 and ran until September 1978.


The series differed sharply from earlier police procedurals. With its less-usual Northern setting, it injected a new element of harsh realism into the image of the police, which some found unwelcome.

Z-Cars ran for a total of 803 episodes, of which fewer than half have survived. Regular stars included Stratford Johns (Detective Inspector Barlow), Frank Windsor (Det. Sgt Watt), James Ellis (Bert Lynch) and Brian Blessed ("Fancy" Smith). Barlow and Watt were later spun into a separate series Softly, Softly.

The name Z-Cars relates to an imaginary "Z" Division of the local constabulary. The theme tune was based on a traditional Liverpool folk song, and was adopted by Everton Football Club as its official anthem.

Origin of the title

The title comes from the radio call signs allocated by Lancashire Constabulary: Lancashire police divisions were lettered from north to the south, "A" Division (based in Ulverston) was the detached part of Lancashire at the time around Barrow-in-Furness, "B" Division was Lancaster, and so on. Letters further into the alphabet were in the south around the Manchester and Liverpool areas. The TV series took the non-existent signs Z-Victor 1 and Z-Victor 2. The title does not come from the cars used, as in Ford Zephyr and Ford Zodiac. The Zodiac was never used by British police as a standard patrol car, but was used in the form of "Motorway Patrol Vehicles", because of its larger, more powerful engine. These vehicles could be seen in a white livery with "POLICE" in large blue letters on the sides of the vehicle, along with broad red-orange stripes. Such vehicles were later used as "crime cars", used to respond to major crimes. Some of them also carried a "lock-box" that contained firearms to be used by "Armed Response Teams", especially in response to armed robberies and terrorist incidents of the seventies. The Zephyr was the standard patrol traffic car (not the same as "crime car") used by Lancashire and other police forces.

Concept and principal characters

Z Cars as an idea came to creator Troy Kennedy Martin as he listened to police messages on his radio whilst trying to relieve the boredom of being ill in bed with mumps. After the Second World War ended the creation of rapidly expanding, bureaucratically created communities brought with them many problems. Liverpool suffered much damage during the war and the Liverpool Corporation, having many slums to contend with, bought land in the surrounding areas into which they moved industry. Along with these factories, many people were relocated en masse into newly developed "overspill" estates. One area became the new town of Kirkby. Kennedy Martin set his programme in the fictional Newtown, loosely based on the modern suburb of Kirkby, one of many housing estates that had sprung up across Britain in the post-war years, and its ageing neighbour "Seaport".

The stories revolve around pairs of officers patrolling that week. Riding on changing social attitudes and television, the social realism, with interesting stories, garnered popularity for Z Cars. It was initially somewhat unpopular with real-life police, who disliked the sometimes unsympathetic characterisation of officers. Being set in the North of England helped give Z Cars a regional flavour when most BBC dramas were set in the south. It directly challenged the BBC's popular police drama Dixon of Dock Green, which at that point had been running for seven years but which some considered 'cosy'.

The one character present throughout the entire run (though not in every episode) was Bert Lynch, played by James Ellis (though John Phillips as Det. Chief Supt. Robins would reappear sporadically during the show's run – by the end of the series he had become Chief Constable). Other characters in the early days were Stratford Johns (Inspector Barlow), Frank Windsor (Det. Sgt Watt), Robert Keegan (Sgt Blackitt), Joseph Brady (PC "Jock" Weir) and Brian Blessed ("Fancy" Smith). Also in 1960s episodes as David Graham was Colin Welland later a screenwriter. Other British actors who played regular roles in the early years included Joss Ackland. Although he played no regular role in the series, future Monkee Davy Jones appeared in three episodes.


Z-Cars ran for 803 episodes.

The original run ended in 1965; Barlow, Watt and Blackitt were spun off into a new series Softly, Softly. When the BBC was looking for a twice-weekly show to replace a series of failed 'soaps' (one example being United!), Z Cars was revived. The revival was produced by the BBC's serials department in a twice-weekly soap opera format of 25-minute episodes and only James Ellis and Joseph Brady remained from the original show's run. It was shown from March 1967, both 25-minute segments each week comprising one story.

It ran like this until the episode "Kid's Stuff" (broadcast on 30 March 1971), shown as a single 50-minute episode for the week, proved the longer format would still work. Thereafter, Z Cars was shown in alternating spells of either 2 x 25 minutes episodes or the single 50-minute episode each week over the next sixteen months. This arrangement ended with the showing of the final 2-parter, "Breakage" (Series 6, Parts 74 & 75, 21 & 22 August 1972 respectively), after which the series returned permanently to a regular pattern of 1 x 50-minute episodes per week.

Theme music

The Z-Cars theme tune was arranged by Fritz Spiegl and his then-wife, composer Bridget Fry from the traditional Liverpool folk song "Johnny Todd".

It was released on record in several versions in 1962. Johnny Keating's version (Piccadilly Records, 7N.35032) sold the best, reaching #8 on the Record Retailer chart and as high as #5 on some UK charts, whilst the Norrie Paramor Orchestra's version, on Columbia DB 4789, peaked at #33. A vocal version of the theme, using the original ballad's words, was released by cast member James Ellis on Philips Records; this missed the charts.

The song in Spiegl and Fry's arrangement is also used as the anthem for English football club Everton and is played at every home match as they walk onto the pitch at Goodison Park. The tune is also used as the march-on anthem at Watford F.C. home games.

After Z-Cars

Softly, Softly, a spin-off, focused on the regional crime squad, and ran until 1969, when it was again revised and became Softly, Softly: Taskforce, running until 1976. The character of Barlow (Stratford Johns) was one of the best-known figures in British television in the 1960s and 1970s. He was given several seasons of his own solo series, Barlow at Large (later Barlow) which ran from 1971 to 1975. Barlow joined Watt (Frank Windsor) for the 1973 serial Jack the Ripper. The serial's success led to a further spin-off entitled Second Verdict in which Barlow and Watt looked into unsolved cases and unsafe convictions.

Frank Windsor made a final appearance as Watt in the last episode of Z-Cars, "Pressure", in September 1978, with Robins (John Phillips), the Detective Chief Superintendent from the original series who had risen to chief constable. Jeremy Kemp, Brian Blessed, Joseph Brady and Colin Welland also appeared, though not as their original characters.

Lost episodes

Z-Cars is incomplete in the archives. The period 1962–65 is reasonably well represented, though with big gaps. With the 1967–71 sixth series, when the programme was shown almost every week, material becomes more patchy. Of the 416 episodes made for this series, only 108 survive: a few episodes each from 1967, 1969, and 1970, but there are no surviving episodes at all from either 1968 or 1971. About forty percent of the approximately eight hundred total episodes are preserved.

The original series was one of the last British television dramas to be screened as a live production. With videotaping becoming the norm and telerecording a mature method of preserving broadcasts the practice of live broadcasting drama productions was rare by the time the programme began in 1962. Going out "live" was a preference of the series' producer David Rose, who felt it helped immediacy and pace and gave it an "edge". As a result, episodes were still not being pre-recorded as late as 1965. Most were videotaped for a repeat, although the tapes – often a large part of a programmes' budget – were normally wiped for re-use, once the episodes were telerecorded. Existing on film greatly enhanced the chances of the episodes surviving, especially when monochrome programmes (whether on expensive videotape or cheaper film) were relegated in importance by the advent of colour broadcasting in the UK.

The telerecording of the first-ever episode was returned to writer Allan Prior in the 1980s by an engineer who had taken it home to preserve it because his children had enjoyed the programme and he could not bring himself to destroy it. This with two other early editions were released on BBC Video in 1993.

Two episodes were returned in 2004 after turning up in a private collection. Colour episodes from the early 1970s are less likely to be recovered, as they were never telerecorded for export.

BBC Archive Treasure Hunt is currently seeking missing episodes. All episodes from the 1975–1978 period are preserved in the archives.


In a 2000 poll to find the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes of the 20th century conducted by the British Film Institute, Z-Cars was voted 63rd. It was also included in television critic Alison Graham's alphabetical list of 40 "all-time great" TV shows published in Radio Times in August 2003.

Main cast

(1962–1965 & 1967–1978 / 12 Series / 803 episodes)


Z-Cars Wikipedia